Tell it to the Church
“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 loosed 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.” 
The opening words of the text read, “If your brother sins against you…” This is a third class conditional sentence; the first readers of this pericope would have understood that Jesus was presenting a probable situation that might confront a Christian at any time. The situation is not merely hypothetical, but rather, it is possible. It would be appropriate, therefore, to translate the words of Jesus with the English phrase, “Should your brother sin.” Keep this point in mind as the message progresses.
There is also a textual question that should be considered at the outset. Many manuscripts do not have the words “against you.” It is possible that these two words are an interpolation. If the words are genuine, then it indicates that sin against the Christian community is in view; and if the words should be excluded, then it is obvious that concern for the spiritual welfare of a fellow Christian is in view. In either case, the principle holds that as Christians we are each responsible to be aware of the spiritual condition of our fellow believers; we are each responsible for one another.
In speaking from this text, I am not seeking to review steps leading to congregational discipline; rather, I seek to clarify the basis for mutual responsibility to one another as a community of faith. My position is opposed to popular practise; I insist that we are responsible for one another and that our responsibility is so much more than mere words. We are responsible to be so concerned for one another that we cannot ignore self-destructive tendencies. To clarify my meaning, I direct you to focus on the text for the message—MATTHEW 18:15-20.
In order to understand the text, I suggest that we need to understand the context. What are the principles that should stand out whenever we read this text? What standards should we embrace if we truly understand this text? We do not wish to ignore the text, which is too often done by contemporary pulpit. Neither do we wish to become legalistic in application of the text, an action that seems to be selectively applied rather frequently whenever a believer becomes angry toward a fellow Christian.
Keep three emphases of this text in mind—responsibility, relationship and reconciliation. Each of these emphases reminds us of a principle that must be held in mind if the teaching is to have validity. Responsibility is more important than rights. Relationship is more important than religion. Reconciliation, not retaliation, is the goal.
RESPONSIBILITY OVERSHADOWS RIGHTS — The instructions provided in our text emphasises responsibility—individual and corporate. Church members witnessing sinful behaviour in the life of another church member are responsible to rescue that saint and to seek restoration. Those believers offending are responsible to respond in a godly fashion. The entire congregation bears responsibility to act wisely and righteously if the issue should be referred to the assembly. Unfortunately, responsibility seems to be in short supply among contemporary churches.
Modern social engineers have indoctrinated an entire generation to expect that individual “rights” are the summum bonum of life. In modern life, the rights of the individual must be protected at all costs. The rights of a child during the education process are of greater importance than are the responsibilities of the child to learn. Children’s rights in society trump all responsibilities until at last they are declared adults, at which time they are expected magically to become responsible citizens. Unfortunately, the rights of adults, while not extending to the right to keep what is produced through their own labours, seemingly extend into the home and into the church.
Since the text especially focuses on the responsibility of Christians to “live in peace” [cf. 2 CORINTHIANS 13:11], our responsibility as believers will be the focus of our consideration as well. Do we need to be reminded that Christians do not “join” a church? Language such as this is political, reflecting the efforts of the modern state to regulate the churches of our Lord. What we witness in the Word is that people are “added to the church” [see ACTS 2:41, 47; see also, ACTS 5:14; 11:24]. If we “join” the church, then we have no particular obligation to the Body. Instead, we have rights, because we “joined.”
Perhaps it would be better if we guarded our language to ensure that those in attendance at our services are reminded that whilst we indeed desire that they walk in spiritual concord with us, openly committing themselves to share in this ministry, it is nevertheless the Lord Himself that builds His church. He does use us as human instruments to accomplish His desires, but always it is He who builds. He adds to the church and we who have been added gladly receive those whom He is adding.
As an aside of no small consequence, in the years of my service before the Lord, I have witnessed a virtual army of people “join” the church. I have seen some sizeable battalions quit the church, as well. Inevitably, some will become offended, and often the deciding factor in the offence is me. I am an equal opportunity insulter. Eventually, if I have not yet offended you, I am certain to do so.
Don’t misunderstand; I do not deliberately seek to offend—I have a strong desire to be liked. However, in my effort to be true to the Word of God, I find that the Word can be offensive. Perhaps people leaving the church have taken umbrage at my dialect, at my mannerisms, at my cultural roots, but more likely they became indignant at something that I said. Instead of seeking clarification of what I said, the normal response is to quit.
