What do you do when you have an issue with a brother or sister in Christ or when someone in the church has wronged you? Are there any guidelines of how we are to deal with them? Since we all are sinners and not fully sanctified yet (but if truly in Christ in the process of sanctification or being made holy), we should not expect others to be perfect. This is especially true of believers within the church. A key trait of a Christian is not that they are sinless (see 1 John 1:8-10), but that they recognize their sinfulness and are constantly relying on God’s grace because of it. So, coming back to the original question of how to handle a brother or sister who sinned against you, we just need to practice the steps that Jesus has laid out as recorded for us in Matthew 18:15-17.
You will notice that the very first thing that Jesus instructs us to do when “your brother sins against you” is to “go and show him his fault in private” (v. 15). We are to go to the person who has caused the offense directly and point out the sin to him or her. Not call up all your friends and talk about it. Not go to someone else and ask them to talk to the individual you have a rift with. But to go to them yourself. We can attest to Jesus’ wisdom here as things will only become messier if you involve someone in the middle plus it very well may make it harder to solve the problem.
Now this must be done in love of course with a desire to reconcile with the person who caused the offense and to have the relationship restored. Keep in mind that what Jesus says here immediately follows the parable of the shepherd leaving 99 of his flock in order to search and bring back the one who has gone astray (Matthew 18:12-14). The goal must be to bring the straying member of the church back. If that is not your goal, then you need to first go to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to change your heart in this matter to be obedient to Him.
Notice that this one-on-one confrontation is to be had “in private.” Not publicly in front of others for all to see. So, don’t grab the person by the arm on a Sunday morning and confront them when others are around to overhear what you are saying to them. Actually, no one should be aware of the meeting except for you and the other person (and God Himself of course). This all is step one and is the only step necessary “if he listens to you” and “you have won your brother.” If the person doesn’t listen to you and repent, then Jesus gives us another step in this process.
Step two is to “take one or two more with you” (v. 16). Another meeting should be arranged and this time one or two other people must be included. What is the purpose of including more people in the situation? According to Jesus, they are to serve as witnesses to the conversation. He goes on to say “so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be confirmed.” This follows the principle laid out in Deuteronomy 19:15. The purpose of these two additions are not to gang up on the person but to join the original individual in lovingly reaching out to them. Again, the hope is for the one to repent and be restored. However, should the person refuse to repent and instead hold fast to his or her sin, then Jesus provides a third step in this process.
At this point, the entire church is to get involved. He says, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (v. 17). Now this is not to embarrass the unrepentant sinner or for the sake of encouraging gossip. Rather, it is for the entire congregation to reach out to the brother or sister in order to plead with him or her to get right with the offended individual before God and repent of their ongoing sin. I like how David Platt has put it, “God loves us so much that if we are caught in sin, He will send an entire army of believers to us as a demonstration of His love and mercy” (Exalting Jesus in Matthew (Christ-Centered Exposition; Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2013) 244).
The last and final step that Jesus states is one that no congregation ever wants to have to execute but if we are to be faithful to Jesus and His teachings, then we absolutely cannot ignore it. If after the individual confrontation, the small group consultation, and the church’s compassionate outreach, the individual continues to refuse to reconcile with the brother or is deadset to remain in the sin, then they should be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector,” two categories of people who were viewed at the time to not be a part of the community of believers. Instead of being seen as a brother or sister to fellowship with, they are to be treated as an unbeliever to be evangelized. God cares about the holiness of His church, His people (1 Corinthians 5:5-6). And perhaps, if the person is truly a born again believer, this severe action might be used by God to bring them to their senses and lead them to the repentance that they have been refusing. That at least should be our prayer for the glory of God.
So, the next time that someone sins against you, you should know how to go about addressing it. Jesus has clearly told us what to do. We have no excuse not to follow what Jesus has said. While this may be a difficult process that goes against our natural inclinations, we must trust that Jesus knows what is best, and, with the aid of God’s grace, follow through accordingly.
Love in Christ,