matthew 18 - when does it apply?


“Moreover if thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, than take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he neglect to hear them, tell it unto the ecclesia: but if he neglect to hear the ecclesia, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican” (Mat 18:25-17).

Following our periodic reviews of various publications which entail the exposing of doctrinal error, a number of correspondents have expressed the concern that the principles of the Lord Jesus as expressed above have not been upheld. It is felt that rather than to give a public refutation of these works, the procedure outlined by our Lord ought to be followed, that reconciliation might be found with our erring brethren and the matter be laid to rest. To give open rebuke to those who lead our brethren astray from the paths of wisdom and life is allegedly “unChristlike.” Far better, we are told, to follow the procedure outlined by Christ, and approach the brother quietly and alone to resolve things.

But however attractive such a proposition might sound in an age where it is greatly frowned upon to adversely comment upon the beliefs of another; when mutual toleration and respect must be shown by all to all, to follow such counsel would not be to rightly apply the Word of Christ. In the passage cited above, it is important to note the circumstance in which our Lord states the procedure should be followed: “if thy brother shall trespass against thee”. The case is to do with personal offences, either open or private, whereby a brother has committed a trespass in whatever form against another brother – the Lord does not describe in this place the situation where affronts are made against the Truth by the promulgation of false doctrine. This is a different circumstance; and the Scriptures indicate that different procedures should be implemented.

An example of where a brother began to lead others astray can be found in Peter, who out of fear of the Jews, disassociated himself from the Gentiles. The consequence of such action was that “the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation” (Gal 2:13). What was to be done? A highly respected brother – one of such great standing as Peter the Apostle was actually causing the brethren to be “carried away”! To follow the advice of our critics, Paul should have quietly took Peter to one side, and had a word with him. That, however is not what he did. What good would that do to those who were being carried away? How would it deal with the damage already done? No, his actions were far better; he gave a public and open repudiation: “when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, if thou, being a Jew livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?” (Gal 2:14). He “withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal 2:11). He did not follow the procedure outlined by the Lord Jesus – because it did not apply. It was a different set of circumstances, when a different form of action was required.

This then, is the Apostolic example of dealing with affronts to the Truth. To “withstand” the offender “to the face” – openly, publicly – “before them all”, that they also might heed the words spoken. So, the action was for the benefit of Peter, that he might be corrected – as he duly was – and the others, that they might take heed also. As Paul, under inspiration, wrote to Timothy, “them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1Tim 5:20). This is the precept of Scripture for dealing with such situations – and this is the divinely appointed procedure which we endeavour to follow.


But what then of the words of the Lord Jesus? How should they be applied? A point to be noted, is that they are not given as mere advice – optional guidance which a person might follow if we so wish. It is a command which must be followed when major personal differences arise. “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother”. Notice here also, the Master does not stipulate that the trespass must be private – in the event of any personal trespass, either public or private, he has appointed this procedure to be followed. These are personal differences or grievances, not the open promulgations of false teachings.

The first point therefore – a point often made, but seldom heeded, is that before the offence is spoken of to even a single person; the offender must be seen first, alone. Then, ideally, the situation may be resolved between the two parties, without the need for any outside involvement. All too often brethren air their personal grievance without actually approaching the offender first – a practice to be avoided at all costs. Notice that in the Lord’s command, there is no provision for such – at all. Not even after the ecclesia has considered the matter; and the offender has been withdrawn from – not even then is the offended party at liberty to air the issue with others. There is no provision for gossip and slander within the body – “speak evil of no man” (Tit 3:2) is the way of Christ, whether there is factual evil to be spoken or not, and whether the brother heeds our approaches or not.

Notice this also – the whole point of the exercise is not to “thrash out the issue” – but specifically to find reconciliation. To gain one’s brother who has been lost to us by the nature of offence. Again, it is not uncommon for brethren to discuss their differences with the motive of personal justification, rather than a desire for reconciliation. That I might show myself to be right – and that my brother might recognise that I am right! Such is not the purpose of the exercise. The offence must be pointed out for the benefit of the offender, that he might repent, not the offended that he might be vindicated. Finally, even before this procedure be implemented, the gravity of offence needs firstly to be determined. The end result shows this – the issues are important matters of fellowship. The ‘trespass’ is one so great that if the offender refuses to hear, it warrants his expulsion from the ecclesia. This, we would do well to reflect upon before even broaching the matter to the offending brother in private. Is the matter so serious that it warrants the brother to be disfellowshipped? There are times when it is far better to exercise forbearance, and let the matter drop. “Above all things have fervent love among yourselves: for love shall cover the multitude of sins”(1Pet 4:8). That is the way of Christ, and the way of his brethren.

Christopher Maddocks