Out of Context | “If they refuse to listen…Excommunicate them” Matthew 18:17

“Out of Context” is a series dedicated to verses of scripture, often used in today’s conversations, that have little to do with the context by which it was written.

Context | (1) the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed; (2) the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.

Today’s Verse

Matthew 18:17 “If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.”

This is a signature verse used by many churches to enforce “church discipline” on people that have public sin in their lives, have been confronted by the “church,” and have been excommunicated (cast out) because of their lack of repentance. However, that’s NOT what the context of this verse implies – after all, these are Jesus’ words written by a “tax collector.” Anytime you want to know what Jesus meant by what He said, you simply need to look at the way He lived.

NOTE: I do support the doctrine of church discipline, and there are many great scriptures written in the New Testament to support biblical leadership and the call for Christians to confront other Christians on clear violations of sin in their lives. Paul makes this case very clear in his 1st letter to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 5). However, Paul is very specific about who to judge and how to judge. I don’t believe Matthew should be included in the case of church discipline.

First, we need to go back and see the context of what Matthew is recording when it comes to Jesus’ teaching. Chapter 17 tells us they are in Capernum, and Chapter 18 begins with “about that time” they asked Jesus a question. This question started a time of teaching from Jesus to his disciples and others gathered.

Vs 3-10 – Jesus talks about the weight and seriousness of sin.

Vs 11-14 – Jesus describes God as the Shepherd who leaves the 99 to find the one who is lost.

Vs 15-20 – Jesus teaches us how to confront one another.

Matthew 18:15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.

Vs 21-35 – Jesus teaches on forgiveness (70×7) and the treatment of those who refuse to forgive others.

We understand that the charge to confront someone about sin is not an easy thing to do. This requires courage and the right heart (a heart that loves this person and cares deeply for them). The 3 steps process is laid out simply. If after these 3 steps someone is still claiming to be a Jesus follower but does not listen or confess that they’ve sinned, then follow the next step.

The verse that speaks to the church making a decision is in reference to any course of action that spiritual leadership would deem necessary in concern with the sin at hand. Jesus says “treat them as pagan (lost person) or corrupt tax collector (really lost person).”

So how do we best approach verse 17. Is it to excommunicate that person and “cast them out” of the fellowship of believers?

I don’t believe it is. Obviously, if you’ve taken these steps you’ve already gone further than most people in terms of loving an individual who has clearly lost their way. So the only question left to ask is “How did Jesus treat the lost and the tax collector?”

He loved them!

He placed them in the center of his attention and action to show them grace, love, and truth. He went out of his way to find them (left the 99 to find the 1) because of the seriousness of sin. He extended forgiveness, even when they didn’t ask for it. Even when they continued to wrong him and take advantage of that forgiveness (70×7).

So how do we treat those whom we’ve confronted and have turned away from God’s ideals and instructions for life?

We love them!

They might need to take a break from serving in any type of leadership role at your church. They might even stop attending for a while because they “feel” judged based on decisions that you had to make. However, this should never stop the intentional effort to show them the LOVE of Jesus through our actions and the GRACE (Forgiveness) that He extends to all of us. This is not a “reason” for excommunication, nor a “justification” to cast someone aside! They should become even more important to reach, love, and extend the grace of Jesus.

I’ll say it one more time to close. If we want to know what Jesus meant by what Jesus said…we just need to look at the way Jesus lived!

That should be all the context we need.

Matt Dawson is a pastoral leader, communicator, and blogger who desires to discuss the tension between life and faith, and help people experience life fully alive!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “Out of Context | “If they refuse to listen…Excommunicate them” Matthew 18:17

  1. Doesn’t seem right Matt – the idea that a community of people would lovingly offer up forgiveness and grace to a person who is lying and cheating another person. Wouldn’t it offend the party that was lied to and cheated? So the cheater can one day decide to accept the grace offered up by his loving community and be fully reinstated? Sounds like fertile ground for growing scoundrels with biblical moral justification. What about the scoundrels victims?, is there a just compensation for the crimes committed? And the bigger (and obviously more personal) issue I have with this idea- What about the liars/cheaters within the church who cheat those outside of the church community? I suppose they walk with impunity and moral justification while their victims walk a few dollars lighter. Like I said, it doesn’t sound right to me.

    • I agree that it can seem unfair Dan. Forgiveness can be given by a community – but it doesn’t mean the relationships are restored. For relationships to be restored there has to be an “owning” of the offense by the offender. For the person who’s been lied to or cheated, this will be harder no doubt, but not impossible. As for the ultimate payment for such offenses whether it’s to the liars & cheaters inside the church or outside the church – Jesus told us himself that judgement was coming no matter what. (John 12:48).