Modern Christians, reflecting society, are easily offended—and the churches too frequently aid the offence. Whenever a Christian is angry toward her pastor, she can begin to attend another church, knowing that she will be welcomed with open arms. No one would dare ask whether she left behind unresolved conflict. The thought of too many in leadership is that warm bodies are evidence of God’s blessing, regardless of how those bodies came to be present. Each body means greater income, and greater income means more prestige and greater “opportunity to minister.”
An example of the way in which many—dare I say most—modern Christians tend to react when offended is provided through the actions of George Greer, the notorious Florida judge who ruled that a brain-injured woman named Terri Schiavo, could be starved and dehydrated until she was dead. Judge Greer was a member of the Calvary Baptist church in Clearwater, Florida. It was the practise of that congregation to send copies of the Florida Baptist Witness to each member of the church. That publication published a series of editorials reminding Baptists of their responsibility to choose life.
The judge was angered by the editorials, so he ceased to donate to the church.  Then, the recently appointed pastor of the congregation, becoming aware that the Judge was a member of the congregation of 1500 members, wrote Judge Greer a letter in which he urged upon him the Christian responsibility to value life.  Upon receiving the letter, the judge was even more deeply offended and withdrew his membership from the church. That judge chose to remove himself from the loving care of a biblically sound church rather than submit to the scriptural obligation to exercise his public duties in a manner that is consistent with his professed faith in the Lord of life. 
If he felt the pastor was erroneous in his teaching, and therefore unjustified in his expressed concerns, the Judge was responsible to speak with the Pastor. However, versed as he was in his “rights,” the Judge publicly renounced membership in the church. Somehow, this judge felt that his “dignity” was maintained by showing that he was above the church—first by withholding his moneys and then through ceasing membership. He would punish the church, and I suppose that would teach them—all of them—a lesson.
Similarly, it is common that whenever someone is offended because the Pastor speaks too plainly, because the elders expose their behaviour or because the church did not act as they thought it should, that they simply withdraw their membership instead of seeking to resolve the difficulty. Unfortunately, petulant saints are often aided in their contempt for God and for His church through the thoughtless actions of other churches.
Some years ago, the pastor of a nearby congregation visited in my office. As we conversed, he related that his congregation was in turmoil as result of an attempted church coup by some renegade Christians. He divulged that these attendees had come to him from another local congregation. They had become disgruntled, left their church and begun attendance at his services. He eagerly accepted them and soon promoted several to leadership positions within the congregation, though he did not require membership of them. Once they were in leadership, they rebelled against his leadership.
I was unsympathetic and reminded him that when he fished in someone else’s pond he was obligated to keep what he caught. I refused to sympathise with him. Actually, I told that pouting pastor that he got precisely what he deserved since he had not truly dealt with them in a godly manner by refusing to require that they first care for their conflict at their previous church. They had demonstrated serious character flaws and through his negligence, he had permitted those flaws to fester in their lives.
Throughout the New Testament, I observe a stress upon responsibility of Christians before God and to the churches to do the will of God. There is not one single verse detailing individual rights. We are saved by grace—and that is not a right. Were we to get our rights, we would be condemned as rebels and banished from the precincts of Heaven. Instead, we receive grace, and it is expected that we will reveal the grace we have received through accepting the responsibility to be godly and holy in all things.
This teaching must be firmly nailed down in our minds. Our Lord commands each of us as Christians to assume responsibility for one another, confronting errant saints before they destroy themselves, before they damage their testimony, and before they harm the cause of Christ. “If your brother sins … go and tell him his fault.” Contemporary society schools us to relinquish responsibility. We are not permitted even to be responsible for ourselves in the view of modern victimologists. The minister is “hired” to do this nasty work of confrontation, though we reserve the right to review his actions. It is our right to be undisturbed by the need to confront others, though we do reserve the right to grumble about those actions. However, each Christian is responsible according to the words of Jesus lovingly to confront those who are in error.
RELATIONSHIP OUTWEIGHS RELIGION — It is a “brother” who sins; and we seek to gain our “brother.” Perhaps some from the distaff side of the Family imagine that only males are included at this point. However, we are obligated to seek reconciliation with any fellow Christians who sins against us. I know this to be the case because should the situation be carried out to its logical conclusion, I must tell the church, and that includes all the members who have been added to that Body.
