Recently I was asked to guide a discussion on the topic of church discipline. Given its importance and necessity, I gladly agreed.
Matthew 18 in Context
I knew that Matthew 18 was synonymous with church discipline, so I turned to Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus’ outline of the process to follow when a brother sins against another. The phrase “a Matthew 18 process” is sometimes used to describe the steps a church will take in walking through a formal discipline situation. I’ve read this passage many times. I’ve thought it through, prayed it through, and sought to apply it with grace and truth.
However, as I began to give the passage a fresh look, I realized it is bookended by two very familiar stories: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the unforgiving servant. Though I have referenced the latter parable countless times, often in counseling settings, I admittedly can never seem to remember where to find it. For me, Matthew 18 was not synonymous with a powerful story on the importance of forgiveness (along with Jesus’ well known statement about forgiving “seventy-seven times”).
And Luke 15 is the usual place to go to find the parable of the lost sheep. I love Luke’s clear appeal to care for the lost and least, the outsider who’s been overlooked and cast out by the religious establishment. His three stories—the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost son(s)—build on each other with dramatic intensity, cementing Luke 15 in my mind as the place to go to find the familiar parable about the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go and find the 1 lost sheep. For me, Matthew 18 was not synonymous with a powerful story on the importance of pursuit.
So, I was honestly a little surprised to find these well-known stories in a passage that was familiar for what seemed to be an entirely different reason.
And then I wondered, “Why did Matthew put these stories here? Why did he arrange the material in this manner? Or, if Jesus’ teaching really did flow uninterrupted, exactly as Matthew records it, why did Jesus move from the parable of the lost sheep directly into a discussion on church discipline? And what prompted Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness in vs. 21?”
As I thought about it, I jotted this down:
Church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17) must be motivated by loving pursuit (Matthew 18:10-14) and marked by repeated forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35).
When it comes to a Matthew 18 process, the temptation I’ve observed (both in my own heart and in the lives of others) is to get legalistic and move through the steps deliberately and even forcefully. We can forget that the hope is repentance; that the environment is always to be grace-filled; and that repeated, prayerful attempts are more in the spirit of Jesus’ instruction than simply checking boxes to ensure a proper process.
The first familiar bookend in Matthew 18 serves as a reminder of the tone and tenor necessary to carry out church discipline in a truly biblical manner. Matthew’s version of the parable makes it clear that the Father will relentlessly pursue “one of these little ones” in order to protect and restore them (the “little ones” are believers, not children).
The Second Bookend…
After the parable, Jesus then explains four steps that might be taken “if your brother sins against you,” clearly implying that the motive throughout must remain pursuit of the person in the hope that repentance and restoration will result. From one-on-one confrontations to “telling it to the church,” followers of Jesus must be like the soft-hearted shepherd who searches high and low for the stubborn, wayward sheep.
If we are even considering church discipline in any form, we should check our hearts, and remind ourselves that we, too, were lost sheep who the Father pursued relentlessly in the manner described in Luke 15 (where the sheep are clearly non-believers). Jesus, the Lamb of God, was slaughtered so we, the rebellious sheep, could be spared. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
The second familiar bookend in Matthew 18 serves as reality check, reminding us that wayward sheep just might run away again, requiring the same gracious pursuit that helped bring them to repentance in the past. If we apply church discipline in a consistent and biblical manner, people will respond. Repentance will occur, and forgiveness will be required.
But sometimes, people will make the same mistakes over and over again, and yet are genuinely repentant each time. The temptation is to discard these people, to give up on them or to simply ask them to leave. But people can only repent “as far as they can see,” or as deeply as the Spirit has convicted them. Church discipline requires great patience, and a willingness to forgive…seventy-seven times.
I think Matthew’s point in putting this parable right after “the Matthew 18 process” is this:
In order for the church to remain healthy, repeated forgiveness will be required, especially in situations where discipline has happened.
In dealing with people who have made repeated mistakes, followers of Jesus must remain willing to forgive. For motivation, we need look no further than the parable of the unforgiving servant.
We owed a debt we could never have repaid (like the wages a person would earn in 4,000 lifetimes, Jesus says!), and we were graciously forgiven because Jesus paid the debt for us when he died on the cross! And we continue to fail, requiring grace and forgiveness from God and others on a daily basis.
So, even when people commit a significant offense (like 100 days’ wages, Jesus says), our own experience of grace should motivate us to keep no record of wrongs. “Everyone who believes in (Jesus) receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).
A Final Note
One final note: clearly, there must be some practical consequences for a person who commits grave sins over and over again. These get worked out on a case-by-case basis and require the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and are also governed by the principles of pursuit and forgiveness.
For an excellent and thorough treatment on subject of church discipline, please see God Redeeming His Bride, by Robert Cheong.
Join the Conversation
How does the relational, forgiveness-focused context of Matthew 18 impact our application and implementation of “the Matthew 18 process”?