Some churches excommunicate sinning members. Some withdraw from or disfellowship sinners. Others do not discipline members at all believing that it is wrong to judge one another. What would Jesus do?
Where one brother sins against a second brother, Jesus has left us explicit instructions (Matt. 18:15-17).
15 “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. 16 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.’ 17 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.
Although Jesus limited His scenario to occasions where one brother sins against another, following Jesus’ pattern here should be the rule rather than the exception. As we consider the Scriptural authority for withdrawal, remember the goals of discipline: saving the lost brother (James 5:19-20), and protecting the church from sin (1 Cor. 5:5-8).
STEP ONE: GO TO THE BROTHER. Jesus commands us to begin the process by going directly to the sinning brother. The wisdom in doing so privately before involving third parties is obvious for at least two reasons: First, the “erring” Christian may repent immediately. Repentance may eliminate the need for others to know about the transgression and lessen the possibility of gossip and division. Secondly, you need to verify the facts. Going directly to the person accused of sin will permit you to hear their side of the story. How embarrassing would it be to confront the “transgressor” in the presence of others and then learn that no sin was committed?
STEP TWO: GO BACK WITH ONE OR TWO MORE. If your brother will not repent, find one or two witnesses (Matt. 18:16). Give your brother a second chance to repent. His spiritual welfare is the overriding concern (James 5:19-20). Others may be able to persuade him to repent and their presence will help assure that the facts are verified (Matt. 18:16). However, the number of people with knowledge of the allegations is still small. The brother may repent without the need of sharing the allegations with the entire church.
STEP THREE: TAKE IT TO THE CHURCH. If the brother will not listen to you or the others, you are then to take the issue to the church. If your church has elders, take the matter to them because they have oversight. The influence of the whole congregation is brought to bear in hopes of getting the brother to repent, but if he refuses, “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).
LET HIM BE TO YOU LIKE A HEATHEN AND A TAX COLLECTOR. What did Jesus mean by saying that we should consider the sinning brother a Gentile and a tax collector? Remember that Jesus was speaking to Jews, and in the First Century, the Jews would not eat with Gentiles or tax collectors. By way of analogy, Jesus is instructing us to not eat with, keep company with, or otherwise socialize with sinning brethren (1 Cor. 5:11).
INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY. In verse 17, Christ puts the responsibility on the individual to discipline the sinning brother when He says that “you” are to treat the brother as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matt. 18:17). Paul also emphasized the individual’s responsibility for discipline when he wrote, “we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which they received of us” (2 Thess. 3:6, ASV).
WHAT IS WITHDRAWN? Paul says that we are to avoid sinning brethren (Rom. 16:17), by withdrawing ourselves (2 Thess. 3:6) and our company from them (2 Thess. 3:14). We should not keep company or even eat with sinning brethren (1 Cor. 5:11).
WE ONLY WITHDRAW FROM SINNING BRETHREN (Matt. 18:15; 1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:6). We do not withdraw from the world (1 Cor. 5:9-13), but only our impenitent brethren who:
1. Commit sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:11);
2. Covet (1 Cor. 5:11);
3. Are an idolater, reviler, drunkard, extortioner, or divisive (Rom. 16:17);
4. Sin against brethren (Matt. 18:15-17);
5. Walk disorderly contrary to apostolic tradition (2 Thess. 3:6);
6. Wander from the truth (James 5:19); or
7. Commit any trespass or offense contrary to doctrine (Gal. 6:1; Rom. 16:17).
We understand that no sin is any more or less dangerous than any other sin, though we may understand this better intellectually than we do in application. For example, many today may consider trivial what Paul said was disorderly conduct worthy of withdrawal (2 Thess. 3:6-14).
THE PURPOSE OF DISCIPLINE IS YOUR BROTHER’S SALVATION AND THE PROTECTION OF THE CHURCH (James 5:19-20; 1 Cor. 5:5-8). Discipline is difficult. Some brethren are unwilling to withdraw from a brother because they are concerned about the sinning brother’s feelings. This, however, ignores the fact that withdrawal is designed to shame the brother into repentance, and prevent sin from spreading throughout the church (2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Cor. 5:5-8).
Jesus’ pattern for dealing with sinning brethren protects not only our brother and the church, but ourselves also. Paul reminds us that when we seek to restore others that we should consider ourselves, lest we also be tempted (Gal. 6:1). The failure to try to restore a brother is in itself sin and a lack of concern for our brethren could become a lack of concern for sin in our own lives.