Even when matters lead to excluding an errant saint from the assembly, we are to remember that there is a relationship. In one of the earliest letters he wrote, Paul wrote, “If anyone does not obey our message through this letter, take note of him and do not associate closely with him, so that he may be ashamed. Yet, do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” [2 THESSALONIANS 3:14, 15 NET BIBLE].
Each Christian is responsible to be involved in the life of his or her fellow saints. In an earlier missive, Paul instructed Christians to be involved intimately in the lives of fellow members of the Body. “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” [1 THESSALONIANS 5:14]. These instructions are addressed to all Christians; they are not restricted to elders and deacons. The command is given in the context that encourages the general membership to respect those in leadership [see 1 THESSALONIANS 5:12]. If this is not a general responsibility for each Christian, then neither are all Christians responsible to avoid retaliation [VERSE 15], to be joyful [VERSE 16], prayerful [VERSE 17] or thankful [VERSE 18], nor need all Christians avoid quenching the Spirit [VERSE 19]. Each of us is responsible for our fellow saints.
Do you know any saints who have simply quit attending the services, who are coasting in their walk with Christ? Admonish them. That is your responsibility. Do you know anyone who is fainthearted? Encourage that one. Do you know someone who is weak? Help him. It is not the exclusive purview of elders and deacons to “minister.” Rather we share responsibility “through love to serve one another” [GALATIANS 5:13]. The basis for this responsibility is that we are “members of the same body” [EPHESIANS 3:6]. Being a member of the Body is not a political statement; it is a theological affirmation of relationship through the blood of Christ. This theme must not be neglected!
1 CORINTHIANS 12:24-27 nevertheless teaches this relational truth. “God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
Since the church is the Body of Christ, and since we are members of His Body [see EPHESIANS 5:30], we have a relationship with one another. We cannot dismiss that relationship by appeal to a vague feeling about a mystical relationship with all Christians. Each of us is indeed part of the Family of God; but each one has an immediate relationship to those who have been placed in this particular body because we are members together of this particular body. To argue otherwise is to assert that religion is of greater importance to God than is relationship—and that would be a grave error.
Religion flows out of relationship, though relationship does not necessarily result from religious exercise. Religion is one expression of relationship, but if religion is true, it embraces the relationship. Let me demonstrate that truth through appeal to the brother of our Lord. In one of the earliest of all New Testament writings, James teaches us about religion that is pure. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” [JAMES 1:26, 27].
An unbridled tongue demonstrates that the speaker is deceived concerning his or her religion. Baseless charges, unfounded allegations, refusal to seek peace with fellow believers—all alike demonstrate a heart that is deceived. Pure religion fosters relationships with fellow saints and seeks to maintain an unstrained relationship with the Father. If your religion leads you to say that you have a relationship with the Father, though you do not value the relationship with His people, you deceive your heart.
An old saw that was once common among the churches, stated:
To dwell above, with saints we love,
Oh, that will be glory.
To dwell below, with saints we know,
Well, that’s another story.
This point leads me back to a position I stated earlier. If we join the Body, we can leave the Body whenever we decide we no longer wish to be part of that Body. However, if we are added to the Body, then we must seek permission from Him who adds us before vacating His placement. If the church is simply another political entity, it is your right to leave when you are offended. If, however, the church is the living Body of Christ, you are responsible to seek His glory and the good of your fellow worshippers by investing yourself in the Body and by seeking reconciliation when you are offended.
If all that is in view is a religion, then process becomes paramount; after all, rights must be preserved at all costs. If, however, relationship is in view through Jesus’ words, then your feelings are of less importance than is God’s glory and the purity of His people. Jesus teaches that a petulant saint who will not be reconciled is giving evidence that she is at best unaware of the will of the Father; at worst, her refusal to be reconciled demonstrates that she never knew the Lord.
The instruction Paul gave to Titus surely applies here. “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” [TITUS 3:10, 11]. It is not your right to hold membership in the church; it is your responsibility to seek peace with God’s people. It is not your right to be carried on the membership rolls of the church; it is your responsibility to invest your spiritual gifts in the lives of fellow members. It is a sorrowful observation that aggrieved church members frequently resort to questions of process. Tragically, sinning saints often have reason to appeal to process since the teaching of the Master is commonly ignored. A saint observes a brother or sister sin, but it is easier to ignore the sinning saint than it is lovingly to confront the sinner. If the sin is particularly egregious, we tell a few selected friends—just so, they can pray with us. If word of the sin leaks out … well, that only proves how awful it is to have a sinner in our midst. When we see that nothing is being done about the sin in our midst, we will demand that the elders “do something.” All the while, the words of the Master continue to confront our own neglect—“if your brother sins … go and tell him.”
