This is the word of the Lord,
Matthew 18:15–20 ESV
15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The title of my sermon is ‘What it means to be a member of the local church’. Having read our passage, some of you might wonder what church membership has to do with this passage. Everything!
I want to talk to you about one of the most significant, precious, worthwhile, and treasured realities of being a member of the body of Christ. It is this – judging one another.
1 Corinthians 5:12–13 ESV
12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
It must be noted then that such judgment, such purging of the evil person from among us is a command given to the church.
Proverbs 3:12 ESV
12 for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
Hebrews 12:6 ESV
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
- Discipline and reproof are activities of spiritual discipline that are issue forth from love, a receiving of sons, and a delighting in the sons. Biblical discipline done right is the grace of God, the blessing of God, the favour of God, the love of God, the delight of God upon his people.
2 Samuel 7:14–15 ESV
14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.
- The steadfast love of the Lord here does not depart from David because the discipline of the Lord follows his iniquity.
- But notice here, that the discipline of the Lord is with the rod and stripes of men.
Psalm 141:5 ESV
5 Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it. Yet my prayer is continually against their evil deeds.
- David receives these disciplinary measures which he calls the disciplining of a righteous man.
Even here, in this chapter, after talking about the seriousness with which Christians should wage war with sin in their personal lives (which we saw last week), where Jesus also spoke about how he as the good shepherd leaves the 99 and comes after the 1 sheep in his flock that has gone astray. But then, you have him instructing the church on a series of steps on how they ought to address the 1 sheep gone astray.
Beloved, do you see how the Christian experiences the love of Christ in following you when you go astray? Through the disciplinary actions of the local church.
What is offered to us in this passage is immeasurable grace in the form of judgment from men who exercise such judgment on behalf of God.
Now, this will be very strange for some of you because everything in your spirit warns you against trusting the judgment of men. How can the judgment of men be grace?
When the Pharisees carried out judgment in the name of God, it wasn’t grace. When the Roman Catholic church carried out judgment in the dark ages of church history, it wasn’t grace. When so many churches that you know of today carry out judgment, it isn’t grace.
How can I say then that the judgment of men on behalf of God is an immeasurable grace?
Matthew 18:18 ESV
18 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.
Matthew 16:19 ESV
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
There is an authority that Christ sovereignly administers in gathering and rejecting people into and away from the Kingdom of God, and he administers this through the judicial function of the church.
But churches aren’t perfect right? How can their decision be decisive? Well, you’re right. But churches aren’t decisive about who goes and does not go into heaven. Jesus is that great judge. Only he can decide that. However, the church’s recognition of, or rejection of a professing Christian is normatively the visible display of Christ’s invisible judgment.
Just as a church cannot save a man, the church cannot un-save a man. However, just as a church can recognise that a man is truly saved by receiving and welcoming him into their community, the church can also recognise if a man is not saved and reject and remove him from fellowship within the community. And such judgments of the church are in the normal function of a healthy church, the sign of God’s will.
Now, remember that exceptions don’t form the rule. If you point to an unhealthy church and use that as an example of those who truly belong or don’t belong to the body of Christ, the problem is with where your pointing at. The Bible presupposes in all these words, the overall health of a local church. What business do you as a child of God have to do with an unhealthy church?
For the past two weeks, we’ve been looking at chapter 18 which contains the fourth teaching discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. And in this discourse, he spends the majority of his time dealing with the significance of sin and how the church is supposed to deal with it.
Last week, I addressed the seriousness of sin and why we as Christians ought to have a war-time mentality in our fight against sin, why we ought not to slacken in our efforts to hack and kill sin in our lives daily. And today, we are going to see how we fight the sin in each other.
Matthew 7:3–5 ESV
3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
So, here is a base premise from our earlier look at Matthew 7 – We have no business judging one another or fighting sin corporately if we are not first in the business of gouging out our eye or cutting off our hand. Corporate war against sin is frivolous without a personal war against sin. The last sermon is vital to our pursuit of this sermon.
