Matthew 18:15-20 Does Not Always Apply

Today we’re adding to our collection a pertinent blog entry from One Christian Dad (Ryan Smith). In it he corrects a misconception about the use of Matthew 18. He’s Given us permission to re-host it.

Posted: January 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

disciplineWhen one is struggling with depression, negative comments and emails really suck. They tend to stick in your head and the other ‘positive’ emails get forgotten as the negative ones take over. But that it is one of the things about being a publicly outspoken Christian… I have to take the knocks as well as the praise. 🙂

accusation-2-660x350Recently I was accused of sin by posting publicly my article, “I Just Broke up With Matt Walsh.” It was met with some praise, but there was also some criticism. The main accusation was that I had not followed Matthew 18 in dealing with Matt Walsh. The accusation was made privately, by a couple different people across the Canadian Reformed Denomination – the church I am a member of. As with any accusation of sin, it is good to examine oneself in light of scripture and not simply brush it off. Especially when it comes from more than one person.

So I spent some time reading what I had written. I asked some people in the Church to examine it and I spent some time in the Word. One of the blessings I have is that there are a number of pastors and others who are more spiritually mature than I who read the blog, and believe me, they don’t let me get away with much. If I stray off the path a bit too far, I get a sharp tug on the leash.

And I really appreciate that.

A Personal Lesson on Using Matthew 18

images-1A few years ago, I got mad at some online churchy stuff. I pointed an accusing finger at one side of the battle and declared that they were not following Matthew 18 because they called out the other side and made a public rebuttal on a website rather than going to the other person privately. This person was a minister, (yeah, I need to learn who I am pointing fingers at…) who swiftly put me in my place by showing me how Matthew 18 does not apply in all situations, even when it involves fellow church folk… and he had a duty to protect his flock from the public sin of the other person.

So as I ran away with my tail tucked between my legs, I did some research. I thought that Matthew 18 applied whenever we had a beef with a fellow believer. So when do we follow Matthew 18? Does it apply to unbelievers? Do we use it “all the time” when someone sins? What about public sins? Etc.

Matthew 18 is for private sin.

OK, the easiest way to put this is that the principle of discipline that Jesus gave us, as set out in Matthew 18, is specific to situations of private, personal sin. Let’s say that we go to the same church, and I spread gossip about you to some people in the congregation. You are not to go to my elder or my pastor and say, “Hey deal with this guy! He is sinning!” Or post it on social media and say, “Whatta jerk! This guy is lying about me.” That would not be acting according to scripture. The rule for sin against you is always to first go to your brother or sister alone, leave others out of it. But if I don’t repent when you come to me, then take someone who witnessed me gossipping – someone who I told the gossip to – along with you. If I still do not repent, then you are free to either drop it, or bring your complaint to the elders of the church. In this situation, you keep my sin quiet between just you and the other witnesses. Then escalate to the Church leaders, who will begin a similar process of private admonition, and escalate up to excommunication.

What about very public problems, sins, and errors?

article-2306193-19300112000005DC-370_306x423Now, what if I were to gossip about you, but this time I used my blog? Perhaps I blogged about how I caught you looking at porn or something? That would be atrocious, grievous, and a public sin on my part. It would probably significantly hurt your reputation. Since I know that lots of church people are going to read about your sin, this is a very public abuse of my blog, and it is definitely sin against you. Should you come to me privately? You could, but you are now quite within your rights to bypass me and go to our elders. I would expect that the elders would also immediately demand a public apology and I would probably be removed from attending the Lord’s Supper for a while until genuine fruit of repentance was shown.

Another example is when someone purporting to be an evangelical minister, like Joel Osteen, preaches heresy, like the prosperity message. We do not simply send him an email and hope that he reads the email and changes. No we publicly denounce what he has publicly stated. We state his error clearly, to protect others from him. We call him to repentance publicly. What we don’t do is try to discredit him by prying into his personal life and publicly ruining him if we find private sins. We don’t make ad hominem attacks about his character. We simply name the sin and call to repentance.

Similarly, if the pastor of the neighbouring Canref Church starts preaching heresy, we don’t go to him privately – you could I suppose – but we should go to the elders of his church. Matthew 18 does not apply here because the sin is very public.

Does it apply to those outside the Church?

According to Pastor Keith Davis (URC),

It is practiced among people who share the same faith, who confess the same Lord, who share in all Christ’s benefits and blessings, who by Christ’s Spirit have been united together in the bond of peace, and who strive after a common goal and purpose.

Well, what about Matt Walsh? Did I sin by not following Matthew 18 and posting this article publicly?


OigI1k0R-1024x1024I did not write anything that is not public knowledge, that he himself has not written and is not proud of. That said, I have sent him emails of admonition on a few occasions, but with no response – and his writing has only become more negative and more inflammatory. Second, he is not a member of my church, nor a member of my denomination, nor is he a member of the protestant Church. He is Roman Catholic, and as such we are not technically brothers, since our confession of faith is incompatible. (This was something a pastor tugged on my leash about.) We have similar political views, we are both religious, but when it comes to our faith, we are not the same. Let me ask, how would I go about applying Matthew 18 in this situation? Sure, I emailed him. I know others have emailed him. Should we then escalate to our elders? To his Priest or Bishop? To his editor? Where does it go from there? As you can see, Matthew 18 will not work in this situation.

Is Matthew 18:15-20 most abused/misused Text in the Bible?
William B. Evans, a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, believes that Matthew 18:15-20 may be the most abused text in the Bible, stating,

“In recent years I have noticed an upsurge of appeals to Matthew 18. This likely has something to do with the way the Internet has changed the dynamic of public conflict in the church. With controversies unfolding in real time over the course of hours and days as opposed to months and years, it is much more difficult for those in power to manage such episodes, and Matthew 18 is attractive in that it seems to provide such people with leverage by which to stifle dissent.”

Evans goes on to say,

“Why do these wrong headed appeals to Matthew 18:15-20 gain so much traction in Evangelical circles? It probably has something to do with a naïve Biblicism that values simplistic proof-texting over the careful exegesis and application of Scripture. It probably has something to do, as Carson suggests, with an exaltation of tolerance as the “greatest virtue.” But most of all, it likely has to do with a simple failure to take biblical truth seriously.”

Is it because tolerance is espoused by the world, and it is leaking into the church?  Is it the ease of proof-texting out of context in an age of google-theologians? Is this what is happening?  It seems that every time I write an article that takes a stand on something, I get at least one message accusing me of not following Matthew 18.  I don’t know.



Matthew 18:15-20 is specifically for sin between brothers and sisters in Christ. Our Lord designed the practice of discipline to be exercised and applied by every member of His Church. It’s because as Christ’s church, we are the family of God, the ones God loves.  Christ shed His blood and gave His body to die upon the cross for us. We are the Ones whom our Triune God has made to be holy. So, all sin must be taken seriously. I appreciate my brethren looking out for me, and taking me to task, and holding me accountable.

We ought to look out for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We should admonish in love, and seek the others good. Discipline should be done with wisdom and in love.  Avoid accusing in anger. Avoid speculating on hypocrisy, or hidden sins. Wisdom should be sought through prayer and meditation on the Word. Don’t let ego, or pride, get in the way of Love.  Because that is the whole point of discipline – to love on each other.

Keep it up.

Keep loving each other.