Jesus turns the standards of the world on their head when he defines greatness in the kingdom as humbling yourself like a little child. In Matthew 18:15–20 Jesus’ commands on dealing with conflict contradict the expectations of the world.
Go to your brother. Resolve problems just between the two of you. Keep in mind the context. As Christians, we are “little ones” in Christ’s kingdom. Even when your brother sins against you, treat him, not as an enemy, but as a brother. All of God’s people, children as well as adults, need to handle conflict in a way that glorifies God. Some offenses are small enough that they should be simply overlooked. But problems that are big enough to harm others or the sinner, should be resolved. Going to your brother is a positive action, that replaces hatred and resentment in your heart, Leviticus 19:17. The first step is to go to your brother or sister. Don’t gossip about him, don’t talk to others. Go with a tentative attitude and a willingness to listen. Keep on going. The imperative implies a continued action. Resolution and reconciliation at this stage mean that you have won your brother—and that’s much better than winning an argument! “Loving confrontation is often the key to repentance, which can remove the root causes of conflict and open the way for genuine peace.” (Ken Sande, The Peacemaker, p. 20)
Take two or three others. If, after repeated efforts, you cannot resolve the issue with your opponent in private, ask two or three others to go with you. These should be mature Christians, perhaps friends of both of you. You could even ask the other party to suggest someone. Their goal is to try to facilitate conciliation. Don’t prime the pump by explaining your side in detail. Rather, give them the opportunity to hear both sides together. The very fact of involving other believers helps to impress the person who has sinned with the seriousness of what he has done. It helps counter the individualism and relativism of our culture. If even these efforts should be of no avail, the two or three meet the requirement for a plurality of witnesses required in Deuteronomy 19:15.
Tell it to the church. This is not a license to gossip in the church. Rather, it involves some kind of formal accusation, with the result, that if there is no repentance, the party is treated as an unbeliever. Going to the church serves to impress the party again with how serious his actions are. (It also ought to make you reevaluate your confronting him.) Telling it to the church is not just one more way to try to “get” someone, but has as its goal the restoration of the party as well as the purity of the church and the honor of Christ. One of the marks of the church is discipline, and each communicant member promises to submit, in the Lord, to the discipline of the church. The church here, though at an early stage, is at least well enough organized to be able to hear and adjudicate an accusation, and to distinguish between those who belong to it and pagans. The same process is reflected in 1 Corinthians 6:1–6. As important as it is to follow the steps that Jesus outlines in this passage, don’t misuse Matthew 18. The context is a brother sinning against you, not some public heresy or scandalous sin. There is a place for open rebuke, as Paul did to Peter. The sin here is serious enough that it could result in the brother being removed from the church. “In Matt 18… the offense is excommunicable because of its seriousness. In the NT as a whole, there are three categories of sins that reach this level of seriousness: major doctrinal error (e.g., 1 Tim 1:20), major moral failure (e.g., 1 Cor 5), and persistent and schismatic divisiveness (e.g., Titus 3:10). These constitute the negative flipside of the three positive “tests” of 1 John: the truth test, the obedience test, and the love test.” (D. A. Carson, “On Abusing Matthew 18,” Themelios 36.1 (2011), p. 2)
Remember the connection between earth and heaven. Earthly actions are reflected in heaven. Note the continuity between our text and the first part of the chapter. Not only is the brother one of God’s little ones, but the process of going to your brother, taking witnesses, and finally telling it to the church, is one the means through which God carries out his desire that none of the little ones should be lost, v.14. It is because sin is such serious business (verses 7–9) that you as an individual and the church as church need to be involved in dealing with sin. God showed mercy to David in sending Nathan to confront him with his sin. Jesus’ language in verse 18 echoes Matthew 16:19, in which he gives the church the power of the keys. It is not that God is bound by what men do on earth. Rather, as the church is faithful in proclaiming God’s Word and exercising discipline, its verdict on earth will be reflected in the heavenly judgment. That’s motivation to listen to the church as it seeks to exercise Godly discipline. Jesus is reminding you that there are eternal consequences to your actions on earth. The authority of the keys is reflected in the administration of the sacraments, particularly in admitting to or baring from the Lord’s Table. Church courts need to guard against being too hesitant to proclaim forgiveness. “Christ, wishing to administer comfort to trembling consciences, and to relieve them from fear, declares that any who may have offended are freed from guilt in the sight of God, provided that they be reconciled to the Church.” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospels, at Matthew 18:18) Rejoice that in the Lord’s Supper Christ himself comes to you, the same Christ who is presented in the Word.
Christ is present with you. Where two or three gather in Christ’s name, Christ is there with you. This is not justification for a tiny attendance at the evening service. Nor does it picture small groups within the church contradicting one another in their requests. Rather, even a church of a very few is still the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is present, not only in worship, but also during judicial process, see 1 Corinthians 5:4,5. Discipline is not just the act of a local church, it involves the whole body of Christ, and is carried out in the name of Christ. Because of Christ’s presence with his church, your prayers are important and are heard. (The immediate context of the prayer mentioned here is the judicial process, ranging from individual efforts to formal church discipline.) Christ is present in the discipline process and is present to hear your prayers because he is first of all present as the shepherd, who has come searching for his sheep. It is specifically in his office of Messiah that he is present with you. Carry out each step of this process in the knowledge that Christ is present. He is watching you, and sees your motives. And his powerful Holy Spirit can take your efforts at reconciliation and use them to restore a brother. It is because you are united to Christ, your head, that the unity, purity, and peace of the church are so important.
This process may contradict the way the world goes about dealing with conflicts. But use it, not only because it works, but because Christ commands it. Persistent sinners, beware. Hear the word of warning that Christ proclaims through his church. But forgiven sinners (and God now calls you “saints”) take firm grasp of the forgiveness proclaimed in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth—because you are taking hold of Christ himself!