Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?

Recently, I posted an article stating that it is not our job to judge other people. It is titled The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’, and in just a few days it became my #5 most viewed post of all time.

Some readers asked, ‘Should we never talk to people about their sins?’ And a few specifically referred to Mathew 18. The point of the earlier post is that we are not called upon to badger people about their behavior with critical, condemning attitudes. It was directed at the inappropriate practice of constant judgmentalism and condemnation that is often a feature of legalism.

However, the question is a good one because there certainly are times when we do need to reach out to a brother or sister about a major failing; and Matthew 18 gives an excellent opportunity to talk about it.

The Peculiarity of Matthew 18

Matthew 18 is a collection of separate sayings of Jesus that are likely unrelated. The pertinent passage reads:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

To begin with, this is a peculiar passage; it is almost impossible that Jesus said this. There was no ‘church’ in his time in the sense used here; churches developed after Jesus arose and departed from his followers, the gospel was spread, and communities of believers (churches) were established.

Perhaps this passage was inserted from the practice of the Matthean community, maybe because it was built upon a saying of Jesus, now obscured, that was handed down in the oral tradition and incorporated into this guidance for their community.

Jesus’ saying probably had to do with reconciliation, and it might be captured by Luke in chapter 17:

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.

Another awkward-feeling element in Matthew’s passage is the statement that if a person doesn’t respond well we should treat them as a pagan or a tax collector. This sounds disparaging and doesn’t seem to represent Jesus’ embrace of tax collectors and other people who were looked down upon by some Pharisees of his day.

An Evaluation of the Message of Matthew 18

As followers of Jesus, we are not immediately perfect in our behavior; we must still deal with our self-destructiveness and our hurting of other people. Improving our behavior is a growth process, and it is up to Jesus, not other believers, to judge our progress.

At the same time, though, it is good for us to have trusted mentors and guides to help us and support us along the way. The aggressive judging and criticizing of people for their ‘sins’ that I addressed in the earlier article is not the same as having a relationship of mutual trust, concern, and support and helping a person grow as a believer.

I think the passage from Matthew 18 was probably developed by the Matthean church community to provide practical guidance in working with those in the church who needed special assistance regarding their behavior.

As far as the content of this passage is concerned, I think it is a valuable model for bringing about reconciliation with a believer pursuing seriously destructive behavior–a good example might be beating their wife. We cannot ignore a situation likes this, so we must do all we can to help the person see the impropriety of their behavior and stop it.

Some believers think Matthew 18 is the authoritative, rigid, prescribed method to deal with sin in the church. And sometimes the offending member is confronted and pressured to conform to the judgment of the church, and if they don’t they are shunned, shamed, or excommunicated.

I don’t think this is the idea at all.

Walking through the Steps of Matthew 18

The point of this process is personal growth of a believer. If someone in the church community sees that something is seriously amiss, they go the person alone and talk with them. This avoids the church gossip that often occurs: ‘Did you hear what Joe did?’ or ‘Please pray for Joe that he will stop beating his wife.’

Seeing the person privately to clarify the situation and discuss its impropriety for a follower of Jesus is a gentle effort, by someone the person cares about and respects, to resolve the issue without drama. Most such issues are likely resolved at this stage, and the person is not ganged up on or publicly embarrassed. It need not go any further.

But if they are resistant, the visitor can tell one or two caring members about the situation and bring them, in an attitude of support, to help the wayward person. This should alert the person to the seriousness of their behavior and bring about change without fanfare or condemnation. Hopefully this will be the end of it.

But if the person is still resistant, these two or three can advise the community on what the member is doing and describe their efforts to assist them. If the community urges the person to change and they refuse, then the entire church community will be aware that the person has refused the counsel of the group and no longer represents them—just like any other person who has not aligned with the community.

Shunning, shaming, or excommunication is not necessary; the person simply chooses not to be in harmony with the church community. The goal throughout is growth and reconciliation. This process protects the wayward person, supports them, and gives them every opportunity to recognize their inappropriate behavior and stop it. Once they make it clear that they are not interested in doing so, then they are left to the life of their own choosing.

