Redemptive Perspective 

Church discipline in Matthew 18

Daniel Gambo Dauda
Redemptive Perspective 
Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash

The Bible offers guidelines for how we should relate to each other at any given level. Restoring sinners, no matter how large the offense, to a saving relationship with Christ is something that the church must do.1 This fact is reflected in the various aspects of Christ’s teaching, as His life and teachings were centered on salvation. For instance, when He was asked why He was associating with those who were considered dishonest in transactions (tax collectors) and the outcasts (sinners) in society, He unequivocally responded by highlighting the purpose of His mission—namely, to rescue sinners (Luke 5:31, 32). This, therefore, defines the purpose of the existence of the church: providing an enabling environment for the renewal or enhancement of a relationship with Christ through the community.

Matthew 18 shares some steps designed to lead to a meaningful effort in redeeming the fallen. The elements of the process suggest how valuable humanity and human relationships are to God. In light of this, eagerness to satisfy the requirements of church procedures and rules relating to discipline should not eclipse the focus of the community of believers to its redemptive purpose of existence. 

Biblical Precedence

Examples of discipline, whether directly imposed by God or by a group of individuals under God’s orders, abound in the Bible. The sins of the sons of Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu incurred the instant wrath of God (Lev. 10). Jeroboam the son of Nebat was struck down for his rebellion (2 Chron. 13). The sins of Jezebel (2 Kings 9) attracted the displeasure of God. Other instances include Uzzah’s disobedience (2 Sam. 6), the express command by God to put to death the false prophets (Deut. 13), Sabbath desecration (Neh. 13:15-22); adultery, and bestiality that attracted punishment by death (Lev. 20). Samson was punished for the sin of lasciviousness (Judges 16) and David was chastised by God (2 Sam. 12:9, 10).

New Testament Jews practiced discipline as evidenced by the fear of the parents of the blind man in John 9 who feared that they could be put out of the synagogue by the Jewish leaders (verse 22). The deaths of Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, which occurred as a result of willful disobedience to the laid-down principles of giving (Acts 5), also suggest church discipline. Another example from the book of Acts is the summoning of Stephen before the Jewish council, which consequently led to his murder (Acts 6; 7). Paul’s epistles also give some insights into church discipline. Probably the most applicable among them is 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, in which Paul rebuked the church for its tolerance of a member who was engaged in a sexual relationship with his stepmother. Paul clearly instructed that such a person should be removed from among them. Speaking about those who stir controversy in the church, the apostle Paul recommends disciplinary measures (Titus 3:10, 11; other related passages include 1 Tim. 1:19; 5:19-21; 2 Thess. 3:14, 15; Gal. 6:1; 2 Cor. 2:6-8).

Love as the Foundation

According to Matthew, there are three steps to exhaust in redeeming the erring. First, let the offender know that they have done wrong (Matt. 18:15). If this effort fails to yield the desired result, then bringing one or two witnesses becomes necessary (verse 16). Should this effort at reconciliation fail again, then the church has to be apprised of the situation (verse 17). At this point the offender risks their status in the community, as they assume the position of a “tax collector” or “publican” if they fail to listen to advice.2 Some may think this third step leads to excommunication, abandonment, or some other form of social relegation.  This, however, does not seem to be the case, as the sinner should not be despised or neglected regardless of the enormity of the offense.3 Instead, a new phase of nurture, care, and pruning on the part of the church has offered itself. 

We see a similar idea in Hebrews 12:4-13, where corrective measures form a confluence between discipline and love. Love as the foundation when administering discipline is essential in fulfilling its ideal goal. Further accentuating the basis of discipline, Paul aptly stresses that those who are not disciplined are not fittingly grafted into the family of God, for the demonstration of God’s love for His children is reflected also in the chastening they experience from Him (verse 8). It is, however, worthy of note that it is not God’s desire to subject His children to a perpetual state of alienation from the full fellowship of the church, but rather to spur them to experience a healthier spiritual condition. 

The idea of establishing a matter before more than one witness (Matt. 18:16) echoes Deuteronomy 19:15: “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimonies of two or three witnesses” (NIV). The testimonies of the witnesses will either set the accused free (loosed) or make them imprisoned (bound). In the Greek text Matthew 18:18 translates to “shall have been bound” and “shall have been loosed” and conveys the idea of having any earthly decision being determined or guided by the decision above.4 By implication, the ratification of the church’s decision in heaven is dependent on its adherence to the laid-down principles in the Bible—love, compassion, and care—in the cause of treating the erring.

