The First Conflict

The first recorded conflict between man and man took place at the beginning of our race, when Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, allowed hatred for Abel, his younger brother, to creep into his heart. He was jealous because when they both brought offerings to the Lord, the Lord accepted Abel’s but rejected Cain’s. Abel’s was a sheep slaughtered for sacrifice. Cain’s was produce from the ground. Cain was so enraged that later, at a moment of opportunity, he rose up and killed his brother.

The first murder was a prototype of all murders ever since.

But God intends the church to reach a far higher plane, where brothers live together in unbroken peace. Fighting in any form comes under divine censure (Jas. 4:1-3). But if fighting flows so naturally from the lusts deep-seated in our hearts, how can we avoid it? How can we achieve the peace that God desires? We need to mold our dealings with each other after the patterns that Scripture provides.

Steps Mandated by Jesus

The fullest guidance on how to handle conflicts comes from Jesus Himself. Shortly before His transfiguration, He declared His intention to found the church (Matt. 16:18). Then soon after three disciples saw Him crowned with heavenly glory on the mountain, He preached a sermon describing how a local church should operate. The most complete record of His words on this occasion appears in Matthew 18. There, among other guidelines for maintaining a vital church, Jesus presents the right way to handle any friction arising when a brother feels that another brother has offended him (Matt. 18:15-17). The brother harboring a complaint should take the initiative in removing the friction, and he should follow a procedure with four steps.

1. Private Confrontation

He should go directly to the offender and engage him in private discussion. In that setting sealed off from the prying curiosity of others, he should candidly voice his complaint. He should say exactly what he thinks his brother has done wrong.

Why do people back down from personal confrontation? In today’s culture, the outcome is often not satisfactory. The person confronted may react defensively, deny all wrongdoing even if he is guilty, and go away mad. He may even counterattack in some fashion. That certainly has happened to me. Still, we must confront a sinning brother. Why? The Lord does not want disagreeable people in the church. He wants people willing to accept His requirement, "Confess your faults one to another" (Jas. 5:16). He wants those who stand as His representatives in this world to be truthful and transparent, not deceitful and defensive.

Yet it is wise to take measures that will help confrontation succeed. It is more likely to go well if we do it the way God recommends. In His Word He counsels us that whenever we deal with an offender, we should behave with all gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25; Titus 3:2) and keep an attitude of humility (Titus 3:2; Gal. 6:1), recognizing that we ourselves are no paragon of perfection, but a sinner like the person we are confronting. Humility protects a complainer from being angry and severe. It is hard to be mad at a sinning brother if we realize how ornery we can be when backed against a wall. Pride aggravates conflict, whereas humility heals it.

2. Adding Witnesses

If the one accused of an offense turns a deaf ear to his accuser and the confrontation ends in stalemate, the next step for the brother who feels offended is to get help. He should approach one or two others in the church and invite them to sit down as witnesses when he confronts the offender again. In other words, at a second meeting arranged to deal with the problem, three or four should attend, including one or two observers besides the two parties in dispute. Jesus does not specify who the witnesses should be, but the pastor or someone else of like stature is always a good choice, because his testimony will probably be accepted as neutral and credible if the matter must be brought before the whole church. Moreover, if the accused person is truly guilty of the offense charged against him, loving exhortation from a spiritual leader may have the moral force needed to stir up shame and sorrow in his heart, so that he will repent of his sin and repair the damage to his brother. But if he settles into denial of wrongdoing and refuses to cooperate, it is then time for the third step.

3. Involving the Whole Church

The next tribunal that Jesus authorizes to deal with the problem is the church. But what does He mean by "the church"? He obviously means the local church, not the church universal comprising all the saints of all the ages. What is the local church in this context? Is it the whole congregation, or is it some governing body, such as the church board, or the board of elders, or the board of deacons? Jesus’ definition of a local church comes a few verses later in this discourse (v. 20). It is two or three gathered in His name.

A number of profound ramifications blossom out from these words of barest simplicity. For our purposes now, we will focus on just one ramification. A local church is nothing else than a group of individuals. It is people gathered together, whether two or three or more, and everyone in the gathering belongs to it. Moreover, it is a level grouping. Jesus does not speak of two or three gathered under someone else. The two or three have no vertical dimension. As in any family, all who belong to the Father are equally His children. A local church properly understood is not a few making major decisions on behalf of others. Rather, it is a whole congregation making major decisions together, with no adult excluded from participation. In the early church, whose history is recorded in the Book of Acts, the last step in any major decision was to secure the consent of all believers (Acts 6:5; 15:22). Yes, the early church had leaders with important functions to fulfill, but they did not rank higher in discernment than the whole body. Rather, the will of the whole body when fully informed concerning any question was the best gauge of God's leading.

