Yesterday I began to examine step four of Jesus’ guidance for what to do if someone sins against you. In case you’re new to this blog series, let me review what we’ve seen so far, based on a close reading of Matthew 18:15-17:
Step 1: Go and privately point out the fault to the wrongdoer.
If Step 1 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 1 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you, go to Step 2.
Step 2: Go again with one or two witnesses.
If Step 2 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 2 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you and the witnesses, go to Step 3.
Step 3: Tell it to the gathered Christian assembly (or, in many churches, to the authorities who handle church discipline).
If Step 3 is successful, you have won back the offender.
If Step 3 is not successful and the offender won’t listen to you and the witnesses, go to Step 4.
Step 4: Let the unrepentant sinner be to you and your Christian community “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” that is, as an outsider.
Today I have a bit more to say about what it means to regard someone “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17).
What Does It Mean to Consider Someone as a Gentile and a Tax Collector?
Before we leave Jesus statement about treating an unrepentant sinner as “a Gentile and a tax collector,” we must surely recall the way Jesus himself treated outsiders. He was curiously ambivalent about Gentiles during his earthly ministry (e.g. Matt 10:5 15:21-28). But after his resurrection, he sent his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:18-20). Gentiles were finally to be included in the kingdom of God.
With regard to tax collectors, Jesus was famous, perhaps it would be more accurate to say infamous, for reaching out to them in love (as in the case of Levi, Mark 2:14; Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10) Jesus’ opponents accused him of being a friend of “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19) because, among other things, he tended to hang out with them, even sharing symbolically intimate meals with them (Matt 9:10-11). So when we hear Jesus say that we should regard the unrepentant sinner as “a Gentile and a tax collector,” we mustn’t read this as saying simply, “Kick the person out.” Rather, to paraphrase freely, Jesus is saying: “Recognize that the unrepentant sinner has effectively removed himself or herself from the community and has become an outsider. Take this outsider status seriously. Don’t pretend as if nothing has changed. It has. Unconfessed sin has broken fellowship. But be sure to think of this outsider as one included within the mercy of God. Continue to hope and pray that this person will return to the community. Don’t fail to extend love to the unrepentant sinner, offering the possibility of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.” (Photo: “The Tax Collector” by Reymerswaele (1542). The second painting on this basic theme by the Flemish Calvinist painter.)
So, Jesus is not saying that we should cut the unrepentant sinner off and that’s that. Instead, he’s teaching us to take sin seriously, to recognize its power to break Christian community. Jesus is also teaching us to regard the unrepentant sinner, not as a permanent outsider or as one we are free to hate, but as a sinner who needs God’s mercy and grace. Like Jesus, we need to be open to being vehicles of this grace for this person.
In all of my time as a pastor, I have never been involved directly with step 4 of Jesus’ guidance. That is to say, I’ve never been a part of a church-wide recognition of an unrepentant member as an outsider. Why not? It’s not because my church and I would not do this if we had to. Rather, in every single instance of church discipline in which I’ve participated, it has not been necessary. In the majority of times when we’ve taken steps 1, 2, and even 3, the offender has repented and been restored to community. Both the church and the individual are stronger and healthier as a result. But in a number of cases, I’m sad to report, the unrepentant sinner left the church. To put it bluntly, the sinner loved the sin more than the Christian community, not to mention personal holiness.
For example, several years ago one of my church leaders, who happened to be a dear friend, decided to commit adultery. Although many of us in the church begged him to stop and seek reconciliation with his wife, he decided that his new relationship was more important than his marriage, his family, and his involvement in our church. So he resigned his leadership position and his membership. A few of us tried to pursue him a bit further, but it was obvious that he had made himself like “a Gentile and a tax collector.” Over the years I have met with this man, and though he now regrets his sinful choices, he still lives mostly cut off from the church of Jesus Christ. Broken relationships remain broken. My hope and prayer for him is that, in time and by God’s grace, he’ll reconnect with the body of Christ somehow. But he is like a tax collector in relationship to me.
On the positive side, I have seen marriages pulled back from the brink of divorce by the loving but tough involvement of Christian community. Some years back a man I’ll call “Ron” had committed adultery and initiated divorce against his wife. One Sunday, when the divorce was almost final, Ron “happened” to be in church when I “happened” to refer to the line from Malachi in which God says, “I hate divorce” (Mal 2:16). Ron was struck to the heart. We met together the next day and I reaffirmed what I had said from the pulpit. I explained in greater depth God’s commitment to marriage and how Scripture regards divorce and marriage. Over the next several months, Ron genuinely repented for what he had done. He sought reconciliation with his wife, who was willing, in time, to forgive him. Through Christian support and some wise marriage counseling, they not only mended their marriage, but also in fact made it better than it had ever been before.
Almost one year later to the day from the Sunday when Ron “happened” to be in church, I had the great joy of officiating at a renewal of marriage vows ceremony for him and his wife. If I had simply let Ron be, if I had chosen to “live and let live,” if I had believed that his private affairs were none of my business, then Ron’s marriage and family would be broken today. Yet, by risking confrontation, I was used by God to bring greater wholeness to Ron’s heart, to his family, and to our church.
Yet, whether the story ends happily or sadly, the church has the responsibility and authority (Matt 18: 18-20) to recognize when its members have effectively removed themselves from fellowship because of unrepentant sin. The church can “bind” this choice by acknowledging it and living according to it. But the church also has the privilege of “loosing” people from sin, that is, acknowledging their forgiveness. To this I’ll turn in my next post, because it’s an absolutely essential part of Jesus’ guidance concerning what to do when someone sins against you.