Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?
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 18:15–17)
What does Jesus mean when he tells the church to treat an unrepentant brother as if they were “a Gentile and a tax collector” in Matthew 18?
Does this mean that we should treat them like Christ treated Gentiles and tax collectors? If so, how did Jesus treat them?
Or does it mean we should shun or excommunicate them? If so, how and why?
How we answer these questions has profound and practical implications for how we do life and community within the church. In fact, the way that a church interprets this might lead them to apply the passage in the very opposite way that another church applies it (which surely can't be right or good). Whatever it means, it doesn't also mean the opposite.
For example, some say Matthew 18:17 means that believers should meet regularly with those who are in unrepentant sin and encourage them to attend services to hear the gospel. Others say the exact opposite, teaching that Matthew 18:17 means that believers should avoid regular interaction with the unrepentant and that the church should forbid the unrepentant from regularly gathering with the saints in worship. So which is it?
We need to do the hard work of examining and discerning Jesus' actual intent if we are to be faithful to obey accordingly.
Let’s begin with a look at the phrase in the larger context:
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. 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. 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 18:15–17)
The first couple of steps of the "disciplinary" process are relatively straightforward, as are the general principles.
1. Love your brothers and sisters enough to confront them when they are in sin.
2. Initially keep the circles of confrontation small (one-on-one and then two or three-on-one).
3. Eventually escalate the engagement only if they refuse to listen (i.e. repent).
4. Involve the entire church only if the other steps have not produced repentance.
Most churches that attempt to be faithful to the disciplinary process agree on all of the above; but what if a brother or sister still refuses to listen? What then? What does Jesus mean by this final phrase "let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector?"
In general, most churches land in one of two places:
- Option 1: Christ commands the church to withhold only the fellowship of communion.
- Option 2: Christ commands the church to withhold the fellowship of community.
Though the differences may seem subtle, their applications are profoundly different.
Defining the Problem
In option 1, it is claimed that Christ is telling the church to treat the unrepentant like Christ Himself treated tax collectors and Gentiles. And how did Christ treat the tax collectors and Gentiles? According to this view, it is assumed that Jesus regularly welcomed, ate with, and otherwise hung out with them. Therefore, those in sin can attend worship services and small groups, members of the church can still hang out with this person, but they are simply forbidden from the communal meal.
This is probably one of the more popular interpretations of Christ's words; and yet, there are a few reasons for doubting this is what He intended.
First, it isn't completely accurate to say that Jesus regularly and casually hung out with Gentiles. While He was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, He seems to have had very little interaction with Gentiles, and most of those interactions were "chance" encounters rather than hanging out in their homes, etc. Although He did minister to Gentiles, He viewed Himself as being sent first and foremost to Israel (Matthew 10:5-6, 15:21-28).
Second, this interpretation is a bit anachronistic (inappropriate in regard to the timing and context of Jesus’ statement). Is it conceivable to think that Christ's sole or primary intention in this phrase is to limit communion—which He hasn't even instituted yet? Could any of His disciples understand this as a prohibition of communion when the ordinance of communion didn't even exist yet? It seems unlikely.
But the most compelling reason for rejecting this view is that it doesn't square with the rest of Scripture. It actually seems like the Scriptures command exclusion from something far greater than just the participation in the communal meal, as important as that may be.
Let's see how Paul, in particular, develops this.
Church Discipline in the Epistles
Anytime the meaning of one passage of Scripture is somewhat muddy for us, we should always look for complementary texts that might clarify the subject. It’s not that Scripture is unclear, but rather we are. Thankfully, we have a wealth of such texts that clarify our understanding of church discipline.
Let's consider a few of the most relevant:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 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 5:9–13)
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. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14–15)
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 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 3:9–11)
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:4–5)
- among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:20; c.f. 1 Corinthians 5:5)
- 2 John 10-11 which states that we are not to receive or greet any professed brother who teaches a false gospel
As we read through these supplemental texts a few phrases stand out. Consider the commands:
- not to associate with
- not even to eat with
- purge the evil person from among you
- keep away from
- have nothing to do with (a single English phrase expressed in multiple ways in Greek)
As we reflect on these passages, a clearer picture of the Scriptural principles and process begins to emerge. Though Christ’s words in and of themselves can perhaps be interpreted in contrary ways, further testimony helps to clarify which direction is intended.
