Ever encounter another Christian appearing to be involved in some sort of sinful behavior? Perhaps it’s church member who is very disparaging in the way they speak to others; perhaps it’s a fellow Christian who you suspect of being involved in some morally questionable behavior; perhaps it is a believer who is always causing disruption and dissension in the Bible class. How do you respond?
Well, I’ve been around enough in ministry to know how many church members respond. Many Christians think the appropriate action is to go to their pastor* and/or the shepherds. Yet nowhere in scripture are we ever told to respond by going to a pastor or to the elders!
But here is one passage that does offer us some instruction on such matters:
Matthew 18:15-17 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
First, unlike the NIV ’11 translation, many translations have “sins against you” but that prepositional phrase “against you” is not in many of the Greek manuscripts and is likely not part of the original text. Therefore, it is best to proceed as if this passage is instructing us on how to respond whenever a fellow Christian sins period.
Second, the instruction is for the Christian who suspects there brother or sister in Christ of having sinned to go to that person by themselves. This means don’t say a word about our suspicions to anyone else but go to that person and address the matter with them privately.
There is no shortcut around this. The reason why this is so important is because we could be wrong in our suspicion and this way we are able to clear up the misunderstanding without creating any further unfounded suspicion about this person among the church. Or it could be that the person is guilty and that in our coming to them first, they recognize their guilt, ask for our prayers, apologize and forgiveness (if necessary), etc… In this case, the matter has been settled without involving anyone else and therefore without doing any harm to the individual.
Let’s suppose those that we do confront the individual about our suspicions and they are unwilling to listen to our concern. What then? Go get “one or two others” (church members) along. There is no specification as to who those “others” are. It could be a pastor or shepherd but I would caution very against getting the leadership of the church involved at this point, if for no other reason than the fact that it is too easy for church members to try to depend on their leadership to do what they are capable of doing themselves. In my experience, it is best to get someone whom we know will be respected as a wise and trusted voice. That might be a close friend, an older church member, etc… but their wisdom and trusted voice will prove helpful.
Of course, the person suspected of having sinned may still refuse to listen. In such case, the instruction is to take the matter to the entire church. Here is where the pastor and shepherds of the church would enter into the solution but only because they are part of the church. In other words, the issue is now a matter for the entire church but as the leadership of the church, the pastor and shepherds should be involved in how that matter is handled among the church. Just what their involvement should be is a matter for another post sometime. Right now I’ll simply say that the leadership will need to make sure that this issue being brought before the church is settled once and for all, even it that involves treating the person who sinned like we would “a pagan or a tax collector” (for more on this, read here).
If only Matthew 18:15-17 was not so neglected when it comes to confronting Christians…
* I am using the term pastor here to designate the individual or individuals who serve the church as either as either a lead/senior or associate evangelist, minister, preacher, or whatever other term we might us.