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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 | Comments (20)

by John MacArthur

Are you discouraged by disregarded sin in your church? Do leaders refuse to acknowledge or respond to reports of blatant sin within the church? You’re not alone.

Many faithful churchgoers feel frustrated and helpless as they experience the ongoing damage inflicted by unrestrained and unrepentant sinners in their congregations. The passivity of many leaders is due to their desire to be seen as loving and to avoid potential conflict. This reluctance (or refusal) to confront wickedness is not only devastating to the health of a local church, it is also disobedient to Christ’s clear commands.

Jesus gave explicit instructions on how sin in the church must be dealt with:

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 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. (Matthew 18:15–17)

The Place of Church Discipline

Notice that the Lord used the word “church” twice in verse 17. The Greek word is ekklesia, literally meaning “called-out ones.” The word is sometimes employed to speak of any assembly of people. An example of this would be Acts 7:38, which refers to the congregation of Israel during the Exodus as “the church in the wilderness” (KJV).

Some argue that since the discourse in Matthew 18 preceded Pentecost, Christ could not have been speaking of the New Testament church. But Jesus had already introduced the concept of the church to His disciples telling them that He would build it and hell could never overthrow it (Matthew 16:18). So the instructions in Matthew 18 were given in anticipation of the New Testament body of believers. It is hard to see how anyone could exempt the New Testament church from the principles set forth in this passage.

In fact, our Lord’s whole point was that the assembly of God’s redeemed people is the proper arena in which matters of dispute or discipline should be handled. There is no external court or higher authority on earth to which sin issues may be appealed (1 Corinthians 6:2–3).

It is by divine design that discipline should take place in the church. True believers are motivated by a genuine love for one another (1 John 3:14). In such a context, discipline may be administered in love, by loving fellow believers, for the genuine good and edification of the whole body.

The Purpose of Church Discipline

Discipline, properly administered, is always motivated by love. Its first purpose is the restoration of the sinning brother: “If he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). It also purifies the church as believers become more diligent to watch their lives and avert confrontation.

The goal of church discipline is not to throw people out, shun them, embarrass them, play God, be self-righteous, or exercise authority in an abusive manner. The purpose of discipline is to bring people back into a right relationship with God and with the rest of the body. Proper discipline is never administered as retaliation for someone’s sin. Restoration, not retribution, is always the goal.

This is obvious from the text of Matthew 18. The Greek word translated “won” in verse 15 is kerdaino, a word often used to speak of financial gain. Thus Christ portrayed the errant brother as a valuable treasure to be won back. That should be the perspective of every Christian who ever confronts a brother or sister about sin.

That is, in fact, the expression of God’s own heart with regard to discipline: He sees each soul as a treasure to be recovered. That is the whole context in which Christ spoke these words. The verses immediately preceding these instructions for discipline compare God to a loving shepherd, concerned for each lamb in the flock:

What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. (Matthew 18:12–14)

Every Christian must have that same sense of concern. It’s tempting sometimes to take the path of least resistance and avoid confrontation—especially when sin is already drawing a brother or sister away from the fellowship. But that is the very time when we most need to get involved. That is the heart of a true shepherd, who will go to any length to recover a missing or wounded sheep and restore him or her to the flock.

Confrontation is not easy, nor should it be. We’re not to be busybodies, constantly intruding into others’ business. But when we become aware that someone has sinned, we have a duty before God to lovingly confront that person. We cannot protest by saying it is none of our business. Once we become aware of a soul-threatening sin in a fellow believer’s life, it is our business to exhort, confront, and labor for purity in the fellowship of the church and victory in the life of the sinning one. These are noble and necessary concerns.

Nonetheless, we must be on guard against abuses and must keep the loving purposes of proper discipline in view at all times. There is a real danger of becoming too fond of chiding one another. Pride can poison the discipline process, just as it pollutes every virtue. That is why Jesus cautioned those who confront to examine themselves before trying to remove the speck from a brother’s eye. We must be sure we don’t have a log protruding from our own eye (Matthew 7:3–5)!

