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Conflict in the Church


September 10, 2023 |Conflict in the Church|Matthew 18:15-20

JD Cutler


For the sermon audio, click here


In our journey through the book of Matthew we come this morning to arguably one of the most often ignored commands from Jesus to his church by his people in our day.

You won’t find many books on the subject when you visit the bookstore or browse amazon for books. It doesn’t make for a popular podcast topic and yet our inattention to it is a root cause of many of the unhealthy patterns and situations in our churches today.


We are talking about church discipline, specifically in the case of one brother sinning against another.


Now, many of you are already uncomfortable.

Either because you have never been exposed to the idea of church discipline and it sounds horrible, or you have been exposed to unbiblical expressions of church discipline. That’s okay. We need to be uncomfortable in church from time to time.


But there are two things that are important to note before we begin, this passage is just a portion of the teachings on how the church handles discipline and it is not exhaustive in and of itself, but part of a larger emphasis on purity in the church body.


I pray that through this morning we can come to see this topic as not a negative or outdated practice to be ignored, but as one of the core gifts to the church for the care of his people. One commentator said, this passage shows us the Lord exercises his care for his people through his people. One of the gifts that Christ gave his church was this authority to discipline its members, for their good and for the good of his bride.


We find this passage in Matthew 18, beginning at verse 15. This morning we are going to look at three realities of church discipline within the church.


The presence of sin-damaged relationships in the church.

This comes from the first six words of our text. Let’s read those together now.

Matthew 18:15a “If your brother sins against you,

If- could be translated as when. The idea is not so much that it may never happen but the inevitability that it will happen and when it does…

Your brother- This of course is not talking about natural family members, but we see in the context Jesus uses later when he says tell it to the church, that he is referring to a local assembly of believers. We will talk about this a little more, but I just wanted to note the relational and contextual element that Jesus is talking about here is the local church.

Sins against you- You have no doubt heard this terminology before but the word sin is the idea of missing the mark. When used in scripture it deals with the idea of failing to uphold the standards and commandments God has given his people. Ultimately, we understand that all sin is first against God, but that does not mean that people do not get hurt in the process, right?

David, when he is confronted by the prophet Nathan over his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah her husband, confessed that he has sinned against God, and that is theologically true, but it does not negate the fact that he also sinned against both Uriah and Bathsheba.

What does it mean for your brother to sin against you?

It would be impossible to make an exhaustive list this morning and probably not altogether helpful anyway. But we do need to distinguish between sinning against you and some lesser activity.

Jesus is not talking about you not liking the way someone did something, he is not talking about someone disagreeing with you, he is not talking about pet peeves or personally idiosyncrasies. He says when a brother sins against you.

(Reformed Expository Commentary (28 Vols.) - REC) The topic is not hurt feelings, it is not annoying behavior, it is not etiquette. The topic is sin.

When they fail to uphold the commandment to love you, when they lie to you or about you, when they steal from you, when they slander you, when they cheat you, and on and on the list goes.


When your brother sins against you.

There is some debate on whether or not the most trustworthy manuscripts include ‘against you’, or if it is better translated, when your brother sins. I personally hold that it is rightly included and that Jesus is addressing a specific situation of someone sinning against you personally. However, the bible talks about in other places that our responsibility extends to seeing a brother sin. I think this is probably best understood then as either someone sins against you or sins in front of you. I think the responsibility is there in both cases.

Now, for some of you, this immediately shatters some of your ideas about the local church. Shouldn’t this be a safe place, shouldn’t I at least be able to gather with like minded believers and expect to not deal with people sinning against me?

I’m sorry but this is not a perfect church and unfortunately you will not find one this side of heaven because churches are made up of people and people are sinful. Even those on the road of sanctification will slip, will trip, and can and will hurt you.

One pastor said ‘if you find a perfect church, don’t join it, because you will mess it up’.


I want to show you two implications from this one short sentence.

One, Jesus expected that after he completed his mission and ascended to heaven, people would gather together in his name. That is, he expected for the church to exist. Even though the disciples could not possibly understand everything he was saying about the institution we know as the church, we are told that the Spirit would bring to remembrance everything that he taught them.

