Mark D. Roberts

In last Friday’s post I introduced this series, which seeks to answer the question: “What should I do if someone in the church sins against me?” With no further ado, let’s examine the basic teaching of Jesus:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17, NRSV)

The Literary Context of Matthew 18:15-17

Before examining this passage in detail, I want to say a word about its context in Matthew. In the first part of Matthew 18, Jesus is instructing his disciples on how they are to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. Here’s a summary of what comes immediately before our passage:

Jesus calls his disciples to humility and to welcome children into his kingdom (18:1-5).
Jesus warns his disciples not to put “stumbling blocks” in the way of those who would believe in him (18:6-7).
Jesus says that if a body part causes you to stumble, you’re better off without that body part. (18:8-9)
Jesus says that the Father in heaven is like a shepherd with a hundred sheep who seeks even one that is lost and rejoices with he finds it. Therefore we should be like God in our attitude toward the “little ones.” (18:10-14).

Notice that the thread running throughout these passages is the question of how we are to relate to each other in the Kingdom of God. We are called to think of each other with humility, to welcome into the kingdom those who are lowly in worldly terms, and to be like the God who seeks even the one who is lost. This context, as we’ll see later, helps us to grasp the point of Jesus’ teaching on what to do if someone sins against you.

Following our passage we find:

A statement about binding and loosing (18:18-20).
A question from Peter to Jesus on how many times he must forgive a member of the church who sins against him, and Jesus surprisingly generous answer (18:21-22).
The parable of the unforgiving slave, by which Jesus strongly underscores the importance of forgiveness (18:23-35).

To summarize the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18, citizens of the kingdom of heaven should relate to each other with humility and forgiveness. The emphasis is upon inclusiveness and reconciliation.

A Question About the Original Text

The English translation I quote above begins, “If another member of the church sins against you . . .” (18:15). Yet almost all English translations include a footnote or some other indication that the words “against you” were not necessarily in the original text of Matthew. The problem is that, among the dozens of very ancient manuscripts of Matthew, some have “against you” and some do not. Some very early scribe either added “against you” to the original that lacked it or took it out. (Photo: a page from a fourth-century manuscript of the Bible. It’s
called Sinaiticus because it was found at St. Catherine’s Monastery on
Mt. Sinai. This page contains Matthew 18:15 without the words “against
you,” EIS SE in Greek.)


There are some fairly complex explanations for what might be going on in the textual variants for this passage, which I won’t go into right now. But even if “against you” wasn’t original, this passage still helps to answer the question of how we respond when someone sins against us. For one thing, if you look down a few verses to Matthew 18:21, Peter asks Jesus: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” This indicates that the earlier passage is relevant to the case of someone sinning, not just in general, but against a specific person.

Moreover, if in the original saying Jesus was speaking of someone sinning in a more general way, everything he said would be equally relevant to the more specific case of someone sinning against another person. So this passage certainly addresses the question of this blog series even if it may have a larger application.

Who Sins?

The last preliminary issue I want to address is the question of who sins in Matthew 18:15. The translation I’m using, the NRSV, reads, “If another member of the church sins against you.” But the original Greek reads, literally, “If your brother sins against you.” Some contemporary translations go with the more literal “your brother” (NIV, ESV) while others do something like the NRSV: “another believer” (NLT), “your brother or sister” (TNIV). The problem for the translator is that the word for “brother” in Greek (adelphos) is surely meant to include either a male or a female sinner. In some Christian communities today, depending on the way English is spoken there, saying “If your brother sins against you” would seem to refer only to a male believer. In other Christian communities, “brother” would easily be understood as including both male and female disciples.

No matter how you translate adelphos, it’s obvious that Jesus is including both male and female disciples within the scope of his instruction. He’s telling us what to do if either a Christian brother or a Christian sister should sin against us.

In my next post I’ll begin to examine the specifics of Jesus teaching. 

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