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The Matthew 18 Process

In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus talks about stumbling blocks and gives a dreadful warning to those who are stumbling blocks to His children of the Kingdom (18:1-10). From there, He continues by speaking about a lost sheep that has gone astray and is in grave danger of the elements and wild animals(18:10-14). After He establishes that "the Son of Man has come to save the lost." (vs.11) Jesus then describes The Good Shepherd attribute of searching for the one sheep that "has gone astray," even to the point of leaving the ninety-nine others who are safe. He then moves to a discussion away from what could be considered His primary role and ability, to ours.

In this next section, Jesus addresses what should be done with a brother in sin, beginning with this verse:

"And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother." (Mat 18:15) What does it mean that you have "won your brother"? "My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins." (James 5:19-20) James may be echoing the words of the Lord Jesus in Matt. 16:26, because the content of this passage would seem to favor an admonishment to turn the brother away from the consequences of his sin and error (straying from the truth), which might include death in some way (the wages of sinů).

However, the remainder of the instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 continues with additional steps, should the first step of one on one confrontation fail and the brother continues in sin. If all of these steps should fail, there is the eventual drastic action of severing of all fellowship - a biblical 'tough love', so to speak (1 Cor. 5:1-13).

If any of the interventions succeed, there is no need for such a final drastic action that would involve the whole church. It is very clear in Scripture that even this last step is done with the hope of eventual restoration in the "spirit of gentleness"(2 Cor. 2:5-11; Gal. 6:1,2). In any case, when you have 'won your brother', sin no longer stands between God and the brother in sin.

If we need a case-in-point of when a fellowship fails to follow Jesus' instructions to the apostles, we need only turn to a full study of 1 and 2 Corinthians. Here, the Corinthian church failed to 'judge themselves rightly' (1 Cor. 11:20-34), as well as "be complete in the "same mind and in the same judgment." (1:10) These divisions and factions amongst them were due to sinful attitudes and actions (1 Cor. 11:17-19) and to allegiances to favored men and ministers rather than to Christ above all (1 Cor. 1:10-13).

A study of chapters 5 and 6 proves that the Corinthian church also failed to judge rightly according to the Matt. 18 principle Jesus laid out. They apparently judged the unbelievers as not being worthy of their time, rather than the false believer in their midst:

I wrote unto you in my epistle to have no company with fornicators; not at all meaning with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous and extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world: but as it is, I wrote unto you not to keep company, if any man that is named a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one no, not to eat. For what have I to do with judging them that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Put away the wicked man from among yourselves. (1 Cor. 5:9-13) The Apostle Paul was obviously quite distressed over the matter, which he had heard via reports (rumors) from within the fellowship. He rebuked the Corinthian church as a whole for their arrogance and folly in this matter. Not only did he re-educate them on the true purpose of the Matt. 18 principle, but also fully expected the whole church to carry it out. Since they lacked judgment and had delayed so long, he himself made a determination with his apostolic authority (1 Cor. 5:1-5).

Later, although the sinful brother was restored (2 Cor. 2:5-11), and although Paul rejoices over the entire church's zeal for change (2 Cor. 7:9-10), it is clear that he continued to be distressed. This was because of presence of false leaders, which is alluded to in many places in 1 and 2 Cor. He especially addresses this in chapters 10-12 of 2 Corinthians.

Should we study these two books thoroughly, we could also note that the false apostles of the Corinthian church worked diligently to undercut Paul's true apostolic ministry. Indeed, the Corinthian church did not even know how to define apostolic ministry. They also lacked prophetic discernment ministry, as well as the free and proper functioning of spiritual gifts in general (1 Cor. 14:24-26).

Infiltration by false apostles had caused the Corinthian church to degenerate into the sorry state that Paul found them in. Apathy toward their sin and the brother in sin, was definitely a part of that degeneration. Without the passionate intervention of Paul's ministry, in spite of the fact that it was unwanted by some (seeing as he had to defend his apostleship to the whole church), the Matthew 18 principle would not have been carried out at all. This Corinthian fellowship would have remained little different than the world around them, becoming a shame of the gospel rather than it's light.