So we see his disciples gathering in his name after his departure. We see in the book of Acts, his church growing. Jesus expected that his disciples would gather together and belong to one another in an intimate familial way. If your brother . Not a fellow church member, not a fellow disciple, not a friend, but your brother.


There are many ways the church is described in the New Testament.

It is described as

  1. a Body made up of many members (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31,

  2. A flock made up of many sheep (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-5)

  3. The Household of God made up of many members (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Timothy 3:14-15,Hebrews 3:1-6)

  4. The Temple of God made up of many living stones (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5)

  5. A holy priesthood made up of many priests (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Here Jesus refers to them as brothers, we should read this word as brothers and sisters. He gives us the context of the church being a family, members of the household of God.


The context is then the local body, the offender is your brother, and the incident is that they have sinned against you. What are we supposed to do when this reality happens to us? This brings us to our second reality.


The process for restoring what has been broken by sin.

The reality is that Jesus gives his people a process for when the reality of relationship damaging sin happens in the local church.


Matthew 18:15b-17 (ESV) go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

Step #1- Go and tell

Don’t raise your hands, but how many of us act like Jesus never said this?

How many of us act like he said, when your brother sins against you, sit and sulk about it?

How many of us act like he said, when your brother sins against you, tell everyone around you how offended you are so that it may make it back to the person?

How many of us act like he said, when your brother sins against you, act cold and withdrawn until they guess why your upset?

How many of us act like he said, when your brother sins against you, consult with 8-10 people on what you should do?

How many of us act like he said, when your brother sins against you, go find another church to go to?


No, Jesus says go to him/her alone. The circle needs to be no bigger than the offender and the offended.

What are we supposed to do when we go to them? Tell him his fault. What is Jesus saying we do here?

The word here means show him his fault. From where?

Scripture. If it is a violation of God’s law then it ought to be pretty easy to show it from the word. If you cannot show it from the word, you should evaluate whether or not you have been sinned against. Just saying, when we let the word of God rule we are much less likely to respond from our flesh.

What is our attitude toward our brother or sister supposed to be?

(ESV) 1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

In gentleness and keeping our own sin before us.

We go, not to prove ourselves right, but to establish that there has really been a transgression. Maybe we misunderstood what happened, maybe we didn’t have the whole picture, maybe they aren’t even aware of the implications of their actions.

In short, we treat them like a brother and not an enemy. A person we are looking to restore relationship with not a situation to conquer. Which is what Jesus says the whole point is.

If he listens, you have gained your brother. If you are right and there has been sin done against you and he or she sees it, repents of it and asks forgiveness, you accept them and the relationship is restored, which is the purpose of you going in the first place.

Broken relationships, covered sin, has a way of eating away at those involved, ultimately hurting the whole body.


Ideally, this kind of personal, relational, discipline is happening all the time in our body and we just do not know of it, because we do not need to know about it. Ideally, the offender acknowledges their sin, repents, and the relationship is restored.

But we don’t live in an ideal world and as we have already noted, we are sinful people going to sinful people.

What happens if they will not listen? That is, they refuse to see their sin or they refuse to repent of it?

We do not throw our hands up, we do not withdraw, we do not abandon our brother or sister in their sin, we lovingly continue to the next step.


Step #2- Gather and go again

16 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.

Jesus says, find one or two other brothers or sisters to go with you so that the evidence may be established.

This could be someone who saw the situation unfold, or it could be someone who knows them well, someone they listen to or that they have a relationship with. A ministry partner, a Bible study leader, a friend, etc…

It could be an elder, but Jesus does not specifically mention anyone with any official authority. Notice, the goal is still to keep the circle as small as possible to resolve the issue.

Why? It protects the brother and it guards the integrity of the process.

These men or women also become witnesses to the process. Maybe once you lay everything out, they agree with your brother that there has been no sin committed against you or maybe they agree with you and they can gently show the brother his sin. Ultimately, they have either been witnesses to the brother’s repentance and the restoration of the relationship or they are witnesses that you have biblically followed the commands of our Lord and if the brother is still unrepentant, they are witnesses that can stand with you during the next step.


17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.

Step #3- Tell the full gathering

Here is where we must exercise wisdom.

