Law versus grace
Binding and loosing
In the midst
These verses are normally taken to be a later compilation of material which the author of Matthew included to outline the necessary procedures for Church discipline in the Church of his day. Therefore, Mathag’s header to these verses speaks of the content which will deal with the best way to handle such matters of offence and goes on to comment that
‘...the problem of specific offences against members of the community by other members of that community is addressed’
and speaks of (my italics) the
‘...need of a proper disciplinary procedure...In this pericope we see church discipline pragmatically at work, its basis in OT precedent, the authority once again of those in positions of leadership and the promise of the continued presence of Jesus in His gathered community’
My italicised words should be specifically noted, however, because, although this passage is often taken to be referring to a manual by which leaders are to discipline believers below them, there is no mention of any type of leader at all.
Jesus speaks of taking fellow believers with oneself and of bringing the matter to the church, but he nowhere says that a leadership structure should be in existence which should decide upon these matters - a point which should warn us against thinking that Matthew has any other intention of recording these words here than to accurately convey to the reader what Jesus said at this point in His ministry.
Had Matthew included these words because he wanted to portray Jesus’ instructions to the leadership within the Church of his day, why didn’t he mention them? Why did he rather speak of the corporate body of a (local) church as making the decision regarding excommunication if the leadership were to be committed with that task?
And, besides, Mathag’s assertion that this passage is about discipline is slightly wayward and shouldn’t be followed with any great conviction. While there may be in these words a clearly set out procedure to take which should be employed when there are problems between brothers in the Kingdom community, it goes far beyond a simple ‘handbook’ of Church discipline. As Matfran comments
‘...their concern is not with the punishment of an offence but with the attempt to rescue a brother whose sin has put him in danger’
Only when such an interpretation is accepted is this passage seen to be a direct consequence of the fourteen verses which have preceded it and, rather than seeing it as a collection of sayings which were spoken by Jesus at another time and included here for ease of reference, they become a necessary and integrated part in Jesus’ entire thrust of what He wants to say about the regard the disciples should have for even the least of the believers.
So, it’s only when we understand Mtw 18:1-14, that we will correctly interpret Jesus’ words here - the parallels, conclusions and contrasts are extremely important to be noted before we begin. Therefore, we read in Mtw 18:5 of Jesus’ inseparable unity with the believer and, in 18:20, that He’s in the midst of any two of His disciples, whether they be the little believers or the disciples themselves who are priding themselves on being the top dogs - one follows the other as a consequence.
In Mtw 18:6-7, we have previously noted that Jesus is concerned to show the disciples that they must be careful not to lead any brother into sin and, in 18:15, there begins the instruction of how to lead that stumbled brother away from the sin in which he’s living and back into a relationship with God through repentance. To see this passage as a manual of discipline is to forget that Jesus has just spoken of the Father’s love to leave the spiritually safe and to seek out the spiritually wayward (Mtw 18:12-14), these subsequent verses giving a practical outworking of how that might be done in the believer’s life.
And, in Mtw 18:10-14, Jesus has shown that it isn’t the Father’s will that any follower should come to harm while, in 18:15-17, an active concern for their restoration is to be what motivates the disciples rather than a concern about position within the Kingdom (Mark 9:33-34).
While it’s true that there remains the possibility that the wayward disciple won’t respond (Mtw 18:17), the procedure isn’t laid down to show how this might be achieved! Rather, it’s there to show how repentance and restoration can be brought about.
We should note that the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ in Mtw 18:15-17 are singular and show that the passage has initially to do with mutual discipline even though, if no reconciliation is possible, it has to develop into a matter of discipline for the church not for the leadership - especially as it may be one of the leadership who has sinned against the brother in question who is attempting to be reconciled. How many fellowships have there been where a leader has harboured a grudge against a follower in their congregations, who have put them down from being able to fulfil the calling of God upon their lives but who like to maintain that what they’re doing is for the sake of the Body of Christ! This teaching by Jesus - which I’ve previously observed does not mention that this is the leadership’s right of action - undermines authoritarian control and places reconciliation into the lap of the church, even to the point of having to call a leader to give an account of himself before the congregation. And that’s not very pleasant reading for many of our denominations, is it?
