Rebecca emails in to ask a question about church discipline. She asks, “In regards to Matthew 18:15–20, I am wondering what I as a Christian am responsible to do biblically when a fellow believer is living in sexual sin and chooses to continue after they have been confronted in a loving way.”
The practical answer here really does depend on whether Rebecca and the person she is concerned about — maybe a friend who is sleeping with a boyfriend, I don’t know what her situation is, but let’s just say something like that — whether those two people are in a biblically faithful church. That is, a church that considers the Bible as their standard of faith and practice. And if they are, the answer is or should be: yes, excommunication can and maybe should happen.
And, of course, she is referring to Matthew 18. And it might be helpful just to walk through the steps, so that everybody has them in view, because they are short and they are clear. Here is what happens in real relationships in a church from time to time.
Step One: You and Your Brother
Step one. “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” (Matthew 18:15).
So, step one: You find someone in sin and you go to them. You don’t want to make a public issue out of it. You are not eager to drag everybody’s private sins into the public. You know you have your own issues. You are taking the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of anybody else’s (Matthew 7:5). But once you have done all that appropriate self-assessment and humbled yourself before God and declared your own dependence on grace alone, then you do go. This is what love does. It goes —and in her case, maybe a girlfriend sleeping with a boyfriend — and she goes. She says, “This is not biblical. It is not right. It doesn’t please the Lord.” And she pleads with her. And she may or may not win her over.
Step Two: Two or Three Witnesses
In the next step, Matthew 18:16 says: “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.”
You can see there is no rush to judgment here. There is no rush to get this in front of the church here. We are bending over backwards here to keep it small, keep it private, not do any more public hurt than is necessary. So you take a friend or two who probably know her, who love her. And you go to her together. Now she may not let you do this, but you try and say together, “We love you. We care for you. Can we pray with you? We want you out of this ongoing sin because it is going to damage you. It is going to damage him. It is going to damage your witness. It is going to damage ultimately the church and it is going to dishonor Christ.” And you try to persuade.
Step Three: Tell the Church
And the third step is, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17).
Now this is the point at which the gathered church in some kind of appropriate meeting hears the news and acts on it. And the first action is for the church to say, “We want you to return,” because this is not excommunication yet. It is the whole church praying, and aching, and longing.
Step Four: Excommunicate
And the last step is: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
“You have not damned them, but you have put them in a position where you are longing and praying for their repentance.”
And what that means is that the church then takes some kind of step to cut that person off, like from the communion table and from normal ongoing relationships that you would ordinarily have with a believer, in doing things together as those who share the same commitment to Jesus. You cut them off. And that means not that you have damned them, but that you have put them in a position where you are longing and praying for their repentance.
I have seen it happen, and it is intended to happen in the Bible that this kind of excommunication is doubly redemptive. It is redemptive for the church, so the truth of the gospel and its power will not be lost by pretending people are believers when they don’t bear any fruit. And it is redemptive for the person who is being excommunicated because we see in 1 Corinthians 5 that the aim of this ostracism is redemptive (1 Corinthians 5:5). That is, we want them to be brought to repentance and restored to the church. And to that end, we do talk to them. We do reach out like we would to any unbeliever in love. And we would happily lay down our lives that they would repent.
There is nothing ugly or hostile in this. This is all designed to do everything the church can do to keep itself true, and authentic, and holy, and pure, and to love other people back to the Savior.
So my answer to her is: Yes, there is excommunication, and Matthew 18 is there to be followed in those kinds of steps.
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