Discipline In the Church – Matthew 18:15-20

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Faith Bible Church, NY

June 29, 1994

Discipline in the Church

Matthew 18:15-20


This morning we return to our direct study of the book of Matthew. Over the last month we have been dealing with other texts related to the subject of sin and how to deal with it. All of these studies have been done so that we might better understand how we can carry out our Lord’s directives for discipline in the church as found in Matthew 18:15-17.

Four weeks ago we examined David’s response to sin. At first he tried to cover it up, then he tried to ignore it. Finally he was confronted about it by the prophet Nathan, and this led to his repentance and reconciliation with God, which David writes about in Psalm 51. That Psalm sets the pattern of what true repentance is like. There is no longer pride left in trying to maintain the appearance of being good. The true nature of the human heart is recognized and it cries out to God for forgiveness based solely on God’s mercy and grace. The individual’s pride departs as he or she outwardly confesses the sin and bows before God’s holiness. They desire is to be cleansed outwardly and inwardly by the Holy Spirit and then to teach others about God’s grace to repentant sinners.

The purpose of that message was to convey to all of us the sinfulness of our own hearts and the need for true repentance. If David, the man “after God’s own heart” could fall into such sin, then so can we. And if we do fall we may even need to be confronted as David was by Nathan. There is no room for self-righteousness when someone else falls into sin. It could happen to us & if it did, would we repent like David?

Two weeks ago I went over the Scriptural injunction to admonish one another. When we see a brother or sister in sin we need to go to them and instruct them in what the Scriptures say and warn them of the consequences if they continue in sin. Last week we expanded on that theme by looking at Paul’s commands to us in Galatians 6. We are to restore a brother who is overtaken in sin because we love them. We strive to bring them back into a close walk with Christ. We admonish and reprove in a spirit of gentleness speaking the truth in love. We go in humility and caution because we have examined ourselves. We involve ourselves with them and bear their burdens.

The last two messages have been an expansion of Matthew 18:15.  (See: The Difficult One Another – 6/5/94) When a brother sins, you go to him and reprove him in private with the hope that he will listen and you will win him back. The sin does not have to be directly against you. Paul’s expansion of this in Galatians 6:1-4 makes that clear. When you find a brother and sister in sin you go and seek to win them back to following Christ.

Now we are going to explain what happens and what you are to do if that brother or sister who is overtaken in sin refuses to repent. What do you do then? What could and should happen to that individual?

We are going to look at the steps of discipline in the Church and its reason, but before I do, let me remind you of the context for this passage. Jesus’ command here has come as a response to the quarreling that had been going on among the disciples about who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (vs. 1). Jesus calmly but firmly rebukes them for their arrogance and pride and then explains to them what the kingdom of heaven is really like. First, only those that come with the humility and dependence of a child will enter. This is the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Humility and meekness is to be the mark of those who want to be great in God’s kingdom (vs. 3,4). Those who belong to the kingdom will welcome others into the kingdom and there is great blessing in doing so, but at the same time anyone who would be the cause of a believer in Jesus falling into sin will receive severe judgment (vs. 5,6). Therefore, we must take the utmost caution in how we treat the followers of Christ (vs. 7-9). God is jealous for His children. He has angles watching over them (vs 10), and when they stray, He goes searching for them. He is the good shepherd and He will not allow His sheep to face the dangers of life without Him. I do not know enough about sheep to say whether the nursery rhyme is true: “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home wagging their tails behind them.” Even if that is true for sheep, it is not true for humans. We must be sought after and brought back.

Notice that this whole section on Church discipline occurs directly after God searches for His lost sheep. Jesus gives no indication that He has changed the subject. Our context tells us that church discipline, or admonishing one another and restoring those who are overtaken by sin, is because of God’s jealousy and concern for His people. With that in mind let us understand at the outset that discipline is the loving thing to do. Hebrews 12 tells us that God disciplines all of His children and that if we are without it, then we are illegitimate and do not belong to Him.

