THE STEPS FOR CONFRONTING SIN IN THE BELIEVING COMMUNITY DEPEND ON THE DELEGATED AUTHORITY FROM THE RATIFYING DIVINE PRESENCE
Richard Gardner: Having acknowledged the possibility of stumbling or straying, Matthew goes on to treat the question: What do we do as a community of faith when a member sins? . . . In confronting sin, we are not called to act as crusaders or prosecutors, but as sisters and brothers seeking whole relationships with every member of the family. To develop the point, Matthew brings together three pieces of material on sin and forgiveness. Verses 15-20 describe a sequence of three steps for dealing with sin, supported by several sayings on authority in the church.
Charles Swindoll: Discipline, accountability, confrontation —these are not signs of the Lord’s hatred toward people, but proof of the Lord’s love for His children.
What’s true of our earthly parents and of our heavenly Father is also true of those in the body of Christ. And there are benefits to being accountable to one another. Through proper accountability in the community of believers, we truly exercise love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Accountability includes loving and learning from one another, observing and affirming one another, encouraging and counseling one another, and also confronting and disciplining one another. It’s not that we confront because we like to intrude in people’s lives. We confront because we care.
Grant Osborne: The process of discipline centers on those who refuse to “turn [their] lives around” (v. 3) and repent. In this instance, it covers what to do when a member sins and refuses to repent and return to the community; the goal is still redemptive, for at every stage the way is marked for reconciliation. There are three stages (private confrontation, challenge from two “witnesses,” and judgment by the whole community); if at any stage the offending individual repents, full reconciliation will occur.
Stanley Saunders: The community that exercises divine power, that binds and looses on earth and in heaven, and that experiences the presence of Jesus himself is also the community of children and little ones who seek the lost, guard against stumbling blocks, and reach out to reclaim even the victimizer. Jesus will affirm in the next portion of this discourse that this is also a community of unrelenting forgiveness.
I. (:15-17) FOUR STEP PROCESS OF CONFRONTING SIN IN THE BELIEVING COMMUNITY
A. (:15) Step #1 = Confrontation in Private One-on-One
“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private;
if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”
Donald Hagner: The reference to ὁ ἀδελφός σου, “your brother,” indicates that conduct within the community of disciples continues to remain in view.
D. A. Carson: The aim is not to score points over him but to win him over (same verb as in 1Co 9:19–22; 1Pe 3:1) because all discipline, even this private kind, must begin with redemptive purposes (Lk 17:3–4; 2Th 3:14–15; Jas 5:19–20; cf. Sir 19:13–17). Jesus assumes that the individual (second person singular) who personally confronts his brother will do so with true humility (vv.3–4; cf. Gal 6:1). If it is hard to accept a rebuke, even a private one, it is harder still to administer one in loving humility. Behind this verse stands Leviticus 19:17: “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.”
Warren Wiersbe: Approach the person who sinned and speak with him alone. It is possible that he does not even realize what he has done. Or, even if he did it deliberately, your own attitude of submission and love will help him to repent and apologize. Above all else, go to him with the idea of winning your brother, not winning an argument. It is possible to win the argument and lose your brother.
We must have a spirit of meekness and gentleness when we seek to restore a brother or sister (Gal. 6:1). We must not go about condemning the offender, or spreading gossip. We must lovingly seek to help him in the same way we would want him to help us if the situation were reversed. The word restore in Galatians 6:1 is a Greek medical word that means “to set a broken bone.” Think of the patience and tenderness that requires!
R. T. France: Sin, of whatever form, is not to be tolerated within the disciple community, but is to be dealt with when it is noticed. But it is to be dealt with sensitively and with a minimum of publicity. The principle set out in these verses is of minimum exposure, other people being brought in only when the more private approach has failed. The ideal solution is “just between the two of you.”
Daniel Doriani: There is exception to this: when a public person commits a public offense, it may demand a public rebuke. For example, Peter played the hypocrite and refused to associate or eat with certain Christians in Antioch simply because they were Gentiles. Thus on that occasion Paul had to rebuke him publicly. The situation would be the same in the rare case where someone openly taught heresy in an evangelical church.
John MacArthur: We are all involved in going out to seek one another to restore one another to gain back the sinning brother who has drifted away from the community of God’s people. By the way, I suggested to you last time that there are some prerequisites. First is willingness. You have to be willing to go, and these commands imply that you have to act on your will. Jesus is saying, “You go and you tell him.” And that indicates that you need a responding will to that.
