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.
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?