Church Discipline and Exclusion
Opting out of Church Discipline, is opting out of the Church.
– Tony Arsenal
In the 18th chapter of Matthew, we have recorded for us a vital teaching for the Church. Found in verses 15-20, the Lord explains to his people how a person who sins against his brothers is to be handled.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
This is a relatively familiar passage to many people. However, most that I have talked to do not recognize the radical conclusions that we have to draw if we take what Christ has taught us seriously.
I want to share three observations.
First, the whole point of the sequence of actions here is to love and win your brother back. It is not to punish them for the sake of punishing them. It is because they have sinned, and it is loving to correct them. Failing to do so, or more commonly refusing to do so, is not loving. Just like it is not loving to let an addict continue to abuse his own body is not loving. Calling what you are doing (ie ignoring their sin) gracious does not make it so. This process is given to us by the Lord as the way to show love to our brother, and to refuse to give someone life saving medicine is hatred.
Second, the final step of this process is severe. If someone refuses to be corrected by the Church (specifically, the elders of the Church) then we are to regard them as though they are not believers and not a part of the Church. The act of excluding them from the Visible Church, is intended to communicate that you do not regard them as part of the Invisible Church. That is not to say you are condemning them. The Church does not have the authority to determine the eternal fate of a person, but she has been given the authority to recognize and pronounce the eternal fate of a person. When a person refuses to submit to the Church, it is indicative that they have probably refused to submit to the Head of the Church. Keeping in mind what I said in my first observation, allowing someone to believe something about themselves that appears to be untrue is hatred. If someone is struggling to swim, but tells you that they are fine… to let them believe that lie instead of forcefully imposing the truth by rescuing them is hatred. Encouraging someone who has refused to submit to the discipline of the Church to continue living as though that is not the case is hatred for that person.
Third, Christ promises that when this process is executed according to his command, that he will be with those who have faithfully obeyed his instruction. This language is rooted in the Old Testament judicial code, which is why the phrase “two or three” is used. After a person has confronted the sinning brother directly and privately, it becomes a legal case. That person is to gather two or three others to confront him, because they are presenting charges against that person… and charges are established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. When two or three have established those charges, and the Church pronounces her verdict, the Lord is present in that judgment. It is not simply men who are excluding the person from the Visible Church, it is Christ himself who is enforcing that sentence. As such, to refuse to acknowledge that verdict by allowing that sinful brother to carry on as though he were not under discipline is to reject the authority of the Church, and to reject the authority of the one who is Head of that Church and confirms her pronouncement.
Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him
Keeping Christ’s commands is not optional. If you know Christ, you are obligated to do the things he commanded you to. If you refuse to, then you are a liar and the truth is not in you. Christ did not suggest the discipline process laid out in Matthew 18, he commanded it.
Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.
If you refuse to follow the commands that Jesus has given us, then you have no claim to say that you love Jesus. To ignore his commands, especially at the cost of the safety of his flock, is to hate the Shepherd. To hate the Shepherd, is to hate the one who sent him.