A person under discipline who refuses to repent is likely to feel abused and mistreated, just as disobedient children sometimes despise the discipline of their parents. It is not at all unusual for an unrepentant person to accuse those who have confronted him of being unloving and unfair. That is all the more reason for those administering the discipline to take great care to act in love, with careful self-examination and great long-suffering.

Love does cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8) and there are certainly times when it is appropriate to graciously overlook sins committed by our brothers and sisters in Christ. But there are also times when sin in the camp demands confrontation and a call to repentance. But where is that dividing line and who is responsible to take action? We’ll look at those issues in my next post. 

(Adapted from The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness)


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#1  Posted by David Emme  |  Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 6:06 AM

Have a question which is what sin do you confront and bring to the church? Any sin? All sin? For instance, a lot of people consider smoking to be a sin-do you bring that before the body after two or three witnesses confronted the brother or sister? With out wanting to tell horror stories coming from an Independent Fundamental Baptist background where my experience is this is worst than a lot of sins in an imbalance based more on performance Christianity. Obviously, you don't paper over someone's sin because someone else had an inordinate view of what sins are really bad and which ones are more acceptable.

There is also a point of a , "I caught you" or I gotcha attitude where you feel like they are going to go tell the pastor on you. The one experience I did have on this was when I caught a brother who lived in another town and caught him smoking. When I approached him on it, told him I was praying God was going to take that from him but was not going to go running to tell the pastor or a deacon on you-just felt so much like I would be a tattle-tale. Close to the attitude of the Pharisees who brought the woman found in sexual sin to Christ demanding she be stoned.

Am hoping to hear from someone with some very wise words about this-or brother Phil or MacArthur. On the other hand I also do not want to excuse sin or habitual sin-bad habits or addictions-even a small one.



#15  Posted by Jason Larose  |  Friday, August 22, 2014 at 6:43 AM

Confronting someone over their sin should be more of what people consider an intervention than a sting. When we season with love confronting someone over a chemical dependence should sound more like "You know how bad that is for you?" and less like "You're a smoker?! Oh man, you're so busted!" If done correctly you're certainly not "tattling". You're bearing burdens with your brother or sister.

All sin is destructive. The wages are death! When someone is clearly attached to something unhealthy the only way to be caring would be to point out the damage it's causing and then offer to be there with them while they seek God's work to remove it from their lives.

Matthew 18 isn't an official church policy we do with an attitude of "it's only business". It's a pattern to help win your brother from a world full of things that will ultimately make him miserable, and to protect the church in the event of a member having more love for the world than God.

#2  Posted by Casey Milstead  |  Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 9:55 AM

I, too, have the same question as David Emme. In fact, our Sunday school class has been having this discussion for weeks now. I am wondering which sins are considered "soul-threatening" in a believer's life. Can you help us understand which sins to confront scripturally and which ones to "graciously overlook?"

#3  Posted by Gabriel Powell (GTY Admin)  |  Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 10:20 AM

David and Casey, those are important questions which will be answered in our next post. Stay tuned!

#4  Posted by Kevin Mason  |  Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 4:04 PM

There appears to be a new spiritual gift in some churches, the gift of COWARDICE. It is the gift that waves the banner of “We want church unity even if it means sacrificing God”, it is an effort to avoid doing something that might be uncomfortable, difficult, cause people to dislike us, or worse, decrease the weekly giving to the church. A leader with the gift of cowardice is more concerned about the people attending his church liking him, or, approving him more than wanting the approval of God.

A leader with the gift of cowardice will quickly back away from the need to question or discipline a church member the moment the offending member shows any resistance. Denial is a favorite tool for the person with the gift of cowardice, there is no need to address what one refuses to see.

I have witnessed the gift of cowardice in action and the result I saw was a church that lived identical to the secular world but the people in the church could speak fluent Christianese, and they claimed a sense “unity”, a unity best described as… “You say nothing about my sins and I will say nothing about yours.”

#10  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 1:56 PM

And some people, Kevin, have the gift of satire ...

#16  Posted by Kevin Mason  |  Friday, August 22, 2014 at 9:25 AM

Comment deleted by user.
#17  Posted by Kevin Mason  |  Friday, August 22, 2014 at 10:16 AM

And sometimes… Satire is not so much a gift as it is a coping mechanism that expresses painful realities via absurdity, hyperbole and occasionally... a little bit of dry humor.