Conclusion

So yes, it is sometimes appropriate to talk to other believers about their behavior, but it should be done gently and with love. It should not be condescending, castigating, and harsh. The end result of this effort is either correction or the recognition that the person no longer represents the community of believers. I think this is a great way to address serious behavioral issues in the church.

Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness

The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails

Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?

See also:

What Does Jesus Think of Sinners Today?

*****

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61 Responses to Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?

  1. Pingback: Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross? | Jesus Without Baggage

  2. Thanks for the write up on this. Good context and great topic for discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: How Substitutionary Atonement Fails | Jesus Without Baggage

  4. Pingback: What Does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us? | Jesus Without Baggage

  5. Pingback: The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’ | Jesus Without Baggage

  6. Pingback: What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much! | Jesus Without Baggage

  7. Pingback: The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. Pingback: Addressing Sin in the Old Testament | Jesus Without Baggage

  9. Pingback: What is Sin but Pain and Alienation? | Jesus Without Baggage

  10. Pingback: The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV) | Jesus Without Baggage

  11. JoshWay says:

    Excellent exposition and clarification!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Lana says:

    I am sure sometimes it can be, but I think it’s usually for practical reasons. For example, if I notice that another student is repeatedly condescending towards me or another student, I might mention it politely. I rarely resort to that, but communication does require that we communicate problems within our relationships too. But when someone inserts themselves as my holy spirit, I tend to resist, and it’s not effective.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Right Lana. Whenever we feel we need to speak to someone about their behavior it should be done politely. Being critical and condescending rarely helps a relationship. And I would never speak to them in the name of God, just as I never accept it when someone tells me God told them to give me a message.

      Like

  13. Pingback: Speaking the Truth in Love | Done with Religion

  14. Good article. Here is a related link on the topic, which also has links to your site: http://donewithreligion.com/2016/03/08/speaking-the-truth-in-love/

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks, I like your article. I don’t know how I missed it; I follow your blog and try to catch every post. Thanks for sharing it with us.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. sheila0405 says:

    For some reason, I can only see 4 responses, not 14 others beside mine. I wonder if my computer hiccuped? I loved the concepts in this post, and I try to follow reconciliation whenever I can. Since Luke & Matthew make different statements, though, and if the passage in Matthew was added, I have my concerns about it. Luke is referring to a personal grievance, while Matthew just suggests a general type of a sin. If that is meant to be sin in the church, what would follow? In your case regarding wife beating, if it is verified, then the police need to be involved. Abusing people is against the law. So is embezzling church funds. Can you come up with an example of sin in a church which isn’t illegal, and that wouldn’t involve law enforcement?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, you are right that someone beating their wife should be reported to the police, but that is not mentioned in the passage; I doubt the police in that culture would care about such things.

      Some possible issues that are not illegal might be gossiping and rumor-mongering, bullying, judging and condemning others, shaming, and so forth. I think it would include anything that hurts people but is not illegal.

      Your computer is not hiccupping. You might notice lines among the comments called ‘pingbacks’. These are other articles that link to this one. Most of them are other posts on this series to which I added a link this morning. They are counted as comments.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      Sheila, a sin that is quite common, but not illegal, to which the leadership is equally (if not more) vulnerable is adultery. The reason that the leadership might be more vulnerable is because of the seemingly ‘aphrodisiac’ nature of power, which causes those with specific damage to their self-esteem to seek to seduce people in positions of power.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. Chas says:

    Tim, I agree with you that the passage from Matthew 18 does not ‘feel’ right and is without doubt a later addition. It can be seen how it was probably used by church leaders to impose their will by driving out anyone from their church whose behavior they considered to be disruptive. It is on this latter point in which there is room for debate – whether the person is seen as a threat to the belief of others. If they are, should they not be asked to leave the church?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I agree that this passage HAS been used by church leaders to impose their will on others, but I doubt that was the original intent.

      On the question about being a threat to the belief of others, I don’t think a person should be asked to leave because of their belief differs unless they are causing division in the church. Can you elaborate on what you mean by being a ‘threat to the belief of others’?