How then does this work? What are the steps involved within Church Discipline?

2. The Steps of Church Discipline.

The steps of church discipline are outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. These steps simply described are:

1. Verse 15: “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” The individual in sin is confronted by a Christian brother/sister with goal of reconciliation/restoration. If the individual does repent, then it goes no farther and no one else needs to know. This is admonishing one another. Galatians 6:1-4 which we talked about last week can be considered a more detailed outline of this first step. If individual does not listen, then step 2.

2. Verse 16: “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 individual in sin is confronted by two or three Christian brothers/sisters with goal of A). reconciliation/restoration, B). Establishing the facts. The verse does not specify who should go along but it would be wise to include a church leader, preferably an elder, as one of people that go since an elder is a person that has already demonstrated their spiritual maturity. If the individual does repent, then it goes no farther and no one else needs to know. However, note in verse 17 that the person may refuse to listen, and if there is no repentance, onto step 3.

3. Verse 17, “And if he refused to listen to them, tell it to the church…” The Church is told of the individual and the church seeks after him/her to try to reconcile/restore. From a practical standpoint of proceeding through these steps in an orderly manner, it may be wise that in this step all the Elders of the church are informed first in order to let them try to bring the individual to repentance. If you would like you could call this step “3 and 1/2”.

The manner of telling the church should be cautious. Not all the details need to be told because we do not want to glorify sin, however enough specifics must be told to clearly establish the sin and the person’s refusal to repent. It is a time for the church to mourn that one of their members is caught in sin. There is no room for self righteousness on anyone’s part. Everyone in the church would then be responsible to at least pray. Those that have a relationship with the individual and those that are led of the Lord would purify their hearts through self examination and then go to that person and seek to restore them. If the person repents, the church is told and there is much rejoicing by everyone. But the end of verse 17 tells us they may refuse to listen to the church, if so, onto step 4.

4. Verse 17b, “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.” The individual is dis-fellowshiped. He/she is to be treated as a Gentile and tax-gatherer. This is done with mourning, but also with a firmness of being true to Scripture. Careful instructions are given to the congregation on what their relationship to the unrepentant individual should now be. He/she can no longer participate in the fellowship of the Christian community. There is still hope of reconciliation/restoration (See 1 Cor. 5 & 2 Cor 2), but other purposes of church discipline such as identification of disobedience, keeping the church from sin, and removal of the individual (turned over to Satan) become important.

It should be noted that church discipline that goes beyond step one does so because of the refusal of the one in sin to repent. True repentance brings about reconciliation/restoration. An appropriate amount of time is given to allow the individual to come to repentance (in other words, these steps are not proceeded through in a week, but neither is the process allowed to drag on for months). The issue becomes the individual’s willingness to repent and seriously deal with their sin. Dis-fellowship is really the church’s recognition of the state of the individual who is no longer walking with Christ and refuses to change course.

The idea of treating the person as a Gentile and Tax-gatherer does not mean to ostracize or to shun. There is no room in Christianity for treating other people with that sort of disdain. Jesus told us in Matthew 5:44 that we are to love our enemies and pray for even those that persecute us. To treat a person as a Gentile and tax-gatherer is to treat the person as a non-Christian and refuse to have fellowship with them.

The Gentile was recognized as someone who was outside of God’s family. The person is treated as a non-Christian. You seek to evangelize them because “God’s judgement is against all the unrighteous but because of His great love He has provided a way of salvation to you through the righteousness of Jesus Christ who died for your sins on the cross…”. If they say they are saved already, you simply point out that their life does not indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit and you continue to evangelize. I guarantee that if you continue this, they will not want to be around you because they do not want their sin to be continually pointed out.

Tax-gatherers were considered traitors to the nation since they worked for the Rome. They were social outcasts and there is a sense of that in disfellowship. Our fellowship with one another is based on our fellowship with God. If someone rejects their fellowship with God then there is no basis for us to have fellowship with them. They cannot fulfill any of the “one another” commands of Scripture, and we cannot walk in their counsel since it would be ungodly (Psalm 1). In practical terms there is no basis for us to have continued socialization with them except to point out their sin and call them to repentance.

