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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Gospel Analysis: The Church

Pentecost 16A     Matthew 18:15-20

Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198

The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled, THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.

Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 161-162. 

#170. ON REPROVING ONE’S BROTHER (THE CHURCH)     Matthew 18:15-18

Matthew inserts this story at this point. This story is found only in the Gospel of Matthew.

This teaching is about solving conflicts within the church. The word, “church,” is used here for the second time in the gospels. When we hear the word, “church,” we know that this word was used in a later period in history e.g. during the time of the writing of the Book of Acts, and the Apostle Paul. If Jesus’ ministry spanned three years, from approximately 30-33 CE, then the time of the beginnings of the church is identified with the Apostle Paul, from approximately 48-62 CE. 

These teachings in Matthew 18:15-20 sound very much like the teachings of the Apostle Paul as he counsels the church on how to deal with conflict.

Why does Matthew insert this teaching at this point? Perhaps because Matthew has gathered together other teachings of Jesus about sin, missing the mark and imperfections within human beings. Earlier in this chapter, Matthew includes the Aramaic teachings of Jesus that “if your hand or foot cause you to sin, cut them off.” In the verses immediately prior to the teaching about dealing with conflicts in the church, Matthew has included the teaching of the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one sheep that has gone astray.  People in the church are to go out of their way to find and retain the lost sheep. God rejoices in the lost sheep who has been found. Then there is the teaching about “if your brother has sinned against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” In the next teaching, we hear that we are to forgive our brother/sisters seven times seventy and we then hear a parable about the infinite forgiveness of God.

In other words, Matthew, the collector of stories about Jesus, has collected (in chapter 18) many teachings about dealing with the sin, missing the mark, and flaws within human beings.

Conflicts between human beings within churches and between Christians are inevitable. A question is how to deal with these inevitable conflicts with the Spirit of Christ.

We also recall the Jewishness of the Gospel of Matthew, that this gospel was originally written in Hebrew for Hebrews.

-If your brother has sinned against you, go and tell his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Focus on the word, “brother.” This teaching is about conflicts between two people who are Christian brothers or sisters. This teaching is about conflicts within the church family, where people see one another as brothers and sisters. The word, “brother,” suggest that this involves a conflict between friends, both of whom are Christians and members of the church.

The primary question being addressed is how do we deal with inevitable conflicts within the Christian family called the church.

We know it is wise to confront someone when they are by themselves and not in front of others. When you confront a person’s faults in front of others, it normally humiliates that person. No one likes to be humiliated, especially in front of others. It is easier to deal with our faults and imperfections during “one-on-one” conversations rather than in a group.

The Spirit of Christ is to be part of the inevitable conflicts within the church community. We recall Jesus’ earlier teachings from the Sermon on the Mount about not judging other people. Jesus warned us about the difficulty of seeing a speck in another person’s eye when you have a log in your own eye. It is with a mood of humility and self awareness that we approach a brother or sister whose fault is creating a conflict within the family of believers.

It is a gift when a Christian can share what they perceive to be fault or shortcoming with a friend. When we do this, we know how delicate the situation is. It is best to be done in private, so that they issue can be gently talked through. As we do this, we are keenly aware that we may be blind to the log in our own eye (our flaw) as we notice the speck in the other person’s eye (their flaw) that is bothering us. It is best to have these delicate conversations “one-on-one,” partially because the conversation may include us addressing our own flaws as well. Attitude and atmosphere is important during those delicate conversations, including the delicate conversations involving conflict between church members.

As you read this story from the Gospel of Matthew, you realize that the heart of the church is to help each other to deal with our sinfulness. The church, the friends at church becomes a family and we as a church family are to help each other with our imperfections, our unhealthy patterns, and the way we sin against each other and ourselves. The church is to become a family that helps each other with one’s flaws. That is what families always do. We help each other to grow up and become mature people.

You are very unfortunate if you have no one to help you with your sinfulness and imperfection, with your defects of character, with the pieces of your personality which are not so healthy. We all have these imperfection, these flaws, these deficits. All of us. There is no exception.  You are very unfortunate person if you have no one to talk with you honestly about your weaknesses in order to help you mature and grow into wholeness. That is one of the purposes of the church. We are to be like family who loves each other with loving honesty about our strengths and our weaknesses.

Pause and focus on the word, “listen.” There are times when we are in the middle of a conflict, we stop being defensive about what is being said and we actually listen to what the other person is saying to us. The importance of focusing and listening to other’s complaints is true within marriages, parent-child relationships, at work and everyplace else where we have to deal with inevitable conflicts. There comes a time in all of our lives when we actually listen to what others are saying about our shortcomings and flaws.

It is often easier in the short run to sweep those conflicts under the rug and pretend they don’t exist. But after a while, those conflicts cannot be ignored any longer.

We recall that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, also taught us to be peacemakers.

-But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. This passage is based on the Old Testament wisdom of Deuteronomy 19:15 and the need for at least two or three witnesses: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.”