Jesus sets the general sentiment a Christian must have towards sin before talking about how the Church needs to deal with sin in fellow Christians.
And so, the principles of such a fight apply in this case.
Now, as we will see, such a measure of love in discipline can be exercised only within the framework of a sound process of official membership within the local church. The church must recognise you as a genuine Christian and that recognition is extended to you in the form of membership.
At RedHill, we do this through the signing of the church covenant. It is our declaration that we have confidence in your confession and profession of faith. This is great affirmation beloved.
For those of you who are here today and not members of this church, as much as we have a reasonable hope of your salvation, we have no decisive confidence on the matter until you covenant with us as official members, or unless you are covenant as part of another local church. But in that case, the question is, “What are you doing here on a Sunday morning instead of worshipping with the local church you are a part of?”
I’m on vacation and visiting. Alright, it’s good to have you with us.
I like the preaching in this church better. The songs and fellowship are more robust. I feel more at peace here. My dear, dear friends. The local churches of Jesus Christ are not a buffet meal of spiritual pleasures for you to run around and pick what you like from here and there. O I like the preaching here, but I like the songs there, and I like the security of a graveyard in that church. What are you doing?
Much of the measures of Christ’s wonderful love is not manifest for you as a Christian if you do this. Ever part of churches but never belonging anywhere.
And one of the greatest blessings is the spiritual disciplining one submits to under the local church which is God’s mercy to safeguard you from making shipwreck of your faith.
Spiritual discipline is primarily not the negative measure of punishing the sinner, but the positive measure of keeping the Christian secure. Just as we hack away at the sin in our personal lives, we are to hack away at the sin in our community.
Matthew 18:15 ESV
15 “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.
- your brother – there is a presupposition that this passage makes and it is a presupposition regarding Church Membership. Who is a brother in Christ?
- So far removed has the normative practice of church membership become in our culture, people mistake their loose association with local churches as being the new norm. It for sure isn’t the biblical norm, but the cultural norm. And you never want to be on the side of culture. Be on the side of scripture.
- Membership signifies loyalty, a personal allegiance to your local church and its leadership.
Romans 12:16 ESV
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
Romans 15:5–6 ESV
5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 13:11 ESV
11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Philippians 1:27 ESV
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,
Philippians 2:2 ESV
2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
1 Peter 3:8 ESV
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
Philippians 2:20 ESV
20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.
Such exhortations are vapour that disappears into the air if not received within the framework of a covenant community of realised members.
Hebrews 13:7 ESV
7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
- The word leaders here referring to those who rule over you
Hebrews 13:17 ESV
17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
As Doug Wilson points out, one thing you want accountants to do is count. Over whom do elders have to give an account? If I am called by God to give an account of the keeping of souls, whose souls are we talking about? We have to draw the line somewhere. Am I to give an account of every passer-by, every curious soul?
As a church, we draw that line in official membership. That means that as much as my heart yearns for all of you in this room, I am accountable for only those who’ve established their loyalty and commitment in signing that church covenant.
Therefore, this passage is speaking to such a brother who is under the authority and rule of the local church. Brothers and sister, let me encourage all of you who are not members of this church to complete that glorious submission by becoming covenant members of this church. And if not this church, then another.
- sins against you – the nature of the sin here is an interpersonal one. It is sinning against each other or wronging one another. So the fundamental presumption here is of one kind of sinning. It’s not a generalisation of ‘sinning’ but a specific ‘sinning against another’.
Now, this has made some theologians suggest that church discipline as Jesus taught it in Matthew 18 is specific to only interpersonal sins. However, we can be certain that this is not the case in light of all the other encounters of church discipline that we see in the Bible.