Some other Scriptures calling for this kind of dis-fellowship are: 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14,15 “now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.” “And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”

1 Corinthians 5:9-13, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people: I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. but actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”

Also Galatians 1:9; Ephesians 5:11-12; Titus 3:10-11 & 2 John 9-11.

Does the church have authority for carrying out this kind of discipline? Yes, the church does have the authority to dis- fellowship an individual who claims to be a believer who is in sin. First, It is ihe command of Scripture to do so as we have just seen. Second, in verses 18-20 Jesus gives the church the authority to make that judgment. “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The idea of binding a losing here as I have pointed out earlier has nothing to do with Satan and demons. The binding and loosing has to do with “whatever” and not “whoever.” The phrase is a Rabbinic expression meaning forbidding and permitting. The Church has the authority to examine a person’s life and compare it with the Scriptures and then determine whether that person is in sin or not, and whether they are repentant or not.

Verse 19 adds to this idea saying, “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.” The context here is church discipline, and we must be careful of taking this verse out of its context and trying to apply it to something else. This is same thought as in John 20:23 where Jesus tells His disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

Verse 20 adds that Jesus will be in the midst of those making such judgments about those who are caught in sin. “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.” Again, the context here is church discipline. This verse is not about Christian fellowship, but Jesus participation in the discipline of His wayward sheep through His church.

Now one other thing I should point out before we move onto the purposes of Church Discipline is that when sin is already public knowledge, it must be dealt with publicly. Such was the case Paul dealt within 1 Cor. 5. The various purposes of church make the reason for this apparent.

1. Purposes of Church Discipline.

A. Glorify God by obedience to His instructions (Mt. 18:15-17). Cf. 1 Samuel 15:22; Joshua 7:19

B. Reconciliation/Restoration. This is a major purpose for church discipline (Matt 18:15, Gal. 6:1). Sin brings a breakage in the relationship between people and with God. Reconciliation refers to the exchange of enmity for friendship. If a person is sinned against or sins against someone else, Scripture directs that person to seek to reconcile the relationships affected by that sin (Matt 5:23,24; Matt 18:15). If we find our brother overcome by sin, Scripture directs us to try and restore that person back to the place he was before he was caught in sin (Gal. 6:1). This purpose should be the driving force behind our pursuit of discipline – and it should temper our attitudes and actions. However, there are other purposes.

C. Teaching. Discipline is part of the teaching process that God uses to bring us to spiritual maturity (see Heb. 12:5-13). The rebuke, admonishment and exhortation given to the individual is for the purpose of teaching him/her about God and His commands of how He wants us to live. This part of the “teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness in 2 Tim 3:16,17, the “reprove, rebuke and exhort in 2 Tim 4:2, and the “admonishment of the unruly” in 1 Thess. 5:14.

D. Conviction of Sin. This is similar to the teaching idea but more pointed, and it is the first step needed to reach reconciliation. The idea of “reprove” elegxson in Mt 18:15 carries the idea of “convict,” “expose,” “lay bare” that persons’ sin. Titus 1:13 says that this reproof is so that they may be “sound in the faith.”

E. Cause Repentance. This is also necessary for reconciliation and restoration. 2 Thess. 3:14 indicates discipline is used to “put to shame” the person in sin. “Shame” entrepo also carries the idea of “to turn about.” James 5:19-20 talks about correcting error and turning ” a sinner from the error of his ways.” A person may “learn” something they do is against God’s commands, but they also have to be convicted of their own sin and then turn from it by repenting. Paul’s discipline against some that were in the Corinthian church led to godly repentance (2 Cor. 7:8-13).

F. Identify those who are disobedient. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14 Paul says to “mark” or “take special note of” those who are disobedient to his instructions.

