“If your brother sins”

Matthew 18:15-17


“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.  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”


“If your brother sins”


Having warned against causing someone to stumble (Matthew18:6), Jesus now shows how to act when we see such a stumbling block.  Here is instruction concerning how to act when we are not the cause, but the victim, or even the witness of a wrong.  Stumbling blocks are terrible (18:7) and call forth God’s wrath, but we must try to save this person before it is too late.  These verses (15-17) are a practical step-by-step application of the parable just presented (18:12-14). Significant ancient manuscripts do not include the words against thee(Fowler p. 736).  Yet if we see our brother sin or if the particular sin was against us, the result is still the same, their soul is in danger (Isaiah 59:1-2; Romans 2:1-4; Matthew 18:7), thus both situations call for the same action.



“The great Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20) commissions every single disciple to act at once.  Whereas the Twelve had been motivated by wrong ambitions, Jesus redirects their ambition, lifting them up to the level of His own ministry to save the lost” (Fowler p. 737).  “Go” because:


·        Their soul is in danger (Isaiah 59:1-2).

·        They will be a stumbling block to others, both unbelievers, their own children, family members, new Christians and even old Christians.

·        The mess they are creating will not simply go away or get any smaller (James 5:20 “cover a multitude of sins”).


“Show him his fault”


“Make clear to him his error” (Bas).  “Tell him his fault” (KJV). The expression “show him” means “to convict, convince, tell a fault, and rebuke”.  Therefore the “sin” under consideration is not a human opinion that someone did something wrong, but a fault that one could clearly expose with Scripture.  Thayer notes, “To convict, refute, confute, generally with a suggestion of the shame of the person convicted, to reprehend severely, chide, admonish, to call to account” (pp. 202-203).  “At this point many are tempted to withdraw into their shell and hope to stop any quarrel by refusing to talk about it, especially with the offending party.  Among unbelievers that procedure might be the only way to handle wrongs, but what a miserable shortage of brotherly love it would be for Christians to take this route” (Fowler p. 738).


“In Private”


Notice God’s mercy at this point here, at this point everyone does not have to know.  “To narrate it to others at this point is to involve people who would perhaps never have needed to know about his sin” (Fowler p. 742).  Such an approach also keeps one from accusing someone unjustly  “So, to ask him in private for explanations is to do ourselves the favor of rightly understanding the situation before going off half-cocked, causing untold damage to ourselves, our brother and possibly others.  It is true justice to look at a question from the point of view of everyone involved; any other approach is partial.  The only possible justification Jesus gives for informing others about the situation is when asking them to join us as witnesses of our second effort to redeem our brother” (Fowler p. 743). There are times when this pattern is not followed, and a rebuke is public and immediate (Acts 8:20-23; Galatians 2:11-13).  Therefore, Matthew 18:15 is talking about either a private sin committed against one or a sin that no other members of the church have seen.  Sins that are committed in public or in the presence of other Christians are to be rebuked immediately.


Deviations from this Rule


·        “Passing it up the line”:


It is a rather common assumption to think that one has fulfilled their obligation in Matthew 18:15 if they pass on the information about a brother’s sin to someone in responsible position, such as telling the evangelist, a deacon, an elder.  Yet Matthew 18:15 does not allow us to pass on any information about this brother’s sin until we have talked to them first and sought their reconciliation with God.  We are only allowed to say something to others if there is no repentance at this first meeting.  Only then can we share this information, and only in the context of gathering witnesses who will go with us for a second meeting (Matthew 18:16).  So we cannot say to ourselves, “Just as long as I share this information with someone responsible, I am off the hook and I do not need to confront the brother in sin”.  It is never just enough to “know about it”.


·        “I just had to get this off my chest”:


This is not allowed.  The command is clear, we need to confront the brother first, and if the brother or sister repents, then we are not allowed to tell anyone.  The sin is forgiven and forgotten.  I can only think of a couple possible exceptions here, where after repentance, someone else would be told:  1.  If the sin involved the commission of a crime, and the person needs to turn themselves in to the lawful authorities (1 Peter 2:13).  2.  If someone else was sinned against, such as a husband who cheated on his wife, but he has not yet told his wife.  Read Matthew 18:15 over and over, there is no loophole that allows us to relieve our responsibility without confronting the brother or sister in sin.


·        “I am not very good at confrontation”:


The verse does not give us the right to opt out just because we might be timid, shy or afraid of confronting the person in sin. 


·        “They are better at this than I am”:


The New Testament does not allow us to select someone in the congregation to do our confronting for us.  Unfortunately in too many congregations this task is handed off to the preacher, the elders, or a couple of brothers or sisters who are “good at it”.


·        “It does not bother them”:


It seems that when members of the church see a brother or sister doing personal evangelism, teaching the younger grades, the high school class or getting involved in the latest mess, some brethren assume that all this comes naturally to these saints.  Even worse, the assumption often is, “Well, getting in the middle of a real tense situation does not bother them as much as it would bother me”.  If you have thought this way, let me clue you in.  Those who in the past have been “nominated” to deal with the mess do not like dealing with such things as more than any other Christian.  It bothers them; it keeps them from sleeping at night, both before the anticipated confrontation and after it. 


·        “It would destroy my health”:


Well, yes what it is doing to their health!  Especially if they keep getting nominated to deal with certain “problems”.  Dear brethren, being given some third or second hand information about the sins of another Christian is a burden.


God’s Wisdom


·        “A united front”:


One problem that begins to surface when either a handful of men or women or the elders are given all the confronting assignments is that these hard workers tend to become isolated.  If the elders are doing the confronting for the rest of us, then the common complaint among the unfaithful is that the elders are either “lording it over the flock” or that the elders are “authoritarian”.  Yet when every Christian assumes their responsibility in this area, then the sinner is not allowed to operate under the myth their only problem lies with a few members or the elders.


·        “Everyone shares the persecution:


When only the elders or a handful or workers are doing the confronting, then sadly, these are the brethren who are losing friends, who are being snubbed or who are being left out.  Often the unfaithful will say something like, “I do not have any problem with you or the congregation, I only have a problem with the elders there”.  I know that often we want the elders or someone else to deal with the situation, because we know that the person we are commanded to confront might not like us after the confrontation, and in fact, others associated with them might not like us either.  The temptation is to want to keep a low profile, and keep a number of rather superficial friendships in tack.


·        The sinner does not gain the upper hand:


“We have found that men who have committed some grave error are very particular not to have those who rebuke them commit the least error in the place and in the manner of the rebuke otherwise they become the guilty ones and the errorists persecuted martyrs. It was Peter who sinned as a public man in a public way; he forced the public rebuke from Paul, he made it necessary that all should hear” (Lenski pp. 99-100).  Very simply, when elders or some other Christian is given “confidential information”, and then goes to the brother or sister, the first question they are going to get hit with is, “Who told you that?” The second question is, “Why aren’t they here to talk to me?”  And, one gives the elders or some Christian such “confidential information” what are we really wanting them to do with it.  How are they going to explain how they got it and why they listened to it? The sinner knows Matthew 18:15 very well, and they will use any deviation from it as an excuse not to repent, and to excuse us of sin. 


·        Confidential information remains confidential:


So we must refuse to listen to any information about the sin of another Christian unless that person has first talked to them, and the purpose of the sharing of this information is to bring us in as a witness and we are going to go to them a second time.  Secondly, do not share any information with another Christian unless you are prepared to them to do something about it.  Third, never listen to such “confidential” information.


Mark Dunagan/Beaverton Church of Christ/503-644-9017