So far in this series we’ve seen that Jesus’ guidance for what to do if someone sins against you includes three steps:
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).
Sadly enough, there are times when a person is so caught in sin, or so well-defended by self-serving rationalizations, that he or she simply won’t listen even to the church (or leading representatives from it). In this case you and the church should move to step 4: “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” (Matt 18:18).
Let Such a One Be to You as a Gentile and a Tax Collector
From our postmodern point of view, this seems harsh and even unchristian. From a first-century Jewish point of view, Gentiles and tax collectors were outsiders who had no part in the Jewish community. Tax collectors, though they might have been Jewish by birth, had chosen to align themselves with the Roman oppressors for the sake of personal gain. Thus, they were worse than mere Gentiles, and were hated by their fellow Jews. So, to hear Jesus tell his Jewish followers to regard an unrepentant sinner as “a Gentile and a tax collector” seems almost incredible.
What Jesus assumes about sin in this text is something most people today, including many Christians, don’t understand. Sin isn’t some little blemish that can be covered over or ignored. Rather, it’s like a malignant melanoma, which, if left in place, will ultimately metastasize, destroying the individual sinner and wounding the Christian community. So, though surgery for removal can be painful, it is necessary for the health of the individual and the church.
At this point you might want wonder: “Where is the love of Jesus? Where is forgiveness? Where is acceptance?” It’s pretty clear, from this text and many others, that love, forgiveness, and acceptance do not include tolerating unconfessed sin in Christian brothers and sisters. In our day we think it’s loving to let sinners alone. We think it’s not our business to get involved. But Jesus sees things differently. Life in the community of his followers involves risky and messy involvement in the lives of others, both for their sake and for the common good. Sometimes this involvement includes discipline that is actually a reflection of Christian love. (Photo: “The Tax Collectors” by the Flemish Calvinist painter Marinus van Reymerswaele (mid -16th century). Now there are a couple of men to be avoided.)
Moreover, we must remember that the offender had three chances to recognize his or her sin and repent. By failing to do so, this person essentially ostracized himself or herself from the community. It’s not so much that the church has to kick out the offender as it merely recognizes the breach that is already there. This is implied in Jesus’ statement about regarding the offenders as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” These people weren’t literally kicked out of Jewish society. Rather, they were either by birth or by choice simply not included. There were outsiders. And so is the person who will not repent of sin when given every chance to do so.
Jesus also assumes that the community of his followers, because it is a place of genuine love, will care so much about the wellbeing of its members that it will not tolerate unrepentant sin in one of them. From the perspective of 21st century Western culture, this seems like a complete non sequitur, because we worship the idol of tolerance. Putting up with people, letting them be, not messing with their private affairs, not judging, and so forth are central to our cultural creed. But not so in the society of Jesus. Here we will care so much about each other that we’ll risk everything for the sake of an individual’s growth in holiness.
One of the scariest things I’ve ever had to do as a Christian involved confronting a renowned Christian leader about his sin. I didn’t know this leader very well personally, but I became aware through one of my church members that this man had been grossly dishonest about some important matters. I got a meeting with him and told him what I had learned. I can still remember my heart pounding and palms sweating. I was ready for him to rebuke me for my insolence as he defended his innocence. To my surprise, he responded with an open and broken heart. He admitted what he had done and that it was wrong. In the rest of the meeting we worked out a plan for him to apologize to those he had wronged, to make restitution, and to institute in his life some structures of accountability to ensure that such a thing would not happen again. I left that meeting with a new respect for this man’s integrity. And, as much as I was able to tell, he faithfully followed up on the plan we had forged together. As a result, both he and his ministry were healthier than they had been before.
There’s an absolutely essential point about step four that I have not yet addressed. I’ll examine this point tomorrow.