But self-discipline must always be the background for mutual discipline - if a believer does not discipline himself, he will never be in a position to be able to discipline others. And, besides this, love is the underlying principle which must be a part of all discipline.
To tell a fellow believer of his sin is to love him enough to want to see him restored into a relationship with Christ and His fellow disciples. These verses cannot be either a legalistic procedure which is to be observed to the letter (like Pharisaism was - Mtw 7:1-5, 12:2, 12:24, 15:2), nor is it a way whereby a believer can be methodically expelled from a fellowship by a church leadership (especially when they’re never mentioned as being God’s instruments of discipline here).
These words are guidance for an expression of love, mercy and forgiveness towards a fellow believer who has ‘gone astray’ (Mtw 18:12) and who needs to be restored into the flock of the ninety-nine sheep (make a good label for a local church, don’t you think? - ‘the flock of the ninety-nine sheep’!).
Such is the love of Christ for His followers that it is not His will (Mtw 18:14) that
‘...one of these little ones should perish’
What Jesus proposes at the outset of the attempted reconciliation was as radical in His day as it is in ours for Yoma 8:9 in the Mishnah states (my italics) that
‘...for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow’
That is, the responsibility for reconciliation between two parties lay with the person who had committed the transgression and who had caused the ill-feeling to arise. Judaism could quite easily justify the decision of writing a fellow Jew out of the benefits of God’s community if the offender took no initiative in seeking to restore the relationship - something which is against what Jesus is here proposing.
He commands, rather, that the man who has been offended is the one who must initially take steps to bring about peace (some of the manuscripts which are considered to be the most reliable authorities don’t contain the words ‘against you’ and make the offence out to be something impersonal. However, judging by the personal nature of the reconciliation being offered, it would appear that, even if these words aren’t original, it’s what was being meant by Jesus when He taught the disciples. Matfran, however, is one who sees the words as necessarily unoriginal and, therefore, that the passage is speaking about general sin which comes to another believer’s attention rather than ‘a personal offence’. Matmor, although non-committal, is perhaps best followed when he states that ‘It is impossible to be sure of the original reading’).
This is nothing short of what God has done through Jesus on the cross and the principle is nothing out of the ordinary when taken as a divine principle - indeed, the disciple is seen only to be expected to do what the One he follows has already done for him (when viewed from this side of the cross). As Rom 5:10 points out
‘...while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son...’
and the initiative lay not with mankind but with God Himself who had been sinned against. Therefore the offended becomes the reconciler - not only in and through the cross but in the new community which Jesus’ death will bring about.
We’re talking here about ‘sin’, of course, and not just something that someone didn’t like being said - but, even in this, there may be a good reason for the offended to approach the one who has caused pain to bring the matter up. In my own experience, however, such an approach normally causes more problems than it seeks to solve! After all, if someone came up to you and said
‘You really annoy me because you’ve been given the gift of playing guitar and I haven’t’
what will actually happen but that the one who knows nothing of this will be tempted to take offence because of those offensive words! Better a believer who takes offence through something that isn’t a sin and comes to terms with it in his own time or by recourse to a conversation with another believer rather than to attempt a reconciliation which will only bring about a division. The initially offended may feel better having unburdened themselves, but how is the follower going to feel when he’s been spattered with such a negative declaration?
Therefore, we should understand Jesus’ words only in the context of a direct sin which has been committed against another. In the OT, Lev 19:17 gives sufficient grounds for us to think that Jesus’ words here may be specifically drawn from the Mosaic Law, when it commands the Israelite that
‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him’
However, the Law doesn’t directly equate the hatred of another as the result of an act of sin and it may be that what is being intended is the unfounded grudge which can too easily spring up in relationships simply because one is jealous of another. What the instruction does teach us, though, is that it’s possible that an innocent believer (that is, the one who is sinned against) may find themselves in a position of unforgiveness and bitterness, even moving against them as an outworking of such feelings and so bearing sin because of an action which originated in another.