Galatians 6:1 ESV
1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
Titus 3:10 ESV
10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him,
2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 ESV
14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Leeman in his book also points us to pre-emptive discipline in
2 John 9–10 ESV
9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting,
Acts 8:17–23 ESV
17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money,
19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”
None of these examples point to interpersonal sins but they are sins nevertheless that require spiritual discipline. So, here again I agree with Leeman that we ought not to overemphasise the interpersonal nature of sin that Jesus uses here as an example. The structure of spiritual discipline may be applied in many cases of sin. The point of the passage is not about the nature of sin, but about the nature of spiritual discipline.
- go and tell him his fault, – sin must first be recognised, then it must be addressed. This is a biblical command. We are not in the business of sweeping sins under the rug. We are the business of making war with sin. We do not hide sin, we slay it. We don’t beat up sin and let it go, we kill sin.
In order for us to do this, we must have a clear understanding of what constitutes sin. Some churches will tell you that wearing jewellery is a sin, some other will tell you that watching a movie is a sin. Such a poor identification of sin or a misidentification of sin does not lend itself to this process.
- between you and him alone – Then, we must have the courage and wherewithal to go and confront the person caught in this sin. We must tell ‘him’ not ‘others’. The first step to dealing with sin in each other is to talk about it to one another directly. Not to gossip about it to others.
- if he listens to you, you have gained your brother – If the brother responds positively to the correction, which in effect is that he too recognises the sin, acknowledges it and repents, then you have gained your brother. Watch the language here. Jesus does not say that you have the power to restore or gain your brother. But you have the ability to recognise if you’ve gained him back if you can see his repentance.
Therefore, the binding and loosing is not the unilateral power of the church to add and delete people from heaven’s roster. It is the authoritative recognition of the church of those who are gained and lost to the kingdom of God.
Your judgment becomes the means by which God produces repentance in him and that repentance is evidence for you that you have gained him.
Matthew 18:16 ESV
16 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.
- The emphasis here of one or two… and then of two or three…. is that the next stage of spiritual discipline must still involve as little a number of people as necessary to address the issue.
- It must also be seen that the pattern of spiritual discipline here is not one of haste. Christians are not to jump at each other clenching each other’s throats demanding repentance for every sin. No, we must be slow enough to process, establish and gather witnesses to affirm the charge that is being made.
- Jesus gives us a process of escalation. Each layer of that escalation adds greater weight of seriousness to the charge.
Matthew 18:17 ESV
17 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.
- If the minimum number of witnesses does not suffice to bring the brother to repentance, then it is time to make the matter public. To tell it to the enitre church.
- refuses to listen to the church – the church at this point is affirming the charge as one body against the one being disciplined. If he refuses the church, then comes the final act of spiritual discipline which is commonly known as ‘excommunication’.
- From the passage, it is easy for us to define ‘excommunication’ as the church’s loosening of one of its members because she no longer has confidence that this member is a Christian.
- let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector – Leeman points out that to the Jewish reader, a Gentile was someone outside of the covenant of God, and a tax collector was a betrayer of the covenant of God. Such a person is an outsider in every way. This is the short way of saying that the Church is to treat such a person as an unbeliever, not a Christian.
- Here again the language is not that the church has the authority to make him a Gentile and a tax collector, but that the church is to see him as one. It is again the authority of the church in recognising the invalidity of that person’s Christian profession.
Membership as the foundation
Now, coming back to my initial remark on membership, the use of the word ‘brother’ presupposes that the individual in question is a part of the covenant body of Christ. Such a person is of necessity an official member of a church.
Here’s the deal. There is no explicit bible verse that say that you must become an official member of a local church. However, this can easily be inferred from many texts in the New Testament that clearly suggest that the dealings or responsibilities that we are instructed to carry out in the church, requires a clear and distinct identification of those who make up the church.
Whatever be the method of officiating membership, whether it is a verbal declaration or the signing of a church covenant, what matters is the unashamed and public acknowledgment of one’s commitment to serve and submit to the authority and life of the church. This is not for those who treat local churches as a buffet of benefits.
1 Peter 5:1–2 ESV
1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;