A Church Discipline Technicality or Loophole?

lockIn the course of some normal ministry this past week and an abundance of discussion regarding church discipline in my social media circles, I could use some help.  I have lamented over the broad and perhaps exaggerated application of Matthew 18:15-20:

“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. 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. 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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosedf in heaven. 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.”  (English Standard Version)

This passage is familiar enough to most, but, I think, requires a second look and deeper consideration.  The principle is easy enough to understand, and likewise be applied.  However, there’s a three-letter word in this passage that can truly change the way the church seeks to apply it.  That word is in verse 15 – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.”  By some accounts, the word “you” appears to have been added to the text much later than its original inscription. 

The New American Standard Bible reads in this manner – “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”  The absence of the word “you” in this translation might just change the import of the passage significantly.  


We have two possible ideas represented here:

1.  This discipline is to be enacted when someone sins against you specifically,


2.  This discipline is to be enacted when someone sins in general and in your purview.

In other words, when someone sins visibly or publicly and you happen to be a witness to it, you have a duty to confront it,


When someone sins against you specifically in private or public, it remains your responsibility to engage the disciplinary process.


There might be a warrant to apply this passage when someone sins against another, but that one is too weak, damaged, or afraid to initiate the process themselves and needs your help.

There are those whom God calls to expose sin with a view to correction for the benefit of all within the church.  These are often those with the prophetic gifting of Ephesians 4:11.  If a person is operating in the prophetic, we must take great care to “not treat prophecies with contempt.”  1 Thessalonians 5:20  Neither should we hold the one who prophesizes in contempt lest we share in the same sins and consequences. 

Some evidence suggests that the word “you” was added in later manuscripts.  Whether or not the addition changes the import and application of the passage remains to be seen.  I’d like your help by asking you a few questions:

1.  Does an individual church member have the right to call out the public sin of another?

2.  Does Matthew 18:15-20 address only those sins committed against us as individuals? 

3.  What other biblical passages should be used in conjunction with Matthew 18:15-20 in the process of Church Discipline? 


0 thoughts on “A Church Discipline Technicality or Loophole?

  1. Matt says:

    Miguel, great point. I too have noticed this in the past. To further support why it doesn’t have to be just a sin committed to “you”, consider these passages:

    1. Galatians 6:1-2: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. ” Paul is stating this to those who are spiritual and observe a brother or sister “caught in any trespass”, not just those done to them personally. Case in point, if I observed a brother physically abusing his wife, would I not have the authority to address his sin because it wasn’t done to me?

    2. Philippians 4:2-4: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord. 3 Indeed, true companion, I ask you also to help these women who have shared my struggle in the cause of the gospel, together with Clement also and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.” Here Paul urges his companion, whoever that may be, to help intercede in a dispute between to sisters in the church who are sinning and not living in peace and harmony with one another in the Lord. Again, the companion was not sinned against directly, but was called to intercede and help restore the two sisters.

    Those are just a couple that come to mind.

  2. Marshall says:

    Does seem peculiar, for how many will sin openly; even to publishing their own mark-missing!
    1) Not the”right”, but the obligation in love to press for a brothers/sisters reconciliation with Christ; the Head and the Body of Christ.
    2) The translator’s position of “you” also may vary… “if ever your brother should be sinning, (you; you are the one to) be going and expose him between you and him alone/only…” Do we know of any sin which is not against Christ? Since then we are in Christ, we share also in the sufferings of Christ.
    3) “Church discipline” ought be re-named “disciple discipline”, in that it’s not so often the whole church/ekklesia needing of specific discipline away from a specific offense(s). Also, a graciously combined understanding is best (instead of forcing a category of discipline). If/when a “brother” makes it plain that he is rebelling, his sad revelation should not defeat us from doing all things as toward reconciliation [including I Corinthians 5]. Still, we are aware that rebellion can rapidly carry a human far into deception. Concurring with context from Matthew 18, the object of reconciliation is never of means to protect the assembly from someone who is being snared by sin. We know Who stands as our guard and we trust in Him more than our own efforts to discipline.

  3. Carlos says:

    The fact that most churches today don’t bother with church discipline makes this a mute point.

    But even if they did I don’t think it matters whether the you is in there or not.

    May I say that in the presence of God it is both. Applicable to personal sin as well as visible sin in the Body.

    We ARE members one of another are we not?

    On the other hand most church goers have NO CLUE as to what being a Body means so for most, who think being a Body is all about filing into some building with a steeple on top on Sundays this discussion is for the most part irrelevant.

    I am so sick of the way Christians in North America are that if it were not for a relationship with the Lord I’d have nothing else to do with them.


    • Marshall says:

      Carlos, would we anticipate that these things function in an assembly built upon fraud and Christian counterfeiting?

