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Church Discipline and Reconciliation

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 18:15–35

The church cannot function effectively and in unity without dealing with sin in its midst. The church body as a whole and individual believers must be committed to confronting offenders, boldly and lovingly seeking confession and reconciliation and offering genuine forgiveness.


What are we supposed to do when unity and peace between believers is in jeopardy? How do the Lord’s followers deal with situations of personal conflict? And how can the offender and the offended be reconciled and the unity in the church maintained?

Let me remind you, the devil most often does not try to destroy a local church as much as he tries to divide the church. And he is pretty good at it, by the way. He does not attack a church directly; he joins it and then sows seeds of disunity. He gets a fight going, and then he is more than happy to provide ammunition to both sides.

No wonder the apostle Paul wrote to that little church in Ephesus and told them to be “eager [diligent] to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).

Today in our Wisdom Journey, the Lord provides some very practical steps for maintaining unity and reconciling believers. Matthew 18:20 sets the stage for us as Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Now this is not a promise for prayer results. I have heard this text twisted into some kind of doctrine of agreement—that if you get two or three people to join you in prayer, God will certainly listen to you. Beloved, God will listen to you when you come to Him all by yourself. You have one Mediator, Christ Jesus, and through Him, you have access directly into God’s presence.

Jesus mentions the two or three people here within the context of discipline and reconciliation. You need two witnesses to establish the facts of the case. Jesus also promises His presence and personal involvement in the process of reconciliation. And the Lord provides several steps for that process.

Step one is here in verse 15:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

The ideal is that the process ends right there—the matter is resolved in private. But too often it does not end there; so, Jesus graciously provides another step in verse 16:

“But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

This is an attempt to bring about confession on the part of the offender and, as a result, reconciliation. The witnesses will establish the facts of the case and make sure that reconciliation is genuinely attempted. They also can testify to the response of the offender.

Jesus then provides another step if it is necessary: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (verse 17). Tell “it” to the church. Tell “what” to the church? You do not need to tell the details of everything involved. Telling it to the church relates to the main issue. Tell the church that the individual refuses to follow the counsel of church leadership. That is all that needs to be communicated.[1]

If all the attempts at reconciliation fail, the last step takes place. Jesus says in verse 17, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That is, this person is to be removed from the church. The church is to withdraw fellowship with this unrepentant person, indicating the individual has lost fellowship with God. The apostle Paul told the church in Corinth to remove the man from their church who was refusing to repent of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:2).

Let me tell you, it is going to be painful to do the right thing. There is a great sadness to the many cases I have been involved with over the years as a pastor. But beloved, remember that the unity of the church is not just based on love—it’s also based on integrity and purity and the truth of God’s Word.

Now, with that, Peter raises his hand and asks the Lord a question here in verse 21: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” In other words, “Lord, aren’t you impressed with how spiritual I am? I’m willing to forgive my brother seven times!”

Jesus replies in verse 22, saying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” He is saying, “Stop counting. Don’t set a limit on how many times you forgive someone who genuinely seeks forgiveness. Just remember how many times God has forgiven you. Is it seven times? Or seventy times seven?” Thank God, His forgiveness is unlimited.

Jesus now tells a story—a parable—to illustrate this truth:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” (verses 23-24)

That is over a billion dollars today! He will never be able to pay it back.

The man falls to his knees, begging the king for mercy. And out of pity, verse 27 says, “the master . . . released him and forgave him the debt.” What an amazing act of grace! And you would think that gratitude and grace would mark this servant’s life from then on, but that is not the case:

“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [that is around $1,200 dollars], and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ . . . When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.” (verses 28, 31)

Now the Lord will, in effect, give two principles that can be applied today.

First, refusing to forgive others is inconsistent. We have been forgiven, and people who have been forgiven ought to be forgiving. Jesus continues:

“Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’” (verses 32-33)

The master is saying, “Why didn’t you do to him, what I have done for you?” Refusing to forgive others is inconsistent.

Second, refusing to forgive others creates inner torment. Jesus illustrates this in verses 34-35:

“And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The word for “jailers”—those to whom the man is delivered—is used in its verbal form in 2 Peter 2:8, which describes someone’s soul being “tormented” because of the evil surrounding him. The unforgiving servant in Jesus’ story will be handed over to “torturers”—those who torment.

What is the point? When we are the cause of unresolved conflict because we refuse to forgive others, God, in a sense, says, “You are going to be tormented in your soul. You are going to be constantly replaying the offense—the crime, the injustice—and you will not have a moment’s peace until you forgive them.”

True forgiveness means you are willing to accept God’s plan for your life—even the pain that comes your way. God used enslavement and injustice and imprisonment to shape Joseph over there in Egypt so that he would eventually tell his cruel and heartless brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Living with anger and resentment and unforgiveness actually robs us of all that God wants to do in shaping our lives, ultimately, for His glory and grace. And beloved, the Bible promises us that one day all things will be made right—on that day when we see Him face to face.

[1] See Stephen Davey, In Pursuit of Prodigals (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010).

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