Rethinking Matthew 18 and Church Discipline

by Thomas L Horrocks

Matthew 18 is often brought up in conversations about ecclesiology and “church discipline,” that is, how the church ought to respond to a believer who refuses to repent from sin. Matthew 18 contains teachings from Jesus to his disciples on several different topics ranging from leadership to temptation to forgiveness. The specific passage that’s cited in regard to church discipline is Matthew 18:15-20. It reads as follows:

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. 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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20, NRSV).

Typically, this passage is summarized to say that if a believer sins, that believer should first be approached individually, and then, if they don’t repent, they should be approached by a small group of believers, and if they still don’t repent, they should be brought before the entire church and confronted. If the person is still unrepentant at that point, it is argued, the person is to be excommunicated, or disfellowshipped from the church. But is that what the passage really teaches? There is good reason to suggest that the answer to that question is “not really.” Here’s why. Fair warning, things are about to get nerdy.

You or y’all?
One of the perennial problems with the English language is the fact that the second-person singular pronoun and the second-person plural pronoun are identical – we use the word “you” for both. Apart from context, it is impossible in English to determine if the word “you” is referring to a single individual or a group of people. Perhaps the southerners are on to something in their often mocked but probably wise use of the contraction “y’all” to refer to a group of people.

The New Testament, however, was not written in English; it was written in Greek. And like many other languages, ancient Greek has different words for the singular and plural second-person pronouns. In other words, the Greek language has a “y’all” form built into it to help distinguish between a single individual and a group of people. However, because of the English language’s “y’all” deficiency, it can be very difficult for readers of English translations to know when a New Testament author is referring to a single person or a group people, and this can cause interpretive difficulties. Such is the case with the passage under consideration here. I’m going to show you the passage again, but this time I’m going to provide my own translation, marking out the second-person singular pronouns with a “you” and the second-person plural pronouns with a y’all. Let’s begin with verses 15-17.

If a brother¹ sins against you, you go and you rebuke him between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. If he doesn’t listen, you bring along with you one or two more [people] so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses, every word might be established. If he refuses to listen, you tell the assembly. If he also refuses to listen to the assembly, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

Just in case it wasn’t clear, in verses 15-17 every second-person pronoun is singular. So what does that mean? Great question.

Personal Offenses or Church Discipline?
The fact that Jesus exclusively uses the second-person singular pronoun in this section indicates that Jesus is addressing issues among individuals.  In other words, Jesus talking about how to handle personal offenses among believers. This is corroborated by the fact that verse 15 begins with the phrase, “If a brother sins against you,” a personal offense.

Now, in the Greek, there is some textual variance in regard to the little phrase that is translated as “against you.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the phrase is present in some ancient manuscripts and missing in others. If that phrase were removed, the passage would simply read, “If a brother sins, you go and rebuke…” Textual critics, the really smart people who study all of the ancient manuscripts, continue to debate whether or not they believe that phrase is original to the text or not. Bruce Metzger, one of those really smart people, explains it this way:

It is possible that the words εἰς σέ [against you] are an early interpolation [addition] into the original text, perhaps derived by copyists from the use of εἰς ἐμέ [against me] in ver. 21. On the other hand, it is also possible to regard their omission as either deliberate (in order to render the passage applicable to sin in general) or accidental…In order to reflect the balance of possibilities, the Committee decided to retain the words enclosed within square brackets.²

The square brackets in the critical Greek texts of the New Testament “indicate that the enclosed word, words, or parts of words may be regarded as part of the text, but that in the present state of New Testament textual scholarship this cannot be taken as completely certain” (emphasis mine).³ To state it another way, the phrase “against you” is probably original, but might not be. The removal of that phrase, however, would hardly diminish the point being made here, given that every other occurrence of the second-person pronoun in verses 15-17 is singular, as well as the fact that, as we’ll see in the next paragraph, the final result of the confrontation process is an individual, not a corporate response.

The likelihood that Jesus’s focus here is the process for addressing personal offenses is increased when we rightly understand the end result of the confrontation process: “If he also refuses to listen to the assembly, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector” (v. 17, emphasis added). In other words, only the offended believer, not the entire assembly, is to regard the offending brother as a gentile or tax-collector. In light of that, it seems clear that Jesus is not talking about formal church discipline or corporate excommunication.

Changing the Subject
Beginning in verse 18, there is a sudden change in grammatical subject from second-person singular to second-person plural. Following is my translation of verses 18-20, using the same method of identifying second-person pronouns explained above:

Truly I say to y’all, whatever y’all bind on earth will be bound [or, will have been bound] in heaven, and whatever y’all loose on earth will be loosed [or, will have been loosed] in heaven. Again, truly I say to y’all, that if two of y’all should agree on earth concerning any matter they should ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.

Whereas in verses 15-17, the second-person pronouns were all singular, in verses 18-20 the second-person pronouns are all plural. This fact alone draws into question just how closely related this second passage is to the first.

Those who mistakenly interpret verses 15-17 as a teaching on corporate excommunication find validation for that interpretation in verses 18-20, insisting that the power to make binding decisions on the status of an unrepentant believer lies with the body of believers. And, while that may be a true second-order inference from the text, it is unlikely that was Jesus’s original intention. Instead, the abrupt change in grammatical subject, marked by the shift from the singular to the plural, likely indicates a slight change in topical subject. In other words, Jesus is teaching his disciples that when they are gathered together in his name they will be given a certain amount of divine authority and they can trust in his continued guidance and blessing.

As students of scripture, we must take the text as it is, not as what we wish it to be. As much as I can appreciate the desire to have Jesus provide a step-by-step procedure for church discipline, that’s simply not what this passage conveys. Verses 15-17 provide guidance for addressing personal offenses among disciples. Verses 18-20 provide encouragement for a group of disciples who would soon be faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to get along without the physical presence of their leader and teacher. Taken together, the passage as a whole can inform our ecclesiology, but that is a second-order, hermeneutical task, not the primary focus Jesus’s original teaching.


¹ I would typically translate this with inclusive “brother or sister” and the following third-person pronouns as the gender-neutral “them,” but for the sake of clarity regarding singular and plural pronouns, I have opted here for “brother” and “him.”

² Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 45.

³ Introduction to the 4th Edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 2.

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