      Like

      • Chas says:

        Perhaps having views that undermine the belief of others, particularly those whose belief is new. One might expect those views to be opposed by more seasoned believers, so we might also expect division to occur.

        Liked by 1 person

        • sheila0405 says:

          Let’s remember Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth, in the first epistle. He advocated excommunicating the member who was sleeping with his mother-in-law. Paul clearly states that the man should be put out of the church if he doesn’t repent. (I Corinthians 5). The idea that Jesus wouldn’t excommunicate anyone seems to contradict this epistle’s instructions. I think good Church history will show how the Church had fights within itself in the following centuries, until it was consolidated as The Voice of authority, under Constantine. Even after, there were disagreements, which culminated in the Reformation. Now we have many hundreds of denominations, all claiming Biblical authority, and contradictory claims abound in the Church. How to live as a Christian still sparks debates today. Just look at the rise of Progressive Christianity. Which way is the correct, or the best way? Every person must decide for him or herself on that one.

          Like

          • Chas says:

            Sheila, when the divisions in the church are examined, right back to its beginning, a very high proportion of them came out of the contradictions, and inconsistencies, in the Bible. What do we learn from that? Maybe that the time has come to discard the Bible.

            Liked by 1 person

          • sheila0405 says:

            Chas, I ditched the Bible and all religion this year. Last year was rather agnostic for me, but now I consider myself to be an atheist altogether. I don’t call attention to this often on this blog. I think many Christians make very valid contributions in society.

            Like

          • Chas says:

            Shelia, I have, in effect, ditched the Bible, because I now believe that it is completely the work of men. However, it has been used by God to convey the message about His Son, whom we know as Jesus (although that might not be his real name). Unlike you, I believe passionately that God exists and cite the existence of DNA (a wonderful molecule that is able to construct all lifeforms from the First Common Ancestor) to support my viewpoint. My argument is that it is impossible for this molecule to have arisen by chance.

            Like

  17. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for this Tim. This view makes a lot of sense. When I think of these topics someting that comes up in my mind is healthy boundries. I can keep loving a person, forgiving them, but I don’t have to give them access to my presence if they are abusive to just keep hurting me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Jennifer, I agree completely! I often say that if a person has an abusive husband (or other abuser), they should forgive them; but that does not mean they can’t forgive at a distance–even with a restraining order.

      Forgiving someone for what they did does not mean you must trust them, allow them the opportunity to do it again, or not press charges. Some people think forgiveness means pretending nothing ever happened–not so!

      Like

    • Chas says:

      Jennifer, you describe what I call my ‘walk away moment’!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I had never noticed the historically-chronologically problematic reference to the not-yet existent structured “church” in this passage. That’s very interesting. Thank you for highlighting it. I find more and more that I am noticing things like that in the Biblical texts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sheila0405 says:

      Fiona, keep on researching this! I recommend any book by Pete Enns, a Christian Biblical scholar. His book “The Bible Tells Me So” is a good starting point, if you have questions, as I did. I was always bothered by the use of the word “church” in Matthew. Remember that Mark was the first Gospel, and Matthew & Luke borrowed from it. As the Church itself grew, theology & tradition merged over a few centuries to give us the basic doctrines many Christians believe today. The Garden of Gethsemane is another add-on, in Luke. The Church was trying to establish that Christ was fully human as well as fully divine, and that his physical suffering was real. That’s one example I can give you. There are many sources on the Bible. Pete Enns, being a Christian, is a good jumping off point. I have learned much more since then. Good luck to you.

      Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fikalo, I agree with Shelia that Pete Enn’s book ‘The Bible Tells Me So’ is excellent! See my review of the book at https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/the-bible-tells-me-so-by-peter-enns-a-book-review/

      Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      Fiona, that is why the section ‘I will found my church on you’ to Peter can be seen to be a clear addition to the original.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. santhiajo says:

    What if “treating them as pagans or tax collectors” means that they are to continue loving them unconditionally. Realizing that He died for them and that they are on an equal playing field with the “pagan and tax collectors” because of His love for even them…whom, I might add, is not perfect either! And, if their sin was broadcast, they would want grace and mercy as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Santhiajo, I think you are probably right!

