There are very few times we have the recorded words of Jesus giving us a step by step methodology. It’s not that He doesn’t give instruction, for He certainly does. But Jesus didn’t come to primarily give instruction; He came to seek and save the lost. Bearing that in mind, most of His words are directed to the heart of the matter, for Jesus knows that the behavior will follow the heart. But in Matthew 18, He breaks the pattern and actually gives a checklist of sorts about how to restore a brother. This is one of the classic passages that teaches us, in the church, how to practice restorative discipline:
“If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you” (Matthew 18:15-17).
Step 1: Go in private.
Step 2: Go together with a few others.
Step 3: Bring the matter before the believing community.
Step 4: Treat him like an unbeliever.
It’s an escalating series of confrontations done in wisdom. It starts out very hush-hush and below the radar, and then progressively moves to a more public arena until eventually the church is to treat him like an unbeliever. Paul would comment about this last point that the church is to “turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Put him or her out. That’s serious business.
But here is where we need a clarification, because it’s this last point where your judgment and self-righteousness can easily get the better of us. We read the words of Jesus, that we are to treat this person like an unbeliever and a tax collector, and our faces harden. Our eyebrows come to a point. Our backs stiffen, and our tone becomes harsh. Put them out. Shun them. Shame them for their conduct unbecoming, for they have been dishonorably discharged from the church.
But before we do that, perhaps we should ask how Jesus Himself, the One who commanded this, treated unbelievers and tax collectors. He never refused to associate with them; He didn’t turn His back on them; in fact, His refusal to shun these kinds of people was perhaps the most contentious part of His ministry!
Treat them like an unbeliever or a tax collector? So how do you treat an unbeliever or a tax collector? You tell them about Jesus. You share the gospel with them. You love them, go to parties at their house, and become a “friend of sinners.” That’s how Jesus did it. The reason why He advised to treat them this way is because regardless of what they may or may not have said with their mouths, their conduct shows that the gospel has not taken hold in their lives. Not really. So they need to hear it again. See it again. Feel it again.
And then again. And again. And again.
The end of church discipline is not harshness; it’s evangelism.