On the other hand, if we are particularly agitated, we will demand strict adherence to the teaching of the Master. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have witnessed piqued saints trying—sometimes successfully, sometimes with less success—to circumvent and undercut an undershepherd of the church by complaining that he did not observe due process. Perhaps the elder’s words were not as precise as they wished. Perhaps they refused to heed what was said. Perhaps the pastor actually spoke to them in the presence of someone else. Always, the resort of the unrepentant is to lay blame elsewhere instead of accepting responsibility.
During my years of study in medicine, there often appeared on the board before each exam, this saying.
We have a thousand excuses for failure,
and not one reason.
That saw seems appropriate in this instance. If we kept in view the relationships we share as members of His Body instead of seeing ourselves as mere co-religionists, we would react differently. Relationship is a two-way street. The offended party is still a brother, and it is because he is a brother that he goes to the sinning party to confront that individual. However, the sinner is a brother, also. The sinner is responsible to accept the rebuke because it is delivered in love. Both the one confronting and the one confronted are members of the same Body, and therefore, they share a divine relationship.
RECONCILIATION OVERRULES RETALIATION — This brings me to the final principle taught in this portion of the Word. Really, there is nothing here that has not been taught before. The Master’s teaching should not be foreign to us. What is absent is willingness to apply His words. Maintaining our rights as individuals is usually more important to us than is accepting our responsibility as members of His Body. Reacting as though we were simply dealing with a religious preference instead of confessing that we have a relationship with one another seems to dictate our decisions. Because we are sinful beings, retaliation, instead of reconciliation, becomes our goal, and the goal the Master would have us seek is restoration of broken relationship.
The approach to the sinner must always seek reconciliation. This is but loving application of the teaching of the Word provided given by the brother of our Lord. “Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” [JAMES 5:20]. We can excuse ourselves from accepting the responsibility to confront a sinning saint by telling ourselves that the sin is not a great one, but I should not need to remind Christians that little sins have a way of eroding character until at last a great sin destroys life and witness for the unwary believer.
If we witnessed a fellow saint committing a sin and we know that the sinner continues her sinful behaviour, the teaching of Christ insists that we are responsible to confront the sinner privately. The confrontation must be loving; the reason we know that we must confront in love is that the confrontation is to be private in order to give the sinning party opportunity to correct the offensive behaviour.
If we suspect that sin is eroding the character of a fellow saint, we are responsible to speak the truth in love [see EPHESIANS 4:15]. If each of us accepts responsibility both to confront sin and, if confronted, to respond to loving expressions of concern for our spiritual welfare, we will joyfully witness the sinners forsaking sin and thus rejoice in enhanced fellowship in the Body. If we ignore the sin of a fellow believer, strain on our relationship with the sinner will be the minimal result. If we bruit about the sinful behaviour—even under the pious guise of soliciting others to pray with us—we will ensure a rupture of fellowship with concomitant injury of a fellow member of the Body.
If we have lovingly confronted the sinner and there is no acknowledgement of sin and, consequently, no reconciliation, in compassion for the sinner, we are to take one or two others with us to witness the conversation and to testify of our desire for reconciliation, if such testimony becomes necessary. This provision serves as protection both for the one confronting and for the one confronted. What should be obvious are not questions of minutia and process—who said what and when, but whether the one confronting is genuinely seeking the benefit of the sinner and the welfare of the church.
However, if after these efforts there is no reconciliation and the sinner refuses to submit to loving appeals, “Tell it to the church.” This is not tattling! This is asking the church to act responsibly, demonstrating love—first for the Saviour and then for the sinner. There will have been no discipline to this point, but rather an appeal to love and reason.
Do you wonder why contemporary churches fail to discipline their members? Despite the protestations of love for the Saviour by modern church leaders, they demonstrate that they are dreadfully afraid—afraid of hurting the feelings of church members, afraid of the confrontation that will result, afraid of what may be said about them if they act responsibly. I fear that churches and church leaders have forgotten that “there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts our fear” [1 JOHN 4:18].
As churches, we love ease of life and the absence of conflict more than we love purity and the honour of the Saviour. The church that will act responsibly will love the Saviour enough to demand purity of her members. The church that acts responsibly will love the sinner enough to confront sin. I have been accused of being hard and unloving. On occasion, fellow worshippers have informed me that I need to speak more on the love of God. The love of God leads to resisting the spirit of the age, and resisting the spirit of the age leads to holding those who name the Name of Christ accountable for their actions and for their words. Perhaps we love the praise of men more than we love the Saviour.
