How do we exercise discipline in the church? In the first three verses of the Gospel reading this week, we have the following words from Jesus: 15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
What does this mean for us? This is one of the more difficult passages in Matthew’s Gospel. Many scholars agree that verses 15 to 17 sound more like a report from an ecclesial committee than something that Jesus would say. There are three reasons for this: 1.It is very legalistic; 2.Jesus is unlikely to tell his disciples to take things to the ‘church’ because the ‘church’ did not exist at this stage; 3.It suggests that pagans and tax collectors are ‘outsiders’ and presumably, beyond redemption. None of this sounds like Jesus, so how do we reconcile this apparent conundrum?
There are at least four things that we can draw from these three verses. Firstly, if someone upsets you don’t let it drive you to despair but rather deal with it – incessant brooding in silence is no good for anyone. Secondly, go and see the person who has wronged you. A face to face meeting is preferable to anything else. Writing an email or sending a text is no substitute for a meeting – the written word is always open to misinterpretation and can make the situation worse. Thirdly, if this still doesn’t work involve a wise friend who you trust. He or she may be able to shed light onto the situation. It may be that you are being unreasonable, and they delicately and sensitively bring you to realise your own unreasonableness. Fourthly, if this still does not work involve the Christian fellowship. The implication seems to be to avoid involving legalistic outside agencies (like Surrey police). Commenting on this passage, William Barclay remarks: “Legalism settles nothing; it merely produces further trouble. It is in an atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love and Christian fellowship that personal relationships might be righted.” This is how discipline should be exercised in the church.
Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 12:1-14
Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 18:15-20
Epistle reading for this week: Romans 13:8-14
Psalm for this week: Psalm 149