"If Your Brother Sins" (Matthew 18:15-20)
by Berry Kercheville
Matthew 18 began with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The question led to the fourth of five major discourses in Matthew’s account. Matthew highlights this discourse because the relationship between disciples in the kingdom is a key to the success of God’s cause.
When we look at NT churches, ask yourself where Satan attacked? Yes, there were external attacks, but there were especially internal attacks. Acts 6 and Acts 15 both illustrate early attempts to divide churches and brethren. Their challenge was to save the church from internal strife created by those whose discipleship was defined by, “Who is the greatest?” Today, nothing has changed. Our history has been riddled with divisiveness. Sometimes it is major splits; more often, it is an occasional few that leave.
“If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray”
The context of, “if your brother sins,” is that one lamb has gone astray and the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the lost sheep. Jesus is not giving the parable to say that he is the shepherd, but to show that disciples are shepherds. When he says what a shepherd would do, he is saying this is what a disciple would do. Who is the greatest in the kingdom? Disciples who act like this shepherd and seek a brother who sins. The use of the word “brother” indicates a family relationship. This is not intended to be a formal censure, but an attempt to keep the family unit full of love and unity. We are sinners, and the body needs a mechanism to solve sin that is damaging to the body.
Before we go further, consider: does the shepherd know the lamb gone astray? Does the lamb know the shepherd? Do they have a familiar and trusting relationship? Of course! That is what shepherd-like disciples do. That can be our failure. We start seeking lost sheep with whom we have never been shepherds. Sheep do not follow or respond to foreigners. What were Jesus’ previous words in the text? Verse 3: true disciples receive. Verses 8-9: true disciples make radical sacrifices to make sure their brother/sister is nurtured and saved. Verse 10: there is extreme care given over a child-like disciple because their angels are always before the Father. With that kind of care, it is hard for a lost sheep to stay lost. Here is an easy application picture: what did Jesus do when he wanted to save Zacchaeus? He went to his home; he dined with him one on one. What did Matthew do when he wanted to save his tax collector friends? He invited them to his home and dined with him. That personal connection is what is needed for shepherding to work. And by the way, when we appoint elders, those are exactly the people the Lord desires.
“You have gained your brother”
The implication is, a brother has been lost by his intimate friend. He goes to gain his brother. If the brother will not listen and persists in sin, he brings one or two friends with him because his friends have now also lost a brother. If he will not listen to a few who are close to him, it is taken before the church because his friends in the church have now lost a brother. But if he will not even hear his friends in the church, then it is taken before God (verses 18-20) because now God has lost one of his own. You see, God is the great shepherd and he sends his people to be shepherds who seek those of his flock that have fallen into sin. That is the sense of the text.
The principle of the text is “minimum exposure.” Each step attempts to limit the number of people who know about the sin. The reason is obvious. Our primary purpose is to win a brother, not shame a brother. There is nothing here about going to the elders and telling them about a brother’s sin. There is nothing here about going and telling your best friend. Why is this so important? The facts get obscured. Tell the elders and then let the elders tell the sinner and the facts are not transferred accurately, the relationship is not rebuilt, and love has been defeated. Being “anonymous” does not “gain your brother.” Is this a fault? Big time! By the way, is this procedure optional? Or is it a command? It is a command, and it is a sin to do otherwise.
There are two other sinful reactions that come out of this text. There are those who know of their brother’s sin, but do nothing about it. They “like” it on Facebook; they maintain the friendship as if nothing is wrong. They enable their fellow Christian to sin and in so doing they are in sin. There are also those who are in sin, but get defensive and angry when a shepherd-Christian goes to save them. This response is why most are resistant to approaching a brother. If you are innocent, why are you angry? Simply correct the misunderstanding. Too often, anger comes from being exposed. Defensiveness multiplies sin.
“Tell it to the church”
Now the evidence is presented to the church so the church can make a last ditch effort at restoring the sinful brother. What it doesn’t mean is that an eldership or a few leaders in the church insist that the church withdraw based on their word alone without knowing the evidence. But the point of the church knowing is to be able to confront the person in sin to get him to repent. They cannot do that without credible evidence. To attempt this without evidence is an excellent way to divide the church. Without evidence, people will immediately take sides. The sinful person may lie to their “friends” in the church in spite of the evidence of their continued sin, but will get away with it because no one but a few know the real evidence.
“That’s mean! You can’t treat people that way!” That is what people say who will divide a church. However, we cannot defend a member who is in open sin. The Lord does not want anyone in his family who persists in sin or is unwilling to reconcile with a brother. Jesus adds these words: “when two of you agree on earth…the Lord will have bound that in heaven.” God’s confirmation of the decision is reaffirmed by the words, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Now you see the reason for the witnesses and for confirming the evidence. When you agree that the evidence is firm, the Lord will have bound that in heaven. The words, “where two or three are gathered…” are not given to define what a church is. This is confirmation that God stands behind our action when a brother/sister is divisive and will not repent of their sins.
At the foundation of this text is love for the brethren. It takes extraordinary love, to develop a shepherd relationship with one another, to go after the one who is in sin with shepherd-like gentleness, and to be humble enough to accept the correction of a shepherd-Christian.