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TRANSCRIPT: How should we approach Matthew 18 discipline?

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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 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.

religious liberty

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