#5  Posted by Bruce Cobb  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 12:45 AM

Can you explain what you mean by the comment,"Once we become aware of a soul-threatning sin in a fellow BELIEVER's life"? This statement sounds like a true believer could lose their salvation over a sin.

#11  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 2:16 PM

Bruce, no one is suggesting that true believers can lose their salvation. Those who backslide never slid forward in the first place (1 John 2:19). While the Scripture is clear on this it is also full of exhortations to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5), work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12), and to beware of damnable heresies (2 Peter 2:1). Heresy threatens people's souls, sin threatens people's souls, and God's people are called to be wary. To do so does not amount to a denial of perseverance.

#6  Posted by David Owenby  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 4:32 AM

To approach someone with an observed sin being engaged in by a more mature Christian genuinely concerned for what they are observing is always the best way even though it hurts at the time. It must be done prayerfully and carefully. The flip side of that coin is having the 20/20 hindsight of knowing that what was being addressed had been seen by many who didn't have the courage or (could be more often the case) simply didn't love you enough to address the issue being addressed and wondering why they didn't for years to come. Actions speak, inaction tends to speak louder at times, this being one of them.

#7  Posted by David Smith  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 4:57 AM

I would also like some teaching about what sins should be confronted.

In my experience, church discipline is often unfairly applied. Leaders tend to get a free pass, and women (especially single ones) are targeted.

This is a difficult subject and I appreciate GTY addressing it.

#12  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 2:17 PM

More to come David, stay tuned ...

#8  Posted by Sanford Doyle  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 5:23 AM

I am reading a book by Jerry Bridges right now titled "Respectable Sins". I wish someone long ago would have confronted me about my "respectable sins."

This book deals directly about the log in our own eye, and the speck in our brother's.

Grace and Peace,


#23  Posted by David Emme  |  Wednesday, September 10, 2014 at 5:25 AM


I love that brother. So far, the most productive(for me) was a blog he did on Gospel Driven Sanctification(title you can find on a google search) at a time that helped me so much when trying to figure out some things on sin and sanctification(how to overcome it). This because we feel so guilty of our service-and lack there of(or others do that for us-kick start the Holy Spirit brother Deacon-Brother Dave ain't a serving like he ought). Have to definitely check it out-thanks! Dave

#9  Posted by Buks Boltman  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 6:29 AM

Thank you pastor John for standing in the truth of our Lord. My preacher refered me to your NKJ study bible in 2009 and from that point I've studied it together with our 1933/53 Afrikaans standard version Bible.I (like many others in our church) read most of your books up to 'Strange Fire'.

I am preveleged to be a member of a church in the Western Cape where church discipline still takes place and where the Bible is preached week after week.

We all sin from time to time, but children of God will not and cannot remain in sin. It is like a sheep in mud, due to it's (new) nature it WILL come out of there as fast as possible. Sin without remorse must lead to discipline in the church of Jesus Christ. Mat.18:15-17. Remember it must be in love to unite and keep the body of Christ,His church, free from sin and wordliness.

Pardon my spelling and so on, I'm Afrikaans speaking.

Thank you for preaching Jesus Christ and lifting Him up high with your life as a faitful preacher of His truth.


#14  Posted by Holly Schrader  |  Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 5:08 PM

Concerning churches that fail to discipline as God commands in Scripture, and who have likewise failed to honor God in other ways, Travis Allen said in a 2011 GTY blog, "Whenever the clear voice of God in His Word is blunted or diminished, whether by ignorance or neglect, God will rest too inconsequentially upon the church. I fear we’re becoming a generation that’s doing church in a way that is counterproductive to true worship. And I’m concerned it’s because we don’t fear God as we should, and we’re becoming accustomed to doing what is right in our own eyes."

What sin necessitates correction by our brother in Christ, or the church? Whatever clearly violates His statutes, dishonors Him, and hinders a person's (or church's) walk with God and glorification of Him. We are to worship and honor God with our very lives, in obedience to Him. If God is at the center of worship, the center of our lives, we must eliminate what is surrounding the center that is superfluous and sinful. Likewise the church.

