If Your Brother Sins
Topic: Church Passage: Matthew 18:15–20
What comes to mind when you hear the words “church discipline”? For some, you immediately think “healthy church.” But for others, you imagine something like the opening pages of The Scarlet Letter.
A romance written by Nathaniel Hawthorne—we meet a character named Hester Prynne. She’s had a child by a man not her husband. She’s forced to wear a scarlet A for her adultery. In the marketplace, she’s stared down by five self-righteous gossips. One says to the others, “I’ll tell ye a piece of my mind. If the hussy stood up for judgment before us…would she come off with such a sentence as the worshipful magistrates have awarded? Marry, I trow not!” Another responds, “At the very least, they should’ve put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead.” Another, “This woman has brought shame on us all, and ought to die!” Hawthorne writes, “Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders.”
Some can’t help but think of images like that. Sadly, that’s because leaders have sometimes abused their authority. Churches have sometimes acted unjustly, without mercy. But I’d venture to say that in every instance where church discipline goes badly, the words of Matthew 18 were not taken to heart.
Last time in Matthew 18, we started the fourth of five blocks of teaching on Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus explains the communal life of those within his kingdom. Today, we learn how to exhibit the Lord’s care by correcting each other when sin and unrepentance exist. My hope is that these verses protect us from abusing our authority and equip us with compassionate care and accountability. Let’s read it together, starting in verse 15…
15 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. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Remember How Correction Has a Context
We’ll tackle this in five points. Point number one, remember how correction has a context. Correction goes sideways when Christians fail to recall the context of these verses. In some cases, for instance, one church member will look down their nose at the person in sin. The attitude isn’t to serve but to condemn. But such an approach fails to recognize the humility that must characterize those belonging to Jesus.
Recall verse 3, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Before Jesus instructs us to correct, he calls us to humility—a willingness to go low and serve. It’s like Galatians 6:1-2, also dealing with correction: “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness, keeping watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he’s something, when he’s nothing, he deceives himself.” Correction must come with humility.
Correction also assumes we hold each other in high regard. In verse 5, to receive Jesus’ disciple is to receive Jesus himself. In verse 10, we shouldn’t despise Jesus’ disciples, “because…in heaven their angels always see the face of [Jesus’] Father.” You will also notice how verse 15 begins with the word “brother.” To belong to Jesus is to belong to a family. We love one another as family. Much like you’d notice when things are wrong at home, when somebody’s missing from the dinner table, when a sibling makes poor choices and you want to care for them, you want to help them. That’s how it is in the family of God. Your heart aches when you see sin destroying your brother or sister. You hurt when they’re not here anymore.
Correction also comes in a context where Jesus’ community shares a hatred for sin and its devastating effects. In verses 6-9, Jesus talked about sin/stumbling blocks with utter seriousness: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it’d be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” We must also take radical measures to kill sin in our lives—gouging out eyes, cutting off hands.
When we correct sin in others, this context shows that we are, one, protecting the individual from destruction; and two, we are protecting the community from stumbling blocks. In Jesus’ family, we hate the things that destroy our family. Not correcting sin in the church is to hate the family. It despises Jesus’ little ones. More importantly, though, it defies the King himself who demands our obedience.
Correction also copies our heavenly Father’s care. We can’t miss how verse 15 follows the shepherd in verses 12-14. “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it’s not the will of my Father who’s in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
This portrays God the Father—he searches for us when we go astray. Our efforts to correct are the outworking of the concern God himself has for us. We pursue each other because this is the way our God pursues us. When someone strays into sin, we search for them. We bring them back to the fold. We rejoice when they’re found.
One further piece to this context is forgiveness. We’ll tackle that more next time, but it comes in verses 21-35. Those who’ve been forgiven by God forgive others when sinned against. This is the context for correction; and when you heed these words, it shapes how you approach correction from the outset. It makes sense of why we’d pursue it to begin with; and it shapes the manner we go about it.
Correct Sin, Aiming to Gain Each Other
Second, correct sin, aiming to gain each other. Jesus outlines a process in verses 15-17. That process involves correcting sin. Verse 15 introduces the problem: “If your brother sins against you.” Now, other translations don’t include the words “against you” like the ESV does. NASB, NET, NIV—they all have, “If your brother sins.” That’s because the words “against you” don’t occur in the earliest manuscripts.