Secondly, there must be a zeal for God. David said in Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for thine house has eaten me up; the reproaches that are fallen on thee are fallen on me.” David had such a tremendous sense of God’s glory that when God was wounded, David felt the pain. And we need that same kind of response so that when God is dishonored, we feel the pain. Our heart is so knit with God’s heart.
And the third thing is personal holiness. You can’t go, as Jesus said in Matthew 7, to take a splinter out of somebody else’s eye if you’ve got a two by four in your own. So willingness, a zeal for God, and personal holiness. Paul sums it up wonderfully in Galatians 6 when he says, “If a brother is overtaken in fault, ye that are spiritual restore such a one.” And so you’re the person. I’m the person. We’re all to be involved in this. And I’ve thought about this so often in these recent days how marvelous it would be if all of the assembly of God’s people were totally committed to the recovery of every sinning brother and sister. We would become ministers of holiness.
J. Ligon Duncan: Jesus is saying, ‘Look, when a Christian, a fellow Christian in your congregation sins against you privately, don’t announce that to everybody in church, don’t put it on the prayer chain, don’t get your small group to start praying about it.’ Don’t shame that Christian, go privately to him. . .
Listen to what William Hendriksen says about this passage: “Jesus means that the offended brother should in the spirit of brotherly love, go and show the sinner his faults and this not certainly most of all for the purpose of receiving satisfaction for a personal grievance, but rather in the interest of the offender that he may repent and may seek and find forgiveness.” You see, the resolution of personal conflict is not the main point here. That is a side effect, that’s a side benefit of this procedure.
The prime concern that Jesus says He wants you to have in your heart, is that your brother or sister not be hindered in their spiritual growth, that your brother or sister not become hardened in sin, that your brother or sister not drift away from the way of light and truth. The main concern is with the spiritual welfare of the offender.
B. (:16) Step #2 = Corroborating Witnesses
“But if he does not listen to you,
take one or two more with you,
so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.”
D. A. Carson: It is not at first clear whether the function of the witnesses is to support the one who confronts his erring brother by bringing additional testimony about the sin committed (which would require at least three people to have observed the offense) or to provide witnesses to the confrontation if the case were to go before the whole church.
Warren Wiersbe: If the offender refuses to make things right, then we may feel free to share the burden with one or two dependable believers. We should share the facts as we see them and ask the brethren for their prayerful counsel. After all, it may be that we are wrong. If the brethren feel the cause is right, then together we can go to the offender and try once again to win him.
Richard Gardner: If not, one proceeds to the second step described in verse 16. The instruction to bring one or two witnesses into the conversation is drawn from Deuteronomy 19:15, which specifies the need for two or three witnesses to confirm a person’s guilt in a judicial setting. In Matthew, the purpose of the witnesses is not to secure a legal judgment, but to buttress the attempt at fraternal correction, to make an even stronger appeal to the member who has stumbled to acknowledge sin and be restored.
Charles Swindoll: If you’re in a situation in which you must take this second step, choose the other one or two people carefully. Prudence, impartiality, experience, integrity, maturity, and biblical and theological knowledge are key. So are compassion, patience, kindness, and genuine love for the sinning individual. Remember, the goal is not to corner the person or to gang up on him or her. The goal is to draw on the combined wisdom provided by a plurality of godly men or women. As Proverbs 11:14 says, “In abundance of counselors there is victory.”
C. (:17a) Step #3 = Corporate Pressure = Last Resort
“And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;”
R. T. France: The object of the gathering is not to pronounce judgment but to strengthen the pastoral appeal, in the hope that the offender may yet “listen.” The offender, faced by the disapproval of the whole local disciple community, ought surely to recognize that this was not just a personal grievance on the part of the initiator. Anyone who is not willing to accept such united testimony may then properly be regarded as no longer a fit member of the community. “You” (singular, referring to the individual who raised the issue, not, at least explicitly, to the community as a whole) should then treat them as “a Gentile and a tax-collector”.
Grant Osborne: The body as a whole is the final stage of appeal, the third time the offender is given the opportunity to admit wrong, repent, and be reconciled to the offended party, the local church, and God. Certainly the purpose of the local assembly is not just to declare the person guilty and render judgment, but to appeal to the offender as a corporate group and seek to bring about repentance.
