Matthew 18:15-17 “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. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every word may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector.’”
Each step in this process, this practice of confronting sin, may take more than one meeting, depending on the situation. These aren’t legal procedures we have to fulfill to get rid of someone. They are works of love designed to restore and to reconcile.
One or two others provide a testimony that works in two directions. If the person who committed the sin continues to defend it, and later the whole church needs to become involved, then these witnesses help to establish the facts of the matter. They can vouch for the fact that the sin was committed, that it is being defended, and that the victim has been taking the appropriate steps to try to reconcile.
Just as important, these one or two others can testify to the guilty in defense of what the Bible has to say on this matter. This is not just a matter of “one man’s interpretation.” This is what God’s word has to say. Jesus involves more people in applying God’s word to a sinner’s heart so that it can do the work it needs to do.
If we break through to repentance, confession, and forgiveness, then a brother or sister has been won. The matter is closed and goes no further. Jesus assumes we understand that before going on to explain the next steps, in case they still are necessary. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or tax collector.”
Eventually we have to deal with unrepentance publicly. Keeping it private isn’t helping the person caught in sin. The whole church needs to know, not as a matter of gossip (at this point it may actually help to prevent gossip), but so that the whole body of Christ can unite in trying win this person back from the edge of unbelief.
When this fails, Jesus calls on us to put into practice the full measure of our love. “Treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” No longer regard this person as a fellow Christian. No longer give him the rights of member of your Christian congregation. We might continue to hope that such people will come to church, because God’s word is the only thing that can change their hearts. Unless this happens, we no longer regard them members of the body of Christ. If they die in that condition (though only God knows their hearts with absolute certainty), we no longer hold out hope for their souls.
Not surprisingly, many people do not consider that loving. Some even question whether it is legal. But this is clearly what Jesus asks us to do. Would it be better just to watch a person destroy himself spiritually, possibly give others the impression that sin is acceptable, spreading the danger further?
Twelve step programs promote similar interventions by family and friends if someone is drinking himself to death. I have heard of lifeguards punching a drowning swimmer unconscious so that he doesn’t drown the two of them. The practice of refusing the unrepentant sinner the status of believer, and removing his membership privileges, is our last, desperate act to save him. Its goal is still to share the good news of forgiveness and the joy of restoration. Excommunication is the last full measure of our love.