Possibly, they were added in light of verse 21—Peter asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me…” We don’t know. But if they’re missing, Jesus’ point becomes much broader, doesn’t it? We correct sin not only when someone sins against us personally, but also whenever we notice a pattern of sinful behavior.
Consider Galatians 6:1. “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him.” 1 Corinthians 5:11 also—the church must correct a man in sexual immorality. But Paul broadens the application to “anyone who bears the name of brother if he’s guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler.” In short, the correction in Matthew 18 applies broadly: “If your brother sins.”
Some might find that surprising. But if we remember the gospel, we shouldn’t be surprised at all. Paul asks in Romans 6:2, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” He says, “Our old self was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” He adds, “the death [Christ] died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So, you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
We correct sin in each other’s lives because the gospel—Jesus frees people from sin’s power. People sometimes think that grace means tolerance for sin. But grace never minimizes sin. Titus 2:11 says the grace of God brings salvation and trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions. Grace meets us where we are. But it doesn’t leave us where we are. Knowing that gospel, we correct sin. Knowing that our Father is holy, we work to conform ourselves to his holiness.
But notice, we correct sin with the aim of gaining each other. The goal in verse 15 is gaining your brother. Paul uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 to speak of winning people to Jesus—God using his efforts to save some and keep others. That’s the goal of Jesus’ process in Matthew 18. Again, we’re like the shepherd who searches for the one that went astray. I read from Galatians 6:1 earlier; but James 5:19 is another clear example of this aim: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
Church discipline should never be viewed as a convenient way to push someone out of the church. We should never approach it flippantly as if to say, “Eh, she was never all that involved anyway.” Discipline never has the aim of seeing how much we can humiliate someone. No, when God corrects sin in our lives, it’s to bring us closer to himself. Same inside the church. The aim is salvation, keeping each other from hell and winning each other over to a deeper commitment to Jesus. One of the means God uses to keep his people persevering is you getting involved in each other’s lives.
Trust and Follow Jesus’ Process
So, that leads us to point number three: trust and follow Jesus’ process. Verses 15-17 outline four steps. Let’s start with the first imperative, go and tell. Verse 15, “If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault.” Don’t wait around and stew over his fault. Don’t sit and grow bitter: “I can’t believe she acted that way.” Don’t ignore it, like sin isn’t a big deal. No, go and tell him his fault. That’s your duty.
That word behind “tell him his fault”—we saw it last week in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove…” That’s our word. Ephesians 5:11 uses it as well: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Same word. If your brother sins, “go reprove him,” “go expose him,” help shine some light on his darkness. We express disapproval of the sin; and we work to help them recognize their wrongdoing.
Now, we need to be careful. Sin isn’t determined by your feelings. Sin isn’t measured by personal preferences—someone not doing things the way you like. Sin isn’t determined by the culture and what it deems good or bad. Sin is not determined by the opinions of your pastors. Sin is determined by what God says in his word; and we need to be sure that God’s word is rightly understood and rightly applied.
Also, when Jesus says, “if your brother sins,” he doesn’t tell us which sins to confront or when. There are some clues. For instance, the assumption is that you witness the sin. It’s outward. That’s how you know to go to your brother. Also, given Jesus’ words about stumbling blocks in verses 5-10, the sin has serious consequences. It threatens Jesus’ little ones. The other clue is that it’s unrepentant. There’s an obvious hold it has on someone. They’re not fighting it. There’s a pattern of them walking in it. So that might be a starting place: is the sin outward, serious, and unrepentant?
At the same time, by labeling it “serious” I don’t mean we wait to address something until the sin takes serious hold. A one-time instance of someone lying to win the approval of others and a years-long pattern of someone lying to embezzle money—these are very different scenarios. And they’d play out very differently in how the church would need to address those sins of lying. But it’s worth addressing the sin of lying in the first instance so that it never takes serious hold like in the second instance.
