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And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell [it] unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Note 5 at Mt 18:17: These verses are dealing with church discipline. As Paul said in 1Co 5:12-13, God judges the lost, but He committed the judgment of the members of His church to the church. This discipline can be divided into three major areas.
1. In 2Th 3:6-15, Paul dealt with what he called disorderly conduct. In that passage, he was addressing the specific problem of brothers in the Lord who refused to work and had become busybodies.
2. Paul stated that certain doctrinal issues should not be tolerated but rather disciplined (1Ti 1:19-20 with 2Ti 2:17-18). The angel (or pastor?) of the church at Thyatira was rebuked for allowing Jezebel to teach false doctrine, implying that the Lord expected him to discipline her (Re 2:18-29). Those who are heretics would fall into this group (Tit 3:10).
3. Sins of immorality should be dealt with by the church, as illustrated in 1Co 5.
Discipline (as the word implies) must always be for the purpose of correction and not damnation. The man whom the church at Corinth turned over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh (1Co 5) repented, and Paul instructed the believers to receive him back into fellowship (2Co 2:7-8). The scriptural commands concerning church discipline are designed to help restore the brother or sister who is in sin just as much as they are designed to protect other members of the body from that sin. If the person being disciplined repents, the objective has been achieved and no further action should be taken.
This instance spoken of in this verse would fit into the first category of discipline. It could involve any dispute among brothers or sisters (1Co 6:1-8) or disorderly conduct by one of the body. The first step is to try to work things out between the parties involved. As Jesus taught in Mt 5:23-24, we are supposed to take the initiative in this reconciliation even if we are not to blame.
If the other person will not reconcile, then we are to take one or two other believers with us as we again try to solve the problem. This accomplishes two main things. First, it verifies all of the charges in the mouths of two or three witnesses, as God commanded, in case the matter has to be brought before the whole church. This keeps us from using church discipline to "railroad" a person we dislike. Second, it brings in the perspective of a third party. In many cases, this could solve the whole conflict because most of us have a big weakness of not being able to perceive the beams in our own eyes (see note 47 at Mt 7:5). Having a third person present who has no vested interest is much like bringing in arbitration.
If this doesn't solve the conflict or cause the person to repent of the disorderly conduct, then the problem should be brought before the entire church. If the entire church is united in its judgment of the situation, this should cause the offending person to repent. Most people are not so much into pride and deception to think that they are the only ones who are correct. This group pressure is very effective, especially if the person being disciplined really loves and respects the others in the church.
If there is still no repentance, then the last step is for the entire church to treat the person in rebellion as we would a lost person. That does not mean that we quit walking in love toward him or her. We are supposed to love the lost too. It does mean that we withdraw our fellowship (1Co 5:9-11 and 2Th 3:14-15) so that the person will be ashamed and repent. There is also a retaining of the person's sins unto him or her, as Jesus spoke of in Joh 20:23, and that is what turning a person over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh is about.
All of this church discipline is dependent on the church being a praying, loving, healthy church. If a church is not abounding with love among its members, withdrawing fellowship is meaningless. A person won't miss what was never there. Also, a withdrawing of our intercession for a brother or sister, as when we turn him or her over to Satan, is meaningless if we never prayed for that person in the first place.
Church discipline today is also weakened by the division in the body of Christ. All a person who has been disciplined has to do is walk down the road and start attending another church group who will begin to fill that void of fellowship. In the first-century church, this was not the case; broken fellowship with the believers was a devastating discipline. Love and unity in the body of Christ today would restore the effectiveness of church discipline.
However limited the results of this discipline might seem to us, we are still commanded to do it. The more a church has this unity among members and an effective intercessory prayer life, the more effective the discipline will be. As related in Mt 18:18-20, the spiritual significance of this discipline is awesome (see note 6 at Mt 18:18).
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