According to Matthew 18:15-17, how is the church supposed to treat a person who has been disfellowshiped?
The matter of church discipline is one of the most difficult issues that a local church faces. Often an errant member is another member’s brother, mother, son, cousin, or best friend. Some members prefer never to discipline anyone; others prefer harsh sanctions. How does a church find the will of God in the midst of so many competing interests?
Matthew 18 suggests a clear and simple process. First, a one-on-one conversation between the offender and the one offended. The context indicates that forgiveness is to be the goal of that conversation, whenever possible (Matt. 18:21-35).Second, the offended member is to take one or two others along to avoid confusion as to what is being said by one party or the other. Only after these first two steps have been carefully followed should the process move to the church in business session. Then, if the offender does not respond to the church as a whole, he or she is to be treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17, ESV).
Here is the problem. What does it mean to treat someone like a Gentile and a tax collector? There are at least two different possibilities. On the one hand, Jesus could be calling the church to shun the offender the way the Gentiles and tax collectors were shunned in the society in which He grew up. On the other hand, it could be a call to treat the outcast the way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors (with compassion and forgiveness).
What does Paul have to say about church discipline? 2 Thess. 3:13-15.
Rightly applying Matthew 18 and Second Thessalonians 3 to contemporary life is a challenge. No two people are alike. No two situations are alike. In some cases forgiveness softens the heart of an offender and brings reconciliation to the church. In other cases hardened offenders may respond only to a love that is tough enough to confront and administer consequences. This is why the General Conference does not disfellowship anyone. Such delicate processes are best handled by the local church, where the offender is best known.
Tough love is not a license for abuse. According to verse 15, the person being disciplined is still to be treated like family. The church must remain conscious that the offender is a brother “for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15, 1 Cor. 8:11, NKJV).
What experiences have you had with church discipline? How can the church maintain a balance between confrontation and acceptance?