There’s also the warning Jesus gives in 7:1-5 against judgmentalism—taking the log from your own eye first. The point here isn’t to create a community in which everyone’s on a sin hunt all the time. Proverbs 19:11 also says, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is his glory to overlook an offense.” 1 Peter 4:8 says, that love “covers a multitude of sins.” Applying these words takes wisdom. It takes humility, patience. It takes help from the Holy Spirit to know when it’s the appropriate time to correct.
Jesus also clarifies how the first step of correction is one-on-one. He says, “between you and him alone.” Far too often, that’s the last step people take. Their first step is often telling someone else or telling their pastor. Some sins must involve others immediately—like in the case of abuse or if legal authorities must be notified. But setting aside those exceptions, the first step is always one-on-one. We live in a culture where people spew their judgments against others publicly, often with no attempts to speak to the individual. They are sinning in the way they’re addressing someone else’s sin.
Jesus says talk it out one-on-one first. This protects us from gossip, from mob rule, from unnecessary humiliation and hurt. You go to them privately. You open the word together. You explain what you found to be sinful. Where sin is truly present, you call the person to repentance. “If he listens,” Jesus says, “you have gained your brother.” That’s the first step in Jesus’ process.
Verse 16 mentions a second step, if necessary. Meaning, if the person listens to you, we don’t move to step two. It’s over. But if he doesn’t listen, Jesus says to “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” The next step broadens the circle of care.
Jesus takes these words from Deuteronomy 19:15. Moses tells the people, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” The point was further accountability. The context warns the people against false witnesses and teaches how the judges must inquire diligently to establish the truth and work toward justice.
Jesus includes further witnesses for similar reasons—that every charge may be determined. The point is not only to help the person in sin see the gravity of his error; it also ensures that the person doing the confronting is being honest, just. Now two to three people are looking at God’s word together and making sure that the correction is right and appropriate. The hope is that the person repents. If he does, great! The process stops.
But if he refuses to listen to them, Jesus takes us to a third step in verse 17: “tell it to the church.” Now, it should be noted that Jesus never gives us a timeline in these verses. We don’t know how many days or weeks to allow for repentance to take place. The timeline will often look different depending on the nature of the sin and its hold on someone’s life, depending on the knowledge a person has of the Christian faith, depending on the clarity with which the Scripture’s address the sin in question, depending on how we measure genuine repentance. There’s often a lot to work through in bringing someone to repentance and letting God’s word and the Spirit do their work.
But eventually, where unrepentance persists, we must bring the matter before the church. In our congregation, the elders are usually included by this point. We would take care of this step at one of our monthly members meetings. But the point is to broaden the circle of care even further. Now the whole church is agreeing about the person in sin. Also implied in verse 17 is that the church speaks to the individual in sin. That’s why it says, “If he refuses to listen even to the church.” The church lovingly calls them to repentance. The church prays and pursues the person in hopes of gaining him/her.
But if the person refuses to listen even to the church, Jesus then adds a fourth step: “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” To this point in Matthew, what does a Gentile and tax collector represent? Look at 5:46-47. “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Then, in 6:7, Jesus spoke of Gentiles heaping up empty phrases. In 9:10, the Pharisees get upset with Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners; and then Jesus clarifies that he came for the sick, for sinners, the lost.
Within Matthew’s Gospel, the Gentile and tax collector represent those from the pagan, unbelieving world. They represent those not yet following Jesus. Meaning, if someone refuses to repent and follow Jesus’ word, they are proving themselves to be outside Jesus’ kingdom. They’re acting like the rest of the world that doesn’t submit to Jesus’ kingship. So, we are to regard them as such. It’d be a lie to treat someone as being in Jesus’ kingdom when the pattern of their life proves otherwise.
Meaning, we no longer treat them as a brother or sister in Christ. We no longer fellowship with them like we do the rest of the family of God. We no longer share the Lord’s Supper with them. We relate to them like we relate to the rest of the lost world. Some cases of correction will even require a deliberate separation from the individual altogether. Paul had to instruct the church this way in 1 Corinthians 5. There was a man involved with sexual immorality, and of a kind not even tolerated among pagans. Paul says, “I’m writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he’s guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”
It takes wisdom to know how the church needs to act in different cases of correction. Our church Bylaws seek to sort some of that out ahead of time. But in all cases of correction the point is clear: where unrepentance persists, we can’t pretend like that person is a Christian. Hear me clearly: Christians still sin. This side of heaven, Christians will not reach perfection. But Christians repent. Christians turn from their sins because they love Jesus; they want to follow his word.
