So far in our series on “Offenses,” we’ve talked about how the Lord Jesus Christ demands his people to deal with offenses, hurt, and perceived wrongdoing. Since it’s been a while, let me do a short recap. First, we talked about how, if one is able, it is a good thing to ‘overlook an offense’ (Prov. 19:11). Second, if you can’t overlook the offense, Jesus commands those who have been offended, hurt, or sinned against to go to the offender (the one who sinned against you) directly and start by simply having a conversation about what happened. The consequence of that conversation should either be: 1) clarification that no sin was committed which should lead to reconciliation, or 2) clarification that sin was committed, the offender asking for forgiveness, the offended granting forgiveness, leading to reconciliation between the two parties. However, Jesus himself recognizes that sometimes neither of those things happen. In some cases, a real sin may have been committed, yet the offender refuses to ask for forgiveness and reconciliation is unattainable. In that case, Jesus tells us to proceed to the next step: carry one or two others along with you in order to try to work through the matter again. That’s what we’ve discussed up to this point.
Even still, sometimes carrying along one or two wise mediators doesn’t lead to repentance, forgiveness, or reconciliation. What do we do then? Jesus tells us exactly what to do:
17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matt. 18:17)
The next step in the process is to ‘tell it to the church’ and much more could be said on the topic than what I’m about to say. But, this means that you need to tell those who are charged by God to shepherd your soul what’s going on—you need to tell your elders. But first, a clarification: this only applies if the offender is a brother or sister in Christ and a fellow member of your Church. In other words, your elders can only act on this individual’s unrepentant sin if they are that person’s elders. There may be exceptions such as calling the other person’s pastor or elders, etc. Nevertheless, your elders themselves cannot discipline someone who is not a member of your church.
If the person is a member of your church, though, they can act. And the purpose of ‘telling it to your church’ is so that those men, whom God has charged to shepherd the flock among them (1 Pet. 5:2), can hold the unrepentant offender accountable for his/her sin out of their love for him/her. Perhaps this sounds scary, but this is really a good thing.
Imagine a couple children playing tic-tac-toe with chalk in the middle of a busy highway. Such a situation would be very dangerous for those children who probably don’t see any danger in what they’re doing. In fact, such a situation without the oversight and care of a parent would likely end tragically. Just as children have been given parents to watch over them and protect them from themselves and the dangers of living in the world, the Lord’s people have been given elders to shepherd them through life—to protect them from themselves (unrepentant sin) and the dangers of this world. This is why I love being presbyterian! So, ‘telling it to the church’ is a good thing—formal admonition or suspension from the the Lord’s Supper may awaken that person from their slumber such that they repent, ask forgiveness, and are reconciled with Christ himself and the offended party. The hope behind all church discipline (the process I’ve just described)is always restoration.
But, what if they still don’t repent? In that case, Jesus simply says ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.’ What’s Jesus talking about? Jesus is saying ‘let him be to you as someone who is outside the Church a.k.a., a non-christian. Jesus is talking about excommunication. Paul picks up on the same idea in 1 Corinthians 5 when he tells the church at Corinth, quoting numerous passages in Deuteronomy, to “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13). Why? In verse 5, he tells them to excommunicate the man “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” In other words, the purpose of excommunication is for the unrepentant sinner to be delivered “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” and, as a result, hopefully repent.
To put it simply, excommunication (and all church discipline) is an act of love on behalf of the Church for the unrepentant sinner to tangibly show them that what they are doing dishonors the Lord and is dangerous for their soul. Perhaps being outside the peace and security which encompasses the Church (WCF 5.7; Matt. 16:18; Rom. 8:28)1, through difficult providential circumstances, the individual may come to realize the danger of his/her sin, repent, and re-establish communion with Christ and thereby be welcomed back into the life of the Church.
The point of these final steps in working out offenses is to hopefully bring the unrepentant sinner to a realization of their sin so that they might repent. As I’ve said above, these steps are carried out because we love the individual, and don’t want their spirit not to be saved in the day of the Lord. The Lord Jesus shows us here that being loving is not always the same thing as being nice. When the body of Christ loves one another, sometimes that means we have to have hard conversations, speaking the truth in love. Sometimes that means we have to do hard things like excommunication—to the end that ‘his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.’
- Westminster Confession of Faith 5.7: “As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.”