G. Warning the Church from sin. Part of Paul’s exhortations against what was going on in the Corinthian church was their complacency with sin. The Corinthians’ association with those that claimed to be “brothers”, but were not living as true Christians was leavening/contaminating that church. He warns against sin entering into the lives of the Christians because of their continual association with those who were “so-called” brothers.

H. Removal of the unrepentant. Several passages mention the removal of those unwilling to turn from their sins.

We have already mentioned this in Matt. 18:17 “let him be to you as a Gentile and tax-gatherer.” I Cor. 5. Paul said the immoral man should be removed from their midst (v. 2) and that he had already delivered up the immoral man to Satan (v. 5), and he finishes by commanding “Remove the wicked man from among you” (v. 13).

In 2 Thess. 3:6,14, as we noted early, Paul commands that they “keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you have received from us.” “Keep aloof” (stellesthai) means to “remove one’s self from,” or “to abstain from familiar intercourse with one.” In verse 14 Paul says not only to mark the individual who is disobedient, but also to “not associate with him.”

Titus 3:10,11: 10“Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, 11 knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.”

I. Promote proper fear of God. The case of Annanias and Saphira in Acts 5 is an example that shows that when God disciplines the result is a proper fear of Him. It should be understood that the Church is an instrument used by God in disciplining His people.

J. Keep people from falling into God’s wrath. We find in 1 Cor. 11 that because people were improperly partaking of the Lord’s Supper some had come under the Lord’s judgement with some weak, some sick and some having died.

It is interesting to see what other Godly men have said about Discipline in the Church.

J. Vernon McGee: “There are some people who like to smother trouble and cover it up. This is not the way the Lord tells us to handle it. If there is a problem between two believers, it should be worked out in an amiable, peaceful and quiet manner. If the individuals can’t work it out, take it to a group. If the group can’t work it out, take it to the church as the final authority.”

J.P. Lange in the Biblical Illustrator said: “The Gospel cannot be preserved without salt; nor fraternal love without frankness; nor a particular church without discipline; nor the church as a whole without the spirit of discipline.”

Ridderbos: “Confrontation with the Church as a whole makes the sinners predicament much graver and increases his accountability. If he still stubbornly refuses to repent, there is not further recourse; and each member of the church must treat him as a “pagan or a tax collector.” He can no longer be considered an heir of the Kingdom, and he therefore cannot be counted as a member of the church.” (“This does not mean and expression of contempt, but an acknowledgment that such a person is living apart from God and the church.”)

Discipline in the Church is not out of vengeance or even a mean spirit. There is no room in the church for self righteous condemnation of others. Discipline in the Church is a necessary part of true Christian fellowship. Without it we are really only a permissive religious social organization for a concern for the worship of God in holiness is absent. It begins with loving one another sufficiently to be involved enough to know when sin creeps into each other’s lives and then confronting that sin by admonishing one another. It continues out of love for the individual in trying to restore them to proper fellowship with God. It is perused as a reflection of God’s Character, His holiness, and His mercy and grace. It concludes with a declaration of righteousness and protection of the saints. It only occurs because an individual overtaken in sin refuses to repent from that sin. Yet, even when taken to its final step, there is hope that the person may yet repent and be restored as occurred with the man in 1 Cor. 5 whom Paul “gave over to Satan for the buffeting of his flesh that his spirit may be saved…” who is restored to the fellowship of the church in 2 Cor. 2.

The only question left is what will we do? I pray that we will be obedient to the Scriptures.













3. TEACH (HEBREWS 12:5-13; 2 TIMOTHY 2:16,17; 1 THESS. 5:14)

4. CONVICT OF SIN (MT 18:15)

5. CAUSE REPENTANCE 2 THESS 3:14; jAMES 5:19,20)



8. REMOVE THE UNREPENTANT (MT 18:17; 1 COR. 5:2,5,13; 2 THESS 3:6,14; TITUS 3:10,11)



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