The church means the whole congregation, yet we should not suppose that Jesus was forbidding church leadership from taking a central role in solving problems. If the second step in the procedure for reconciling brothers fails to secure results—that is, if the offender refuses to make amends when he is confronted by one or two besides the offended brother—the next people to hear the complaint should be the governing body of the church. They may be able to solve the problem in the privacy of their deliberations. If they can, so much the better. They will restore peace with minimal harm to the offender’s reputation and with minimal risk of provoking people in the church to take sides, some supporting the complainer and some supporting the one accused. Strife will be cut off before it can get started.

Yet Jesus frames the third step as He does to assure real justice. A church board never has the right to carry out discipline on its own. If it cannot resolve a dispute between two brothers, or if it decides that one brother is at fault and it cannot secure his repentance, the leadership cannot dismiss the offender from the church or impose any other penalties. It must seek the wisdom and the will of the whole church.

The whole church should assemble and hear the case. The offended one should appear and present his complaint. The witnesses should give a full account of the last meeting between the two estranged brothers. And the accused should be allowed to speak in his own defense. As people testify, the congregation should be given opportunity to respond. Every member should have the right to raise questions or supply new information, perhaps setting the case in a new light. Then after all the evidence is heard, the church must decide whether the complaint is valid and the offender is right with God. Perhaps a full trial before the church will exonerate the accused, either by proving that the presumed offense is no more than a misunderstanding, or by showing that the charge is a malicious lie.

If the church decides that the offender is in fact clinging to sin, it should not, however, rush to the last step of discipline, the step of cutting him off from the church. Jesus makes explicit the exact condition that must be met first. Before he is cast out, the offender must "neglect to hear the church." Jesus is strongly implying that the church should fill his ears with something he should hear. With all kindness they should collectively and individually implore him to repent. They should not let him go until they have done their best to change him. Even after they have said everything they can say without being tiresome, he should be given more time to think over the counsel of his brothers and to weigh the consequences of losing his place among God’s people.

4. Discipline

But eventually, when it is obvious that he will not backtrack from the error of his way, he must be removed from the body, lest it be poisoned by his sin and lose God’s blessing. This is the fourth and final step of discipline. The term used in the Catholic tradition for this step is "excommunication." We as Baptists prefer such terms as "disfellowship." The reason is historical. In countries with a state church, whether Catholic or otherwise, excommunication was in days past a measure with dire results. It could lead to social ostracism, persecution, even criminal charges and penalties. But consequences of this sort are not what Jesus intended.

He specified in very clear language how the church should treat someone removed from the body. He said, "Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." The first, a heathen man, represents all those in the world who are the most perverse and loud-mouthed in scorning true religion. The second, a publican, was a hireling of the Roman authorities to collect taxes, and many in this profession enriched themselves by cheating the Jewish poor. So, a publican represents all those in the world who get away with corrupt practices. If a stubbornly wayward brother belongs to the class of worst moral reprobates, should we treat him with contempt, sweeping him aside as something nasty? No, our example in all things is Jesus, who drew sharp criticism because he ate with publicans and sinners (Matt. 9:10–13; Luke 7:34–35). He showed them the love of God. Thus we learn how to treat an erring brother who should be unto us as a heathen man and publican. In the manner of Jesus, we should show him the love of God. If our respect and compassion should go to the moral dregs of society, no less should they go to an expelled member of our church, who formerly walked arm-in-arm with us into God’s sanctuary and shared fellowship with God’s family. Paul explicitly forbids treating him like an enemy (2 Thess. 3:14–15).

Some under the cloud of discipline may turn against us with an enemy’s bitter heart, full of loathing and vengeance, but we should love even our enemies (Matt. 5:43–44) and treat them with perfect kindness (Rom. 12:19–21). The obvious application is that if we should love enemies who were never close to us, we should love even more those enemies who were once counted as our brothers in Christ.

The practical summary of your duty and mine toward someone dismissed from the church is this. Do not be mean to him in any way, or speak evil of him. Do not make him a special target of your disapproval. Do not shun him if he greets you when you meet him in the store or on the street. Do not refuse him your courtesy and friendliness. Do not even withhold your help or hospitality when he needs it.

Yet there are limits on our relationship with him. "I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat" (1 Cor. 5:9–11). This is generally understood as having two applications. 1) A brother removed from the church should not be served communion or permitted any role in ministry. 2) The saints should not meet with him socially, and he should not be allowed to attend social gatherings of the church. He can attend services and hear preaching of the Word, but not events for the purpose of fellowship or shared meals. The only legitimate reason for any saint to meet with him is to extend help.

Observing Paul’s rule is urgent for four reasons.

