Matthew 18:15-17
The Most Misapplied Passage on Church Conflict
Copyright (c) 2012. Dr. Ken Newberger, Ph.D., Th.M.

What Do You When You Have Spoken
Directly to the Other Person But
the Dispute Remains?
Now What?
Looking for a way out of the their quandary many church members and leaders misapply Matthew 18.  They confuse this judicial church discipline process with a general model for conflict resolution.  The problem with such an approach is that the church discipline process outlined in Matthew 18 is only for sin serious enough to remove a member from fellowship (v. 17).

Jesus' words are wrongly used if applied to issues or disputes that do not involve sin (e.g. Acts 15:36-41).  Indeed, when this judicial church discipline process is inappropriately applied to disputes over church goals, policies, allocation of resources, building projects, etc., expect an escalation of the conflict.  Using Matthew 18 for the majority of conflicts that typically emerge in a church is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  It is the wrong process.  When the right procedure used in the wrong circumstances is the wrong procedure. The Bible provides an altogether different model for making peace for making peace among disputing parties which should be pursued instead.  Let us now consider what Matthew 18 says and when it should actually be called into play.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Matthew 18 Applies Only When Two Conditions Exist

1.  Matthew 18 applies when unrepentant sin is involved.  The passage begins with the conditional statement, “IF your brother sins against you....”  This passage is referring to cases where clearly identifiable wrongdoing against another in the church is involved.  If sin is not involved, then this passage should not be used.

2.  Matthew 18 applies when there are at least two or three witnesses of the sin, not the conversation between the two disputants (see further below).  When witnesses to the sin do not exist, the process cannot move forward. Note the Old Testament text from which Jesus quoted.

Deuteronomy 19:15   
A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.

A single eyewitness, even to murder, was not sufficient evidence or testimony to charge a person with a crime or offense.

Numbers 35:30  (see also Deut. 17:6)
If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.         

The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible under the entry of "Witness" tells us:

"In the judicial procedure outlined in the OT one witness was not adequate for personal testimony against anyone, but two or three witnesses were required (Deut. 17:6, 19:15).  This principle was ingrained in Jewish law and is reiterated in the NT (cf. Mat. 18:16, 2 Cor. 13:1).

In his scholarly commentary on Matthew, and specifically Mat. 18, Craig Keener states,

"although disciples seek reconciliation, they must gather evidence in the proper order in case they later need proof of what transpired (Mat. 18:16).... The requirement of two witnesses remained standard judicial procedure in early Christianity (2 Cor. 13:1-2, 1 Tim 5:19-20)."

For some inexplicable reason, some writers identify the two or three witnesses, not as eyewitnesses of the sinful act being charged, but only as witnesses of the allegation.  This concept of a witness for confirming truth is foreign to the Old Testament text from which Jesus is quoting, Matthew 18 itself, and the way the word "witness" is used and understood throughout the Bible. (See 1 Kings 21:5-14, Mark 14:55-64, Acts 7:8-14).

For example, if Susan charges Debbie with sin and Debbie denies the allegation, what good are witnesses to the conversation?  How would such a process protect against false accusations? Having a person be a witness of a conversation where a charge is leveled but not be a witness to the alleged wrongdoing does nothing to uncover or establish the truth.  Such accusations cannot be acted upon.  Indeed, the protection against false witnesses was so important that it was incorporated into the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:16, Deut. 5:20; see also Mk 10:19; Luke. 18:20). Even Jesus was afforded this protection at his trial (Mark 14:55-64).  

In the same way the disciples were to preach the gospel having been actual eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry on earth (Luke 24:36-48, Acts 1:21-22), so must the witnesses discussed in Mat. 18:16 be actual eyewitnesses to the wrongdoing that is being alleged.  Without such witnesses, the process as outlined in Mat. 18 cannot proceed. Dr. J. Carl Laney, speaking on Matthew 18:15-17, wrote:

“In legal process, the absence of witnesses or the existence of only one witness makes securing a conviction difficult.  The biblical requirement of additional witnesses safeguards the judicial process against false accusation, slander, and wrongful incrimination.  In the disciplinary process, those who have observed a sin in the life of a believer are able to strengthen the rebuke by confirming the charges. The witnesses may also serve to bring new objectivity to the situation by helping the truth to surface, and could be called upon to testify if the case comes before the congregation.”

In like manner, the apostle Paul wrote:

1 Timothy 5:19
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

John Stott, in his commentary, wrote:

"That is, it must be substantiated by several people. In the Old Testament two or three witnesses were required to sustain a charge and secure a conviction, especially in regard to a capital charge. The same principle applies in New Testament times (e.g. 2 Cor. 13:1; cf. Mat. 18:16) in particular when Christian leaders are being accused. ... This practical regulation is necessary for the protection of pastoral leaders, who are vulnerable to slander."

Because of the seriousness of making a charge of sin against an elder of the church, the word of just one person is not enough.  Two, and better, three people testifying to the veracity of the charge sufficiently confirm its truthfulness.  Without such eyewitnesses, the charge should not even be entertained.

Summary.  When the word “witness” is used in a legal sense, as in the formal church proceeding described in Matthew 18 and 1 Timothy 5, witnesses step forward to offer first hand knowledge of events that occurred in the past.  Being witnesses of an allegation being made after the fact are not the kind of witnesses of which the Bible speaks.

Matthew 18 is a critically important passage which instructs the church on how to deal with sin serious enough to remove an unrepentant member from fellowship. The passage outlines the judicial process for church discipline.  Accordingly, before someone can be expelled from a church, clear evidence of the wrongdoing must be secured through the testimony of eyewitnesses to the sin.  To use this passage in any other way than it was intended is to misuse and misapply it.  [For a fuller exposition of this passage, see Chapter 6 in Dr. Newberger's book, "Hope in the Face of Conflict"].

© Copyright 2012  Dr. Ken Newberger.  All Rights Reserved.
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