      Like

      • santhiajo says:

        I just can’t imagine that Jesus would tell anyone to excommunicate anyone. He Himself sought out the unloveable the excommunicated. He DID say try and then walk away if they don’t receive it but never stop loving them and never stop looking for opportunities to let Christ reach out to reconcile them through us. What about the speck/log example? How does that play into this?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Santhiajo, I agree. Jesus was accepting and welcoming; he was not the sort to exclude people or turn them away. I think the speck and log saying does fit into this. A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the this saying. You can see it at https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/the-misguided-concept-of-loving-the-sinner-and-hating-the-sin/

          Like

          • Chas says:

            Tim, the speck/log saying shows that we need to be careful to apply any judgement that we make to ourselves first, to avoid hypocrisy, and to make sure that our own house is in order. It is very easy to judge without having judged ourselves first.

            Liked by 1 person

          • sheila0405 says:

            Chas, in addition to having one’s own house in order, I think we need to strengthen our capacity for empathy. It’s much harder to judge another when one can envision being in the other person’s skin. We are all fallible humans, and are prone to both large and small mistakes. I think keeping open minds and hearts would do us all good, in general.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Chas says:

            Sheila, you touch on something that has been on my mind recently, because while I can imagine situations involving suffering, I cannot describe my sympathy as empathy. I think that to have true empathy for someone in their suffering requires one to have suffered in the same way, or a similar way.

            Liked by 1 person

          • sheila0405 says:

            I agree that empathy implies a similar experience shared between people. It need not limit our reaction, however. I’ve never been in an earthquake, but I can imagine losing everything I own. I look at my house and my family, & try to picture how I’d feel if it were gone in an instant. Is that sympathy or empathy? They really are closely knit, aren’t they?

            Like

          • Chas says:

            Sheila, I think your example of the earthquake or similar disaster that causes total loss is good food for thought. As you say, we can imagine our reaction to that, but I am inclined to think it would be sympathy. An example which I would find impossible to imagine is for a woman to lose her child and I think that only another woman who had experienced that could know the feeling she endures. That would be empathy.

            Like

          • sheila0405 says:

            I’m not understanding your insistence on defining the word “empathy” in the first place. Sympathy and/or empathy are essential for treating others as we would want to be treated. IMHO. There. I’m all done.

            Like

    • sheila0405 says:

      I think this idea is a stretch. Especially since the passage in Matthew was added later, probably to shore up the notion of Church discipline. IMHO, of course.

      Like

  20. Pingback: Matthew 18 and Sin in the Church - Jesus is Lord

  21. sheila0405 says:

    You were correct, Tim. I enjoyed the blog post very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. cmgatlin53 says:

    For some reason I couldn’t access this posting when it first posted, and just remember to look at it now. So maybe someone has already touched on these points.
    First, I don’t think it’s necessary to view this passage as something added later. I’m pretty suspicious of those sorts of claims about Gospel passages, because they’ve been used historically (like since the early centuries in some cases) to shove difficult texts aside rather than dig down into what they mean in the context of the totality of Jesus’ recorded teaching. I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, but I’d rather see if there’s a way to understand without establishing some deficit in the scripture. If we think the people that put the scriptures together had consciously ulterior motives, we’ve already poisoned the well and why should we drink the water at all?
    Second, in the translation I looked at, it’s not just “shall trespass” but “shall trespass against thee” in both Matthew 18 and Luke 17. I checked an interlinear Greek New Testament (NKJV) and it’s the same there for both Gospels: “sins against you.” (The footnotes show that “against you” is omitted in Luke in some MSS, so why does the translation you quote omit them in Matthew? Different scholars?)
    “Sins against you” pretty clearly puts the progressive method of rebuke (first alone, then a few friends, then the whole group) in the context of problems between disciples. In fact, I don’t recall that Jesus ever tells anyone to address another person about that person’s sin—although I may be forgetting some obvious passage where He does just that.
    This passage seems to me to be perfectly congruent with “Judge not that ye be not judged” and similar statements. Jesus, and prophets like John the Baptist, or apostles like Peter and Paul, are all shown rebuking people for their sins, but most of those people are authority figures, which makes the sin especially destructive, because of the effect it has on other people. In both Matthew 18 and Luke 17, Jesus makes a point about responsibility of adults (who are people in authority) not to act so as to come between children (who are people under authority) and God, in strong, even harsh language so that we will pay attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      You make some good points, Chuck. I agree that this passage does not conflict with Jesus’ statements that we should not judge others. This was my point in the article, though it might not have been clear enough.

