“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. 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.’ 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.
In the last couple of sections, Jesus has been making the case that we must not cause our brother or sister to stumble, using the metaphors of “little ones” and “sheep” to make His point, now He moves into the next, rather obvious area for discussion: What happens when one of God’s sacred children conducts him or herself in a way that isn’t all that sacred?
If you noticed the NIV footnote, “sins” in verse 15 is “sins against you” in some old manuscripts, and I might add that it is “sins against you” in some translations as well. Looking at the overall context, it seems to me that it could easily go either way, depending on what we are talking about. For instance, if the person in question is a malicious gossip, but they are gossiping about you and not me, it would seem that someone needs to take the person aside, before they cause great harm in the church community and thus, to the Kingdom itself. Obviously there could be many examples of “sin” that is harmful to both individuals and the Kingdom.
How ever you may view this, the guidance Jesus gives for these delicate and awkward situations is a guidance of love, not condemnation. Notice that He says we should take the person aside (privately) and speak to them; He didn’t say that we share our observations with the world, for wouldn’t that be gossip? OK fine, if you want to be technical, it wouldn’t be gossip if we told about something we personally observed, but if it’s good stuff, the person we told is going to repeat it, and that is gossip. Gee whiz, we would be the cause of our brother’s stumble, wouldn’t we? That is why I called this a “delicate” situation.
Now, we’ve taken the person aside and spoken to them in loving concern, but they won’t listen; maybe they simply tell us that they didn’t do it, then we find another witness, and this is where things become really delicate, for how do we do that without gossip or the temptation to gossip? In my experience, most people don’t… but some manage, and here’s how they do it. They say nothing, but they remain in proximity to the situation, and sooner or later, a witness is found by patient observation. Remember, Jesus is not giving counsel on how to get even with someone; He is giving counsel on how to put love into action to restore a person to their relationship with God and the community.
If the person still refuses to repent, then He says we should “take it to the church”. In my mind, that means that we take the situation to the leadership of the church, not to make a public accusation; at least we take it to someone who is mature enough in the faith so as not to cause more damage to anyone. I realize that many people and church traditions may view this differently than I do, and that’s fine, I’ll not argue with them, this is my opinion only, but here is why I think this way; it’s in the next verse:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (18:18)
This is where Jesus repeats these words that He had previously directed only to Peter; now He addresses them to all of the disciples, the ones who would be the leadership of the church after Pentecost. As I see it, this principle gives a great responsibility to the leaders of the church, not necessarily to the flock itself. Instead, the leadership of the church (and when I say that, I am referring to the leadership of the local congregation) has the responsibility to lead in a way that is in the best interests of everyone as they build the Body. It is not for them to justify “lining their own pockets”.
Finally, if we can’t get any results from these steps then we treat the person as a pagan or tax collector. The question is, how are we supposed to treat them? If Jesus is our example, He treated them as those who needed to hear the Gospel, the ones for whom He died; I’ve not actually seen an instance in Scripture of Jesus throwing them out into the street; have you?
In my view, this passage is one that requires maturity and wisdom, for Jesus has given us a principle without specifics as to the nature of the “sins” in question. Some things are obvious, others are subtle, and it takes maturity and wisdom to recognize the difference. Even if you have both wisdom and spiritual maturity, it is a very good idea to run this kind of situation past another person you respect and trust, without mentioning names, before you jump to any conclusions.