A book I’m reading advocates for the Matthew 18 model of church discipline: If someone sins, talk to him one on one. If he doesn’t respond, re-approach with two or three others. If that doesn’t work, take him before the church. If he doesn’t listen to the church, “let him be like an unbeliever and tax collector to you” (Matt. 18:15-17). (In other words, shun him).
I stopped to think about what I was reading. Something didn’t sit right with me. “It’s biblical. You just don’t like it,” part of me said. But another part wondered how shunning squared with God’s gracious nature. I decided to read Matthew 18. If I was going to swallow a hard biblical pill, I’d better make sure it was, well, biblical. Who takes a horse-pill sized antibiotic unless they have to?
So I read the section about dealing with a brother in sin. There it was: “let him be like an unbeliever and tax collector to you.” But how was Jesus towards unbelievers and tax collectors? He ate and spent time with them. He was known as a friend of sinners (Matt. 9:11). Jesus saw Himself as a doctor caring for patients in a sick ward, not as a person quarantining Himself against plague (Matt. 9:12-13).
Apparently, seeing someone as an unbeliever or tax collector doesn’t mean cutting off relationship. But it does mean acknowledging that person isn’t a believer. It means the relationship has to change. You can’t expect them to live like a Christian; you have to reach out to them like someone you’re evangelizing.
Next, I decided to read the surrounding verses. Just before is the parable of the lost sheep. “If a man has 100 sheep, and one of them goes astray, won’t he leave the 99 on the hillside and go search for the stray?” (Matt. 18:12). Maybe when we go to that brother who sinned, we are like a shepherd going after a sheep he cares for. Maybe treating him like an unbeliever and tax collector is recognizing he’s gotten separated from the flock. Does the shepherd stay with the 99? Does he tell the 100th sheep he can’t come back to the flock? No, the shepherd goes out to find the sheep.
After the section about dealing with a brother in sin, Peter asks how many times he should forgive someone. “As many as seven times?” Peter is scaring himself, he’s so radical. Jesus is unfazed: “I tell you, not as many as seven but 70 times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22). Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Pete. So if your brother sins against you, go after him like a concerned shepherd. Forgive him an endless number of times. None of this sounds like shunning.
But check out the next parable. A king forgives a massive debt owed by a slave. The slave turns around and has a fellow slave arrested for not repaying a minor debt (Matt. 18:23-30). This is starting to sound like shunning. God sent His Son to die in order to maintain relationship with us. We’ve been freed from a massive debt. Do we deal with the debts of others by cutting off relationship to punish them?
We need to give Matthew 18 a fresh look. It’s about forgiveness, caring for the sick, and reaching out to those who have lost their way. It’s not about ostracizing people so we can manipulate them to behave.