Timothy Hille is pastor of Pleasant Plains Baptist Church in Pleasant Plains, Illinois
Matthew 18:6-20 - "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! 8 Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. 9 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. 10 Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. 11 For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. 12 How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? 13 And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. 14 Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish. 15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. 18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
Text: verses 15-17 - Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.
The reason that church discipline is necessary is because of offences, or occasions of stumbling, which must needs come. We know that Jesus instituted His kind of local, New Testament church while here during His earthly ministry; and we know that Jesus gave His kind of church the necessary instructions to carry out the work He had committed unto her. Those instructions include what His churches must do in order to keep themselves pure from worldliness, heresy, and error. Jesus placed His kind of church in the world as a witness of Him: "ye shall be witnesses unto me . . . unto the uttermost part of the earth," (Acts 1:8). The problem is not that the church is in the world, but that too often the world is in the church. Jesus clearly indicates that offences come because of the world; but the church is to be spiritually separate from the world and her members sanctified from worldliness.
Jesusí instructions are needed today more than ever with regards to church discipline. Many churches have simply stopped exercising church discipline altogether, so that they have defiled the temple of God by allowing unholy and ungodly things to continue to be practiced by their members. Other churches exercise church discipline only out of anger, rather than out of love for Christ, whose holy name they are to uphold, and for the backslidden church member who needs to be corrected. Godís Word tells us when and how to correctly administer church discipline in a way that is spiritual and God-honoring, and we ought not to let our fleshly, carnal sentiments come before Godís Word.
Let us, by the help of Godís Holy Spirit, examine Jesusí instructions upon this important subject: and by examining them, may we be exhorted, admonished, and established in the truth.
First, we note that the leading emphasis behind all church discipline is to be love. "Moreover if thy brother . . . . " The one upon whom church discipline is exercised is none other than thy brother, thine own friend and dear one, whose very heart and soul is bound to yours by the love of God. This term is a term of affection. "Let brotherly love continue," (Heb. 13:1). "But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another," (I Thess. 4:9). (Read I John 4:20,21; 5:1-3.) Those who are born of God love others who are also born again, "because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us," (Rom. 5:5). The proof that we love the children of God is that we love God and keep His commandments, which include scriptural church discipline.
In the day in which we live, many have mistaken laziness for love. Many are unwilling to take on the responsibility of seeking to correct an erring brother in Christ. I believe such have a lack of love, rather than "a lot of love", for the fellow church member they are refusing to discipline. We know that parents who truly love their children are careful to correct their children and discipline them when necessary. Should not the Lordís churches care for their spiritual children, which are none other than the members of their individual and separate local bodies (II John :1-6)? The beloved apostle writes to one of the Lordís churches, and we find that "her children" were "walking in the truth" and exercising love for one another by walking after the commandments of our Heavenly Father which He has given to us by and through His dear Son. His commandments include the proper disciplining of erring members, and to not follow this command is to not walk in love toward one another.
The second principle which Jesus teaches us is that, in the case of personal offences, the offended party has the obligation of seeking to make things right with the erring brother: "if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone." Let me re-emphasize this, that Jesus places the obligation of seeking to put things right upon the one who has been sinned against, not upon the offender. (Surely we can see that this can only be done properly as a labor of love!) When our brother or sister trespasses against us, we are bound by love and by the instructions of our Lord and Head to seek spiritual reconciliation. This is contrary to our old nature, which, if offended, seeks to lash out in anger and retribution. We, however, are to have the mind of Christ, "who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously," (I Pet. 2:23). Therefore, we are admonished in the scriptures, "Recompense to no man evil for evil," (Rom. 12:17), which admonition includes our fellow church members.
This does not excuse us from our responsibility to make things right if we have sinned against another or put an occasion of stumbling in our brother or sisterís path (Matt. 5:23,24). If you find that you have sinned against your brothers and sisters in Christ, then your first obligation is to be reconciled to them again. When this is done, God will have respect unto your worship and service.
This is a responsibility which requires humility. One who is lifted up in sinful pride can neither properly seek nor grant true spiritual and God-honoring forgiveness and reconciliation. Why is this duty so important, to seek first personally reconciliation with one who has either been offended or committed an offence? Because, beloved, though "a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle," (Proverbs 18:19): "if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." He whom thou lovest is gained, fellowship is restored, love is well served, and God is honored in the keeping of His Word. This is our goal.
It may be, however, that "he will not hear thee;" and so Jesus instructs us further: "take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." He who will not listen to one may listen to two or three loving voices seeking to turn him to the right for the sake of love and the truth. We are to go to some lengths to seek to gain a brother in Christ and a fellow member of His body, the local church. Many times we excuse ourselves from this responsibility because we feel we do not owe anything to one who is "in the wrong". Yet, the Bible bears out the fact that "charity [love] suffereth long . . . beareth all things . . . endureth all things. Charity never faileth," (I Corinthians. 13:4,7,8,). Love that will not go to these lengths prescribed by Jesus to gain an erring brother is no love of His, nor is it considered love in His sight.
