Once people have addressed their own hearts (and have asked forgiveness, if they have sinned against the person) and determined that this is a sin that cannot be overlooked, they should approach the offender in private, as Matt. 18:15 says. They should seek to correctly understand the situation (James 1:19) before passing a final judgment, for it could be that they have misunderstood things. They should think the best of others, speak the truth in love (2 Sam. 12:1-9; Eph. 4:15), and treat others in a way that they would want to be treated (Matt. 7:2). It is advisable for those who are going to plan beforehand what they are going to say and how they will say it. For example:
1. Plan the issues that need addressed (try to be as specific as possible).
2. Avoid unnecessarily offending the other person with words and topics that do not need to be addressed.
3. Use analogies or metaphors that the other person will understand and value.
4. Describe the effects the problem is having on one’s self and others.
5. Provide suggestions for a solution to the problem.
If the person who has sinned listens and repents, then Matthew 18 and Luke 17:3-4 indicate that the other must forgive them. Reconciliation and efforts at greater unity continue, but the matter can end privately without others being involved. As Cheong states, “Ideally both you and the offender should not only understand the deeper struggles within your own hearts underneath the expressed and experienced sinfulness, but also understand what ongoing faith and repentance look like.”
If the person does not listen and repent, then Matt. 18:16 says to “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” These witnesses were not witnesses to the original offense, if they were, they should have gone earlier. If the offender disputes what actually happened, another witness to the incident or direct evidence needs to be presented, for it is not enough to be one person’s word against another. The witnesses are to witness the confrontation, help call the offender to repentance (if indeed they have sinned), to be ready to bring the matter to the church (if needed), to make sure the confrontation is handled biblically, and to protect both parties. Jesus does not say how much time should proceed between the person not listening and then taking witnesses to talk to them, so biblical wisdom, love, and time for the Holy Spirit to work must be given to allow the offender ample time to repent. Leeman states:
In short, the length of the process is determined entirely by how long it takes to convince the parties involved that a person is characteristically repentant or unrepentant. The church must examine the circumstances of the sin on the one side of the balance, and all the other evidences of repentance on the other side. Sometimes new information will emerge that will tilt the scale in one direction or another. But when the church is convinced that it has all the relevant information on both sides of the scale, and that the balance has stopped moving, it’s called to act in the direction of whichever side is heavier. That process might take a minute, or it might take a year.
This may seem harsh and unloving, but sin must be dealt with before it destroys the person and others involved. Consider Paul’s words in Titus 3:10-11: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” The witnesses that should be taken should be those who are trustworthy and objective, and who care primarily about doing what is right in the Lord’s eyes, rather than pleasing a particular party. Gregg Allison writes, “As it proceeds to confront, expose, rebuke, and correct its members who are engaged in true sins that require discipline, the church must follow some explicit rules of engagement (Gal. 6:1). The aim is not to destroy life, wreak vengeance, or make an example out [of] the person; the approach and corresponding attitude is not one of harshness, arrogance, or anger.” The goal is the same as the previous step, in that the offender repents and asks forgiveness, and the parties seek reconciliation. If the offender does repent, then the process stops, but if they do not repent, then the matter is taken to the church. At this point, church leadership should be aware of the situation, and be brought in. The elders of the church should then try to meet with the offender and call them to repentance. If this fails, letters to the offender warning them about their sin and calling them to repentance should be given. These letters will also serve to aid the church should the offender sue the church. The last letter before the church is told should let the offender know when the church will be told, and what will happen if they persist in their sin.
In telling the church, Matt. 18:17 indicates that if the offender refuses to listen to the witnesses, then it is time for the church to be told. Again, enough time should be given to allow the Holy Spirit to work and bring repentance. If there is no repentance after the time given, then church leadership should bring the matter up to the members. Leadership needs to communicate to the church the biblical basis and necessity of church reconciliation, what has happened with the offender, and about the attempts at reconciliation. The church should be told in an orderly manner and with limited scope-to members of the church rather than non-members. The elders also explain how fellowship is to be broken with them (2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Cor. 5:9,11), which means that normal fellowship and Lord’s Supper are affected (communion is withheld). The whole church (members) are encouraged to pray for the offender, and to call the sinning person to repentance (Gal. 6:1-2; 2 Thess. 3:15). If the offender repents, then they are to be restored in fellowship and in the Lord’s Supper (2 Cor. 2:5-8). If the person does not repent, then they are to be removed from the church.
Matthew 18:17 states that “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The church needs to know that the person in rebellion has communicated at least 3 things, namely, desiring to live life without God by refusing to submit to him, desiring a life outside of the community and care of the church as they refuse to listen to the church, and desiring to live a life the reflects Satan and his ways. When the offender refuses to listen to even the church, they are put outside the church and turned over to Satan. In 1 Tim. 1:19-20, Paul says that “By rejecting this [holding faith and a good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” In other words, they are put outside the realm of the church in Satan’s domain, in hope that they will repent and return. Matthew 18:17 also says that they are to be considered a Gentile and tax collector, which means as unbelievers. As an unbeliever, the person should be evangelized and not mistreated (Gentiles and tax collectors were objects of Jesus’ ministry-cf: Matt. 8:5-13, 9:9-13, 11:16-19). The church should be instructed not to carry on relationships with them as if nothing was wrong (cf: 1 Cor. 5:6-11; 2 Thess. 3:6), but to appeal for them to repent whenever those from the church come in contact with them. The church should welcome the offender back if he or she repents (2 Thess. 3:15) and restore them to fellowship again. In everything, the church should make their love for them known (2 Thess. 3:14-15).
Church leadership should be very careful not to bring church discipline against members for the wrong reasons. They should also keep careful records of membership covenants and all notices of church discipline, in the event that the church is sued. The church needs to demonstrate that it required members to fulfill certain obligations, such as submission to God’s Word and church leadership, and that a failure to do this will result in consequences. A large number of situations can come up in church discipline cases, such as what the church will do if the offender says he or she just wants to leave the church, or what will be done if the offender is a leader in the church. In these cases, church leadership will need to seek biblical wisdom and consider the different matters carefully. Overall, church leadership must continually remind and teach the church about the necessity and love involved in church restoration. This may not be an easy process, but must be faithfully carried out to honor Christ.
For a further description, see Sande, Peace Maker, 173-184.
Cheong, God Redeeming His Bride, 96.
See Deuteronomy 19:15 in regards to the importance of witnesses in a matter.
Leeman, Church Discipline, 73.
See also Rom. 16:17-18.
For an example of a warning letter, see Appendix 9.6 in Cheong, God Redeeming His Bride.
Cheong, God Redeeming His Bride, 147.
See also 1 Cor. 5:1-5.