  1. God sets a high priority on maintaining the purity of the church. An unrepentant sinner in the midst will inevitably recruit others to the same sins. Paul, following a longstanding Scriptural precedent of using leaven to represent sin and evil, warns, "Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened" (1 Cor. 5:6–7). The context is instruction on how to treat a sinning brother. He concludes, "Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (1 Cor. 5:13).
  2. A church full of flagrant sinners supports the self-serving opinion of many heathen that Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.
  3. Perhaps only by feeling the pain of exclusion from the church will a sinning brother reexamine his choices and decide that he has done wrong.
  4. Disfellowshipping a true believer ensnared by sin allows God to apply a heavier rod of chastening. Severe punishment by God’s hand may be the only way to teach him sorrow for sin (Heb. 12:5–11).

The prohibition against eating with a expelled church member does not apply, however, to Christian members of his family. They should still treat him as their own, although of course they will avoid associating with him in any way that will compromise their moral standards as believers.

Wisdom urges another exception. We should not necessarily refuse social interaction with someone dismissed from the church if we detect that he is testing whether the church might forgive him and restore him to favor.

Heaven’s Backing for Discipline

To wrap up His teaching on church discipline, Jesus spoke words clearly granting the church authority to conduct it (Matt. 18:18). He said that if a church handles problems according to His guidelines, any judgment it reaches will have the backing of heaven. In other words, it will act as a legally constituted court in heaven’s judicial system—as a branch of the supreme tribunal before the Throne. It will have jurisdiction authorized by God Himself, and as the supreme Judge, He will uphold its decisions. To be disciplined by a church is therefore a very solemn event. It is the same as suffering the rebuke of God Himself.

Let us delve further into the implications. Jesus taught that whatever the church binds, heaven binds also. The teaching is difficult because it deliberately combines several meanings.

On one level it refers to the fate of an unregenerate person who attains church membership through an insincere profession of faith, but later loses membership as a result of falling under church discipline. While among God’s people he receives grace shielding him in some measure from sin and Satan. The sweet influence of godly words and examples helps him live on a higher plane. But once he departs from the church, sin and Satan reassert full control. Heaven then binds him in the sense that it allows him to march back into the prison house of darkness. The first meaning undoubtedly applies to many who refuse to cooperate with discipline. Anyone whose heart is so hardened by sin that he disdains the fervent pleading of the church to get right, and who cares not whether he is cast out of the church, is likely a false Christian. At his best moments he was no more than a pretender. After leaving the church, he may assume the wretched place of an apostate beyond reclamation (Heb. 6:4-9).

But the binding heaven does can be understood in another way also. It may refer to a true believer who runs afoul of church discipline. When Paul removed a real Christian from the church, he petitioned God to lift the hedge formerly placed about that person as protection from Satan’s attack (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:19–20). Such a hedge is God’s wonderful provision for every child in good standing (Ps. 34:7; 91:1-16). Adversity succeeds in creeping through only if it will achieve something good (Rom. 8:28). The reason God lifts the hedge from a wayward child is to teach him that life apart from God is a disastrous choice, leading to nothing but trouble. Those of us who have learned wisdom the hard way can testify what it means to undergo destruction of the flesh. This aspect of discipline that heaven itself executes is a form of binding.

Is there any way to tell whether a disfellowshipped member is saved or unsaved? The answer is, no. To judge with perfect certainty the true state of any man’s heart is beyond our ability as human beings. The sinning brother is so far from God that we certainly cannot assume that he is saved. He has no grounds for counting himself as saved (1 John 3:7-10). But at the same time we cannot assume that he is unsaved. Moreover, even if he is unsaved, we cannot assume that he is an irreclaimable apostate. Perhaps when he came into the church, he was too young or too ignorant to understand the truth, so that although he is now removed from the church, it is still possible for the truth to dawn in his heart.

Never should we treat an outcast harshly. Instead, we should keep hoping for his restoration and personally do our utmost to bring him back into the body. It is always entirely possible that he will someday return to faith and godliness. If he does, the church should forgive him and joyfully readmit him to membership (2 Cor. 2:5–8).

Another implication branching out of Jesus’ maxim in verse 18 is that when the church loosens, heaven also loosens. The meaning is not that if the church judges a man to be innocent of charges brought against him, heaven will unconditionally support the verdict. No, the church may be wrong. in that case, God will certainly have the last say when the offender comes before the Throne. There God will deal with him justly. The meaning rather is that if church discipline brings a brother to the place of repenting of sin and the church forgives him, so also will heaven forgive him. The loosing refers to forgiveness, which is the theme of the concluding portion of Matthew 18. Therefore, Jesus’ closing words on the subject of church discipline reinforce the principle that its goal must be to restore a sinning brother to a right relationship with God. His reclamation is achieved by repentance on his side and forgiveness on God’s side.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.