      I did not mean to disparage this passage; in fact I think it is quite helpful if used in the right way. It is true that some manuscripts says ‘sin against you’ but they are not the best manuscripts. Neither the KJV and the NKJV use the best Greek manuscripts. But I think it is valid to consider the passage from both viewpoints. I was looking at it based on what was the most likely intention of the writer.

      You are right that Jesus used straight language on occasion, especially in his interactions with the self-righteous Pharisees. I plan to write a post sometime on whether Jesus condemned or threatened people with punishment; I think his words are more warnings of natural consequences than threats. I do not yet have that article scheduled. I do think Jesus uses exaggerated language to get our attention.

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  23. Pingback: Are Sins Primarily Sins against God? | Jesus Without Baggage

  24. tonycutty says:

    “…treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” – actually, if you see the way that Jesus taught His disciples (by His example) how to treat pagans and tax collectors, there is no way that we can ever conclude that this meant exclusion, rejection, or excommunication (not that it existed back then anyway because Communion hadn’t been invented!). Jesus’s answer was simply to love them! He never rejected anyone; even regarding His bitterest opponents (the religious types); that bitterness was unilateral in that they hated Him, not the other way round.

    Also I noted with some interest the other day that there were Pharisees in the early Church (Acts 15:15) – actual Pharisees, and they were still legalists! – so His message did not fall entirely on deaf ears in respect of these people! Clearly, even in Acts, the fledgling Church was still sorting out how to deal with various matters of faith and actions, hence the Council of Jerusalem, which is what that Acts 15 passage is about, and all other letters and instructions from the Apostles at the time indicate this too. Most of the letters of Paul, for example, contain instructions on dealing with certain problems in the Church. The Church has never really resolved the task of sorting out its internal problems even to this day; the Bible as a cross-cultural tool is not really suitable for this purpose. As long as you have humans dwelling together, you will have disagreements. The real ‘Christian’ thing to do is to resolve those disagreements in a spirit of Grace, and that’s wen the real learning takes place. The example of Acts 15 is excellent in this context because it illustrates how even a body of believers with such strong and sometimes opposed viewpoints could reach a consensus in a Graceful manner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, these are really good observations. And I am glad you included the point that Jesus did not even exclude the Pharisees–his primary opponents. I think his discussion with Nicodemus was very accepting, and, as you pointed out, there were plenty Pharisees in the earliest part of the movement–legalism and all.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      As an observation on: ‘The Church has never really resolved the task of sorting out its internal problems even to this day; the Bible as a cross-cultural tool is not really suitable for this purpose,’ I suggest that the Bible is really the source of almost all of the internal problems in the church, on the basis that most of the schisms throughout the past 2000 years have come from disagreements over its interpretation. If it is the cause of conflict, we can hardly expect it to be a source of resolution, so the only means of resolution now would be to reject the Bible.

      Like

      • tonycutty says:

        I’m not sure I’d take it that far, Chas; however, I take your point! Maybe even acknowledging the different interpretations, and then agreeing to differ, would be the mature step forward – but you and I both know that’s never going to happen! 😉

        Like

  25. Pingback: Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer | Jesus Without Baggage

  26. Pingback: “If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!” | Jesus Without Baggage

  27. Pingback: What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin? | Jesus Without Baggage

  28. Pingback: We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam | Jesus Without Baggage

  29. Pingback: Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness? | Jesus Without Baggage

  30. Pingback: Who Does God Refuse to Forgive? | Jesus Without Baggage

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