This does not mean, you come up on stage on a Sunday morning, grab a mic and tell everyone here about your brother’s sin and subsequent unrepentance.

Likely at this point, if you have not already, you need to get the leadership of the church involved.

This would be something that would be inappropriate on a Sunday morning, but completely appropriate in a member’s meeting.

Why?

Because on Sunday morning when we gather, there are church members, there are regular attenders, and there are visitors. There are saved and unsaved people mingled together, this is not the church Jesus is referring to. He is referring to those who have committed together to walk in Christian love and unity.

The greatest expression of this is when we gather for a member’s meeting. Where the only people present are those that have committed and covenanted together to be the local church gathered in this place.

Why do you tell it to the church?

So that they can reach out to the brother and encourage him to repent. The goal is still restoration. Maybe there is someone in the church that knows the offender well and can be a voice of reason. Maybe the love and concern expressed by the full body will break the hardness of their heart.

But what happens if they resist?

What happens if they won't even listen to their church?


And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Step #4- Exclude the brother

In a congregational church this would be the church revoking his or her membership. Essentially saying we can no longer affirm you as someone who has come to Christ for salvation, who has been saved and redeemed, who belongs to the church because your actions are inconsistent with that confession.

This decision is not punitive in nature, but restorative.

Paul says elsewhere that it is so that they will understand the severity of their sin, the implications for their unrepentance, and come to Christ. He says it is better they experience this now than to experience God’s judgment later. We ultimately want the brother or sister to come to repentance and rejoin the church body as a fully functioning, healthy member.

Let’s for arguments sake say that our church walked through this process.

The question that many are thinking, that has actually come up in conversations here about this, sounds like this.

Are we telling them they cannot come to church here?

No. That is not what we are saying. We want everyone to come and sit under the preaching of the word, to hear it sung, to see it displayed in the life of the church.

Are we supposed to not talk to them anymore?

Of course not. But does that communication change? Yes. The way we communicate with a brother or sister ought to be different from how we communicate with an unbeliever. Our goal within that relationship cannot merely be fellowship with them but leading them towards repentance.

Furthermore, as the pastor, I would encourage that person to abstain from taking the Lord’s Supper until something changed.


As hard as that is to swallow, that is the process Jesus gives us for addressing sin in the church.

It seems so counter cultural, so judgmental, and so ‘not nice’, that we have a hard time wrapping our minds around it, don’t we?


For many this seems so far out there that we can’t even imagine what this would look like, and I understand that.

But if we could, what if we just set the church aside for a minute and dealt with something a little smaller, a little more manageable. I’ll use my home as an example of something that has probably played out across all of our homes at one time or another.

Lincoln hits Lydia…

(Go and tell, gather and go again, tell the church, exclude the person from fellowship)


There is nothing easy about this, it is a difficult process filled with hard decisions and emotional turmoil, but it is commanded of us and furthermore, we are not left to ourselves in the process, which brings us to our last reality.


The promise of divine power and presence in the process.

Matthew 18:18-20 (ESV) 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”


Truly I say to you- This is Jesus’ way of saying, pay attention, listen up, what I am about to say is important.

bind/loose- we saw two weeks ago that Jesus said this directly to Peter, now he gives the church the same authority we saw there.

I will remind you that this is not Jesus promising that we can dictate what happens in heaven.

The tense of the verbs are what you bind has already been bound and what you loose has already been loosed.


Listen to the implication here. When we put a brother or sister out of the fellowship of the church WE are not saying they are not saved or that they are not part of the universal church, we are saying that Jesus already said that an unrepentant sinner shows themselves to be outside of his church, we are just declaring what Jesus has already said.


Then Jesus makes two statements that have often been taken out of their rightful context and twisted to teach all kinds of incorrect doctrines.


First, if two of you agree on Earth about anything- the word anything is a compound of two words, more literally translates as all matters. Used specifically sometimes to denote a matter in a forensic sense, a matter at law, a case, a lawsuit.


This is not a blank check to turn God the Father into some cosmic genie that will grant your wishes because you gather two people to pray in accord. It is a promise that if just two people seek God’s face in the difficult matters of church discipline, they can be assured that God will answer them.