While there are many examples in the epistles where the brothers and sisters are encouraged to confront sin and error in a general way (Eph. 4:25-27), there is one other instance where an apostle was moved to correct an incident related to the Matt. 18 principle. This incident is found in 3 John 1:9-10.

Here we hear a brief description of a perversion of the Matt. 18 principle. If you will recall, the third and final step of the Matt. 18 is to disfellowship by agreement of the whole church. This is to be done only in the case of unrepentant sin. Diotrephes, however, not only falsely accuses the Apostle John and many others, but expels or excommunicates those who disagree with him. He also tried to impose his misguided 'rules' of who to exclude and who to include, upon other Christians as well! We can presume that the majority of his activities are done secretly and without the knowledge of the whole church, because the Apostle John is promising to come and "expose his deeds" (vs. 10).

The confrontation steps given by Jesus are designed to confront the brother who is in sin and who does not acknowledge it. Such a brother needs intervention, both for his own sake and for the sake of the entire Body of Christ. Intervention for a believer who is fallen and is engaged in sin or error is to be done in the specific, step by step, almost 'legal' proceeding that Jesus commanded us to do.

The full extent of the Matt. 18 principle is not for those who are already convicted by the Holy Spirit, who are genuinely repentant, and who have humbled themselves. It is not to be used as a weapon over disagreements (2 Timothy 2:24-26) or personality conflicts (Ephesians 4:1-6). It is not to be engaged in over minor 'splinter' type faults found by those who often do the same as what they accuse another of (Matt. 7:1-5). It is also not to be a result of reviling or avoided because of partiality (1 Timothy 5:19-21).

When there is repentance, there is restoration and forgiveness. The apostle Paul pleaded with the brethren to be careful not to heap "excessive sorrow" upon the brother who 'had his father's wife?' How much more should it be for those who have what we consider to be 'lesser' sins?

We as Christians are to be firm, going so far as to engage in shunning by our entire fellowship as needed. Yet, we are also to be forgiving and gracious (Eph 4:30-32). Anyone who is a true apostle, a true father, a capable and mature Christian, will be able to discern the balance between firmness and gentleness. Those who are operating without knowledge or wisdom will not be able to reach the necessary maturity for such a task. We have the testimony of the Scriptures and the tutelage of the Spirit (1 John 2:27) should anyone lack knowledge. We have the Heavenly Father should anyone lack wisdom (James 1:5).

Excommunications and shunnings on behalf of the church or fellowship, yet without full knowledge and consent of the entire church, are out of order. This a perversion of the Matt. 18 process. In addition, excommunications over petty differences, and indeed over most differences of opinion, are an abuse of the intent of the Matt. 18 process.   We should not define 'sin' as disagreement with us, as refusing to be under our control, or (as Diotrephes did) as following the leading of the Scripture and the Spirit.

The Apostle John did not rebuke his informers for 'gossiping' against Diotrephes. He gathered evidence and testimonies, and fully intended to expose it out from under the cover of darkness (see Eph. 5:8-13 for scriptural principle on exposing deeds of darkness). The Apostle Paul spoke of what was rumored to him, and acted upon it. Even in the Old Testament, Samuel received the future King David as he "told all that Saul had done to him." (1 Samuel 19:18) It is not gossip or disloyalty to hold the truth in high regard, and to speak it or expose it because of conviction or distress (Eph. 5:25-26).

True apostles, prophets, and elders do not abuse their coworkers, charges or 'little children'. If they become abusive in their authority, it is no longer a godly authority. As Paul strongly exhorted the people of the Corinthian church, it is not wise to accept spiritual abuse as being from God (2 Cor 11:16-20).

