If there is any subject that makes Christians squirm, it is church discipline. In an age in which people change churches because the pastor wasn’t funny enough on Sunday, the mere mention of church discipline forces believers to consider the fact that the New Testament teaches that Christians are to be members of a particular local church, which is not an organization like a club with voluntary membership. It is an organism — the mystical body of Christ. We are bound to that local church until we die, are excommunicated, relocate to a new community (and join another church), or go through the painful process of withdrawing, and only then when weighty matters of conscience force us to do so.
In the apostolic age, to be cast out of the church was a significant punishment. Banishment from the church meant there was nowhere else to go. Christians in the first century had no denominational options as we do, nor did they envision a situation like that in modern America wherein most towns have enough churches that if someone is removed from one church, they simply attend another, with no one the wiser.
Granted, church members do not like to think about church discipline because it implies authoritarian church leaders who seek to control someone’s personal business or opinions. But trust me when I say that church leaders do not like to think about church discipline either. There is nothing more difficult than to shepherd people who are in sin or who need to repent of certain conduct, yet are unwilling to do so even when they know themselves to be in the wrong.
In Matthew 18:15–20, Matthew sets out the way in which members of the church are to deal with one another should a dispute arise between them. In verses 15–17, he records Jesus describing the procedures Christians should follow when one person sins against another: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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.”
The steps are very simple and straightforward. Jesus tells us to speak directly to the person who has offended us. If we get no satisfaction from this meeting, we are to meet again, the next time with one or more witnesses. If the person still refuses to repent, the matter is to be made public (the church is now to be involved), and the church is commanded to discipline such a person, with the provision that if he stubbornly refuses to repent, he is to be treated like a non-Christian. This means that the church must make a careful judgment based upon the person’s conduct to the effect that the person’s behavior is such that they cannot be considered to be a Christian.
It is at this point that Matthew addresses the subject of “binding and loosing.” In verses 18–20, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” In these verses, Jesus gives to the officers of the church the authority to make whatever determinations that must be made regarding the conduct of unrepentant professing Christians that has come to the attention of the church.
“Binding and loosing” is connected to both the Law and the gospel. Those who believe the gospel’s promises and who repent of their sins are “loosed” from their sins and allowed to fully participate in the life of the church. Those who refuse to believe the gospel’s promises or who refuse to obey God’s commandments are said to be “bound.” The church makes the determination that such people cannot be regarded as Christians unless and until they profess faith in Christ and demonstrate whatever repentance is required.
Jesus adds that such discipline requires two or three witnesses. This reflects the requirement in God’s law that two or three witnesses are required to convict someone of wrongdoing (Deut. 19:15–19). Matthew’s point is that when Christians on earth come to agreement about such matters, this is regarded as reflecting God’s will in heaven. In this way, the church participates in Jesus Christ’s ongoing prophetic office, as the ascended Lord rules His people through His Word in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. In this case, when God’s people make a determination about a matter of discipline based upon what is taught in God’s Word, the church is not only disciplining the flock, it is rightly acting as a prophet.