The second, much more misquoted verse is for where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.

You have no doubt heard a well meaning worship leader quote this about coming together to sing, or a well meaning pastor encouraging a small prayer group that it only takes two or three and Jesus will be there.

I don’t think this is about some special manifestation of his presence at all, but rather his authority. In the context, Jesus promises that if a church has to gather with the difficult task of church discipline we do so in his authority. What an encouragement to the church and its leaders!


When the church has to exercise his duties in discipline of an unrepentant member, Jesus promises to be present in power and authority.


Here is the problem.

This wouldn’t work in most churches today.

The problem is not the process, Jesus lays it out pretty clearly.

The problem is that the church has gotten so confused about its membership that once clear lines have become blurred, once clear boundaries have been broken.


There are assumptions made in our text by Jesus that if not fulfilled causes this whole process to break down.

I want to share four assumptions of the text that hopefully highlight the problem for the church today.


Assumptions-


1. It assumes that you belong to a local church.

If you do not really belong to a local church how can you be put out of it? If you just loosely associate yourself with a group of Christians, the minute there is any trouble, you can just move on to the next church, right? For church discipline to work, you have to have a group of people dedicated to belonging to one another. Think again about the pictures the New Testament uses to describe a church.

  • a Body made up of many members (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31,

  • A flock made up of many sheep (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-5)

  • The Household of God made up of many members (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Timothy 3:14-15,Hebrews 3:1-6)

  • The Temple of God made up of many living stones (Ephesians 2:19-22, 1 Peter 2:4-5)

  • A holy priesthood made up of many priests (1 Peter 2:4-5)

None of these things function the way they are supposed to when all parts are not actively engaged.

Imagine having a body part that only functioned every now and then. We would seek help because something is wrong. And yet, we have members of our church that treat its gatherings and its people as optional and do not ever really engage.

Which leads us to the next assumption.


2. It assumes that you have close relationships with those around you in the church that would be disrupted by sin.

Harmony in the church is easy when we are merely loosely associated with each other. Anyone can get along for two or three hours a week. But if we truly engage in the lives of one another in meaningful ways, we will inevitably hurt one another and when we do, we have a process for seeking restoration. Which brings us to our next assumption.


3. It assumes that you value those relationships enough to pursue them.

When a brother or sister sins against you and the relationship is broken, it is so valuable to you, it hurts you so much that you could not imagine ‘not’ seeking restoration.

Otherwise this passage has no effect on us at all. You sit on your side of the church and I’ll sit on my side and we will just ignore one another. What does it matter anyway, I have close relationships outside of church, right? Which highlights our last assumption.


4. It assumes that you value the witness and purity of the local body you belong to.

The reason we don’t let sin fester, the reason we don’t let relationships stay fragmented is because we believe that the church is God’s manifest presence in the world and by its love for one another, its purity, and its witness men and women will be drawn to Jesus. But if it is just a personal choice like choosing a fitness club or a streaming service, what does it matter?


For this passage to be obeyable, the church must be a visible, recognizable group of people, who love one another dearly, whose relationships are vitally important to one another, and who desire above all else for the name of Christ to be lifted up as Holy and Righteous.


Let me close with this application. But before I do, maybe you still have questions.

Maybe you wonder what church discipline would look like in a specific situation, or maybe you wonder where the line is? Maybe you have questions still about why we would do this or how we would do this. I want you to know that I do too. I don’t have this thing all figured out after studying it. And we know that one sermon could never fully cover the topic, but here is what I think is even more important.


If we come to a passage like this where Jesus commands his church to act a certain way or follow a specific process and we cannot do it because of the way our church is currently, what should we do?

Friends, we should desperately strive to conform our church to be a church where it is possible because that is the kind of church that Jesus desires.


Which one of these assumptions are not true in your life today?

Do you belong to a local church in a meaningful way?

Do you have close relationships with your brothers and sisters?

Do you value them so much that you would do whatever it takes to restore them if they were broken?

Do you value the witness and purity of the church so much that even if it broke your heart you would obey what Jesus says here and put an unrepentant brother or sister out of fellowship?


What could you do today, what could you decide today that would bring you closer to these being true in your life.




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