Got this question in my inbox the other day:
“Hi Steve, I was wondering if you can help clarify what Matthew 18:18-20 is about? Sorry for the trouble.”
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”(Matthew 18:15-20, ESV)
Here’s my brief answer:
No a trouble at all ‘A’, don’t ever be afraid to ask. It is the privilege of my job that I get to answer questions all the time about the bible!
So Matthew 18:15 starts off this little section about a brother’s sins against another. 18:15-17 is pretty straight forward – the process if someone sins against you is to first approach them about it, if they don’t listen then approach them with one or two witnesses, and if they still don’t listen then bring the matter before the church.
18:18-20 essentially give the moral authority for the church to make its decision. Let’s face it, casting someone out and essentially saying they are not a Christian (which is what it means to ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’) is a very serious matter and requires not only a great degree of discernment but also a great degree of moral authority. Who are we to say whether a person is genuinely converted or not?
So the first thing Jesus says is that ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven‘. Jesus gives the weight of his universal authority behind the decision making of the church. What was originally given to Peter (cf Matthew 16:19) is now given to the church as a whole.
The second thing Jesus does is repeat himself. In verses 19-20 he says, ‘Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.‘ Jesus reaffirms what he said in verse 18 about the church being backed by His own authority. These verses state that in the context of church discipline Jesus is present amongst his church in its decision making. These verses I also think do remind us that when Christians gather together Jesus is present among them, but, again, in context this is a reminder that in the weighty matters of disciplining a wayward believer Jesus is especially present.
So to summarise: verses 15-17 describe an escalating series of confrontations over someone’s unrepentant sins. Verses 18-20 serve to reinforce any decision by the church on a matter by giving the church the moral authority of Jesus himself in this process.
This means that any decision like this needs to be carefully and soberly considered. But it also means that the church should not shrink from making such a decision.
The fact that the final step before excommunication is to bring the matter before the church should also protect individuals from the tyranny of wicked leaders.
Finally, any decision like this is always with a view that the unbeliever would be called to repent and welcomed back if they do (cf 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).