The Blessing of Church Discipline
I am grieved by many things regarding the state of the church today. But maybe the greatest grief to me is the unholiness of the church and its accomodation to the unsaved. We saw last time how uniformly the teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18 has been ignored. But today we will look at the beautiful design of this God-commanded process and see the goodness built into it.
The first step of the plan is in Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”
Someone might ask, “What sort of sin? How serious does it have to be for me to confront someone?” But the whole point here is that Jesus doesn’t specify a certain type of sin. Any sin of any degree is a defilement. Any sin not only defiles his life, but defiles his relationships, and also defiles the whole church, because we are one body.
If a believer repents after being confronted in private, Jesus says that “you have won your brother.” Which implies that we can lose people even inside the church. You can’t win someone back if you haven’t lost them. Some people have the idea that church discipline is about throwing people out of the church. It is not. It is about keeping people in the church pure.
When somebody falls into a pattern of sin, we have lost that person as a brother through that sin. So we go to recover him because he has value — because winning him back is gain.
Why does he have value? Because the Spirit of God dwells in him. Because he is gifted by the Holy Spirit to have a ministry in the church to all the rest of us. Because he is an instrument by which God can do His work in the church and through the church in the world. That’s the inherent idea here. This one sinning person is so valuable that you go and endeavor to get him back. This is spiritual wealth regained.
It was G. Campbell Morgan many years ago who wrote this about Matthew 18:
It is the great tragedy of a man lost which colors all this instruction; and the purpose that is to be in our heart when we deal with a sinning brother, is that of gaining him. This word "gain" suggests, not merely the effect on the one lost, but the value it creates for those who seek him.
When presently we have done with the shadows and the mists of the little while, we shall understand in the light of the undying ages that if we have gained one man we shall be richer than if we have piled up all the wealth of the world, and never won a human soul. What a blessed thing to gain a man, to possess him for oneself, for the fellowship of friends, for the enterprises of the Church, for the program of high heaven. (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1929)
If you, in the church, are not willing to confront someone’s sin, then you don’t see them as having any value. Christ sees them as having value. He paid the infinite price for them, did He not? He goes after His sinning children to bring them back. And He uses us in the church as a means to do that. This is why it is so important. This is God’s work. And that is why the next step in Matthew 18:16 is given, because this needs to be a relentless process, given the value of the person.
But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.
The point is that you keep trying to win them back by next going to the extreme of bringing one or two friends along and confronting them again. And if they still don’t listen, you go to the next extreme by presenting the situation before the whole church, so that everyone can work together to win their brother (Matthew 18:17).
This extreme is a noble thing motivated by love. If you ignore someone’s sin, it is proof that you don’t care about them. If you really care, you can’t be indifferent to their sin. I have never been indifferent to the sins of the people I love. I want to do everything I can to restore them in every way I can. If I’m indifferent toward somebody’s sin, it’s somebody who is outside my affection.
And in the church, we are called to love one another without any restraint or boundary. So we tell the whole church and say, “Go after that person.” Only then, if they still refuse to repent, does Jesus say, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
What does that mean? It means you no longer accept them into the fellowship, because the church has to protect its holiness. And in an effort to protect its holiness, it calls the professing Christian sinner back from sin, first in private. If that sinner doesn’t respond, then two or three go to them. And if that doesn’t get a response, then you tell the church and the whole church goes. And if that doesn’t bring them back, then put them out of fellowship.
You might say, “This is a hard thing to do. It might end the relationship.” And that’s true; sometimes it will end the relationship. But perhaps it will help to remember that Paul confronted none other than Peter to his face because Peter had sinned (Galatians 2:11).
Was this the end of the relationship between Paul and Peter? Look at what Peter himself later wrote:
Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you. (2 Peter 3:15)
Peter still regarded Paul as his beloved brother, because all that Paul ever had in mind in confronting Peter was restoration.
In my own experience, practicing church discipline has not emptied the church. People are still coming, and the Lord is still growing His church. It is a place of love. It is a place of restoration. It is a place of holiness. It is a place of fear. And that’s exactly the way God designed it to be.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 2008, titled "The Childlikeness of Believers: Confronting Sin."