Matthew 18: Greatness in the Kingdom (not discipline in the church)
By Rick Owen
This passage in Matthew 18 (specifically verses 15-20) is traditionally used in reference to corporate discipline by a local church, and possible excommunication (taking away membership in the church). However, I believe Matthew 18, as a whole, addresses what it means to be great in the kingdom of heaven, relative to the individual jurisdiction of a true disciple of Christ. In other words, this chapter is not so much about the responsibility and authority of a New Testament church. It is more about the individual responsibility and personal walk of a faithful follower of Jesus.
Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to speak of "missing the woods for the trees" by focusing too narrowly on a few verses, or one idea, to the exclusion of the larger context. I think many tend to do that with this passage. I welcome your feedback and insights. My desire is to understand and apply this in my life with wisdom and grace. The following outline is just a sketch of a few observations about Matthew 18.
THE MAIN IDEA OF THIS PASSAGE
Jesus’ disciples come to Him in verse one of this chapter asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He answers them by explaining that greatness in the kingdom of heaven does not mean “greatness” at all – certainly not as the world defines greatness. Spiritual greatness in the kingdom is the opposite of worldly greatness.
1-6: Greatness in the kingdom involves becoming like children; otherwise, we cannot even enter the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Being like a little child is the antithesis of worldly pride, authority, power, control, prestige or influence.
7-9: Humbling oneself, to be spiritually significant in God’s eyes, involves dealing with temptations to sin in the most serious way – cutting off your hand or foot; tearing out your eye (metaphorically speaking) – i.e., getting rid of the source of temptation. Spiritual greatness means being fierce and forceful in opposing sin.
10-14: On the other hand, spiritual greatness means being gentle toward and placing great value upon God’s “little ones” – be they any child (one interpretation), or the one who has humbled himself like a child (another interpretation), such as the poor in spirit, the meek; those who hunger and thirst after righteousness; people who demonstrate they are true children of God by being peacemakers (Matt. 5).
15-20: Loving and seeking after a straying sheep (from the previous section) means seeking reconciliation when your brother sins against you. This is another way of pursuing what is of eternal value (or "greatness") through love and humility. However, if he refuses to be reconciled – even after he has been repeatedly entreated by you, other witnesses, and the summoned assembly (most likely the present-day synagogue of this context – not the unborn church of Acts 2) – then “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” That is, regard him as someone who is NOT a child in the kingdom of heaven, because he is not willing to humble himself like a child and be restored.
21-35: On the flip side, when others entreat you to be reconciled to them, and appeal to you for forgiveness – even many, many times for the same sin – then humble yourself and forgive them. Otherwise, God will not forgive you, because you are full of pride and not a true child of the kingdom of heaven either.
“Greatness” in the kingdom of heaven means becoming like children (vv 1-6), treating temptations to sin seriously (vv 7-9), valuing Jesus’ “little lambs” (vv 10-14), seeking reconciliation (vv 15-20), and forgiving generously (vv 21-35).
SOME PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
1. Be humble as a follower of Christ in the Christian life. Be a “true Jew” with a circumcised heart (Rom. 2:29). “God opposes the proud, but He gives grace to the humble” (recited by Jesus’ half-brother in James 4:6ff – a passage with a similar focus as Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 18).
2. Take sin seriously, as a matter of eternal life and death. Deal with temptation decisively. Get rid of the sources of temptation in your life. This might include certain relationships (maybe certain opposite-gender 'friendships' you consider to be 'harmless'), places you go ('just for fun'), things you read or watch ('just like everybody else'), or idle time when you are wide open to wandering, sinful suggestions (be it self-absorption, anger, fear, worry, depression, or lust) from the world, your flesh or the devil.
3. Don't pass off to the church, or a pastor, or a Christian counselor your responsibilities related to other believers. The apostle Paul spoke of believers in the church being "full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another" (Rom. 15:14). When someone sins against you, go after them like a wandering sheep. Approach them in a humble and caring way. Don't gossip about them, or tattle on them so the pastor can flex the muscles of 'church authority' and 'fix them.' The spiritual health of other brethren is something you should be influencing directly and personally. Even when you enlist the persuasion of others, you are still responsible and should care enough to remain involved in confronting and counseling the other person.
