If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)
Two things jump out at me from Jesus’ teaching in this verse on how we should respond to being sinned against:
1. Intervention should precede discipline.
In Matthew 18:15 we saw that our first response should be to confront the sinner before we do anything else. In Matthew 18:16, we saw that should that confrontation fail to bring about repentance and reconciliation, we are to bring one or two others with us to witness and mediate the confrontation.
After saying, “if he does not listen,” in verse 16, in verse 17 Jesus twice says, “if he refuses to listen.”. When something is repeated several times in Scripture, it’s usually because we are to take notice of the emphasis being placed on it, especially when it is repeated so close together. We need to notice that we are to give the person who has sinned against us several chances to repent.
There is also significance, however, in Jesus switching from “does not listen” to “refuses to listen.” The word for “refuses to listen” is parakoúō, which can be translated “disregards” and is related to the word parakoḗ, which is translated as “disobedience” in Romans 5:19, 2 Corinthians 10:6, and Hebrews 2:2. The idea is that a small disagreement shouldn’t escalate to the point of getting the church involved. The word “sin” in Mt 18:15 typically refers to a moral transgression, yet the church only gets involved when the sinner purposefully refuses to listen, or disregards the intervention, or disobeys what Scripture says. If repentance happens before it gets to that point, then the process stops.
2. God takes sin seriously and so should the church.
If the sinner fails to respond to intervention, Jesus says to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is huge. Remember that Jesus’ audience was Jewish. Gentiles (the unclean non-Jews) and tax collectors (Jews that were complicit with the Roman government in oppressing the Jews) were hated in Jewish society. They were not considered part of the community. Excommunication has a negative connotation for Protestants because the Catholic Church has sometimes abused that authority, but Jesus insinuates here that the Christian who is sinning unrepentantly should be put out of the community (i.e., the church). We see similar commands elsewhere in the New Testament:
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)
But now 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 even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. … If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15)
As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)
In the 1 Corinthians 5 passage, Paul quotes the Old Testament by saying, “Purge the evil person from among you.” The cross-references in my Bible list 8 verses (7 in Deuteronomy; 1 in Judges) where this phrase is used, and each one deals with the death penalty. These OT passages are often seen as being excessively cruel, but the principle is that it is better for one man to die for his sin than for his sin to corrupt the entire community. Take a minute and let that sink in because it doesn’t go down easily. In fact, it flies in the face of the individualism that we value in our society. The moral purity of the community was more important than the life of one individual.
Paul’s quotation of this phrase is not coincidental. It is clear from Paul’s epistle that the Corinthian church had allowed itself to be compromised by tolerating immorality among its members. And so the Old Testament principle carried over to the New Testament: it is better for one man to be put out of the community because of his sin than for his sin to corrupt the entire community.
Jesus commands his followers to treat an unrepentant brother as a Gentile or tax collector for 2 reasons: 1) so that the sinner will know that his sin will not be tolerated; and 2) so that the purity of the community will be preserved.
God takes sin very seriously, and he commands that his chosen people also take sin seriously, which means dealing with it when it rises among us.
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. Is there any habitual sin in my life that I have been tolerating but that needs to be dealt with?
2. How is my sin (not just actions, but also attitudes, such as pride) affecting others in my family and the church?
3. Am I tolerating sin and risking the purity of the church by not confronting myself or someone else about sin issues of which I am aware?