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Early Christian church - Artist Unknown

Jesus told the disciples,

“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.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Fresco depicting early Christian church - Artist unknownWhat the story means to us today

The power of church (and why we try to help sinners rather than push them aside)

Jesus had just warned the disciples about the repercussions for causing a Christian to stumble. Now Jesus discusses sin within the walls of the church itself. The lesson Jesus provides in these verses, created a profound effect on churches from Jesus’ day through modern times. No verses have been more widely interpreted nor more profoundly important to our definition of a church.

When you gather one or more persons with you in Jesus’ name, you have created a powerful faction – one that Jesus gladly participates in. And as Jesus tells us, the power of this group (including our church) is unlimited. Christians should recognize the enormous potential inherent in their church and use their capacity wisely.

But what if one in a group of Christians is sinful? You should handle the sinner just as Jesus would have – help them reject their sin while ensuring the physical and spiritually safety of the congregation. You begin by making every effort to be discrete but involve more and more people as needed to help turn the person away from sin. If the person ultimately refuses to listen to you, treat them like Jesus would have treated a pagan – love them and pray for their deliverance. As Jesus explained, when we pray, anything will be done for us – including liberating a fellow Christian from self-destruction.

Additional thoughts and considerations

The three-step process for approaching a sinner in the church – first approach them alone, then with two, then present the problem to the church

Jesus provides a three-step process for dealing with a sinner in the church. First, we approach the sinner alone. This keeps the sinner from becoming embarrassed and lets them speak more freely in a comfortable environment. It also helps protect the sinner by minimizing the chance of gossip spreading.

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If the sinner does not listen, two or more witnesses may make the difference. The sinner may be more receptive to multiple witnesses. In addition, involving a group ensures your evaluation of the circumstance is true and not biased or skewed.

If all attempts fail, Jesus says “tell it to the church”. Jesus does not say we should bring the sinner before the congregation, as you would a criminal in a trial. But rather, explain the circumstance to the church. The church can then pray and work together to help the sinner reject sin.

Early Christian church - Artist UnknownA quote from Deuteronomy

Jesus tells us that if the sinner does not listen, “take one or two with you so that ‘at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established.’” Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 19:15. The reason for one or two witnesses is not to gang up on another but to make sure you are correct in your assumption of their sin. As Deuteronomy tells us, nobody should be convicted with only one witness – “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”

Jesus tells us that what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. This tells us we have tremendous power in his name. Any acts of sin we bind on earth will be permanently bound in heaven. Likewise, the good we promote will spread for eternity.

Should sinners be excommunicated from the church?

Excommunication - Artist UnknownBranches of Christianity that incorporate excommunication, removing a church member from the congregation or banning their attendance, use these verses to justify their belief. But these verses should be taken in context with the entirety of the Bible and Jesus’ core message. We are to help others, not hurt them. It doesn’t matter if a person is deserving or not, whether they are good or evil, or even whether or not we like them. It’s a Christian’s obligation to help others – and that includes helping them reject sin.

But must you help someone from within the walls of the church itself? This is where we must think carefully in order to derive the truth. Ask yourself, would Jesus kick a pagan out of a church? Would he call for the removal of a tax collector from the pews? Not likely. Jesus would try to help the sinner stop sinning.

However, a church must always consider the well-being of the church and its members. It’s a harsh fact but Satan will attempt to disrupt a church from inside its walls. Christians must be conscious of this. But removing a sinner from the congregation should be a rare occurrence. If their sin will not endanger (physically or spiritually) others in the congregation, we should continue our attempts to win them over.

Bible Text

NIV

15 “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. 16 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.’ d 17 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.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

Early Christian church - Artist UnknownThe NET Bible

18:15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 18:16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 18:17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.

18:18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 18:19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 18:20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

15–17 “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.

18–20 “Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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