Reconciliation, therefore, should not be thought of only as a benefit for the offender but provides a way for the hurt in the offended to be dealt with and negated so that no bitterness might spring up and overflow into the church fellowship. Neither is there any indication that the offended should go from believer to believer in the fellowship and turn the heart of the people against their fellow disciple (as often happens) - rather, there is a secrecy which is involved in the matter which only is removed once the offender refuses to come to his senses - and, even then, there is another opportunity given him to repent in the relative privacy of a small meeting of approximately five people.
Sirach 19:13 instructs its readers to
‘Admonish a friend - it may be he has not done it: and if he has done it, that he do it no more’
and there is a wisdom here which should be recognised, even though the first phrase is far from Jesus’ intentions. The latter instruction, however, makes perfect sense even in the context of being offended by something which a friend does rather than it being a direct sin.
Although Jesus’ words are specifically given to the one offended, Paul moves on from the offender/offended relationship to speak of transgression in general when he writes in Gal 6:1 that
‘...if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness...’
That is, reconciliation of a follower of Christ is just as much a responsibility of the ‘sinless’ believer as it is the person who is living in that particular sin. And all this is done not that a believer might be excommunicated but that he might be restored.
Even if such a person should refuse to accept sound reasoning and teaching, Paul elsewhere notes that he shouldn’t be looked upon as an enemy but be warned as a fellow believer (II Thess 3:14-15).
Again, though, we must note that this initial procedure is given to make reconciliation possible, not to be followed in order that someone might be removed from fellowship. And the responsibility lies with the offended rather than the offender to bring about a restoration of the relationship.
It's interesting to note that Jesus doesn't say
'If your brother sins against you, get in contact with as many people as possible and tell them how bad your brother is'
'If your brother sins against you, don't even speak to him and neither give him an opportunity to address the matter'
'If your brother sins against you, marginalise him so he becomes ineffective for Christ amongst you'
and yet this is what has been my experience throughout my time as a believer.
Amongst the people who uphold Scripture as being the 'rule book' (that phrase is chosen so as not to identify any one particular denomination and their foundational statements of belief), you would have thought that they would be eager to ask the question 'What Would Jesus Do?' and then run to do it.
Even more, when the verse is brought to their attention and the question asked 'Don't I get the opportunity to put things right?' that the response would be anything less than 'Sure' rather than a stony silence and people crossing over the other side of the street when they meet you or turning their heads so they don't have to meet you eye to eye.
But it goes much further than this in today's Church for perceived sin is elevated to a par with real sin and minor offences that have trodden on people's traditional viewpoints are very often taken to be a sin that's of even more significance than if someone had said that God was an octopus who came to earth in a spacecraft from Alpha Centauri (although I wouldn't doubt that, somewhere, there is a church who believes just that and are, even now, taking offence that I should use their foundational belief as something to be smirked at).
In my own experience, I have been put down variously - because, apparently, I was wanting to sleep with the elder's daughter (I only found this out years later after I'd left the place and the allegations were unfounded - I didn't even like the girl. The very same elder's wife, though, was having an extra-marital sexual relationship which, perhaps, should have had implications for the elder and his effectiveness in the fellowship), I was turning my guitar up too loud so I could drown out all the other musicians (how I can do that when I need both hands to play the guitar and when someone else had control of the mixing desk, I don't know), I was choosing songs that nobody else could play (these were the ones we'd rehearsed with the entire music group two days before) and, when I was appointed Youth Leader for six weeks until my departure for another church in the UK, the current leader rang the Church leader and said that I was of uncertain character and couldn't be trusted (even though I had been faultless in their midst and was vouched for by the denomination who'd sent me there. I note that, within a few weeks, this leaving Youth Leader began leading a fellowship in Norfolk, who receive my heartfelt condolences).
I've also been banned from web sites with no explanation of what I'd done and, on another occasion, no explanation given as to why what I'd done had been so offensive, giving me no recourse to defend myself or repent if I had been at fault, preferring to deal with all my emails for such information with silence.
In fact, the bottom line is that I realise now that revival could never be sustained in the Church if God should ever send it. With such seismic problems, the new move would soon be prevented from flowing through His people because of the mistrust, self-doubt and defensiveness which manifests as hatred in believers' hearts, who'd work against revival 'in the name of Christ' by working against those whom God had chosen to lead it.
All the trouble I've had (and there were even some believers along the way who caused trouble for my wife and I and then said that, when that sort of thing happened that they were doing against us, you must never speak about it - but our cat sorted them out) has only prompted me to study and put this teaching site together. Just like Joseph and his exile into Egypt, so I found that it was the way that YHWH chose to cause me to do what I would never had been able to do - or had even imagined could have been achieved - had I found peace and tranquillity amongst His people.
But, like Joseph, does that mean that his brothers aren't culpable because God had His own plan? No, it doesn't. It does mean, however, that I should be willing to deal with the transgressions as and when they turn for repentance which, it seems, is very unlikely even though, where opportunity arose to try and deal with problems, I attempted it.
My continued experience, however, is that the churches are quite happy in the state they've always been in and, even though opportunity has been given and will be given them, no will on their part causes them to want to change.
For this reason - and as previously noted - revival will not come amongst the ranks of the established Church. Of that I am sure even though we might pretend it's turned up. But, should a people be raised by YHWH who have not known and experienced - that is, who are not a part of - the Church, there's always the possibility that such a move of revival could take place.
Unfortunately, we'd find ourselves thrust back into the life and times of Jesus where the established Church of His day, the Pharisees and Sadducees, would persecute the new life that YHWH had brought through a people rejected by them.
Law versus grace
But what happens when the offender doesn’t want to know? Then the offended (the sinned against rather than someone who has simply taken exception to something which was said) should take with him a couple of fellow believers to be a witness to all that transpires between them.
Jesus appears to say nothing about the witnesses taking part in the reconciliation process, only that their presence in the meeting is to be an accurate record of what took place and, presumably, to be able to testify before the gathering of the congregation should there need to be a coming together as detailed in Mtw 18:16. However, against this is the first phrase of the following verse which says that
‘If he refuses to listen to them...’
which can only, in this context, mean the witnesses. Therefore, there certainly does appear to be the allowance that the witnesses which are taken along may enter into the discussion in order that a reconciliation might take place. In this manner, the witnesses may also double as peacemakers (Mtw 5:9) and, as Matfran comments
‘Their function is to add force to the persuasion...’
Under the Mosaic Law, Deut 19:15 specified that
‘A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained’
and this seems to be the background to Jesus’ instructions. Nevertheless, Heb 10:28 observes that
‘A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses’
and we should note that the Law only insisted upon the witnesses for the person’s condemnation and in the setting of a formal trial, whereas the inclusion of them in the outworking of this process is for reconciliation. Therefore, though they bear a semblance to the requirements of the Law, their inclusion is for totally different purposes and their presence is, as noted above, a means towards God’s required end.
Finally, if nothing of what’s transpired has brought about a satisfactory settlement (and the only satisfactory settlement is reconciliation - not an award of damages which is required to be paid before sin can be forgiven and unity restored), then the church is to be called together and the matter presented to them for a decision to be made.
I can’t stress this enough - there’s not even a single mention of the leadership here that would cause us to think that the case should be heard behind closed doors and that a decision should be reached by a group of people on behalf of others.
The implication of Jesus’ words is that the whole church is to come together to decide on the matter.
Presumably, the offender may not be willing to be present at such a meeting - if the person is fully set on his course of action and continues to commit sin against his brother in Christ, then a hardness of heart may already have come upon him to the exclusion of being able to receive forgiveness and mercy through his repentance.
Even so, the church is to meet and to decide on the matter and, if they find that there needs to be something done which is the responsibility of the offender, the decision is presumably related back to them if they had chosen not to attend the meeting. Paul speaks about cases which were being brought against one another in the church at Corinth (I Cor 6:1-8) but there appears to be a subtle difference here - the idea is that of legal offences which are being brought before non-christian judges rather than causes of offence which are primarily personal sins against one another.
It’s true that the Corinthian matters are equally matters of stumbling and sin and should be categorised as requiring a process for reconciliation outlined in Mtw 18:15-17. In Corinth, however, the idea seems to be a seeking after damages and payment for wrong treatment and reconciliation lies only as a faint possibility. Jesus speaks of it as being the prime objective, however.
If there was to be no reconciliation even after the matter had been brought to the church’s attention, the offender is to be treated not as a brother by the offended but as an unsaved individual. Jesus’ words that he should be considered to be as
‘...a Gentile and a [Jewish?] tax collector’
may mean much more than this seeing as those two classes of people were generally despised and rejected by the Jews at large as being people who were frowned upon as being about the worst human scum that could be possibly imagined.
However, the words need probably no more interpretation than that the person is not to be accepted as part of the people of God and, therefore, that the church’s decision should be equally binding upon those in the congregation as it would be upon the offended - that is, the offender is considered to be exiled away from the congregation of Jesus’ believers. It’s difficult to see how a church decision couldn’t be expected to be applicable to all the people who have come to that decision even though the commentators are quite correct in observing that nowhere does the subject of excommunication raise its head directly.
Mathag comments observantly that such an excommunication is impossible in today’s set up simply because there are numerous denominational buildings and that the expelled believer can simply
‘...walk down the street to the next church...’
In the first century, however, there was but one church in towns and cities so that such an expulsion would have had the effect of necessarily removing them from the people of the Lord without there being the possibility of moving on to another group of believers. Although it’s correct to think of this instruction needing to be applied in todays’ Church, we should also note that such a decision against a believer will have less of an affect on them than it would have done when the Church was first being established.
Binding and loosing
Mtw 18:18 seems to be spoken by Jesus as a conclusion to the verses which have run from the start of 18:15 and which has given the disciples a clear perspective of the need for reconciliation to take place through the initiative of the offended rather than to wait for the realisation of the error of their ways by the offender. As such, we should interpret the words solely in this context and not, as we could, take them away from their primary meaning.
I have already dealt with the underlying meaning of both binding and loosing on a previous web page and the reader should turn there to understand what these terms meant in first century Israel, for they’re normally taken to mean something quite different within today’s Church.
Very simply, the word ‘binding’ meant what was forbidden and ‘loosing’ that which was allowed or commanded. Even here, though, there are both legislative and judicial aspects where the former is simplified by the phrase ‘Law making’ and the latter by ‘Law enforcing’. That the concepts of binding and loosing should not be restricted to Peter (Mtw 16:19) is certain because the words here stand as a conclusion to a passage which speaks of the local church coming to a decision and having the ability to perform both functions (Mathag notes that all the verbs here are plural and, therefore, can’t be taken to be a statement which is being repeated solely to Peter).
As I noted on the above mentioned web page, there is no good purpose in the Church of Christ simply making decisions that they decide are compulsory on the local church (law making) if there is no power to bring about their decision (law enforcing). Therefore, when we read of Jesus speaking about what is being bound and loosed having already been bound or loosed in Heaven itself, we are thinking of the power of God being made available to believers to bring about the decision which has been proclaimed on earth.
The decision made on earth, then, is only an echo of the decision that has already been proclaimed in heaven and heard from there by believers on earth. A church fellowship is not solely to receive and stockpile spiritual decisions from Heaven if it isn’t going to either bring them about or pray them into existence.
In the context of the procedure on Mtw 18:15-17, however, we should note Jesus’ statement to be solely the reassurance that the church, when it meets, will have (or rather ‘should have’) the wisdom to make the right decision in the circumstances which are presented to it - in this case, regarding the unrepentance of a believer. That, simply, is what the verse means.
However, Jesus then goes on from this point to teach that
‘...if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven’
but precedes the instruction with the words
‘Again I say to you...’
a phrase which causes us to think that He’s adding a teaching here which doesn’t directly relate to the preceding situation but is more a general principle which can be applied to other occasions (Matmor calls the phrase ‘a fresh start’). Certainly, the mention of just ‘two’ believers pulls away from the meeting of the church in Mtw 18:17 but the context of Mtw 18:18 is equally applicable which sees decisions being made in accordance with the revelation from Heaven itself as to what it is that’s the Father’s will in the situation.
Mathag sees the reference to be to the church community’s leaders and their request for guidance in the spiritual matter of deciding upon the case brought before them and outlined in Mtw 18:15-17. But this is purely fanciful and is more an apologetic for what continues to be performed in the present day Church than it is a fair reflection upon what Jesus willed should be done. It’s any two believers that are here being mentioned, not just two believers who are in a unique leadership role over a congregation.
However, it’s not sufficient for us to assert that any two believers can come together and agree that £50,000 be put into the offering box next Sunday and that the matter will be immediately settled and fixed - but that two believers who have both heard independently from heaven that such a thing is the Father’s desire can come together and decide that it is to be so.
Revelation from the Father is a necessary requirement of answered prayer (I John 5:14), an outworking of the will of God on earth. In this way, the Kingdom of God comes to earth rather than the will of man comes to be enforced with the power of the Spirit of God.
As with the following verse, Jesus is insistent that two believers are sufficient - even two ‘little believers’ (Mtw 18:5,10) - and the thought is not that answered prayer can only come about when the archbishop and bishop are present but that two believers will get God’s will done on earth as it is in Heaven when they ally themselves with the revealed will of God and pray accordingly. Matmor summarises the verse well when he writes that
‘...God is always ready to hear the united prayers of even two of His little ones’
And, further, even one believer standing on his own, will have the same effect (I Kings 17:1).
In the midst
Ever been in a numerically dwindling church and the leader says with a depth of sincerity which is tear-jerking that, just because there are only three of us tonight in the prayer meeting, it really doesn’t matter because
‘...where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, He will be in our midst’
and you think
‘It must be best that there aren’t four or five of us cos then He wouldn’t be here’
Okay, so perhaps you haven’t. But the verse certainly seems to have been applied to small meetings to seek some justification why we shouldn’t just pack everything up and go elsewhere where God is actually on the move. Instead, we should see the verse as a consequential outworking of Jesus’ statement in Mtw 18:5 that
‘Whoever receives one such [little believer] in My name receives Me’
because, if a little believer carries with himself God’s presence, when two come together they bring God with them. Rather than assure the believers that ‘two’s enough’, it should be taken to be showing them that ‘two’s the start’ and should get us away from the mentality which sees believers coming to a building to meet with God. The only way that that can happen is if they bring Him with them!
There really is no point in thinking that God might show up where they’re travelling to because it confesses the fact that God isn’t present with them in their private lives. Far from being a spiritual statement that we admire, when a person says that they need to go to church to meet with God, please remind them that they sure aren’t living under the New Covenant which made the way for believers to know His presence continually (II Cor 6:16).
That Jesus speaks here of Himself being in their midst rather than the Father is another indication that Jesus is claiming to be divine for it would be impossible for such a thing to happen if Jesus weren’t omnipresent - something which will be restored to Him in reality after the resurrection and ascension (Mtw 28:20).
There’s an interesting parallel in the Mishnah in Aboth 3:2 which reads
‘...if two sit together and words of the Law are between them, the Shekinah [God’s presence] rests between them’
which asserts that God takes delight in the place where two Jews talk about the requirements of the Mosaic Law. Jesus’ teaching is notably different, though, and refers to when two believers come together ‘in My name’ - that is, according to His will and purpose.
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