John MacArthur: That’s the place, ekklsia, the called out ones. The assembly. Listen carefully. This is the third time this word is used in Matthew. That is the second use of it; in verse 17 is the third use. In the book, the first one being in chapter 16. It’s only used three times. It is non-technical in Matthew. It does not refer to the church born at Pentecost. It was a word simply meaning an assembly. Nothing more than that. It is used in that way elsewhere in the New Testament to speak of the church in the wilderness, referring to Israel as the assembled people of God in the wilderness. It was used in extra biblical Greek culture to speak of a town meeting. Any group of assembled people. And that’s exactly its use in this text. It anticipates the church of Pentecost. It anticipates the church of today. It anticipates the official church with a capital C, that born by the baptism of the Spirit of God in Acts 2. In anticipates that for sure. But here the root idea is simply the collection of the redeemed community, the assembly of the redeemed, and it doesn’t have to wait for Pentecost to be applied. It can be immediately implied in the assembly of the disciples who are gathered in the house at Capernaum on the day Jesus taught it. It simply means the collection of God’s assembled people.
D. (:17b) Step #4 = Excommunication
“and if he refuses to listen even to the church,
let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”
Donald Hagner: Thus the unrepentant offender is not simply put out of the community but categorized as among the worst sort of persons. (The Pauline admonitions of 1 Cor 5:9–13 and 2 Thess 3:14–15 are similar in effect; cf. Titus 3:10.)
David Turner: Repeated rejection of the overtures of a fellow disciple, of two or three additional witnesses, and then of the entire community is tantamount to rejection of Jesus and the Father.
Jeffrey Crabtree: Fourth, if the offender refuses to repent, “even” (v. 17, Greek ascensive kai; Osborne 686) to the church, both the offended party (v. 17, “thee”) and the church (v. 18, “ye”) are to withdraw fellowship and treat the offender as an unsaved person with no rights and privileges normally associated with congregational life. . . Blomberg (56) rightly sees a link between this withdrawal and the law’s requirement to cut off offenders from Israel (Gen. 17:14; Ex. 12:15, 19; 30:33, 38; Lev. 17:10; Num. 19:13). Godly communities in both testaments were instructed to keep the community clean by disciplining antinomian and errant members.
II. (:18-20) DELEGATED AUTHORITY TO THE BELIEVING COMMUNITY FOR DEALING WITH SIN – PROCESS OF RATIFICATION
Richard Gardner: Having followed the text thus far, the reader might well ask: Does the church have authority to act in this way? Verses 18-20 supply an answer to that question. According to verse 18 (which begins with the solemn formula Truly, I tell you), the power to bind and loose granted to Peter in 16:19 is now bestowed by Jesus on the disciples as a group, and thus on every community of believers. In the context of the discussion about sin in the church, bind and loose convey the sense of convict and acquit, and may allude to the extreme case of excommunication. The church, then, has authority to pronounce judgment in God’s name, and the church has authority to release persons from that judgment and restore them to fellowship.
R. T. France: The change from the second person singular address of vv. 15–17 to the second person plural in vv. 18 and 19 marks a broadening of the subject. The specific case dealt with in vv. 15–17 is left behind, and we are told now about the authority with which the disciple community as a whole has been entrusted. So here we find the theoretical background which justifies the practical appeal to the ekklēsia in v. 17. The corporate wisdom of the community as to what is and is not permitted (“tying” and “untying,” see on 16:19) represents not only their human judgment but the will of God in heaven; what they corporately declare to be “sin” God also disallows.
David Thompson: Now verses 18-20 are verses connected to this very context. The point of these verses is this: whenever a sinning brother has been confronted in this manner and the church has been told, whatever stand the church takes on earth will be honored in heaven. If the church determines that the brother is in sin and after refusing to repent, it stands against him, God will stand against him. If the church determines the brother has repented and is freed from the sin, God will view it the same way.
These are solemn and serious words against a non-repentant brother or sister. God carefully follows and monitors the disciplinary process of the church. God would give the church tremendous authority. The assumption of verse 19 is that the church is praying about the sin issue. The church is obeying the Word and praying to the Father. Notice that this is done in the name of Jesus Christ, which adds a new dimension to prayer. When two or three are gathered together to confront sin matters with a brother, Jesus Christ is in their midst. When God’s people are praying about sin matters, God is powerfully at work. God expects His church to face things and deal with things, not run from things. Great disciples do not run away from problems. They face them and deal with them and go on for the glory of God.
