Forgive word jumble

The Beauty of Forgiveness in Christian Discipline

A friend once asked if I would help him with a dispute he was having with another Christian. He thought that by applying the familiar three steps of discipline outlined by Jesus in Matthew chapter 18, we might resolve the matter before he had to take this other Christian to a secular court.

I sat down with my friend and we opened our bibles to get a better idea of what this scripture actually means and how or if it would apply in this case.

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.

Matthew 18:15 NASB 1995

We began our study looking at different translations of the headings of our verses:

  • Discipline and Prayer NASB 1995
  • A Brother Who Sins Against You NIV 1993
  • Reproving Another Who Sins NRSV 1989
  • Restoring Christian Relationships NET

At least these translators seemed to put the emphasis on the idea that these scriptures relate to a situation where sin has damaged a relationship between two people. Specifically, between a person and their brother.

The Greek word translated as brother here is adelphos’, which implies at the very least a close relationship such as, “A fellow believer, or someone united to another by the bond of affection.” Sin, takes on its traditional meaning—to err or miss the mark; to wander from the path of uprightness and honour; to do or go wrong; to violate God’s law.

So, in order for Jesus’ instructions to apply, we must first ensure that our dispute involves a brother in Christ or, at the very least, someone dear to us, someone we value, respect, and love. We should not seek to enter into this process with an unbeliever or a stranger.

Next, we have to be sure that sin is involved. Matters of conscience, interpretation and application of scripture, thoughtless words, differences of opinion do not always rise to the level of sin.

We also need to be mindful of our own motivations: is my heart pure in this or is my sin affecting my judgement in this situation? Jesus cautioned us about examining ourselves before judging our brothers:

Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.

Luke 6:41-42 NASB 1995

Assuming we have met these initial requirements, we are then instructed to go and show or go and tell our brother his fault.

The Greek word used here is hypago. It means to depart, to go away, to withdraw one’s self. It implies action on our part and the telling or showing is to be done in private. This is not a time for texts or email. This step requires a demonstration of humility, gentleness, and Christian love through personal interaction with your brother. This is a one-on-one, in-person conversation.

With all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love.

Ephesians 4:2 NASB 1995

Our hope and prayer at this stage is that by God’s grace, our brother will listen and repent, returning to Christ’s favour and fellowship. However, sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way and we need to take additional steps.

But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT [WORD] MAY BE CONFIRMED.

Matthew 18:16 NASB

Now it’s time to enlist the support of other Christians. It’s important to understand why we now confront our brother in concert with others. Our verse says it is ‘so two or three witnesses may confirm every fact or word.’

Unfortunately, this portion of scripture has sometimes been used to bully people. The person doing the confronting gives these ‘witnesses’ one side of the story and very often an action that they believe needs to be done by the person to demonstrate repentance. Then they bring these ‘witnesses’ along, hoping they will support their views and persuade, convince, or guilt the other person to change their behaviour or decision.

This is not the opportunity to tag team our brother/sister and beat them into submission. These witnesses should be impartial, neutral parties, hearing your counsel and observing your brother’s response to that counsel. The bible tells us, “You shall do no injustice in court [judgement]. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour.” (Leviticus 19:15 ESV) These ‘witnesses’ should be wise and mature brothers who will exercise discernment as they hear both sides in the dispute. If they give counsel, they will strictly adhere to biblical principles and may offer it to either party.

The witnesses most important role relates to step three. These impartial witnesses will confirm any allegations or facts arising from this dispute to be brought forward to the church – based only on what they observed, heard, and witnessed when they accompanied you on your second visit.

If your friend still doesn’t repent then we are then told to ‘tell it to the church.’

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Matthew 18:17 NASB 1995

In this passage, the church is instructed to apply discipline to an unrepentant brother/sister. However, it is important to understand what is meant by the term “church.” The Greek word used here is “Ekklesia,” which refers to a gathering or assembly of people who come together for an important meeting or for worship.

This group of Christians is responsible for imposing discipline on the unrepentant brother, which may include excommunication from the church. To be excommunicated is to be excluded from the fellowship and privileges of the church. This is a serious consequence that creates an important but practical consideration for the entire process.

The brother in question must be brought before the church where he is a member. It would be pointless to bring him before a church where any imposed discipline would have no impact or be unenforceable.

Sadly, the process often ends here. But Jesus had a lot more to say about this if we care to read a little further in the chapter and elsewhere in scripture.

Here in Matthew 18, Jesus goes on to tell the story of a man who owed a king a very large sum of money. The penalty for lack of payment would be that this man, his wife, and his children would all be sold as slaves in order to pay his debt.

Most of us are familiar with the story. The man pleads for mercy from the king, and the king shows mercy and compassion for the man’s situation, forgiving his debt outright. This same man who is also owed money goes out and confronts his debtor, physically assaulting him and having him thrown into prison for non-payment of that debt. The king gets wind of this and has the man brought before him and turns him over to be tortured until his debt was repaid.

The moral is our King has forgiven us much, so we should have mercy on others in the same way that Jesus has mercy on us.

The apostle Peter says: “all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead.” (1 Peter 3:8-9 NASB 1995.)

The apostle Paul says: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:12-13 NLT)

After a lot of coffee, debate, and research, my friend decided that his desire to apply the process Jesus described in Matthew 18 was rooted in some sin of his own. He had been hurt by the actions of his friend, another Christian, and he had hoped that his friend might be made to feel guilty as a result of this process and reconsider his actions and decision.

Very often we use scripture like a drunk uses a lamppost – to support us when our own conduct has been sinful. However, we must strive to forgive and seek forgiveness. We should demonstrate mercy, humility, and patience, and overlook our own hurts and injustices. Seeking revenge is not the answer.

Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 are about forgiveness and restoration, not punishment and separation.