Matthew 18:15-17 and Responding to Public Sin
“But, have you talked to them first? That is the process Jesus requires of us according to Matthew 18:15-17! If you have not talked to them first, then you need to keep quiet!” Have you heard someone say something like this? Or, have you argued this point yourself? There certainly is a protocol that Jesus outlines in Matthew 18:15-17 about correcting brethren in sin, but when should it be applied? Does this passage apply to how Christians and churches should handle public sins, including moral trespasses and false teaching? Since this is a commonly made point, let us look to the Scriptures to understand this frequently misused passage and its intended application.
Examining the Immediate Context
First, let us set before us the passage under question:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Please notice that the qualifying condition is, “if your brother sins against you”. Immediately, this disqualifies all public trespasses and public proclamation of error from direct application of this passage. The qualifying condition simply does not match. In both forms of public trespass, the sin to be addressed is not a simple matter against an individual. Rather, it is a trespass against God and His people in a given church - or possibly even multiple churches! If we can ignore the qualifying limitations in this passage, can we not rightly ignore them in every passage? But, if we must observe them everywhere, must we not also observe them here? May we always be consistent in our interpretation of Scripture.
Now, if someone insists that public sin, whether in teaching or in morality, constitutes a sin against every individual in the public community, thereby bringing it into jurisdiction of Matthew 18:15-17, then let such a person also accept that every single individual in the community is equally obligated to appear on the sinner's doorstep, knock on his or her door, and privately offer rebuke of the public sin. From the elder to the child, each is equally injured; therefore, each is equally obligated. (However, one should recognize the elder and more spiritual are obligated first, Galatians 6:1; II Corinthians 12:14b). Furthermore, if this is indeed the requirement, then how is it any different than being confronted by the whole church (the last step in Matthew 18:17), since the whole church has already confronted the sinner during the first step? Clearly, such an argument proves “too much”, while also contradicting the context.
Often people look to Matthew 18:15-17 and apply it in hopes that a public sin may be resolved entirely by one individual’s private confrontation of the sinning brother. But, is that possible whenever sins are publicly known or false doctrine is publicly spread? Is private resolution completely adequate for a public sin? Or, must something more be done?
Whenever one sins privately against an individual or even multiple individuals, the sinner may repent and confess his sin to those he has sinned against thereby resolving the matter:
Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16)
However, whenever one sins publicly, there are multiple repercussions besides the injury of those directly inflicted:
You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For "the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you," as it is written. (Romans 2:21-24)
"'For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.'" So David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." And Nathan said to David, "The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die." (II Samuel 12:12-14)
They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; They have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols. But I will provoke them to jealousy by those who are not a nation; I will move them to anger by a foolish nation. For a fire is kindled by my anger, And shall burn to the lowest hell; It shall consume the earth with her increase, And set on fire the foundations of the mountains. ... I would have said, "I will dash them in pieces, I will make the memory of them to cease from among men," Had I not feared the wrath of the enemy, Lest their adversaries should misunderstand, Lest they should say, "Our hand is high; And it is not the LORD who has done all this."' (Deuteronomy 32:21-27)
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20-21)
The Lord has consistently shown great concern for the tarnishing of His name. Whenever Christians - disciples wearing His name - behave inconsistently, manifest hypocrisy, and divide selfishly, we also generate “great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme”. This not only dishonors our God publicly, but it also provides an excuse, a “stumbling block of offense” for people to avoid turning to the Lord, since His own self-professed people are seemingly, arguably not any better. Does anyone want to appear before the Lord with such a condemnation hung around his neck (Matthew 18:6-8)?
If public shame and reproach has been brought on the Lord, His Word, or His people, how can it be resolved in private? What else but public admission can answer the charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy?
Furthermore, in the case of public false teaching, there is another great concern: What effect will the public false teaching continue to have through its own persuasiveness or the reputation, influence, and charisma of its proclaimer?
... holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain. One of them, a prophet of their own, said, "Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons." This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, (Titus 1:9-13)
But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some. (II Timothy 2:16-18)
Although the measure of deceitfulness in a false teacher may govern the measure of sharpness in rebuking him, rebuke must occur none the less, because false teachers’ “mouths must be stopped”! Now, even if a false teacher could be privately persuaded of his error, when false doctrine is proclaimed publicly, it takes on a life of its own, “spreading like cancer”. (Incidentally, this is the primary distinction between private and public sins. Private sins may be known to others, but public sins have escaped one's ability to individually identify those affected.) In any instance of public sin, who can truly say how far error has spread? How will it be stopped without public correction, confession, and retraction?
