Matthew 18:15-17 presents a piece of advice from Jesus that seems wise and constructive:
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.
I like that passage itself, but I almost never agree with those who cite it.
Those four sentences are usually invoked for one of two reasons. The first typical conscription of this passage is by those attempting to deflect legitimate criticism. They hide behind this passage, insisting that Jesus’ words institute a strict, lawyerly process that must be legalistically followed, step-by-step, in every circumstance. Matthew 18:15-17 is often the last refuge of scoundrels.
The second form of conscription is to use this passage as a way to keep people in line, to squelch anyone who challenges authority by applying “church discipline” based on this text.
Both of those words present problems. If this passage describes “church discipline,” then it doesn’t mean “church” the way we mean that word, and it doesn’t mean “discipline” the way we mean it either.
Let’s start with that word “church.” That’s the word Jesus used, sort of, but it’s an anachronistic confusion to assume that he was using it the same way we use it. This thing we call “the church” did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime.
I like the way Garry Wills handled this in his book What Paul Meant. Wills uses “gathering,” rather than “church,” in order to avoid all the connotations that the latter term has accreted to itself in the centuries since Paul was writing and to help us not to read the term anachronistically. He explains this in an appendix, in which he also uses the word “Brothers,” rather than “Christians,” for similar reasons:
The Greek ekklesia simply means “gathering.” The meeting place of the Brothers was almost always in Paul’s time the house of a Brother or a Sister, or both — as in “the gathering at Prisca’s and Aquila’s house” (1 Cor. 16:19, Rom. 16:5) or “the gathering at your [Philemon’s] house” (Phlm 2). So basic is this cell of the Brothers’ assembly that Paul could refer, as we have seen, to all the Brotherhood as “the housefellows (oikeioi) of our trust” (Gal. 6:10). Some towns or regions had two or more such gathering spots — like “the gatherings in Macedonia” (2 Cor. 8:1) or “the gatherings in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2) — with no hierarchy among them. All those in one city could be called, for instance, “God’s gathering at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1). What would later be called “the church” is, for Paul, “all the gatherings” (1 Cor. 4:17, 7:17, 14:33), “God’s gatherings” (1 Cor. 11:16), or simply “God’s gathering” (1 Cor. 10:32, 11:22, 15:9), or “the gathering” (1 Cor. 12:28).
But Richard Beck describes a much larger problem with this second use of Matthew 18:15-17 — that whatever Jesus could have meant by “discipline” also likely isn’t the same as whatever it is we mean by it.
Beck’s objection centers on that final phrase of Jesus’ statement, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector” or, in the translation Beck uses, “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Those who recite this passage as the basis for “church discipline” presume that this means “such a one” must be shunned as an outsider, just like pagans and tax-collectors must be shunned.
“But I wonder if that interpretation makes any sense,” Beck writes, meaning, of course, that this interpretation does not make any sense:
This passage in Matthew is found between two parables of forgiveness, the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18.10-14) and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18.21-35).
… In light of these parables which bookend Jesus’s discussion of “church discipline” how are we to understand Jesus’s call to treat the unrepentant as “pagans and tax collectors”? On the surface it seems that the message of Matthew 18.15-17 contradicts the parables surrounding it.
The key, I think, to resolving the tension is found in observing how Jesus interacted with “tax collectors and sinners.” …
How might this understanding — we treat tax collectors as Jesus treated tax collectors — change how people have read Matthew 18.15-17? Well, it changes it completely. No longer is this text read as a mandate for exclusion, as a warrant for kicking people out. Rather what we find is a mandate for inclusion, a warrant for sending and seeking and embracing.