Tragically, many leaders or Christians today either turn an apathetic eye toward their own sin or the sin in their midst, or pervert the Matt. 18 principle to their own ends. It is not proper to skip the steps of the Matt. 18 process without exercising them, in order, as much as possible. Avoiding the Matt. 18 process in it's proper order may seem like an easy solution to a sticky problem, but we must be mature and lay down our desires for quick and easy answers. We cannot avoid, skip or pervert the process or the spirit of the Matt. 18 principle and expect our Lord to approve of our efforts.

May the Lord guide you and your fellowship as you explore the truth in the gentle conviction of His Spirit, as you seek to serve a Holy God.

Bob and Teri Earl have served the Lord for over 20 years. During the course of their ministry, they have found it necessary to both study and confront spiritual abuse dynamics. They offer this teaching to anyone who believes they are suffering from a misunderstanding or a deliberate perversion of the Matt. 18 process. They advise that open exposure and/or teaching in the event of any hidden, unrighteous disfellowshipping acts in a context of wise counsel and support is a viable possibility. Otherwise, the fellowship in question will become in bondage to intimidation (Proverbs 24:1-12). Likewise, they urge that no fellowship avoid the priniciples of the Matt. 18 process in apathy and spiritual pride, and thus be overrun by sin (1 Cor. 5:1-7), bringing shame to the pure gospel because of their lack of wisdom and apathy in 'judging' (discerning) a matter amongst themselves (1 Cor. 6:1-5). To this end, this teaching may be reproduced and distributed as needed for the benefit of any person or fellowship grappling with this issue, as long as the copyright below is included:
This article may be posted and distributed without charge for nonprofit use, with the following copyright information:
Copyright Sept. 2,1999, Bob and Teri Earl of HarvestNETwork
See below for: Advice to those Shunned and Rejected by misguided or false Believers

For a follow-up to this teaching that would more thoroughly delineate the only appropriate reasons a Christian would be disfellowshipped, we recommend chapter 11 of the book, "The Twisted Scriptures" by W. Carl Ketcherside, posted at this outside URL:

Advice to those Shunned and Rejected by misguided or false Believers:

For anyone who is suffering from a secretly-agreed-upon shunning and silent treatment, whether done by an individual or by a core group of allied leaders and followers, and for anyone who is experiencing an unrighteous excommunication and disfellowshipping based on false and petty accusations, we propose the following scripturally viable options:

  1. Rejoice (Matt. 5:12-13).
  2. Speak the truth in love; Do not hide the deeds of darkness, and do not keep the secrets of others. Expose as led and according to your conscience and convictions, especially to those who you are concerned for (Eph. 4:25-26; 5:8-13).
  3. Reject the yoke of religious false guilt; Shake the dust off your feet and have God's peace return to you (Matt. 10:12-15; Matt. 11:28-30).
  4. Look around. God has probably already provided supportive Christians outside of the corrupted system or immediate situation. Even though you may feel isolated, He is near to the humble. Do not hide your pain and distress out of some misguided loyalty and martyrdom. Confide and seek counsel if you need to from those you can trust; Do not share with the judgmental and those who lack empathy and grace. Do not hide your feelings from God (James 4:6; 1 Samuel 19:18; Matt. 7:6; Romans 12:15; Psalm 55).
  5. Make peace where you can. If you can't do any more for the situation, remember you have done your best and it takes two to reconcile. You cannot reconcile with those who refuse to talk to you. You cannot hope for any long-term or lasting reconciliation with those who do not repent of giving undeserved and ungodly shunning and rejection, and who have no understanding of the cruelty of their actions. Hand it over to God and do not take your own vengeance. Do not let their sin effect you or control you. Continue to be a godly Christian. Overcome evil by good (Matt. 5:9; Romans 12:18-21)


Copyright Sept. 2,1999, Bob and Teri Earl
ordained by SHEM ministries, International
President Glenn Smith
(for those who need such credentials.
Bob and Teri Earl are called to the homechurch movement)

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