It is not loving to observe self-destructive behaviour without intervening. Love dares get her hands dirty. Love is messy. Love willingly jeopardises relationships. Risking a relationship in order to benefit the one loved demonstrates the reality of love. Churches are responsible to know the love of God in Christ and each member is responsible to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” [see 1 PETER 1:22]. Because we love one another earnestly, we will intervene when a church member is endangering the testimony of Christ and her own character, and we will confront her because we love her. Whether the risk is justified or not is determined not by the effort exerted to confront the errant member, but it is determined by the response of the one confronted.
It seems obvious to me that our Lord anticipates that His people will respond positively to such intervention. How could it be otherwise when His Spirit has made the body of the believer a Holy Temple [1 CORINTHIANS 6:19]? Reading VERSE 15, I see the Lord expressing optimism that the usual response to a brother’s approach will be positive. Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” This, also, is a third class conditional sentence. The outcome is undetermined, but probable. If one of us should approach a sinning brother in a spirit of humility, expressing genuine love for him and concern for his welfare, he will probably respond positively. If he explodes and rejects our concern, it is reasonably strong evidence that he knows little of relationship.
Permit me to speak one word further to each one sharing the service, preparing each of us for the day when we are confronted because of supposed sin. The appropriate response to legitimate concern is to ask forgiveness. Through sin, the child has offended Holy God, and clearly, the brother who approaches us is offended—hurt. As sinners, we need to ask forgiveness when we have sinned. Saying that we are sorry is not enough. When we say you are sorry for our sin, it is our decision. When we ask forgiveness, we are putting the decision in the hands of the one we have offended. Sorrow is an emotion expressing shame; but asking forgiveness is an action that we determine as we repent, turning again to do what is right.
I am not suggesting that we are to be wimps, timidly rolling over each time some dog barks; but I do insist that when we have sinned, we are obligated to seek forgiveness. What is required at this point is a liberal application of sanctified common sense. Learning to sift the grain from the chaff is part of the maturation process, and it should be quickly obvious to us when someone is merely complaining and when she or he is presenting a concern that has substance. When there is no merit to the charge, state the fact and move on. When, we have sinned, however, let us confess our sin and seek reconciliation. After all, as Christians we have accepted responsibility to be godly instead of insisting on our rights as. As children of the Living God, we Christians value relationships instead of simply practising our religion. Moreover, we know that God seeks reconciliation instead of retaliation.
We will benefit from learning those three concepts of responsibility, relationship and reconciliation. These three concepts reflect the character of God Himself. Christ acted with deliberate responsibility when He took our sin on Himself. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” [PHILIPPIANS 2:5-8]. We must accept responsibility for one another.
God values relationship with His people; He does not call us to mere religion. God condemned His ancient people because they confused religion and relationship.
“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you take no knowledge of it?”
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel
and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Relationship trumps religion. God is not greatly impressed by an individual’s religious prowess, though man appears to esteem his own ability to perform rites and rituals. According to Isaiah, God is mightily impressed by humility and godliness. And that would be the experience of many of us as well. Despite knowing this truth, we are pressed by church culture to emphasise process and to embrace our own rights as paramount within the assembly.
Nevertheless, God values reconciliation. In the second Corinthian letter is a beautiful appeal for reconciliation with God. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 CORINTHIANS 5:17-21].
And that is our invitation to you. We invite each one who shares this service, be reconciled to God. If somehow you have never believed this Good News of freedom in Christ, believe and be saved. If you have yet to confess this truth through identifying with the Saviour in believer’s baptism, come and confess Him openly. Come, now, and angels attend you in the way. Amen.
 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 William R. Levsque, Quiet judge persists in Schivao maelstrom, St. Petersburg Times Online, March 6, 2005, http://www.sptimes.com/2005/03/06/Tampabay/Quiet_judge_persists_.shtml, accessed 14 November 2011
 Joseph Farah, Meet Judge Greer’s pastor, WorldNetDaily, March 29, 2005, http://worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=43522, accessed 14 November 2011
 As reported by Art Toalston, Judge in Schiavo case withdraws membership from church, Baptist Press, March 18, 2005, http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?Id=20385, accessed 14 November 2011