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Are We Missing the Point of Matthew 18?

It’s about more than church discipline. It’s about flourishing community.
Are We Missing the Point of Matthew 18?
Image: Illustration by Duncan Robertson

A pastor learns that a married man is having an affair with a married woman in the same small group Bible study. The fallout is only just beginning. According to Scripture, how should the pastor address this?

Or imagine this: A copastor of a church plant has been increasingly erratic. He’s showing signs of classic narcissism, leaving a wake of damaged people who’ve run afoul of his overbearing leadership. How should his co-pastor handle this?

Or bring it down a level: Two high schoolers in the youth group began showing romantic interest in each other. The boy’s parents were anxious about the situation, so they worked hard to shut it down. As a result, the girl’s parents were hurt and upset. Now there’s escalating tension between the parents, and accusations of wrongdoing are flying from both sides. The pastor is brought in to negotiate. What steps should the pastor take?

Those who’ve been in ministry any length of time don’t have to use much imagination to recognize these scenarios; most pastors have experienced some version of these circumstances. The varieties of sin are infinite but also predictable. It’s not only the poor we will always have with us, as Jesus reminds us, but it’s also humans doing bad stuff—including Christian humans.

A matter of discipline?

Over the past 25 years, I’ve been privileged to serve as both a pastor and a professor—and currently as both at once. In my experience, it’s much more difficult to be a pastor than a professor, largely because of the complexity of interpersonal relationships in the church.

Though conflicts come and go in a congregation, they never go away forever. In just the past year, I can recall multiple instances of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, explosive anxiety, and conflict between Christians in our church—including within the staff. I’ve been brought in to help with some situations, I’ve been aware of others, and I’ve been personally involved in and affected by some.

I shouldn’t be surprised. We shouldn’t be surprised. This is real, regular life together in Christ’s church. Our lives together are conflicted because we’re limited and broken humans but we still must live in community.

Throughout history, the church has used a number of approaches to address these sorts of situations, spanning from excommunication to restoration processes to destructive cover-ups. In many American churches today, great emphasis is put on the need for “church discipline” to deal with sin and its effects. To protect the purity of the church, disciplinary procedures are established to address egregious or ongoing sin.

Central to most teachings on church discipline is one key passage: Matthew 18:15–20. These few verses have become the church discipline text. They’re used as the North Star and map, guiding pastors in the steps necessary to handle moral failure. This is understandable and not completely misguided.

But a careful reading of Matthew 18 gives us a different vision for what Jesus is teaching in these few verses. Rather than viewing this passage strictly in terms of discipline, we can see it as one part of Jesus’ practical and constructive instructions for our normal, conflicted life together in the Christian community. Matthew 18 is about creating flourishing communities far more than it is about handling church problems.

The great book of discipleship

“Context is king, but Jesus is Lord” my son likes to quip, somewhat snarkily quoting one of his professors. The old chestnut of the necessity of literary context is true when it comes to understanding Matthew 18. This famous chapter does not stand alone. It is but one part of what many scholars consider to be the most highly structured book in the entire Bible: the Gospel according to Matthew.

One of the many reasons Matthew has long stood at the head of the New Testament canon is because it provides such a clear and powerful program for shaping people into followers of Jesus. Matthew is the great book of discipleship. This is accomplished through a sophisticated literary structure that’s clearly designed for its disciple-making goal.

In the ancient world, people wrote biographies of great teachers and philosophers to commend their teachings and the models of their lives. This is in essence what our Gospels are: narratives peppered with teaching discourses, inviting people to become disciples of Jesus.

To accomplish his disciple-making goal, Matthew groups the bulk of Jesus’ teaching into five major blocks of instruction (chapters 5–7, 10, 13, 18, and 23–25). Each of these famous discourses is organized around a theme, providing disciple-shaping lessons that are easily memorizable. Jesus’ goal through his teachings is to retrain the sensibilities, loves, habits, behaviors, and thoughts of his followers in accord with God’s coming kingdom as revealed through himself. This is what it means to be a disciple, taking Jesus’ yoke of wisdom on ourselves and learning his very different way of inhabiting the world (11:25–30).

When we recognize that Matthew 18 is but one part of the Gospel’s disciple-making instructions and that the overarching goal of the book is disciple formation, we can read Jesus’ sayings in chapter 18 with greater clarity. Though disciplining erring church members can be an application of Jesus’ instructions, this reading is narrow at best and potentially wrong-headed. The most important thing to understand about Matthew 18:15–20 is that it is not primarily an instruction manual for church discipline but rather a small part of a larger, constructive program meant to shape how Christian disciples live in community.