We hear similar advice in I Timothy 5:19-20 which says, “Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest also may stand in fear.”

And in 2 Corinthians 13:1, “This is the third time I am coming to you. "Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses."

The Apostles Matthew and Paul invite us to talk the conflict through with two or three friends at church. A small group of responsible people often offers healthy and honest perspectives. We are aware of that.

-If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. After talking to that person with two or three people and that person refuses to listen, the matter is to be brought before the whole congregation or assembly. This advice sounds like church disciplinary laws which were written down during the time of the church which was after the time of Jesus.

The Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 6:1-8, advises Christians who have grievances against each other, not to go to civil courts to solve their disputes, but to solve those disputes within the church/assembly.

 -If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. In other words, “Don’t associate with that person. Ostracize him. Kick him out of the community. Bar him from the family. Ban him from the assembly.”

We hear echoes of similar teachings from the Apostle Paul who practiced excommunication of certain people. 

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.  For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you." I Corinthians 5:9-13.

“Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as brothers/sisters/believers.” II Thessalonians 3:14-15.

 “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest also may stand in fear.” I Timothy 5:20.

“Let him be as a Gentile or a tax collector” is Matthew’s Hebrew version of what the Apostle Paul was saying about excommunication.

These verses (treat him as a Gentile and tax collector) do not seem to be the teachings of Jesus himself but seem to be an insertion by a later group of Jewish Christians into the Jewish Gospel of Matthew. This does not diminish the importance of these words; these words are still the Word of God and have the authority of the Word of God. But since these three references to the word, “church,” occur only here in Matthew, it seems as if these words may have slipped into these stories about Jesus from two decades later during the time of the church and Book of Acts.

This phrase (treat him as a Gentile and tax collector) seems contrary to the attitude and teachings of Jesus concerning sinners. This phrase seems to contradict Jesus’ next teaching and its accompanying parable. In his next teaching, Jesus invites us to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven. Jesus then told a parable about the extravagant infinite forgiveness of God and that we are to forgive each other in the same way.  See also Luke 17:3-4, on page 200, “If your brother sins, rebuke him. And if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and turns to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” There seems to be a tension between this teaching about ostracizing an unrepentant person (treat them as a Gentile or tax collector) and the next teaching/parable about forgiving a person infinitely.

In my world as a parish pastor, I have not found ostracizing people, banning people, excommunicating people is helpful in solving tensions and conflicts within the church. Rather, here in America in the twenty-first century, those congregations which engage in such practices often appear to be more dogmatic, legalistic and self righteous.

-Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. As we have previously stated, this saying is an Aramaic expression. What does this Aramaic expression mean? The resurrected Jesus shared the same thoughts when he said in John 20:23: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Notice that John 20:23 is put in exact parallel to Matthew 18:18 on page 162. The meaning of the words of John 20:23 are clearer to us than the meaning of the Aramaic words of Matthew 18:18. Aland, the famous author of the textbook that we are using, placed Matthew 18:18 exactly parallel to John 20:23.

Within these conflicts, the church has the authority to declare forgiveness or withhold forgiveness. The church has the authority to make judgments.



-Again I say to you.  This is another saying/teaching of Jesus and this teaching is found only in Matthew. This teaching continues the thoughts of the prior teachings.

-If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. This teaching is in reference to a conflict between two people in the church/community/assembly. We as Christians are to pray that God’s will be done in the midst of this conflict. We bring this conflict to the Lord in prayer and ask for God’s guidance in this delicate situation.

Again, it would be dangerous to take this teaching literally. Like the previous teaching with its Aramaic overtones, we need to interpret this phrase. We always ask: “What is God’s message to me through this teaching? What is the meaning of this teaching of Jesus for my life in my world in my century in my culture?”

We may recall from our studies of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, (Lessons 9-12 in THE LIFE OF CHRIST), there were numerous Aramaisms that could not be taken literally but fundamentally/substantively. If a student of the Scriptures took these verses literally, a person can come to very erroneous conclusions. If a person took this Aramaic teaching of Jesus literally, it could lead to flawed deductions. 

We all know that there is power when two or three people are together in deep and earnest prayer, asking for God’s presence, power and wisdom for their situation at hand. The situation at hand was a conflict between two people. We all agree to ask God’s will to be accomplished within this conflict.

Another example. As a pastor, yesterday I was with a man who is approaching death. He, his adult daughter, and I had an honest, delicate and significant conversation about his dying. We prayed for God’s will to be done in this moment of their family’s life. We were three people gathered together in the spirit of love, prayer and mercy.

-For where two or three are gathered together in my name (presence), there am I in the midst of them. We know that God’s presence is with us when we gather together, knowing that God has promised to be with us. We remember that at his birth, Jesus was given the name, “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” We know the many experiences of life when Christ has been with us, especially when we feel the comfort and strength of other people around us.  There is power in praying with a small group of two or three people, especially when we are praying to for God to help us with a conflict.


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