Matthew 18: 15-20 is often referred to as “Jesus’ instructions on church discipline.” It’s pretty easy to see why: the steps outlined are a good conflict resolution technique. Say a church member sins against you (or offends you, or you have an argument, or are in conflict). First, you go to that person to try to resolve the conflict. Great first step: you deal directly with the issue, not involving others unnecessarily, no slander, no gossip. If that doesn’t work, then take two or three others with you and talk to the person again. Again, this is good process: getting someone uninvolved in the issue to help mediate the conflict and to witness the conversation. If the problem remains unresolved, then take it to the church to decide. This move brings accountability to the community and allows the process of the Holy Spirit working through the gathered body of believers to bring resolution. Finally, if the fellow believer refuses to listen to the church, “let them be as a Gentile or tax collector to you.”
So, what happens you’ve followed the process and the conflict is not resolved? Does that mean that you’ve done all that’s expected to resolve the conflict and now can forget about it, leaving the relationship between you and your fellow believer broken?
Maybe we could look further in the scripture for guidance. It’s a good practice to look at where a particular passage is placed in scripture. Often what happens before and after a passage sheds light on what the passage means.
This passage sits squarely in the middle of one of Jesus’ teaching sessions with the disciples. A session that starts by the disciples asking, “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responds by telling them that they must become as a child. In the kingdom of heaven, those who are humble as a child are the greatest and those who welcomed children welcome Jesus.
Next, Jesus teaches that we need to be careful not to set stumbling blocks for others, especially the humble children of faith, to trip over in their faith walks. He goes on to give the parable of the lost sheep that strayed away from the ninety-nine, and the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to find the one who has strayed.
Having set the stage with an illustration of how the God seeks to find and bring the lost back into the fold, Jesus then teaches this passage on how to deal with conflict with a fellow believer.
Peter wants to make sure he’s got it right. To Peter, this sounds like a teaching on forgiveness, not on holding another accountable and making sure there are no sinners in the congregation. He asks how many times he needs to forgive and Jesus says “77 times” and then follows this up with the parable of a servant, who was just forgiven a huge debt by the king, refusing to forgive another servant who owes him a pittance.
It may seem odd that a passage on “church discipline” is set so squarely in a teaching on forgiveness. Did Peter get it right and we have lost something along the way? Maybe this passage is not about church discipline at all. Maybe it’s about seeking the lost one, trying to forgive and reconcile. It’s about actively seeking the fellow believer who is straying, trying to mend the broken relationship, forgiving offense as many times as is needed, in the humble spirit of one whom the Father has also forgiven.
And that thing about treating the unrepentant believer as ‘a Gentile and tax collector” – we need to think about how Jesus treated them. Matthew himself was a tax collector before Jesus called him as a disciple. So was Zacchaeus, and yet Jesus chose to have dinner with him. Jesus healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter, and the centurion’s servant, and the demoniac at Gadarenes. He engaged the Samaritan women in conversation at the well. One of the Pharisee’s complaints against Jesus was that he associated with tax collectors and other sinners, even going as far as to eat with them! So perhaps instead of cutting off the unrepentant fellow believer, we should be following Jesus’ example of how to treat ‘Gentiles and tax collectors’ – finding ways to demonstrate God’s love and forgiveness to them, seeking to bring the lost sheep back into the fold.
Maybe a better title for the passage would be “Jesus’ instruction on how to forgive and reconcile when you live in a community of believers who are forgiven but still human and sometimes sin.”