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. 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. 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 an heathen man and a publican. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.Matthew 18:15-20
Several years ago, there were two brothers in a church who got into an argument over personal issues. They both said they agreed to follow the pattern of Matthew Chapter 18 to resolve the problem. I thought this would be a good start but unfortunately it all went down hill from there. The two brothers stopped talking with one another. They each got their own “two or three witnesses,” and through a third party, set up a “meeting” to resolve the problem. As you might expect, this “meeting” did not solve the problem. In fact, it just escalated the problem and got several brothers arguing with one another and saying that they need to “bring charges” against the others before the church. By this, they meant, they wanted to kick the others out through exclusion. This was a sad, sad time for that church. These kinds of issues eventually led to that church disbanding and never meeting again.
The brethren involved in this fight missed the whole point of this passage. The goal is to gain a brother, not win an argument or punish someone who offended you.
This passage has been used for church discipline (punishment) for years, and I think this is a mistake. There are other scriptures that can be used to help in times where discipline needs to be done. I will not discuss those here but I do believe that discipline (and sometimes) exclusion is necessary for extreme cases. This passage is very specific in dealing with differences between two individuals, not public sin or church offense.
The pattern is simple.
If I am offended, I have the personal responsibility to go to the one who offended me and talk with him about it. I am not to complain about him to the pastor or anyone else. I am not to seek advice before talking to him. I am just supposed to go to him and him alone. On a related note, I am not allowed to stew in my anger and say, “Well, he knows he offended me, so he needs to apologize and fix it!” First of all, does the person really know that he offended me? And, even if he does know, Jesus clearly states that it is my responsibility as the offended party to go to the offender and start reconciliation.
If, after I try to resolve the issue with him, he will not hear me or attempt to reconcile, then the next step should happen. Again, this step is very specific. There is nothing in the text about the offender bringing his witnesses and the offended bringing his. I, as the offended person, have the responsibility to bring two or three neutral witnesses to a still private discussion. I think this is only possible if the witnesses are brought only knowing that there is a problem but no details. If I tell them my side of the story before we meet with the offender, then they are not good witnesses to the whole story. Remember, the point of this is to regain fellowship between two brothers in Christ. It is not to figure out who is right and who is wrong!
If this next step fails to bring reconciliation between the two brothers, then the matter is to be brought before the church. However, notice even at this point Jesus is not instructing the church to exclude the offender from communion for his offense. The church is another level of mediation in the effort to reconcile the two brothers! At this point, I want to remind the reader that we are not talking about the offender committing a sin. This is a personal offense to one other person.
If this step fails to reconcile the brothers, then the offended party is the only one who is instructed to do something next. Jesus says let him be as the heathen or publican unto thee. That is singular you. That is not the church. That is referring to one person – the one who was offended. And what the offended one is to do is very specific. He is to avoid regular contact and fellowship with the offender. He is not told to mention it any further. In fact, the next portion of scripture teaches what he is actually supposed to do. He is supposed to forgive 490 times!
This seems like it would create a very uncomfortable situation in times of church fellowship and communion, especially in a smaller church. I agree. And I think that is why it is so important that these steps be carried out to regain the brother!
In fact, I think a good practice would be for the offended person to be at the feet of his offender washing them the next time the church meets for communion and foot washing. This may seem hard but let us not forget that Jesus washed the feet of the man who would betray Him just a few hours later.
I am reminded of how important our interpersonal relationships are in how the world views the Body of Christ (the church) and Christ’s love for His elect. Consider this:
By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.John 13:35