Mark D. Roberts

In my last post I examined step two of Jesus’ guidance for what to do if someone sins against you. Let me review what we’ve seen so far:

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.

Yet sometimes even this doesn’t work. So Jesus moves to step three, which we find in Matthew 18:17: “If the member refuses to listen to them [the witnesses], tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church . . . .”

Tell It to the Church

Almost all English translations of verse 17 say more or less the same thing here: “tell it to the church.” The underlying Greek sentence uses the word ekklesia, which is almost always translated in the New Testament as “church” (but not in Acts 19:32, 39, and 40). At times this is certainly correct, but in some cases it might “over-translate” the original Greek, and Matthew 18:17 may be one of these cases.

By “over-translate” I mean “bring in more meaning than was present in the original.” Let me explain. When we hear the word “church,” we usually envision an institution with buildings, official authorities, etc. etc. But it’s highly unlikely that Matthew 18:17 ever conveyed this sort of thing to the original readers. (Jesus probably spoke Aramaic here, using either kenishta’ or qehilla’, which was rendered by the Greek-speaking church as ekklesia.) Rather, the first readers of Matthew would have heard in ekklesia a reference an actual gathering of Christians, a group that, in the first century, was almost always relatively small (50 people or less). (Photo: Although the Abston Church of Christ doesn’t have conflicts among its members, since they’re Lego people made of plastic, it sometimes has strange visitors to its worship services.)


I bring up this issue because it’s hard to determine precisely how one should “tell it to the church” today, when many churches are much larger and more institutionalized than was assumed in Matthew 18:17. Literally, a person could stand up in a worship service and announce his or her problem to the congregation. But it’s unlikely that this is an appropriate interpretation of Jesus’ teaching in our current setting.

In many cases today, churches have structures for dealing with conflict in the body. “Telling it to the church” might be practiced by first telling it to the board of elders or deacons. The board might decide later on that the whole congregation should be informed, but this would come only after an appropriate process of investigation.

However you work out the precise details in your particular context, the main point is that even if the second encounter proves fruitless, you’re still not done. You’ll want to be done. You’ll be tired and discouraged. But Jesus wants you to press on in the hope of reconciliation and restoration.

And If the Offender Refuses to Listen Even to the Church

Though Jesus doesn’t say so directly, this phrase implies that the church wasn’t simply a passive witness to your testimony.  The church, in some form, also got involved in trying to help the person who sinned admit his or her error and be reconciled.

Once again, it would miss the meaning of Jesus to imagine every member of a very large church involved in such a process. In many settings, “listen to the church” means “listen to the leaders of the church who are involved in the process of reconciliation.”

This would be the case in my own church. In the Presbyterian church we have official structures for church discipline. When these are used well, repentance and reconciliation can result. I’ve seen this happen on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, however, the potentially restorative process of church discipline is often thwarted, sometimes by the victim who isn’t willing to do what Jesus requires, sometimes by the perpetrator who quits the church, and sometimes by the church’s own leaders who drop the ball in various ways. The result of inadequate church discipline is unhealthiness. Individual Christians aren’t challenged to grow in their discipleship. And the church as a whole is less allowed to be less than fully whole.

In our tolerant and permissive age, church discipline is rarely practiced in any organized way, though it often happens, as it should, in the context of committed Christian friendship. For example, though I have not been brought up on official charges for my sins or administrative errors (thank God), I have sometimes been on the receiving end of confrontation. Because I’ve been able to take my medicine, however, there has been no need for an official process. Nevertheless, there are times when informal church discipline is necessary, for the health of the individuals involved as well as the whole church.

It’s absolutely crucial that we remember the redemptive and reconciling point of church discipline. In my denomination, we have a written guide for church discipline, called, sensibly enough, The Rules of Discipline. I want to end this post by quoting the second paragraph from this document, which helps to keep the focus in the right place:

The power that Jesus Christ has vested in his Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath so that the great ends of the Church may be achieved, that all children of God may be presented faultless in the day of Christ.

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