MATTHEW 18:16-17
Church Discipline
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

From the Bible: Matt. 18:16; Lev. 19:17; 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Thess. 3:14

Matt. 18:16-17 (Holman) “But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if
he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an
unbeliever and a tax collector to you.”

The peace-seeking member should not let a first failure be a final failure. If the offender remains obstinate, the offended should enlist the help of others.
Witnesses are to be added to protect accuser and accused. The words “by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established” come directly from Deuteronomy 19:15, a verse which outlines the basic procedure for judicial review, for rationally and calmly confirming facts in a dispute.
Witnesses were to neither judge in advance nor make a final judgment. They were present not to determine innocence or guilt, but to help a process of healing as impartial observers. Either side could be misguided or excessive.

Witnesses protected both parties by verifying what each said. Their neutrality could make the offender more likely to listen, or force the offended to ask, “Is this really that serious, or am I making a mountain out of a mole-hill?”
Notice, in verse 17a, final appeal is not to an ecclesiastical tribunal, but to the church, a local congregation. A local body of baptized believers has the highest standing of authority in God’s eyes. There is no appeals court above it.
Lest we interpret the words of verse 17b harshly, remember how Jesus treated such people. He healed the unbelieving centurion’s son (MT 8:13), called Matthew from the tax office to be a disciple, had fellowship with tax collectors (Matt. 9:9-10), and saved Zaccheus (Luke 19:9). Jesus came for the very purpose of calling sinners to repentance (Luke 19:10).
People who refuse the church’s authority are not to be considered hopelessly lost, nor are they to be abandoned as lepers. Our task is to seek their restoration. We are responsible for them till they repent or die.
I think our passage, based on its context, deals with interpersonal conflicts, but it does force us to consider the mechanics of church discipline. What Jesus said here applies to all efforts by a church to discipline its own.
Believers disagree on how to administer church discipline, but most agree, where there is no discipline, there is no church. A century ago, church discipline was a common practice in churches, including our own.
The minutes of Second Baptist Church record a December 20, 1893, statement by one of our deacons, Milton Bowerman, for whom Bowerman School is named. “In as much as there are rumors and stories being circulated involving the Christian character of some of the members of this church, and as such stories are injurious to the cause of our Master, as well as hurtful to each member of this church; the stories being that some members of this church dance, play cards, visit saloons, and other charges of a grave nature which need a careful investigation; and believing that these cases should be looked into, not only for the cause but also for the benefit of the persons so accused, so that if they are guilty they may be kindly and lovingly brought back to duty and correct deportment, and if not guilty that they may be cleared and set aright before the church. In view of this, I move that a committee of four, consisting of two Deacons and two laymen be appointed to look into and investigate thoroughly and report at their earliest convenience to the Pastor and Deacons, and they to the church.” From 1894 to 1900, our church excluded 87 members. (See Second Baptist Church Springfield, Missouri, 1885-1900, pages 48 and 83.)
Distasteful medicine but not 100% negative. The Old Testament deemed reproving a brother a positive antidote to hate. “You must not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him” (LV 19:17). The Israelites went so far as to say one reason for the ruin of their nation was, “No man reproved another.”
Few duties are more difficult than confronting a believer about their sin, but we must do it for at least two reasons. One, for the offenders’ well being. “Turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord” (I Cor. 5:5). The offenders must be told their conduct may indicate they are not believers at all.
False security is deadly. Once saved always saved? Yes, but don’t underestimate how vital the word “once” is. They must know their actions are outside the parameters of Kingdom acceptability; thus they may be too.
Two, we have to confront sin to keep the standard of holiness high for believers. The church pure is the church powerful; the church impure is the church puny (Morgan). Paul wrote, “Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch” (I Cor. 5:6b-7a). Others must know our position, “This is sin. We do not condone it. We have talked to the offender about it.”
Having confirmed our requirement to do church discipline, the issue is, how should it be done? The most stringent verse regarding discipline is 1 Cor. 5:11, “But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a reviler, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person.”
The harshness of this admonition does not seem to jive with what we know about the importance of kindness in Christianity. On this verse I have read many commentators, and analyzed their umpteen interpretations.
My best help came from my friend and Associate Pastor, Ed Meyer. He reminded me to set the verse in its context. It was written to a church condoning sin. They were doing nothing to show the sinner the error of their way. Paul was not making a statement to be universally applied. He was instead giving a harsh recipe for a specific rebellious situation.
Our main problem with discipline has been its abuse, people barred for non-attendance at church, dancing, gambling, smoking, etc. These are matters not clearly delineated in the Bible. They are Bible interpretations. Churches have often become bloodhounds on a witch hunt in grey areas.
My Great Grandmother Isabella Couch, whose dying words on Election Day in 1940 were, “Vote for Roosevelt”, was once called before a church business meeting to answer charges of non-attendance at church. She came to the session, and made such a belligerent spectacle of herself that she was removed from membership for “Contempt of the church.”
In modern times, discipline has often been administered by removing people’s names from membership rolls. This is not absolutely required, because the writing of names on a roll is not a Biblical practice. It is a modern convenience allowing us to keep track of members.
Through the centuries, discipline has most usually been administered by excluding an offender from the Lord’s Supper. John Calvin called this “Fencing the Lord’s Table.” Calvin did not include baptism in his “fencing” because he baptized babies. We at Second, believing and practicing the fact both ordinances are done by people choosing to take them, expand this principle to include baptism. We think we should “fence” both ordinances.
We feel open sinners should not have fellowship with Christ-followers at the Lord’s table. We believe this is one reason the Scriptures teach us that when we partake of the Supper we are to examine ourselves.
We are also convinced anyone who seeks to be baptized or join Second while living in open sin should not be accepted into membership. For us, baptism is the symbol of a life changed by Jesus. Its effects are negated if there has been no outward evidence of an inward change.
Here is the bottom line when it comes to church discipline. Sinners must know how we feel, negatively and positively, about them. Our duty is to be resolute yet kind, to confront them, yet convince them we love them. “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take note of that person; don’t associate with him, so that he may be ashamed. Yet don’t treat him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 TH 3:14-15).
The ability to juggle tough and tender in perfect tandem is usually best accomplished by people who know the offender well. Relational accountability, as opposed to institutional accountability, is best.