In both practice and by prescription, Paul seems to suggest more than merely protecting the Table by refusing the Supper to the unrepentant. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Jesus is saying to hang out with those who persist in sin when Paul says not to hang out with those who persist in sin. To read the gospels in a way that blatantly contradicts the epistles can't be right.
Therefore, it seems option 2 is more likely. Christ is not merely restricting communion (although Paul’s commands would imply that those in unrepentant sin shouldn’t partake of the Table), but indeed nearly all of the myriad benefits of community. He is telling a 1st century Jewish audience to treat unrepentant brothers and sisters like a 1st century Jew would generally treat Gentiles and tax collectors. And how would 1st century Jews generally treat Gentiles and tax collectors? By distancing themselves, not eating with, not associating with, etc.; by doing all the things that Paul says that we should do toward professing believers who remain unrepentant and obstinate.
Traditionally, churches have called this “excommunication,” whereby a member is removed from membership and various benefits of the community. After exhausting the loving process of discipline, the church humbly excludes the unrepentant by turning him out from the community so that he might ultimately and eventually be restored (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20).
As a loving parent might isolate their child in time out, the church graciously disciplines the unrepentant by refusing to fellowship with him that he might recognize the futility and horror of the darkness of sin. The hope of such exclusion is that the unrepentant would experience contrition leading to repentance, so that he could then be joyfully welcomed back into the light of the covenant community.
What does this look like practically?
Applying this command can be difficult. Not only because it hurts to hurt those you love, but also because it demands wisdom.
Without giving some magical formula, here are a few boundaries that seem necessary in light of this command (bearing in mind that this only comes after exhausting all other options by going one-on-one, two or three-on-one, and having the entire church call the unrepentant to repentance):
1. The offender is removed from formal membership within the church.
2. He is not welcome to participate in communion.
3. He is not welcome to participate in or attend worship services.
4. He is not welcome to attend any sort of community group, or Sunday school, or class.
5. Members do not hang out casually with him.
This last point demands some clarity. This application doesn’t mean that it is inappropriate to have any contact at all with the wayward once this step has been enacted. It might be entirely appropriate to meet with, call, and write this person in the future, but always with the expressed intention of calling to repentance. In other words, there should be no gathering together as if things are “all good,” because they most certainly are not.
Notice also that this step comes only after the church has been notified. Consider the order of Matthew 18:
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)
Why does treating as a Gentile and a tax collector come after telling it to the church? Because discipline is a corporate reality by design. One or two members attempting to hang out with the "sinner" actually thwarts the process. It subverts the design of discipline which is to produce repentance leading to reconciliation. Far from being loving, to ignore the process of discipline is actually profoundly unloving; it actually sacrifices the sinner's long-term holiness for short-term happiness.
(One possible exception to point 5 would be if the offender was not only a member of your spiritual family, but also your physical family. For example, you couldn't very well refrain from interacting with your spouse if they are the offender. To some degree the same would hold for parents or kids; but even in those cases, there should be some difference in the relationship which demonstrates the principle. Wisdom suggests that you should seek wise counsel should you find yourself in that position with a family member.)
The Heart of Excommunication
To many, this approach may seem unloving. But a few things may be said to help mitigate that concern.
1. Christians must not be driven by feelings, but rather submission to God's Word. Even if this approach seems unloving or lacking grace, the only question we should ask is whether or not this is what Scripture actually says.
2. The heart of discipline is always eventual repentance. The goal is always that the person pursuing sin would be led to repentance. This again leads to the conclusion that the steps should be drastic. The discipline must be of sufficient severity as to shock the system. It is shocking when we read that Paul handed someone over to Satan (1 Timothy 1:20) and it is shocking when we read that he commands the church in Corinth to do likewise (1 Corinthians 5:5), but drastic times call for drastic measures.
3. Discipline is inherently loving. In fact, according to Scripture, to fail to discipline is to fail to love (Hebrews 12:3-11). So the feeling that this approach might be unloving is actually completely backwards. To not do this is unloving because it sacrifices someone's sanctification for their sin.
It may sound strange and foreign to us to imagine that Jesus might be calling us to cut off, or shun, or excommunicate someone who professes to be a believer yet clings to their sin. And yet that is exactly what we find. So, may we be those who are willing to submit our feelings as to what is and is not loving to the authority and sufficiency of God's word, for His glory, the good of the church, and the ultimate joy of those whom we love.
The Corrective Process of the Church (Matthew 18:15-20)
Church Purity (1 Corinthians 5:1-5)
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