Guidelines for Church Discipline—Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15A/Proper 18A (Matthew 18)


Matthew 18:15-20 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If you are listened to, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”


                There have been times during my years of ministry that I would have loved to take action to discipline a church member. But, at least in Mainline Protestant Churches that is a rare thing. Behavior has to be fairly egregious for a congregation to act in such a way. The question that needs to be considered if a congregation were to act against a member concerns the goal. Is it getting rid of a problem or is it designed to restore to fellowship a person who has taken a wrong path in life that affects not only themselves but the church? Ultimately, the question we must ask has to do with the level of responsibility we have for each other. Do we have a responsibility to correct a member of the community if we believe they are embarking on a spiritually dangerous path?  In other words, are we our spiritual sibling’s keeper?

                As we come to our reading in Matthew 18, which provides guidelines for restoring a person to fellowship, it is worth noting that right before we come to this passage, Matthew places the parable of the Lost Sheep. This parable is key to interpreting the guidelines that follow. By keeping the parable in mind, we can read the guidelines as a means of restoring someone who has lost their way to fellowship. It is always good to remember that when we read a passage like this it reflects the context in which the Gospel was written. That is especially true when we deal with matters of church governance or discipline in the Gospels.

                If we read this passage in line with its immediate context, Matthew 18 begins with a question posed to Jesus by his disciples: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responds by pointing to a child, a person who in that culture was not highly valued. So, whoever is as humble as the child is the greatest in the kingdom (Mt. 18:1-5). From there Jesus speaks of putting stumbling blocks, temptations to sin, in front of a person. It’s better to put a millstone around one’s neck and drown than do such a thing. Jesus isn’t finished. He suggests that if one’s foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, and on he goes, as it is better to enter the kingdom maimed than get thrown into hell (Gehenna). How Jesus or Matthew understand Gehenna isn’t the focus here—it’s just a reminder that you don’t want to cause another person or yourself to stumble as it might have eternal consequences. It’s worth keeping this warning in mind because our passage is focused on the restoration of those who have stumbled. Then there’s the parable of the lost sheep (Mt. 18:6-13).

                Before we get to our passage, it’s worth taking note of the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Mt. 18:10-14). This is one of those parables that clergy meditate upon from time to time. It seems to speak to the pastoral calling. It invites us to prioritize ministry. Should the minister focus on the ninety-nine who behave and cause no trouble? Or, following Jesus’ parable, should the pastor leave the ninety-nine to take care of themselves to seek after the one who went astray? The parable assumes that the ninety-nine are self-sufficient and don’t need to be watched over. As for the one who is lost. Some might say that this sheep might be more trouble than it’s worth. Better to stay focused on the ninety-nine, just in case something untoward happens, and let the one who chose to wander off fend for itself. It might be good to keep in mind the question that began the chapter. Who is the greatest in the kingdom? Could this sheep that wanders off be the greatest? The point is, in the parable, Jesus is concerned about the lost ones. Could this be a word about the church’s responsibility for the community outside its doors? It’s easy to stay focused on the folks who are already present in the congregation and consider the ones outside to be of less interest. It might seem less prudent to seek the one lost sheep (after all it’s the ninety-nine who pay for the pastor’s salary). Nevertheless, Jesus believes the shepherd will seek after the lost sheep. “And if he should chance to find it I assure you he is more delighted over that one than he is over the ninety-nine who never wandered away. You can understand then that it is never the will of your Father in Heaven that a single one of these little ones should be lost” (Mt.18:13-14 J.B. Phillips NT).

                With that parable in mind, Matthew moves on to share Jesus’ guidelines for restoring to fellowship the one who has gone astray. According to our passage, if someone in the church goes astray by sinning against another, there is a process to be undertaken to heal the broken relationship and restore the person to fellowship. Anna Case-Winters points out that in these verses Jesus calls for both accountability and forgiveness. While these might seem to be opposites, perhaps not. She writes: “Accountability (vv. 15-20) may entail gracious acts of truth-telling correction that aim to set things right, restoring both individuals and the community. Forgiveness places a claim on our lives, demanding that we extend to others the grace that we ourselves have received (vv. 16-35)” [Matthew: Belief, p. 223].  It’s worth noting that another parable follows this set of instructions. It’s the “Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” in which a slave goes before the king where he’s asked to pay in full his delinquent account. It’s an unbelievable and unpayable loan. The king forgives the loan, but then when this slave goes out of the court, he spots a fellow slave who owes him a small amount. He demands that it should be paid in full at that moment, with no grace. Well, you know what happens to the unforgiving servant. The punishment might be off-putting, but the point is, if you’ve been forgiven shouldn’t you forgive? (Mt. 18:23-34).

