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A Jet Tour Through the New Testament
Thursday, September 4, 2014 | Comments (7)

by John MacArthur

Christ’s teaching in Matthew 18:15–17 outlines clear instructions regarding the practice of church discipline. I’ve said it many times throughout this series, but it cannot be emphasized enough: Church discipline is always to be driven by the hope of restoring a straying brother—never out of derision or contempt. Love for Christ, His church, and one another requires that we treat sin with extreme prejudice, but we treat the sinning brother or sister with extreme love.

Loving a sinner who professes Christ means that we refuse to allow the cancer of sin to spread within and around him. Through a series of grace-filled, compassionate confrontations, we are to make every attempt to rescue him from self-deception and the snare of the devil. As we’ve seen, such an operation begins within the privacy of a one-on-one confrontation. If he refuses to repent, one or two more are to be brought into the circle. If he continues in his rebellion, the matter is to be brought before the congregation. Continued unrepentance will then culminate in excommunication. However, if at any point the sinner turns from his sin, the process is to stop and he is to be forgiven and reconciled. Such are the four steps described by Jesus.

God’s Involvement in Discipline

But the Lord’s instructions for protecting the purity of the church didn’t end in verse 17. And while His subsequent statements are familiar to many churchgoers, the context of those statements is often forgotten or ignored:

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst. (Matthew 18:18­–20)

Those verses are often taken out of context and applied to prayer requests of every kind. But they specifically apply to the subject of church discipline. Jesus was teaching how God is at work in the process of church discipline.

“Whatever you bind” and “whatever you loose” refer to the church’s verdict in a discipline case. Binding and loosing were rabbinical terms undoubtedly familiar to the disciples. They referred to the bondage of sin and to liberation from the guilt of it. Jesus was saying that heaven is in agreement with the church’s verdict in a properly handled discipline case.

The verb tenses in the above quotation of Matthew 18:18 are literal renderings. The idea is not that heaven follows the church’s lead, but that when discipline is correctly administered, whatever is done on earth has already been done in heaven. This is one of the requests in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). If God’s will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven, the church must practice the proper discipline of sinning members.

This promise is meant as a comfort and encouragement. Too many people think it is unloving for the church to confront sin. But the truth is, when a church practices discipline as Christ commanded, that church is simply doing heaven’s work on earth. They are loving the Savior and the sinner simultaneously.

Verse 19 is also often misunderstood. The Greek word translated “agree” is the same word from which the English word symphony is derived. It literally means “to produce a sound together.” Whether the verdict involves binding or loosing, when the church is in harmony—and especially the “two or three witnesses” who establish the fact that the sinning individual is unrepentant—the Father is also in agreement.

This verse does not mean that anytime you can get two people to agree on something, God has to honor their prayer request. The “two” in verse 19 are two witnesses whose testimony is in agreement. If they are also in agreement with God’s will when they impose discipline on a sinning brother, they can be certain that God Himself is working in their midst and on their behalf.

Verse 20 reiterates a similar promise from Christ: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Not only is the Father acting in accord with us (Matthew 18:19), but the Son is participating as well (Matthew 18:20).

Although verse 20 is often cited to invoke Christ’s presence at prayer meetings, that is a misinterpretation of the intent. God is omnipresent; so He is present whether one person is praying or fifty. But in this context the “two or three” refers back to the “two or three witnesses” of verse 16. And the verse speaks not merely of Christ’s presence, but of His participation in the discipline process. He joins in the discipline carried out by the church—a fearsome reality for the individual who refuses to repent, but a rich comfort to those who must administer the discipline.

As we have seen throughout the church discipline process, the primary goal of all church discipline is to restore the sinning brother or sister. This goal is never abandoned, even after the individual has been excommunicated. And if at any time he repents, he is to be restored and welcomed with great love and compassion—lest we forget the great love and compassion that Christ extended to us in redemption.

While the process of church discipline can be painful and even heartbreaking, believers must remember that the purity of the church is a God-given priority, and that by following the pattern He gave us, we can have confidence that He is working in us and through us to accomplish His will.

(Adapted from The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness)


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#1  Posted by Jean Selden  |  Tuesday, September 2, 2014 at 1:57 AM

Thank you for your explanation of Mathew 18:18-20 and for this whole series on church discipline.My whole family has been so blessed to have true teaching. We have been Christians for over 35 years and not until we started listening to and reading your resources did we find out how much error we had been sitting under. We have directed countless believers to your resources, as so many are so desirous for the whole truth. You will never know how grateful we are for your obedience to God's truth. Thank you again.

