Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).
Jesus, no doubt, knowing this, provides for us a method in dealing with a personal offense and an unrepentant sinning brother.
While I have written on this issue in previous posts, I’m reminded that people find it difficult to follow this procedure as Jesus instructs. I have seen in ignored. Abused. Rationalized away. And totally misapplied.
First, it’s important to realize that offenses will come. Jesus said so. He said that “it is inevitable” (Matt 18:7).
Personalities sometimes clash. Opinions differ. Doctrinal issues can divide. And through the weakness of the flesh, we may cast a stone of stumbling in the path of a fellow Christian. Of course, sadly, sins against others may occur through our own arrogance, stubbornness or selfishness.
But one way or another, we will all deal with the issue when there is friction and even sin among brethren.
Secondly, it is even more important to correct an offense in the right way. Take a moment to carefully read the Lord’s command in Matthew 18:15-17.
There are 4 possible steps that may occur in this process.
(1) Go to the offending brother.
It is amazing how often this command is ignored. I have actually preached on this passage, only to have someone come to my office the next day and ask my advice on how to deal with a brother who’s wronged them. When I ask, “What did he say when you went to see him?” The response is usually, “Well, I haven’t talked to him.”
Jesus said, “Go.” Don’t wait for him to come to you. He may not even realize there is a problem. Go to the brother. Not to others to gossip about him. Go alone. “A quiet word of correction is better than public rebuke.” Then tell him. Tell him why you’re there. Tell him the problem. Tell him your hurt.
A word of caution here. Be sure your attitude is right. Be humble. Be gentle. Be kind. Speak slowly and softly. The Bible says, “Brothers if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
Many a conflict can be solved by following this Scriptural counsel. However, what if the offending brother refuses to listen or correct his sin?
(2) Take one or two more with you to talk to the offender.
Jesus calls them “witnesses.” The question is raised “Are they, witnesses to the offense? Or are they just witnesses to what is said during the second admonition?”
Contextually, it seems that Jesus is talking about a personal offense, not a public sin. So, there may not be any witnesses to the trespass. But the purpose of the witnesses here is not necessarily to prove that a wrong was committed but to aid in the reconciliation between the two brothers.
Having wise, spiritually mature, and gracious brothers present will create a good atmosphere. It may help the offender see the error of his way. The purpose of the witnesses is not to prove one brother is right and the other is wrong, but to bring the brothers together again. To listen objectively. Thoughtfully. And emphatically.
The witnesses can help to heal the hurt. To gently correct. To encourage confession. To facilitate forgiveness. To assist in godly persuasion. And to offer prayer.
Later, if needed, the witnesses can verify the truth of the conversation and their efforts in seeking reconciliation.
But what if the offender rebuffs the efforts of good brethren to repent? Suppose neither of the first two steps works? What then?
(3) Step three is to “tell it to the church.”
So far the matter has been private. Limited to the two brethren involved and the witnesses. However, change has not been affected. Repentance has not occurred. The matter is serious. Souls are at stake.
The Bible clearly teaches that repentance is necessary in order to receive God’s forgiveness. When a brother won’t repent of his sins, extraordinary steps must be taken in order to impress on him the seriousness of the situation.
Assuming the church has Shepherds that are overseeing the flock, they should take the lead in this matter, as they “watch for souls’ (Heb. 13:17). Their job is to keep the church pure and not allow sin to fester within the congregation (Ac 20:28-32).
Some object to this step saying, “it is embarrassing.” While that may be the case, it’s what Jesus commanded. But worse than public embarrassment, is losing one’s soul for a failure to repent.
Sometimes, this step fails to produce the desired fruit. Then what?
(4) Jesus said, “But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a publican.”
This unrepentant brother in Christ has forfeited his special relationship with the church family. He now is to be considered as a pagan unbeliever outside our fellowship. Publicans were tax collectors, often considered as a traitor by the Jews, and with whom they had no association.
The point, though it sounds extreme, is to withdraw spiritual fellowship from the offending, unrepentant brother. Yet, this teaching is found in other New Testament passages. Romans 16:17-18. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-14; 1 Corinthians 5.
Remember this whole process is about restoring fellowship, correcting sin, and finally forgiving the offender. It is not about getting even, seeking retribution, or embarrassing a brother in Christ. Each step in the process should be motivated by care, concern, compassion, and love for the offender.
Again, we are reminded that when a sinner repents, we should be ready to forgive. How often? Peter thought 7 times was sufficient. Jesus said, “seventy times seven.” In other words, forgiveness has no limits. No bounds. No restrictions. It is unlimited. The ensuing parable of the unforgiving servant illustrates that truth.
We must forgive those who repent. “To refuse it,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves.” Or as George Herbert expressed it, “He who cannot forgive others burns the bridge over which he must pass himself.”
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman