In Matthew 18, Jesus outlined the steps we are to take in confronting another believer who has been overtaken by sin.
Step #1: Talk with the person privately (Matthew 18:15).
The term Jesus used for sin (harmartia) means "to miss the mark." Anytime we see a fellow believer who is missing the mark in relation to God's standard for any area of life, we have a responsibility to gently offer a word of correction.
While we don't need a seminary degree to perform such a procedure, we must meet one qualification that offering corrections must already have dealt with sin in their own lives.
In Matthew 7 verses 1 and 5, Jesus instructed, “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged . . . You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye!”
This doesn't mean we must be perfect before we can correct another Christian. However, Jesus' words do require us to have dealt as decisively as possible with any obvious areas of disobedience in our own life before we attempt to correct someone else. Otherwise, it is as if we are attempting to perform surgery blindfolded. In that situation, neither the patient nor the doctor feels confident!
If our fellow believer responds to our correction, then we have "won'' our brother. The word translated "won" means "to accumulate wealth." One more of God's sheep has been returned to the fold, and that constitutes a "win'' for us. At that point, we are to drop the matter. No further action is necessary. But what if the sinning believer refuses to listen to correction and continues in his or her disobedience?
Step #2: Take a small group with you when you talk to the person (Matthew 18:16).
Jesus realized that there would be times when a disobedient Christian would not respond to private correction, so He gave this instruction to take one or two with you when you talk to the person (Matthew 18:16).
Whether we are meeting privately or in a small group with a Christian who is caught up in sin, it is imperative that we do so "in a spirit of gentleness" (Galatians 6:1). After all, a successful surgeon uses a scalpel, not a pickax, to perform a delicate procedure. That means we should refrain from harsh words and reaffirm our desire for the person's restoration.
But what if the disobedient believer persists in disobedience and tells the group who is confronting him or her to mind their own business? Jesus knew that was a distinct possibility, so He provided us with the next step of action.
Step #3: Report the situation to the congregation (Matthew 18:17a).
After a reasonable period of time has elapsed for the sinning Christian to consider the private rebuke he or she has received, Jesus said that it is time to make the offense public if the person remains unrepentant.
The purpose of reporting the sin to the church is not to humiliate the person. Instead, the congregation is informed so that the members might pray for his or her repentance and also be prepared for the next, most extreme step of action, should it be required.
It is important to pause here and observe that Jesus was giving us general guidelines, not detailed instructions, for how to handle sin in the church. The number of unanswered questions that arise from this passage indicates to me that Jesus gave us great latitude in how to apply these principles, depending on the individual situation.
For example, since Jesus never precisely described the kind of sin that would require this more drastic action, leaders may exercise discernment in deciding which sins need to be made public. I personally believe that the third and fourth steps of action Jesus outlined should be reserved for corporate sins—sins that threaten the moral, doctrinal, or emotional health of the entire congregation.
Furthermore, the command to "tell it to the church" may involve telling the elders or a small group of leaders rather than making a public announcement on Sunday morning. Remember, these instructions are not an end unto themselves; they are the means to an end: the restoration of a sinning believer. Making public the habits of a Christian who is guilty of gluttony or addicted to pornography will probably do more harm than good to both the believer and the congregation. Jesus expects us to use good judgment instead of following the letter of the law here.
Step #4: If necessary, remove the person from the congregation (Matthew 18:17b).
In extreme instances, an unrepentant Christian must be removed from the congregation.
Sometimes we must take severe measures to restore a Christian, even if those measures cause temporary discomfort. A surgeon has to cut in order to heal.
There are two reasons for removing a sinning Christian from the fellowship of a church and treating him or her as an outsider (or as Jesus said, "a Gentile and a tax collector"). Revoking the person's membership will:
- serve as a wake-up call to the seriousness of the offense and will hopefully lead to his or her repentance and restoration.
- protect the spiritual, moral, and emotional health of the fellowship, as in the case of the Corinthian who was living with his stepmother.
Again, it should be pointed out that the only time the New Testament records this extreme action being taken is in the case of overt sin that threatened the well-being of an entire congregation, such as the situation in the Corinthian church.
The principles Jesus and Paul outlined still work today. In both surgery and discipline, you lose some, but you also win some. And those wins make the process of restoration worthwhile.