The instructions of Jesus to have every word established in the mouth of two or three witnesses is important, because "if he shall neglect to hear them," the next step to be taken is to "tell it unto the church." With great pains we ought to seek to keep personal offences from the church as a whole; but often the church must be the judge in such spiritual matters. We ought to then see the importance of the "two or three witnesses" prescribed by the Lord in such cases, so that nothing is done in the church by way of discipline simply on the word of one member against another. This principle is so important that we are commanded not to even receive an accusation against an elder or pastor that is not confirmed by "the mouth of two or three witnesses" (cf. I Tim. 5:19). When the church exercises discipline, it is not a light matter.
The church has the responsibility to keep herself from sin; therefore, those members who persist in sin and will not repent must be removed from the membership (I Corinthians 5:1-8). Sin is a danger to the church because it spreads and spreads until it has contaminated and corrupted the whole. Sin will bring reproach upon the church and upon the name which she bears, the name of Christ. The reason many churches are weak and powerless spiritually is because they do not exercise church discipline faithfully, and sin that is not cut off will grow, placing the whole church in danger.
Church members who persist unrepentant in sin, whether personally, publicly, morally, or doctrinally, are guilty of trampling upon the blood of the Son of God, the seal of the everlasting covenant, of which they profess to be the recipient beneficiaries by their baptism and membership in the Lordís blood-bought visible assembly (Hebrews 10:26-29). Those who forsake the assembling of themselves together when their church is meeting to worship God, or live in contradiction to the teachings of the Lord which His church proclaims and upholds, are guilty of showing disdain and contempt for the blood of Christ, for it is His blood which purchased His kind of church (Acts 20:28). If you bring reproach upon the Lordís church, you have shown disrespect for the very blood of Godís only begotten Son which He shed at Calvary for His kind of church.
What action, then, is the church to take toward those who are such? "If he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." These persons mentioned by Jesus in our text were such with whom a righteous person would not keep company; and so we are to regard the unrepentant brother in the same way. We are to remove him from our midst, as the leaven that was to be removed from the houses for the feast of unleavened bread, symbolizing the removal and purging of sin. Thus, by the action of a loving church is a sinful member to be removed from membership in that body.
II Thess. 3:11-15 states, "For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. 12 Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. 13 But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing. 14 And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." The church is not to keep company with those who walk disorderly, not living according to the teachings of the scriptures, which the church is to uphold seeing she is the pillar and ground of the truth. If the erring individual, upon being withdrawn from by the other members of the church, is spiritually ashamed, then God may grant unto that person godly sorrow which worketh repentance. Until then, he is to be admonished as a brother, reproved and rebuked and exhorted to repent; but avoided as one who is not living worthy of the blood that was shed on Calvaryís tree (I Corinthians 5:11-13). You will not win back a church member who has been excluded by socializing with him or her. He or she must first be ashamed and learn not to blaspheme; and then when true repentance is made, he or she may be welcomed back into the fold.
The Lordís kind of church has no need for outside assistance or interference in this matter. "Verily I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Each individual church has this responsibility to faithfully exercise church discipline. A church that accepts persons for membership who are excluded from another church is rejecting the authority which Christ gave His kind of church to "to judge them that are within" the church; and I doubt seriously that those who do so will be counted worthy of being in the bride when Christ makes up His beloved from amongst those true churches who have been faithful in all things.
When a person is removed from the membership of the Lordís church, that person does not lose his or her salvation. If that were so, then salvation would be dependent upon church membership and not upon faith in the blood of Christ, "as it is written, The just shall live by faith," (Rom. 1:17). Salvation is not by works but by grace. "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast," (Eph. 2:8,9). A brother or sister in Christ who is excluded from the church is still a brother or sister; but that brother or sisterís actions (or lack thereof, as the case may be) have necessitated that he or she be unto us "as a heathen man and a publican" until such time as repentance is made unto reconciliation. When repentance is made, the responsibility of the church is to exercise forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35). To forgive where there is no repentance and to refuse to forgive where there is repentance both alike go beyond and fall short of what Jesus commands His kind of church.
Before you can be a member in one of the Lordís churches, you must yourself be reconciled to God through faith in His son, whose blood was shed on the cross for guilty vile sinners (Rom. 5:8-10). Jesus died for sin, was buried, and rose again the third day with justification unto life for all who will believe in their heart that He is the Son of God and confess His as Saviour and Lord. A church member who sins has to repent and make things right with the church. Before you can be a church member, you have to repent of your sins toward God and look only to Him for salvation and eternal life.