Stan Cox

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Applying Matthew 18:15-17

    "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:15-17).

The passage above is presently a focus of controversy among God's people. The problem is not a matter of understanding the procedure prescribed in the text. Rather, the misunderstanding that exists is in regard to the scope of the text's application. In order to properly understand the Lord's instructions in Matthew 18, it is necessary to look to the context, and the greater context of the entire New Testament as it reveals how we are to deal with sin.

First notice the procedure to be taken when dealing with the sin under consideration in the text. It is a four part process. First, one must go to his brother privately to deal with the sin. "...tell him his fault between you and him alone." If the first step does not bring repentance, the second step is to take witnesses that "by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." This second step affirms the serious nature of the sin, that the complaint is valid, and that resolution must come through the penitent actions of the guilty party. If the second step does not lead to repentance on the part of the sinner, the complaint is to be taken before the whole church. This is a radical step, causing the sin to become generally known, and bringing to bear the combined influence of the entire congregation. A rebellious man, who will not even hear the entire congregation as they admonish him for sin, is to be rejected (the fourth and final step).

The wisdom of this process is readily apparent. The cautious nature of the initial approach can spare the feelings of the one guilty of sin. It establishes the loving motive of the admonishing brother, and can lead to a private and quick resolution which will avoid contention and embarrassment. Because of the process, the escalation of embarrassment to the guilty party will come solely because of his own rebellion.

But, what sins are under consideration in the text? This also is apparent, though often misunderstood in our time. Read carefully the first statement from our Lord, "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone." Contextually, the instructions given in Matthew 18 have reference to private matters between Christians. Not only is public sin not under consideration in the context, an examination of how Christians dealt with public sin reveals that a different procedure was followed. There are legitimate reasons for this distinction, which will be examined momentarily.

Some will quibble with our declaration that the text prescribes the procedure to use when dealing with private matters between Christians. The contention seems to be that the phrase "against you" is an incorrect rendering, and thus the passage does not deal solely with personal offense. While it is admitted that the phrase is difficult, this does not negate the context and the purpose of the procedure prescribed by the Lord. As W. Robertson Nicoll states:

    "apart from the doubtful "eis se" following, the reference appears to be to private personal offenses, not to sin against the Christian name, which every brother in the community has a right to challenge, especially those closely connected with the offender" "...the phrase implies that some one has the right and duty of taking the initiative. So far it is a personal affair to begin with." (The Expositor's Greek Testament, Vol. 1, page 239).

A Greek Interlinear supplies the following literal translation of the text:

    "Now if sins the brother of thee, go reprove him between thee and him alone. If thee he hears, thou gainsedst the brother of thee." (The Zondervan Parallel New Testament In Greek and English)

Note the following translations of the text:

    "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother" (KJV).

    "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over" (NIV).

    "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. (RSV)

    "And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother" (NASB)

    "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one" (NRSV)

    "And if thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone: if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother" (ASV).

Even the NASB, which omits the "against you" related in the other translations, indicates a clearly private matter, "go and reprove him in private." As Nicoll alluded to in his comments, and as we shall examine in greater detail momentarily, to prescribe these limitations upon a matter of public sin is to do violence to the greater context of New Testament teaching.

Further, Peter recognized the import of Christ's words, and asked of Him following His teaching, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" (vs. 21). Everything in the immediate context suggests personal and private transgressions against a brother in Christ.

The responsibility on the part of an individual to deal with sin a brother has committed against him is a principle revealed in the Old Testament. To do so is equated with loving one's brother, as noted in Leviticus 19:17-18:

    "You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD."

Jesus taught the same in Luke 17:3-4:

    "Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, 'I repent,' you shall forgive him."

So, children of God are obligated to deal with such personal offenses. We are not loving another if we dismiss such sin against ourselves. While it may seem magnanimous, it does nothing for the soul of the transgressor. It is much better, more loving, and a God-given obligation to rebuke the sinner, and bring him to repentance. This is our responsibility to our brother in Christ when he sins against us in some private matter.

Dealing with Public Sin

However, when sin is public in nature other considerations modify the appropriate response of the child of God. As the situation is different, the way of dealing with the sin is different as well. Primarily this is so because public sin has a leavening influence in the church. "Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5:6-7).

The context of Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 5 bear on our subject. There was a man in that congregation who was guilty of such sexual immorality as to be "not even named among the Gentiles; that a man has his father's wife!" (vs. 1). The Corinthians had not dealt with the brother, rather they had accepted him, and had become "puffed up" regarding their tolerance of such a sinful influence. It is in this context that Paul warns them of the leavening influence of sin, and gives them instructions as to how to deal with the offending brother. Note that in this instance of public sin that had such a leavening influence, Paul's instructions were different from those of the Lord in Matthew 18. Here Paul said, "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (vs. 4-5). Further, Paul in making this pronouncement, had not gone to the brother privately, "For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed" (vs. 3). He had sufficient knowledge of the situation to declare the need for disciplinary action without ever having met directly with the immoral brother.

Some have actually stated that Paul, as an apostle, is an exception to the rule of Matthew 18. "As we are not apostles," it is said, "We do not have the authority to deal with sin in such a bold manner." Such an argument is specious (having a false look of truth or genuineness: sophistical, Webster). It is also easily refuted. First, Paul's instructions to the Corinthians indicate that they should have already taken care of the situation. In other words, they should not have waited for Paul's letter before acting, they should have done so before his admonition. The action of public censure should have been taken without apostolic goading. Second, the directions given by the Lord in Matthew 18 were given directly to the apostles! (cf. 18:18, 21). As an apostle, if anyone was limited to the prescribed pattern given by the Lord in Matthew 18, it was Paul!