A household code

My learned and very avuncular uncle always joked that a day is never wasted when you can use a German word. Here’s a good one, from the mind of Martin Luther himself, that aptly describes Matthew’s purpose in chapters 18–20: haustafel, or “household table or code.” A household code gives instructions for how the various members of a larger family unit should relate to each other and what attitudes should be valued and practiced. Other biblical examples of a household code include Ephesians 5:22–6:9 and Colossians 3:18–4:1.

Matthew 18–20 serves the same purpose for the “household” or “family” of the church—for newly formed people of God in Jesus Christ. It explores a variety of interpersonal situations to instruct Christ’s people on who and what they should hold in honor. In this section, we see the value of children and the vulnerable (18:1–14; 19:13–15), the importance of Christian brothers and sisters forgiving each other (18:15–35), God’s high regard for marriage (19:1–12), and the exaltation of those who follow in Christ’s way of suffering over those who are wealthy and externally righteous (19:16–30).

Taken together, these chapters provide a vision for a new way of inhabiting the world together, explained through descriptions of what our relationships should look like. This is the integrated context of Matthew 18:15–20, and we miss it when we view these few verses alone. Jesus’ teaching here is but one example of the unique tenor of relationships within Christ’s church.

The primary mark

This supposed “church discipline” text is really part of the great theme of forgiveness as the primary mark of the Christian community. The central ethical exhortation in Matthew is the call to be merciful. Through modeling merciful action (such as the mercy shown to Mary by Joseph in 1:19) and through Jesus’ direct teachings, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ calls for his disciples to be people of mercy.

Showing mercy is a two-sided virtue: merciful compassion toward those in need (6:2–4; 9:12–13; 12:7) and merciful forgiveness toward those who have wronged us (5:7, 9; 6:14–15; 18:21–35). And it’s this sense of mercy as forgiving others that’s the primary marker indicating who the followers of Christ are and who are not. In fact, lack of forgiveness is one reason why some might be removed from the church via the outlined steps of 18:15–20—because they are unwilling to be reconciled to another believer, despite the church body’s exhortation to do so.

This theme of mercy as forgiveness is doubly emphasized by the lengthy parable Jesus tells immediately after 18:15–20. The parable of the unforgiving servant (in vv. 21–35) is one of Jesus’ most heart-convicting and strongly worded teachings. It illustrates and drives home his point: Christians must forgive one another.

It’s not that Matthew 18:15–20 doesn’t address practical ways to deal with sin in Christian community—it does. But when we broaden our reading to take in the full context, we see that discipline is not the driving focus; growing as a community characterized by Christ’s mercy and grace is.

The long game

Throughout Matthew 18–20, we also see the persistent and unavoidable reality of conflict within the Christian community. This passage creates appropriate expectations for our conflicted life together. Jesus’ instructions are necessary because of humans acting badly: disregarding children, causing harm to the vulnerable, divorcing without cause, fighting over who is the greatest, and—most centrally—sinning against each other and failing to forgive each other.

It’s important to note that Jesus does not indicate shock or surprise at these situations. Nor does he expect them not to happen. Rather, Jesus knows this is the normal human experience and, therefore, the normal Christian experience in community.

A flourishing community is not one free of conflict but one where Christians value and practice Jesus’ very different way of being in the world. And this is the main purpose and disciple-making goal of Matthew 18:15–20.

Church health does not mean lack of conflict. Church health looks like Christians corporately handling conflict as a serious and communal matter with the goal of reconciliation. This is Christ’s way.

Thus, pastors can learn to take conflict as given and inevitable. As we all know well, sooner or later, situations needing the wisdom of Matthew 18–20 will occur. The function of these texts is to normalize such experiences within a church community and to give practical steps for living together in the way of love. This driving principle applies to the adulterous affair, the narcissistic pastor, and the fighting parents.

As pastors, we’re called to play the long game of teaching Christ’s people what he values from Matthew 18–20. When conflicts and moral failures of all sorts occur—and they will—we need not be surprised. Instead, we can see these situations as an opportunity to teach Christ’s way.

A pastor can utilize Jesus’ community-oriented steps to seek reconciled relationships. By doing so, we help our people grow as a beautiful alternative community. We model his way of being in the world, serving as the light that shines in the darkness.

Jonathan T. Pennington is professor of New Testament at Southern Seminary and pastor of spiritual formation at Sojourn East Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of several books, including Jesus the Great Philosopher.

This article is part of our spring CT Pastors issue exploring church health. You can find the full issue here.

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