(Here is the short version of an explanation of the Matthew 18 process, prepared for our local congregation):
Church Discipline — To Rescue and Restore
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews 3:12–13 (ESV)
Consider this duty: we all must exhort one another continually or we will become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
As long as we live in this world, we will live within gunshot of sin and temptation. To protect us from sin, God has given us one another to encourage and exhort, to rebuke and uphold.
When I sin and I do not immediately see my sin, I need you to remind me of God’s goodness and mercy and to call me to repentance.
Yet, since we can easily rebuke in an unloving manner, our Lord gave us specific instructions on how we should go about exhorting our brother or sister about sin.
Matthew 18 contains the account of those instructions.
In the first section of that chapter, Jesus overturns the idea of “greatness.” It is the one who “humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:4). Jesus then pronounces a dreadful warning upon one who causes another to sin (Matt. 18:7-10).
Immediately thereafter, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd who leaves all to rescue it. Note that the shepherd does not go after the straying sheep out of revenge for something it has done to offend him. He goes solely for the sheep’s own welfare.
Following the parable, we enter into the verses on confrontation. We come to them with the ideas of
the need for humility;
the horror of sin; and
the need to rescue the one who has sinned.
In those verses, Jesus doesn’t just teach about the need and process for confrontation, he warns with the gravest severity that we must also forgive our sinning brother (read Matt. 18:34-35 and understand that the warning is given to believers).
Confrontation, then, is the effort to “restore” the brother who has fallen into sin. The motivation is not to right a wrong you’ve suffered – it’s to love your brother. That is why Jesus also instructs us to first take the “log” from our own eye before we seek the speck in the eye of our brother (Matt. 7:3-5).
In the midst of an extended discussion of humility and forgiveness, then, Jesus teaches us the way to love a straying member of the flock.
First stage — personal confrontation. Go to your brother privately and disclose his sin. “If he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matt. 18:16). Note that this is a matter between two, alone. Almost every instance of “church discipline” begins and ends here.
Second stage — you bring along another to join in the process. The purpose of bringing additional persons into the process is to (1) confirm the truth of the matter; and (2) bring additional help in seeking the repentance of the sinning brother.
In some circumstances, the erring brother will still refuse to repent. Only then do we “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17). The purpose of telling the church is not to humiliate or hurt the brother, but to involve more people in encouraging him to repent. Seeking the help of the entire church to bring about repentance is as loving as seeking its help to feed a poor family in the congregation.
You must understand that the goal of church discipline is to bring about reconciliation. Indeed, the entire congregation is asked to be involved only because the erring brother refuses to repent and be reconciled. The church confronts a brother because it seeks to rescue him from sin – just as the shepherd seeks to rescue the lost sheep.
Once having rescued our brother, we seek his restoration. By rescuing and restoring him, we protect his soul and give glory to God by living out our love.
The only time “discipline” occurs in “church discipline” is when a brother refuses to live in love with his brothers and sisters. Only a brother or sister who will not repent and be reconciled will be excluded from the congregation.
For a more detailed discussion of this subject, please see our pamphlet “Church Discipline,” which you can find at http://www.calvarybiblechurch.org/.