Returning to the passage assigned to us by the Revised Common Lectionary, Jesus outlines a process that has precedent in Jewish law and practice as seen in Leviticus19:17 and Deuteronomy 19:15. It was also the practice of the Qumran Community to hold hearings before the community. As Anna Case-Winters notes, “The graduated approach of this sequence of conversations holds some safeguards for the offender and for the community.” That is because “the community is safeguarded by having a process for addressing serious breaches. The offender is guarded against unnecessary humiliation before others by the initial private conversation and opportunity for reconciliation” [Matthew, p. 225]. As noted, Jesus instructs the reader to first pursue reconciliation through one-on-one engagement with the one who had sinned against them. By going to the person first, reconciliation might be obtained or if a misunderstanding had taken place, that could be rectified. The point is, don’t do anything that would unnecessarily embarrass a person. Hopefully, that works. It’s a good rule of thumb.

What happens if the person who sins against you won’t be reconciled? Do you give up and let things fester? No, says Jesus. You should next bring in one or two others to serve as witnesses. That way, if the person doesn’t respond favorably, you have witnesses to verify your attempt to reconcile. If that doesn’t work, then you can go before the entire community (having witnesses is important here) and reveal the problem. You hope it doesn’t go that far, but sometimes it does. If that doesn’t work, then you’ve run out of options. All you can do at that point is treat the offender as if they were a “Gentile and a tax collector.” But even here it’s not clear that Jesus (Matthew) is advising exclusion/excommunication. After all, Jesus seems to welcome both Gentiles and tax collectors. So, perhaps we need to keep on pursuing reconciliation for as long as it takes.  Nevertheless, these instructions pick up on Peter’s commissioning in Matthew 16. There Jesus gives Peter (and others?) the power to bind and loose regarding the kingdom (Mt. 16:18-19).

When it comes to binding and loosing, Jesus adds that when two or three agree on anything on earth it will be done by the Father in heaven. In other words, when it comes to binding and loosing, it must be done in the community. It’s not a power given to single individuals. It’s a matter of the community acting in the interests of both the community and the person who has gone astray. Central to this point is the presence of Jesus in the decision-making process. For as Jesus tells those listening (and to us as the reader), “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt. 18:20).

Ultimately, this is best read not as a guide to excommunication but restoration and reconciliation. It’s possible that excluding someone from the community will prove necessary, especially if that person poses a danger to members of the community. The point here should be that exclusion is a matter of last resort, and when that takes place, it is a matter decided by the community as a whole, since it is in that context that Jesus promises to be present.

                Engaging in this kind of church discipline is, of course, fraught with danger in the modern North American context. For one thing, if a congregation decides that for the good of the person and the community, the person should step away, that person could easily wander down the street to the next church. If that happens, they could prove just as disruptive in the new context as the old. Additionally, we live in a very litigious society, so taking any action against a person could easily lead to a lawsuit. So, implementing the process is going to be challenging. So, in most cases, we simply ignore the problem at hand, often to the detriment of the community (as well as the person). Nevertheless, if the sheep is lost, it behooves the shepherd to seek out and restore the wayward one (or so the parable would seem to suggest). The important thing to remember here is that this is a person whom God loves.

                Ultimately, this passage raises questions of boundaries if the church desires to be a place of welcome. Recognizing the realities of the times, many congregations have chosen (and all should choose) to create “safe church” policies. By doing this, churches follow the lead of other groups, such as the Scouts, who require two adults to be present when working with children. It is also why some denominations require clergy to undergo what is often called “Boundary Training.” Ultimately, as Nathan Jennings reminds us: “Refusing to set solid and proper boundaries in the name of ‘the gospel of being nice’ allows bullies to stay in control and vulnerable people to be hurt” [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 2, p. 95]. The point here is this: The church is called to welcome the stranger while putting into place the kinds of processes that protect both the stranger and the community.

                Once again, as we ponder the message of this passage, the point is restoration. It is a process rooted in divine grace. That means we need to remember that when we gather to make important decisions, including inclusion, we take into account the promise that Jesus is present with us.

                This lectionary reading from Matthew is unique to this gospel. It suggests that Mathew is addressing a problem that has arisen in the community. There must be a conflict that needs resolving. Just so everyone understands, Peter asks Jesus point-blank how many times he should forgive someone before giving up. The number Jesus gives is way more than anyone can keep track of. So, just forgive (Mt. 18:21-22). Forgiveness does not exclude appropriate boundaries. That is because these boundaries, however, are designed to protect the vulnerable.  The good news in all of this is that Jesus is present with us.  


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