That’s the process Jesus lays out for us. Have you embraced this process? Many churches have abandoned it. Part of that is due to people embracing our culture’s autonomous moral individualism: man defines his own reality; man lives on his own terms; he’s free from anything that might presume authority over him. When that belief system affects the church, suddenly the life of the believer is considered off limits to other Christians. Confronting a brother/sister in sin is now an invasion of privacy.
Another reason churches abandon Jesus’ process is that they’re concerned with efficiency more than purity. Why put something in place that might reduce our numbers or potentially force the church to remove someone that gives large sums of money. Other churches are simply not grounded in sound doctrine. There’s no confessional standard. There can be no enforced discipline because no one is sure what the Bible teaches or how it might affect the way we live. Other churches don’t pursue discipline to avoid the burdens it lays on people: hurt feelings, hard conversations, angry relatives, grief over removing someone, long members meetings.
But none of these reasons change the demands of Christ our King or removes the responsibility of Christ’s church to obey him. We must embrace what Jesus teaches us and follow him. To abandon Jesus’ process of correction will be to the detriment of the church. When we turn a blind eye to sin, we’re saying that we know better than Jesus. When we refuse to be corrected by our brothers and sisters, we’re rejecting the very means he uses to keep us faithful. We need to trust his process is good.
If you’re visiting with us, trying to decide what church to join, you should never join a church unwilling to follow these words of Jesus. You want a church that will correct your sin, that will care enough to pursue you when you go astray.
Display the Rule of Heaven on Earth
Point number four. When we follow Jesus’ process, we display the rule of heaven on earth. Verse 18, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
What does that mean? Let’s trace a couple clues. One isn’t immediately apparent in the ESV. But several other translations show it—I’ll use the NASB: “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” That’s called the future perfect. The point isn’t that we make decisions on earth and heaven follows us. Rather, our decisions on earth reflect what heaven will have already found to be so. We follow heaven. When we follow God’s word, he displays what his heavenly rule would’ve decided on earth.
The “binding and loosing” part comes from 16:19. Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” The keys symbolize authority to govern entry and exclusion. In verse 18, that entry and exclusion is based on a person’s confession of Jesus as Messiah. Relating that back to our passage—when a person repents, they display their confession that Jesus is Messiah. When a person refuses to repent, they display another confession. Their allegiances are not with Jesus the King. The church simply acts to recognize this.
Which ought to sober us. The decisions we make in members meetings to affirm people for baptism, to add people for membership, or to remove those who love their sin more than Jesus—in those decisions, we represent heaven. That’s why we take membership so seriously. Our actions serve as a visible theater to what’s true in heaven.
Rely on Jesus’ Presence
Finally, number five: in our correction, we must rely on Jesus’ presence. Verse 19, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Notice how Jesus mentions the “two” agreeing in verse 19, then also the “two or three gathered” in verse 20. He’s recalling the two or three witnesses mentioned earlier in verse 16. But what he adds is the context of prayer.
“If two of you agree on earth about any matter for which they ask.” Jesus used that “asking” language earlier in 6:8 when he gives instructions on how to pray. He uses it again in 7:11, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him.” Throughout this whole process of correction, Jesus reveals that we have our Father’s ear. He listens to our cries. He guides us in the process. He even promises to act on our behalf, giving us whatever we need for the process.
Why? Because his Son is with us. The church isn’t alone. Jesus is present. Remember the imagery from Revelation 2-3? Jesus walks among the church like a priest would walk among the lampstands before God’s presence. He’s with us. He sees the various situations that we’ll encounter. He understands the hurt we might feel. He knows what we need for each moment. I love how the Lord calls us to obey him, but always with the assurance of his presence. We go about these things with him.
If you’re scared to obey a passage like this, if you fear it might make things awkward or difficult between you and another Christian, if you’ve wanted to say something to another brother or sister but never quite knew how, take courage. When you take these steps of obedience, Jesus will be with you and his Father will hear you.