Matthew 18 includes a short passage which deals with that most painful of topics – church discipline. v 15 – 20 give a method for dealing with problems. Speak to a believer who sins against you alone, then with a second and finally go to the church and if the person still won’t repent excommunicate them.
For those who want to ‘deal with’ people they perceive as problems in the church Matthew 18 is a popular passage to be quoted constantly. It inspires people who want justification to be mean, to be vicious and to act as a petty dictator. Its an attractive section to a man who enjoys being in control. But the verses do not stand alone. They come as part of a passage and unless we have read the read of the passage we will misunderstand the heart of the passage.
The passage begins at v 1 with the Lord talking to his disciples, not to the crowds but to his disciples. Although they did not know it at the time these were the men the Lord would one day entrust his church to. They were the men who led the church in Jerusalem and raised up churches across the ancient world from the western Mediterranean to India. There were problems they would face. The churches they led would be attacked sometimes from outside but more painfully sometimes from within. The disciples would have to face these problems and deal with them. How they dealt with them would be very important.
The Lord began by telling his disciples to be like little children. Right from the start he is telling the disciples the importance of humility. They must not puff themselves up. The Lord then goes on to declare that believers are his children and attempts to terrify the living daylights out of anyone who dares harm one of his children. For the disciples the message must have been very clear. The Lord’s people are precious to him and there is probably nothing anyone can do worse than harm one of his children. For the disciples who will one day lead the church there is no ambiguity. They must take care of the Lord’s people. They must at all times take great care and if they are going to make a mistake better to be too gentle than too harsh.
The Lord goes on to tell them the parable of the lost sheep. For the disciples listening to the Lord talking about the care of his people he wanted to make very clear that there would be times when their greater ministry or work would have to be put aside for the sake of one brother or sister in need.
At all times through the chapter the Lord’s message is to take care of his people, to be gentle, to treat the Lord’s people with the greatest of care and respect. And if they don’t, well Sodom and Gomorrah will get a friendlier audience on judgement day.
Only after the Lord has hammered this home does he go on to give some practical guidance for dealing with problems and the people who damage the church. Unless the first 14 verses of the chapter have been heard and understood we have no right to even look at verses 15 – 20.