Confronting the Sinner
by Travis Bookout
Jesus gave up His life for the opportunity to forgive those who have wronged Him. That’s pretty remarkable. Our desire as followers of Christ should be to act like Him. We should want to forgive, be kind, and speak well of those who harm, persecute, or hate us. When someone has wronged you, Jesus gives a step by step process about how you should attempt reconciliation.
“If your brother sins” (Matthew 18:15)—translations and manuscripts differ about whether the phrase “against you” should be added. It is in verse 21, but might or might not belong in verse 15. Either way, is the beginning point. A sin is committed and you are either a witness to it, or negatively affected by it.
Notice also that it is a “sin” that is committed. People can be irritating, thoughtless, and stupid on a pretty regular basis. But this passage is not about some brother who takes your seat with the better cushion, eats the last pizza roll at the potluck, or forgets to invite you to a birthday party. It is about someone who is actually in sin.
“Go and show him his fault in private” (Matthew 18:15)—the first thing one ought to do it have a private conversation with the one who is sinning. This is probably the step we struggle with more than any other. It is uncomfortable and difficult, but Jesus says it is step #1. Don’t go to the elders or the preacher if you are unwilling to go to the individual sinner first. Don’t tell your friends, call your mother, blather away at work, or post it on Facebook if you can’t talk to the one who sinned. Also, keep in mind that you are the one taking the initiative to produce reconciliation. You are not waiting on him. If you won’t do this, then you have no right to take any further action.
Matthew has a lot to say about those who try to do things secretly, privately, or quietly. Joseph, as a righteous man, was going to do every possible to put Mary away “secretly.” He did not want to disgrace her name. Disciples are supposed to practice their righteousness “in secret” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18, etc.), for God to see rather than for men to see. As much as possible, whether practicing individual righteousness or correcting our brothers, we should try to go the most secret route possible. Keep it between us and God. We do not want to disgrace our brothers, even those who are caught up in sin!
“take one or two more with you” (Matthew 18:16)—if he doesn’t listen in your private conversation, bring one or two more people with you to serve as witnesses. This does not mean witnesses to the sin, but witnesses to the conversation and rebuke. If it were witnesses to the sin, you could only confront someone if they sinned in front of multiple people. Then you would have to ask around and begin a witch hunt about who all knows about this sin. In doing so you will besmirch the name of the sinner, which these first two steps are designed to avoid!
This step helps confirm the details about what actually took place and hopefully serves as more incentive for the individual to repent. If the brother will not admit the sin in front of the witnesses, then it is simply your word against his, and the matter should be dropped. These witnesses serve as a way to “confirm” every fact. If the facts are not confirmed, then the process must halt.
“tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17)—if he will not listen to you, and you have several witnesses that confirm what he did and that he will not repent, then you can bring the matter publicly to the church. This is something of a last-ditch effort with the hopes that maybe a whole congregation can help bring this brother to his senses. Maybe when he sees how many people love him, care for him, pray for him, and desire his repentance and salvation, maybe that will open his eyes. Maybe it can change his heart. Maybe a brother can be restored.
The goal of this step ought never to be to harm the name of a brother. It should never be to get “justice” and embarrass someone who wronged you. And certainly it should not be to get attention or praise as one who is unafraid to rebuke sin. It should never be to build yourself up or to tear another down. Like every single step Jesus has mentioned, the purpose is the well-being and restoration of a person who sinned.
“let him be as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17)—the final step in the process, after speaking privately, attempting a small group confrontation, and congregational involvement, is to treat him as an outsider. That is the removal of fellowship. This ought to only be done with weeping and tears.
“I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20)—This passage is a true comfort to an individual, small group, or congregation that has just gone through this troubling process. After this process is over, God reminds his disciples that these proceedings on earth, are also happening in heaven (Matthew 18:18). And that when you have those two or three witnesses, who have confirmed every fact, made requests of the Lord, and have gathered together to do what is right, God in with them and on their side.
Several reminders: 1. If you cannot talk to a person in private, you have zero right to take the matter public. 2. If the witnesses cannot confirm all of the facts, then the matter should not be taken to the church. 3. Informing the church is not an attempt to harm an individual or earn a merit badge, but an effort to help restore one who is caught in sin. 4. The removal of fellowship is also designed to teach a valuable lesson, and to encourage the sinner to come back home. 5. There is no limit to how many times a brother should be forgiven (Matthew 18:22). 6. The goal of this entire process should be to reconcile with a person who is drifting from God because you love and care about them.