4. When you have done all you can do to persuade and turn a person from their sin, let go. This passage does not tell you to do anything other than regard them as unconverted. You are not responsible to further persuade or 'prosecute' the erring person. Trust God to do what you are not able to do. He might very well use other people in the life of the unrepentant person. But as far as your stance toward such persons goes, simply regard them as outsiders and strangers to God's grace. Don't cast your pearls before swine or give what is holy to dogs. Focus on their conversion, not their sanctification, when they are acting like unbelievers.
5. Forgive without measure, even for the same sin(s), when people come to you and sincerely ask you to forgive them. You do not know the extent of their struggles. Sin manifests itself on a broad spectrum of human behavior. This might include enslaving habits, obsessions, compulsions and other kinds of inner warfare you may not experience. Consider that others might be wrestling with things requiring extended grace, repeated forgiveness, and continuous compassion.
Also consider how much God has forgiven you. Jesus' parable at the end of this chapter speaks of a debt a man could never possibly repay which was forgiven by the king. The Lord Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, has not only forgiven you – and continues to forgive you every day, of countless sins you can't even keep up with – He died for you, to pay for your sins; to suffer the anguish and agony of hell which you deserved. You must forgive. If you do not or cannot, then you, too, are a stranger to God's grace.
REGARDING CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Several things should be noted before reading into this passage the traditional teaching and practice about church discipline and excommunication.
1. The appeal to the “summoned assembly” (Greek, ekklesia) is probably to the Jewish synagogue; the community of God's people at that time. After Acts 2, this applies to the Christian assembly (converted Jews & Gentiles) as God's community. But, at this point, the New Testament church does not yet exist. Christ “will build” His church (Matt. 16:18), but He has not done so yet. So we need to adjust our thinking to the historical setting of these instructions.
2. Jesus does not say to turn the matter over (or relinquish it) to the assembly or its elders. This is still a matter of accepting individual responsibility for being humble and practicing reconciliation. This entire chapter is very much about the individual believer. This chapter begins and ends with entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Salvation is an individual matter. The issues in this chapter relate to what happens between two people.
3. There is no corporate excommunication here. This is a matter of ‘letting go’ when “your brother sins against you” and “refuses to listen even to the summoned assembly.” Jesus does not say, "Let him be to the church..." He says, “Let him be to you” (Greek, soi – second person singular, speaking of the individual, not a group), “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, simply regard him as unconverted. You don't necessarily have to do anything else.
4. These do not appear to be words of aggressive discipline, where something is done "to" or "against" the unrepentant person, such as 'administering excommunication.' This seems to be a matter of taking a passive posture. This is not a command to further pursue or 'prosecute' someone.
5. Jesus' instructions at this point appear to say, "It's time to call it quits; stop trying to reconcile with someone who is not really your brother. You need to change your perspective: regard him as a tax-collector or Gentile; an outsider; someone who needs to be converted."
6. Other passages in the New Testament DO address corporate discipline of lazy, divisive and immoral people in the church. I do not intend to deny this teaching. Church discipline is very important. It should always be done in a caring way which reflects sincere concern.
- Sometimes this involves not associating with such persons as believers (in 'business-as-usual' Christian fellowship) while they are unrepentant – temporarily excluding them when the church gathers for the Lord's Supper.
- Flagrant sins call for the expulsion of a person from not only meeting with a church, but being identified as a member of the church, so as to not bring reproach upon the name of Christ, by spoiling the witness of the church in the community, or tempting others in the church toward the same sins.
- Church discipline should be practiced by the whole assembly: the elders and the congregation. Many churches tend to leave this to the pastor, or elders, or other church leaders, but this is not biblical. The New Testament writers address the entire assembly about opposing sin (e.g., 1 Cor. 5-6). Unfortunately, most churches do not seem to practice any kind of church discipline.
Matthew 18 appears to address the realm of personal responsibility related to individual entrance into the kingdom of heaven and a practical demonstration of what is of true value (“greatness”) in God's kingdom through self-effacing, sin-opposing, sheep-loving, grace-imparting attitudes and behavior. As far as church discipline goes, the breach with the sinning person (in vv. 15ff) might go on to involve church discipline, if flagrant, egregious sin is involved. But we are not told that this is the situation. We don't know anything about the nature of the sin. But we are told a lot about what it means to follow the Lord as a member of His kingdom. Self-examination, rather than the examination of others, is where this chapter seems to focus our attention.