#2  Posted by Mark Foy  |  Tuesday, September 2, 2014 at 2:19 AM

Excellent series. Very helpful and informative.

#3  Posted by Darrell Astelle  |  Tuesday, September 2, 2014 at 4:55 AM

As a Baptist by conviction, and practice, the principles of "Church discipline" has been only limited to a membership list. Consequently those who desire to "broaden their personal separation" simply drop their own name from the list, either by request or by attending a different Baptist Church, and not joining a list there! The Matthew 18 reference to Church Discipline does not seem to be limited to a list, but rather, to a "family of worshippers" meeting in one place to grow spiritually. I am wondering if the practical side of a list is being used to avoid preaching the whole truth about personal separation, and living a testimony that enables a christian to witness? I have also been told that service is being denied as a form of Church Discipline! I am amazed that Christ does not judge these modern day methods of distorting discipline and confusing believers as to the real purpose and use of Church Discipline!

#5  Posted by Jason Larose  |  Thursday, September 4, 2014 at 8:52 AM

Redefining terms seems to be the most common way to make an incorrect practice match (technically) correct statements. Much of the current church tradition is built on it.

Most people think of "Church" as a building or a local congregation membership list. We think of "witnessing" solely as preaching. Congregations have a single "pastor" who is the only, or at least main, teacher (when in fact the office is primarily one of stewardship, not necessarily intended to be held entirely by a single member, and with teaching listed as a separate gift entirely). etc...

The terminology we have today (which some bitterly call "Christianeese") can support any number of false teachings with Biblical statements. The problem is, when we redefine terms the same statement can have a wildly different meaning than intended.

I'm in no way a "church anarchist". I think any group with no organization will never be capable of working harmoniously. However, we need to remember that the "org chart" according to the Bible has every man under the direct leadership of Christ, and accountable to one another.

Membership based upon paying dues or taking a class is not church membership according to the Bible (though classes may be useful in determining if the person is or is not already a member of the church). The church could stand to lose a little bit of it's "organization" so that we can all take an earnest look about what authority we have and have not been granted, and can seek God as our head again.

#4  Posted by James Gravette  |  Tuesday, September 2, 2014 at 7:40 AM

John, just a thought...Did you consider another truth that this passage is talking about on an higher level. Is that if I bind or loose whatever (meaning whatever sins men commit unto me) it will be bind or loosed (of my sins in heaven). It seems like Jesus is teaching the importance on forgiving men of the trespasses which are on the earth done unto us, so we aught to forgive men, so God can loose us of our trespasses. What about thought? Hey I don't know I'm just a follower.

#6  Posted by Cameron Buettel  |  Thursday, September 4, 2014 at 1:46 PM

James, the context of Matthew 18:15-20 does not allude to what you are suggesting. Always stick with what the Scripture does teach. And in this case it is talking about heavenly affirmation of church leaders/elders properly exercising the heavenly authority delegated to them.

#8  Posted by David Emme  |  Wednesday, September 10, 2014 at 5:02 AM

(I am not accusing here but being more technical and do not want to assume everyone has the same level of understanding-hope you see what I am saying)

That would be considered allegorical interpretation. That would mean seeing words or passages as an allegory:

a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.

To get "deeper" or really more -in depth- it is to read a meaning into a passage not apparent. The scriptures does use allegories. One instance-parables. Best thing is when the bible uses allegories(like parables)-then that is how to look at them. When the bible gives statements-let the statements show us what the meaning is. There is nothing allegorical about loosing and binding. It was nothing about forgiveness.

Please do not get me wrong. If you go a few more verses in the chapter-Christ gives a parable(allegory like story with a deeper and more spiritual meaning) about forgiveness. That is where we should see about forgiveness.

Sometimes people also want to see a more spiritual meaning in everything. It is not always contrary-in the attitude or intention of the person. Sometimes it is born of a desire to be closer to Christ-to want to love God more. We all should want that-should have that desire-something we should all emulate. On the other hand, we should also not let that desire overshadow and overcome the correct way to understand the scriptures. We should want to love God and hate sin-and unfortunately-we tend to love sin and hate God without realizing it. This is what I kind of see from you in your desires of trying to be more passionately loving of Jesus. Let that passion lead you to a correct understanding. If I am wrong in my perceptions-then please forgive me.