      Yet to add, there be only One Lord, One Faith, One Body, One ekklesia/church. Consequently, much more difficult for a member to evade his/her discipline. We are endeavoring together to be informed regarding efforts toward reconciliation that have already moved beyond 2 or 3 witnesses. It is better to be prepared to help a prodigal son or daughter, that they be returning soon.

  4. If you sin against me the onus is on me to forgive you, not to go and tell you about it.

    But if you sin against someone else it’s not for me to forgive; but perhaps your sin is a speck and I have a plank in my eye. If I want to raise it with you I should be careful!

    Here are some more thoughts that may help… or not.

  5. David Woods says:

    I really don’t think this applies to the weekly aquaintences most people have made at their house of worship. Doing so would probably strain relationships more than they would fortify them.

    I think all these questions are self-answerable though within the context of the kind of relationship the Lord meant for us to have with each other. If we truly love our neighbors as ourselves, would we really want them to continue in unrepentant sin knowing the consequences?

  6. Eli says:

    cool so does this mean i can go point out the sins of ‘brothers’ on the other side of the world and demand they repent to me and publicly or i escalate things?
    Ok that was sarcasm but illustrates the point that even if you take away the ‘you’ one has to be careful. With globalisation, fast travel, the internet etc… many of us tend to feel the right to call anyone anywhere to task… especially if they are a ‘public figure’ whatever that means.
    Presumably because an individual may have global influence, their discipline or shaming should be global in scope.
    I guess I would just caution someone against trying to deal with a brother they in fact do not have a brotherly relationship with… an exception would be criminal activity.
    Add to that if you do not genuinely relate to someone as if you are part of the same church then you’re probably not the right person to lead the charge either.
    I like the two or three witnesses part, because if there are not people to your left and right supporting the discipline… it may be best to leave it alone or leave the toxic environment.

  7. Greg says:

    Reading the entire chapter of Mat 18 doesn’t give me confidence that Jesus was laying out a formula for discipline, rather I find he was emphasizing humility and carefulness not to offend and forgiveness. He’s vague, if not evasive about what constitutes sin, and as others have mentioned, the whole thing is clearly dealing with a one on one infraction, as is the rest of the chapter.
    Furthermore, and maybe more importantly, aren’t we being naive in applying this to ourselves, when today’s church structure, culture, testimony and modus operandi are not even remotely similar to the original readers of his letters?
    I’ve lived for decades in close daily relationship with many brethren of differing stripes, in harmony, unity and one mind, and can attest to how difficult it is to offend or sin against someone, and remain hard hearted to the degree that it needs to become a church discipline issue.
    I can see however, how in an institutional fellowship relationships can devolve to this point regularly, and in fact, I hear from many of our friends who do attend these churches that this is not uncommon.
    In our lives together, we discussed and practiced the more prominent themes in Mat 18 of forbearing, forgiveness and humility, precisely so we wouldn’t get to the point of needing discipline.
    I think Jesus was speaking to those who understood this, and therefore, they didn’t wrestle with or argue over, or abuse this apparent problem solving formula.
    One more thing.
    The only time in the NT that it appears church discipline was used was the man who slept with his step mother and wouldn’t stop. According to his letters, Paul exhorted them to view him as a lost sheep, even though he advised them to turn his soul over to satan. And the man repented.
    My question is: if this is a working model for churches to deal with truly sinning brothers or sisters that wont repent toward someone, is it sadness or anger and judging that is behind the action of ‘disfellowship’?
    I have never yet seen sadness, rather its been self righteous or indignant anger or fear, and rarely, if ever do we hear of healing and restoration when someone is disciplined.
    Its hard to sin in an atmosphere and daily culture of humility, love and one another-ing.
    But most churches don’t usually want that uber level of closeness, interdependence, transparency and mutuality, because it leaves no room for ‘leaders’, ‘teachers’ and ‘important VIP’s’. Everybody is at the same level, at the foot of the cross, arms linked in camaraderie, sharing tears, laughter and hope.
    Sin isn’t even on the radar in that rarefied air, because the presence of Jesus is so pervasive and identifying with Him in one another is so relevant to each others lives that few will dare to spoil it.
    This is what scripture speaks of when it says we will have abundant joy, overcoming life and that we may know Him in the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable to his death and resurrection.
    In a community that lives that life, if sin does happen, its so monumentally assaulting to the usual spirit of peace, love and holiness that it rarely needs the church to deal with it.
    I will leave it at that.

    • Marshall says:

      “Matthew 18” styled restoration (discipline) functions wonderfully in love when unabridged. Sadly, most pulpit & steeple organizations will never know. Men outside the directive of Christ sometimes handle discipline as a corporate defense and/or to smash it into little bits and in remaking some of the fragments with the weak adhesive of human interest applied.

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