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Correct Application of Matthew 18

It happens again and again. Some brother or sister becomes involved in a sinful activity and it quickly reaches the level of “common knowledge.” Many people know about it, and some that lack a conscience about gossiping begin to have a “hay day” with this information. Finally, one or more concerned brethren learn of it and take steps toward correcting the sinful situation. For their efforts they are criticized and blamed for not following proper “procedure.” Specifically, they are charged with having not followed the steps set forth in Matthew 18. Here is the text at issue: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican” (Matt. 18:15-17).

Please observe that the situation Jesus describes here involves a private matter — known only by the brother who had been wronged and the one who had committed the wrong. Clearly, it was not a sin against a group of people, and it was not a sin that was publicly known. The scenario our Lord sets forth was very specific. In cases where these specifics are met, this method must be followed.

But, what about situations where a Christian sins a sin which is not directed towards any certain individual, and the sin immediately becomes publicly known? In such instances, Matthew 18 does not apply. Instead, we would be correct in following the pattern set by the apostle Paul in Galatians 2. When Peter was guilty of open hypocrisy, Paul said, “I withstood him to the face . . . I said unto Peter before them all . . .” (vv. 11-14). Public sins are a different matter — Matthew 18 does not ‘fit’.

Unfortunately appealing to Matthew 18 is often used to deflect criticism away from the true offender and towards the concerned brethren who are trying to do the right thing. Think!