Many relatively conservative Anabaptist churches today have come to depend on Matthew 18:15-20 as the main, if not only, method of discipline within their midst. While it is true that this passage of Scripture provides a very effective means of Biblical accountability, this writer has come to question whether our Lord meant it as the only means of correction.

Experience has shown that Matthew 18 works well in the early history of a local church, but as a congregation grows in size it tends to become less effective. People who want their own way and share less of the original vision of the congregation tend to respond negatively to the loving counsel of their fellow believers. When correction is attempted using the three steps of Matthew 18, the transgressor often responds with comments like “that is just your interpretation” or “it’s not a salvation issue.” In these circumstances it becomes difficult to enlist the one or two witnesses of Step 2 of the passage. This, in turn, results in the stalling of good and proper Biblical order in the congregation. Thus the church moves on down the road of apostasy.

In view of the above state of of affairs, in many Anabaptist congregations today, the question of standing on isolated Scriptures must be addressed. While we certainly believe Matthew 18 is absolutely essential, we strongly question whether it should be pulled out of the Scripture and assigned the sole duty of maintaining good order in the church. As an illustration of such a wrong practice, it can be noted that there are those who have done the same sort of thing with the Sermon on the Mount. They have pulled it out of Scripture and made it stand alone as the believers’ only instruction code. If this procedure were correct we would not need the epistles. Neither would we need the church except as a court of final appeal.

There are several instances in the New Testament where discipline apparently took place without following Matthew 18. Illustrations of this include the immorality case of 1 Corinthians 5 and the withdrawal orders of 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 1 Timothy 6:5. Some would want to superimpose Matthew 18 over the instructions of the epistles but such is not warranted.

We conclude that Matthew 18 must not be isolated from the other commands concerning good order and behavior. It is a part of a whole but only a part—namely, that of brotherly address. There are indeed occasions that require formative discipline, wherein the congregation is publicly taught what is acceptable and unacceptable Biblical behavior. There are times for public rebuke of public sin with or without the prelude of Matthew 18. Congregations must stop allowing Matthew 18 to be a scapegoat for transgression. With the pressures of individualism pressing in on the church from every side, let us insist on having a lovingly disciplined covenant community of faith by using Matthew 18 as one part but not the whole of congregational order.

Written by: Paul Emerson


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