Postdisciplinary Care

“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven” (verse 19, NASB).5 “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (verse 20, NASB). The contextual meaning of this statement may not be far from the two witnesses mentioned in the preceding verses (15, 16). Thus, the gathering of the two is to resolve a matter of dispute; hence, reconciliation is greatly anticipated. The Jewish judicial system requires the two witnesses to be the first to execute the judgment of the court (Deut. 17:7) and or offer a “prayer of execration given at a Jewish excommunication; or they could represent prayers for the repentance and consequent forgiveness of the excommunicated person.”6

By turning down the counsel of the church the erring one has separated themselves from the constituted body of believers and relegated their status to the level of “a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). This does not imply that the erring one should be neglected, since the heathen and tax collectors were not exempted from the plan of salvation, as demonstrated by Jesus when confronted while eating and associating with sinners and tax collectors (Mark 2:13-17). The inclusive nature of the work of salvation necessitates putting every machinery in place to ensure an in-reach effort toward reclaiming the erring one, just as it could be done to a heathen or tax collectors who are in dire need of a Savior. Believers should be careful not to give the erring one reason to feel as though they were treated unfairly. Likewise, members need to exercise caution so as not to share in the sin by either participating in or condoning the evil through any form of false sympathy afterward.

Contemporary Church Discipline and Matthew 18:15-20

The Scriptures have clearly outlined the steps to be taken in the process of administering discipline. The most important principle for the application of Matthew 18:15-20 in the contemporary church as it relates to the matters of disciplinary measures is that discipline is for the purpose of redeeming a straying believer. It is not merely about satisfying the requirements of church policy as outlined in the Church Manual, which may indicate an action is necessary. Glenn Waddell asserts that “every step of Matthew 18:15-17 . . . must be taken with the purpose of and heart inclined toward promoting repentance, reconciliation and restoration to the covenant community.”7 The position assumed by the unrepentant “heathen” or “tax collectors” places the church in a higher state of responsibility in ensuring the salvation of the strayed member just as they could to a heathen for whose purpose the church exists. Speaking in this direction, Wyman L. Richardson postulates that “it was, after all, to Gentiles and tax collectors, to unworthy people, that the hope of the gospel was offered in Christ. So we are now to treat our fallen brother as a missionary would treat one who has not heard the gospel. We are to explain the gospel to them, reintroduce them to what it means to be a Christian, and plead with them for their return.”8

Benefits of Church Discipline

There are benefits of disciplinary actions when done under the auspices of the Holy Spirit. In some cases the corrected erring members come to appreciate the intervention when they understand that it was to help them spiritually. The discipline provides the erring with an opportunity to become more deeply rooted in the faith as they take the religious teachings and instructions more seriously. Further, disciplinary measures help to deter others from following the example of bad behavior. This helps to protect the community of believers. As Paul admonished Timothy: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20, KJV).

Church discipline offers the church the opportunity to experience a better and more solid relationship with Christ and one another. “Purge out therefore the old leaven,” Paul writes, “that ye may be a new lump” (1 Cor. 5:7, KJV). When discipline is administered in love and following the guidance laid down in Scripture, it has the potential of preserving the spiritual and moral integrity of the church. Ellen White stresses that “the evil must then be made to appear as it is, and must be removed that it may not become more and more widespread.”9 Beyond that, church discipline enhances the spiritual growth of the church and its prosperity.10 The redemption of a sinner from the power of sin and its effect is the core of the plan of salvation for humanity (Col. 1:12, 13).


The church is an invaluable avenue to facilitate the salvation of people. Disciplinary actions are corrective measures that should provide a redemptive atmosphere for the erring. Simultaneously, church discipline helps to maintain a high standard of abhorrence of sin that has the tendency of bringing reproach to the cause of God and consequently dimming its appellation “Light of the World.” Every member of the community has the noble responsibility of pursuing the course of helping the erring to retrace their steps back to a saving relationship with God as candidates of heaven. It is within the purview of the church to put in place some mechanisms to provide hope to the strayed as well as means to help them overcome their sinful tendencies.

1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 7, p. 260.

2 Roger E. Dickson, Dickson’s Teachers Bible: International King James Version With Commentary and Encyclopedic Study Guide (Cape Town, South Africa: Africa International Mission, 2001), p. 1109.

3 The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, ed. Francis D. Nichol (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), vol. 5, p. 448.

4 Ibid.

5 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

6 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 91.

7 Glenn G. Waddell, “The Meaning of Matthew 18:17B in Its Historical and Literary Context and Its Application in the Church Today” (M.A. thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 2014), p.71.

8 Wyman Lewis Richardson, Walking Together: A Congregational Reflection on Biblical Church Discipline (Eugene, Oreg.: Wipe & Stock, 2007), p. 101.

9 E. G. White, p. 263.

10 Ibid.

Daniel Gambo Dauda