TRANSCRIPT: How should we approach Matthew 18 discipline?

March 21, 2014

Hello, I’m Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and you are listening to Questions and Ethics. This is the program where we take a question that you are struggling with and look at it through the lens of the kingdom of Christ as found in the Bible.

The question today comes from a man named Tony who writes in and says, “Dr. Moore, I’m having a difficult time. Our church has recovered what we believe to be the biblical understanding of church discipline. We have someone who was in persistent sin, wouldn’t repent, so we followed the Matthew 18 steps toward church discipline, ending at excommunication. We removed him from the membership of the church.” Tony says, “I ran into this guy at a local restaurant, and he wanted to talk, and we ordered a meal and sat and talked through various things. And I really am feeling guilty now, because doesn’t the Bible say that we are supposed to shun people who are under church discipline and not to eat with them? And that’s exactly what I did. I ate with him. So did I do the wrong thing?”

Well, Tony, that is a good question because it’s been so long since many churches have exercised biblical church discipline because we haven’t seen it in our context in a long time. It’s sometimes very difficult to know what to do. We don’t have some of those sorts of intuitions that are formed just from repetition of seeing something done over and over and over again. So, for instance, most people don’t have to think about, or most churches don’t have to think about—Wait a minute! What do we do? How do we do a baptism?—because they’ve seen baptisms done. They may do it differently than the last generation of the church did, but they’ve got a prototype. For a lot of churches, though, church discipline is kind of like that first generation of Baptists in the seventeenth century recovering a New Testament doctrine that they’d never really seen done—the immersion of a believer in water. And so how do we do this when we haven’t seen it done? All we really have are the biblical texts and then something way, way, way back in our history. So we have to think that through.

So this is a good question. A lot of people assume that somebody under church discipline is somebody that we ought to shun, that we ought to mistreat even. And so sometimes people will think well, because the Bible says, “Do not even eat with such a one,” and because Jesus says in Matthew 18 to treat that person as a tax collector and a Gentile, then when I run into that person in the grocery store I shouldn’t say anything, or if I sit down in Starbucks and this person sits down next to me, I ought to put down the coffee—does that constitute eating? No! I don’t think that’s what those biblical texts are talking about. I think the main issue that those texts are talking about is the question of who is a brother or sister and who is a neighbor. Who is part of the family? Who is outside of the family? That’s why Jesus is saying, for instance, in Matthew, chapter 18, he says that if the one that you have confronted repents then he says you have “gained a brother,” verse 15 of chapter 18. So the language there is a brother and then of tax collector and Gentile.

Now, of course, how does Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? He doesn’t treat tax collectors and Gentiles with shunning. He doesn’t avoid them. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons that Jesus is often being confronted and one of the reasons that Jesus is often being criticized is because he won’t shun tax collectors and sinners, because he does hang out with tax collectors and sinners. The question is whether or not there is a clear marking out of who is on the inside of the church and so has a responsibility to live up to those responsibilities that Jesus has given to the church as a kingdom of priests, and who’s not—who is on the outside and who needs to be evangelized?

So when Paul says in I Corinthians, chapter 5, when he says in verse 12, “What have I to with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” and he says the one who is excommunicated, the one who is put out of the body, he says, “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler, not to even eat with such a one,” I think the issue there for the Apostle Paul is the Lord’s table, the gathering as the family and the people of Christ around the Lord’s table, and not to associate in such a way that would give someone the assurance that he is a brother or a sister in a case when that assurance is false. So when somebody is excommunicated from the body, I think that means you treat that person exactly as you would an unbeliever. So you don’t give that person any reason to kind of hide behind oh, well, I’m really a Christian; I’m really in fellowship with Christ. You don’t invite that person to the Lord’s table. You don’t give that person the sorts of responsibilities within the church that would come along with being a brother or sister in Christ. You instead make it very clear you are dealing with someone who is on the outside.

Now, why? Because what is the point of church discipline? The point of church discipline is not to punish people. The point of church discipline is not to stigmatize people. The point of church discipline is not just to get people out of here. The point of church discipline is redemptive. You are handing, as a church, Paul says, that person, “over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved,” Paul says. So what is the ultimate hope? The ultimate hope is that that person will repent. Because in church discipline you are dealing either with somebody who knows Christ and is walking away from Christ, in which case, “my sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says, as the good shepherd; the voice of the church in handing him over is something that the Spirit uses to convict and to bring that Christian back into right fellowship. Or you are dealing with somebody who is not a believer—he or she has never experienced the new birth; so that person is now being evangelized.

So what do you do when you sit down with that guy in the restaurant, Tony? I think what you ought to do is to treat him exactly as you would any other unbeliever. You don’t know if he’s an unbeliever, but the scripture says you treat him as such until he comes to repentance. So you treat him with kindness and you treat him with evangelistic zeal. So you want to talk to that person and then you want to get to the point where you say, “What’s going on with you, John? Let’s talk about what’s happening in your life. Don’t wander away from the Lord. Don’t do this. Come to repentance.” That’s the way that you seek to treat this person so you don’t ignore the discipline. You don’t act as though you are still right back in the Sunday school class or wherever you were with this person. But you don’t shun that person either. You seek to apply the gospel, the blood of Christ is offered to you. The opportunity to come back home is offered to you. You do that with humility. You do that with conviction, and you do that with kindness so that ultimately you pray that you are going to see that person right back—repentant, restored to fellowship in the church. And then you don’t hold it against him. You move forward as someone who, as Jesus says in the parable of the prodigal, someone who was dead and has now been restored again to life. That’s the hope.

So I don’t think shunning. I think instead a distinction between those who are part of the church and those who are outside of the church.

Thanks so much for listening to Questions and Ethics. For more resources on living out the Christian life according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, check out our website at erlc.com. And then send me your question. Maybe you’ve been reading the Bible and you’ve come across a passage that’s difficult for you to understand. Or maybe you’ve been having a conversation with a neighbor; or something you’ve seen on Facebook or on Twitter that you are wondering how should I think about this as a Christian. Or maybe it is something that you are wrestling with in your workplace or in your marriage or in your family or in your church. Well, send it to me at [email protected] or via Twitter at #askrdm. So until next time, seek the kingdom, and walk the line. This is Russell Moore.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is a former President of the ERLC. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Courage to Stand: Facing Your Fear Without Losing Your Soul. His book, The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, was named Christianity Today’s 2019 Book of the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24