Scripture: “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.” Matthew 18:15-20 ESV
[Click here to read the entire chapter.]
Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), Jesus returns to his theme of caring for the little ones (those young in the faith and vulnerable to influence) and adds that if we act contemptuously toward them, we oppose the purposes of God, for he will watch for their welfare through the aid of angels who are in constant communication with him. Jesus concludes this teaching with a parable of a lost sheep that illustrates his Father’s earnestness to ensure none of these little ones will perish.
In today’s subsequent reading, Jesus’ progression of thought shifts toward those professing believers who sin against us. He lays out a four-step process to spur their repentance:
- Personal confrontation: discretely, face-to-face (v.15).
- Witnesses to the confrontation: if they will not listen to you, bring one or two witnesses and address their sin again.
- Involvement of the church: if they still will not listen to you in front of witnesses, then inform the church and have the church body challenge them to repent.
- Treat as an unbeliever: if they still refuse to do the right thing, do not associate with them and let them feel the burden of isolation (for a season) from the support of the church body.
Jesus concludes with the same exhortation he spoke to Peter when he confessed that Jesus is the Christ (16:19, click here to read): “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (v.18 above). And he explains that if even two of his disciples pray in agreement, his heavenly Father will answer their prayer, and adds that where two or three gather in his name, he will dwell with them (in spirit).
Takeaway: Jesus lays out a wise plan of action that considers what is best for all concerned. But we must be careful not to assume this principle corresponds verbatim to our modern-day church. However, the first two steps are in accord with the first-century church. Meeting face-to-face personally and, if necessary, with a couple of witnesses ensures discreteness and confidentiality (as long as the conversation stays with those involved). And it demonstrates our love and concern for the transgressor, putting them in the best place to let down their guard and repent.
The third step, carried out in small house churches, is more tricky today in our litigious society. When I was pastoring in Pittsburgh, a pastor from a neighboring church committed a moral indiscretion, resigned from his pastorate, and hired an attorney to prepare and submit a gag order on the leadership with the warning of a lawsuit if breached—prohibiting the third step. In contrast, I served in another church (before becoming a pastor), where one pastoral team member also took a moral misstep. In this case, they did not bring him before the congregation but announced his leave of absence and that he and his wife would be receiving counseling. Unfortunately, he did not take advantage of the pastoral care and drifted out of sight. Still, the church benefited from seeing how they could support each other toward repentance and restoration.
The last step has its equivalent in some denominations to ex-communication, which also carries legal risks in our present-day culture. But if applied correctly with qualified members staying in touch with the one set apart from church activities, this last step can provide the space and time to restore the person. For example, Paul challenged the house church in Corinth to remove a young man from their fellowship who openly and unrepentantly engaged in sexual relations with his stepmother. He explains that it should be a limited time to bring about repentance under the heat of Satan’s wiles (click here to read the passage). He then writes in his second letter that when the church disciplines its members, they should intentionally forgive and comfort them to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed with sorrow (click here to read).
Our takeaway? Lay the foundation in prayer in the presence of Christ with one or two prayer warriors who would become witnesses if necessary. Then follow the above biblical principles while acting wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. Wise to the boundaries of secular law while demonstrating genuine concern and care for those ensnared by sin. To do so is one aspect of our calling as ambassadors of Christ, for “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18 ESV). And it is an excellent way for us redeemed sinners to pay it forward.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, who reconciled us to you when we were your enemies (Romans 5:10). So would you please help to pay it forward and do our part as ambassadors of reconciliation in restoring those to you who also have gone astray? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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