Paul's reaction to public sin on another occasion is recorded in Galatians 2. Note the account, as related by Paul in Galatians 2:11-14:

    "Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, 'If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?'"

Peter was guilty of sin. But the sin was not a private matter between Paul and Peter alone. Rather, his sin was public and had the leavening influence already noticed. "And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy." Because of this leavening influence, and the public nature of the sin; and despite, or perhaps because of, the position of influence Peter enjoyed as an Apostle of the Lord, Paul dealt with the sin publicly. "I said to Peter before them all..."

Any who take the position that the principles outlined in Matthew 18 concern all types of sin in every situation must deal with this text. They will have the apostle Paul in violation of the instructions of the Lord. As we have already related, they can not appeal to Paul's authority as an apostle. The instructions relate to him as they relate to us. Paul said, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Dealing with False Teaching

Most often the objections to dealing publicly with a sinner come in the area of the proclamation of false doctrine. When a brother who has taught error is publicly admonished for his teaching, (whether from a pulpit, or in print) the question is invariably asked, "Did you first go to him privately?" On many occasions, the answer would be yes!, though it is assumed no such effort has been made. Obviously it is needful to establish that the brother has actually taught error, and is thereby bringing harm to others. To do any less would be to engage in gossip, and to lack the proper deference which love demands. Love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7).

But, must one go to a such a teacher of error, personally and privately, before exposing his error to others? The Bible clearly says no! And one primary reason for this is as stated earlier, the leavening influence of such false doctrine!

The scripture clearly indicates the dangers of false teaching. Paul warned of some among the elders of the church at Ephesus which, as "savage wolves" would "speak[-ing] perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves." Of this danger, Paul wrote, "Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears" (Acts 20:29-31).

Paul further warned Timothy, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:3-4). It was because of this danger that he exhorted Timothy to "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2).

It is because of this danger of influencing others to sin by false teaching that James wrote, "My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment" (James 3:1). Paul indicated that the false doctrine of Hymenaeus and Philetus had "spread like cancer", and said they "overthrow the faith of some" (2 Timothy 2:17-18), and he did not hesitate to publicly call their name. He did the same with Alexander (1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 4:14); Demas (2 Timothy 4:10); and the Judaizing teachers (Philippians 3:1-2). The apostle John named Diotrephes (3 John 9-10) for his public sin as well.

From the above we can see that the procedure of Matthew 18 is not appropriate in every circumstance. When sin is public, and endangers the souls of others through its ungodly leaven, it must be dealt with publicly and swiftly.

    "Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple" (Romans 16:17-18).

Consequences of Misunderstanding Matthew 18

In matters of public sin, when Christians bind upon themselves and others a procedure designed for private, personal sin, they are left with unpalatable consequences. Note the following:

  • Error goes unopposed. The anecdotal evidence for this is strong. It seems that the most common motivation for such a belief is a distaste for confrontation. People don't want to hear about disputes, and desire them to be handled "behind the scenes". There have been several occasions where I personally have been admonished for not "going to him privately", by those who "agree that the man is teaching error." They agree that the man should stop teaching his doctrine, but they don't like the way he has been publicly marked. When these individuals with such delicate sensibilities are asked if they have approached the erring brother themselves, the answer is invariably no, if any answer is given at all. If the answer is yes, have they taken the succeeding steps outlined in Matthew 18?

    It seems that it is acceptable to do nothing. That is, to allow the error to go unopposed. But in the minds of many it is completely unacceptable to deal with it in a public fashion.

  • The truth is put at a disadvantage. One brother who advocates a false position on Romans 14 once stated that he went, "Hither, thither, and yon" teaching his interpretation of the passage. And yet he and others have been vocal in their criticism of those who would publicly oppose his teaching, or the teaching of others. It is a sorry standard which would allow a false teacher to go everywhere proclaiming his error, but would impose upon the righteous the restriction of only private opposition. What of those who may be influenced by his error, and lose their soul? "Then He said to the disciples, 'It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.'" (Luke 17:1-2). Brethren, we should not be so concerned about the sensibilities of the teacher of error that we would allow the "little ones" to be offended.

  • Elders are unable to discharge their God-ordained duties. The absurd end of this position would require the elders to remain quiet as a false teacher proclaims his error from the pulpit, or in a Bible class. If he is sinning, they must approach him first privately. (Don't laugh, this application is not hypothetical, it has actually been advocated). Visitors would go away thinking that the congregation is unsound. It is possible that one could be convinced by the errorist's sophistry, and the elders could have no opportunity to refute it with truth.

    Imagine a false teacher spreading his error in a high school class. A babe in Christ is bothered that it "doesn't sound right", and goes to him privately. Because of his lack of knowledge, he is convinced by the sophistry of one who has the ability to "deceive the elect." As such, the error is not exposed. Indeed, the false teacher is allowed to work "privily", the sheep is left to deal with the wolf, and the elder is not allowed to exercise his God-ordained duty to "convict the gainsayer." Who can believe it!

    While it may be true that some will say, "I wouldn't go to that extreme", it is nevertheless where some have gone, and it is a logical end to such a misunderstanding of the passage.


The teaching of our Lord in Matthew 18 must be followed by all Christians. It is our responsibility as children of God to rebuke our sinning brother, in an attempt to restore him to standing. We do not have the right to ignore his sin, and we do not have the right to embarrass him by disregarding the prescribed steps of the passage.

However, the passage is limited contextually to private offenses between a sinner and the one he has wronged. The Lord never intended that his instructions to the Disciples be applied with such a broad and unsuitable stroke. A proper understanding of the passage, and the nature of public sin will go far in correcting this present destructive error.

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