Saturation in the Word of God and prayer sharpens discernment allowing true believers to respond to the Holy Spirit's promptings as to what should be removed from lives, and from churches, dedicated to Christ.

#18  Posted by Dale Plueger  |  Monday, August 25, 2014 at 12:22 PM

I was listening to "Focus on the Family" on KKLA and they has two women as guests that were discussing the effects of a book "50 Shades of Gray" Having not read it nor a desire to read it, these guests on the program were addressing the number of "Christian Women" that are reading the book. They came up with 5 reasons why these women are turning to such a disgusting pornographic book. Non of the 5 reasons addressed the topic of Sin, a lack of God's word being read, not following God's role for the Woman in a Christian marriage, etc. Why doe these programs seek humanist behavioral solutions rather than a Spiritual one. This is the thrust of a lot of the solutions advocated on Focus on the Family and other such programs rather than a biblical one.

The guest blamed the Church for not addressing the physical needs of these Christian Women. How is the Church to address a physical need of its members when the 'need' involves either the lust of the eyes, the lusts of the flesh or the pride of life? How can the Church deed with Women who seek non biblical guidance in these areas? What can be done to bring Women back to God's desires for their life?

Many of the Christian Women interview that were reading this book held prominent roles in the churches they attended or were wives of prominent leaders in those churches?

#19  Posted by Jason Larose  |  Wednesday, August 27, 2014 at 1:53 PM

I've had similar experiences with the "positive hits" stations in my area. So many programs claim to be based on godly principles when, in fact, they actually oppose the proper perspective on sin, righteousness, etc...

The station I listen to in the car regularly has "marriage experts" on air who contend that a successful marriage is built on both people feeling like the other person is repaying them for what they've done for the other.

When asked by the host how that definition of love contends with the biblical definition which involves self-sacrifice the response was that you can't live your whole life sacrificially. The host responded that our primary example of proper living (Jesus) did exactly that and that we are commanded to do the same.

The response still baffles me... The "expert" actually contended that, if Jesus had followed his program, than He would have asked each person if they even wanted Him to die for them and anyone who loves Christ would obviously have said "no". He then went on to defend himself by saying he's glad he didn't have to make that call because he likes salvation.

And this is the type of marriage councilor members of the church praise like crazy for providing them guidance. The world has severely influenced the church since it's inception, and what we commonly have today doesn't have a clue what a godly perspective looks like. If you're wondering, the host then acted like what the guy had said was something interesting people should consider.

To bring this back around, it's not exactly surprising to me that the church isn't concerned with sin in their midst. Most people think the entirety of Christian living is not feeling guilty about living exactly like the rest of the world.

#20  Posted by Kevin Laymon  |  Thursday, September 4, 2014 at 7:00 AM

I feel like we miss the point on which sins should be addressed by church discipline and which ones should not. The only indication of which sins warrant a confrontation are those sins committed "against you." I know the "against you" is left out of some of the earlier manuscripts but when you look at Jesus' and Peter's discussion immediately following, it is quite obvious that Peter understood the context to be dealing with sins committed against him personally.

It's not a matter of a sin being "soul-threatening" since any one sin would be deemed "soul-threatening" without the blood of Christ. The initiation of church discipline should only be initiated when you have been sinned against personally. That's your trigger.

If church discipline must begin with the victim, it is not our job to be the “sin police.” It’s not our job to hunt down transgressions in other people’s lives.

The model for church discipline laid out in Matthew 18 forces us to only be concerned with ourselves when it comes to sin. If your brother sins against you…

If you want to be the prosecutor of sin, you need only look inward, and you’ll find a lifetime worth of work. If someone offends you, straighten it out. If it escalates bring another two or three believers in for guidance. After all, it’s possible that you’re the one misinterpreting the situation. If you still can’t find a resolution, take it before the church, but you worry about you!

There is always plenty enough to work on in your own heart that you should never have to concern yourself with someone else unless it directly affects your life. If your brother sins against you…