A. (:18) Scope of Authority = To Bind or Loose
“Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Donald Hagner: Here the binding and loosing have to do directly with matters of church discipline, whereas in 16:19 they concern matters of conduct more generally. However, in both instances the ultimate issue concerns membership in the community. In the present instance, which addresses the case of one who has “sinned” (v. 15), the connection with John 20:23 (“If you forgive [ἀφῆτε] the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain [κρατῆτε] the sins of any, they are retained”) becomes more apparent. Loosing is the equivalent of forgiving, binding of retaining. The leadership thus has the ability to make decisions concerning unrepentant sinners in the community—decisions that carry authority such that they are said to be likewise fixed in heaven. At stake is nothing less than the ultimate welfare of the offending individual.
Jeffrey Crabtree: The church should not only be characterized by confrontation of sin and compassion toward repentant brothers but also consensus in its disciplinary action (Wilkins 620). This entire disciplinary procedure is to be bathed in unity and prayer (v. 19). The church that agrees to carefully contemplate God’s will in disciplinary matters will find that God will reveal His will to them and support their disciplinary actions against the wayward brothers or sisters.
J. Ligon Duncan: Now binding and loosing is a wonderful natural metaphor drawn from the law court. Binding referring to the idea of condemning. Loosing referring to the idea of acquitting. You get the picture. A prisoner who is bound, who is not yet freed, is still at least still under the suspicion of the court, if not under the open condemnation of the court, but a prisoner who is loosed is considered innocent and free in light of the court. And so the language of binding and loosing refers to the action of the officers of the church when they admit members into the fellowship and when they very sadly and regretfully have to dismiss members from the fellowship of the leaders.
B. (:19-20) Solidarity and Divine Presence
- (:19) Disciplinary Solidarity Ratified by the Father
“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.”
Grant Osborne: So while “ask for” (αἰτέω) is often used of prayer in the NT, here it is specifically a prayer for wisdom and the Spirit’s guidance in decisions regarding discipline. Thus “any matter” (παντὸς πράγματος) is virtually synonymous with πᾶν ῥῆμα in v. 16, “every matter” that the church is facing in issues of discipline. The phrase here was commonly used in legal/judicial “matters” (so Hill, Carson).
Daniel Doriani: He does not promise that if two people agree about anything whatsoever he will grant it. He promises aid to disciples when we meet to heal broken relationships in the church.
Michael Wilkins: Jesus assumes the place of the divine presence among his disciples, guaranteeing that when his followers have consensus when asking in prayer for guidance in matters of discipline, his Father in heaven will guide them as they carry it out.
- (:20) Divine Presence of Christ in the Disciplinary Process
“For where two or three have gathered together in My name,
there I am in their midst.”
Charles Swindoll: The point is that as soon as the proper process of accountability, confrontation, and discipline begins, Jesus is present, and God the Father is working through the interactions that take place. Even in the private, one-on-one confrontation, two believers are present in Jesus’ name, and the result will be that God will confirm and empower the actions that are taken in conformity with His Word.
Karl Jacobson: Jesus offers a simple guide to help us handle our sin and its consequences here. But far more importantly Jesus promises us that he is present, that his presence is real for us, when we are gathered in his name — both in agreement, and in sin. Within the context of the overarching narrative of Matthew, which is governed by the promised real presence of God, in the promise of child named Emmanuel, God With Us (1:23) and in this God’s parting assurance to us that he is with us always (28:20), this is the Good News for us who are members with one another of Christ’s church.
Grant Osborne: The “two or three” as in vv. 16, 19 are the witnesses confronting the guilty person. As they make their decision, certainly while in prayer, Jesus wants them to understand that he is with them, and the “heavenly Father” is guiding their verdict.
The omnipresence of Jesus in the church is a central concept in Matthew (cf. 1:23; 28:20), and as Luz says, is “the christological center of the entire chapter.” Jesus is virtually declaring his divinity, for such a claim is possible only for God himself. To gather “in my name” (εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα) means to be in union with Jesus, part of his community, and under his authority (cf. 7:22; 10:22; 18:5). So Jesus is especially present among them, not just metaphorically but through the Spirit of Christ in their midst. This does not mean Jesus is with us only corporately and not individually, for as in 1 Cor 5:4 we can know that “the power of the Lord Jesus is present” with us.