Furthermore, what about the already “subverted households” and souls with “faith overthrown”? How will they be restored, if the public error is not publicly refuted or retracted? Therefore, such a matter cannot be ultimately resolved privately. Whenever false teaching has been publicly proclaimed, or whenever public sin has been allowed to “leaven the lump” (I Corinthians 5), it must also be publicly corrected; otherwise, the damaging error and influential sin is left to propagate unchecked. Public sins ultimately cannot be resolved privately. Therefore, let us not misapply Matthew 18:15-17 to delay or condemn immediate and public confrontation, which alone can hope to stem the tide.
Discretion and Expediency
Now, does this need for public response to public sin require that we immediately, publicly blast every infraction regardless of circumstances? The Scriptures indicate otherwise:
Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all. (I Thessalonians 5:14)
And on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh. (Jude 22-23)
Clearly, we do not treat everyone the exact same way regardless of all circumstances. Some measure of judgment and discretion is required to “distinguish” if one is “unruly, fainthearted, or weak”. If a person is young in Christ, or if a relationship already exists, then private correspondence may convince a person to publicly correct or clarify his public mistake. The example of Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos exemplify this very discretion:
Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 18:24-28)
Occasionally, the argument will be offered that Aquila's and Priscilla's private enlightenment of Apollos demonstrates the application of Matthew 18:15-17 to private correction of public sin and public false teachers. The problem with this reasoning is that it ignores all other Scriptures, and it assumes that application of Matthew 18:15-17 is the only explanation of the passage. But, first, please note that Apollos’ doctrine was incomplete, not in contradiction to truth (“taught accurately the things of the Lord”). Those previously moved by Apollos' reasoning could easily be baptized again, as were the saints discovered in Acts 19:1-5, and those previously unmoved would not likely be moved to repentance by the “stumbling block” truth that the Messiah had died, resurrected, and ascended (I Corinthians 1:18-24). Moreover, public sinners who should know better simply do not match the case of Apollos. Apollos was untaught, and he immediately responded to private instruction and began to publicly teach the truth! He quickly and ultimately resolved the situation himself in a very public manner. However, if Apollos had refused instruction, or if he had taught contrary to the gospel, it would have been a very different matter. Whenever a person is publicly adamant, if private discussions stall, or if a public sin is too grievous, then public response may be required immediately! For example, please consider the following:
Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)
If ever there was a man who deserved some respect, some extra consideration, some opportunity to cover his indiscretion, do you think it would not have been the apostle Peter? If ever there was an office, whose authority need not be tarnished, would it not be the office of apostle? If ever there was a sin of weakness committed by a man who knew better and which sin was uncharacteristic of the man, would it not be Peter's caving to peer pressure? Furthermore, Paul observed that Peter was “not straightforward about the truth”. That is not the same as lying, is it? We could say that Peter was only “unclear” about the truth. Would that not be worthy of private correction? Finally, what if Peter did not accept the rebuke? How much damage would have occurred to that first century church, split under the divided leadership of warring apostles? Despite all such mitigating circumstances and rationalizations, Paul rebuked Peter publicly, “to his face ... before them all”! Moreover, no one stood up and rebuked Paul for not following Matthew 18:15-17. Who would have known better the true meaning of Matthew 18:15-17 than the apostle Peter, the apostle Paul, Barnabas - or the Holy Spirit who inspired the account's recording? This example utterly disproves any effort to universally apply Matthew 18:15-17 to public sin; otherwise, Paul sinned in rebuking Peter, and the example is recorded for us to follow. Who can believe it?
While studying this passage, it is worthwhile to consider Peter's response. The church did not buckle under the uncertain guidance of opposing apostles. Instead the church grew mightily, as evidenced by the book of Acts. Furthermore, Peter later described Paul, “as our beloved brother”, inspired with wisdom from above, which included a message of the Lord's longsuffering unto salvation (II Peter 3:15). Therefore, those who receive correction - even humiliating public correction as did Peter - would do well to follow Peter's example of humble acceptance. He did not cry, “Bully!”, neither did he rebuke Paul for his lack of gentleness, compassion or love! Let us graciously accept our error and shame as did Peter, no matter the forum or format in which it appears.
Why was Paul's reaction and condemnation so swift and so, well, publicly humiliating?
Please notice the response that Peter’s cowardice fostered: “And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy”. When public sin or public error goes unchecked, it weakens the resolve of even the strongest of saints, moving them to otherwise unthinkable compromise. The longer it goes free, the more havoc it wreaks! Consequently, when we sin publicly, we forfeit all right to a less humiliating, private resolution.
What did Paul and other inspired writers say elsewhere about addressing public sin?
Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (I Corinthians 5:6-8)
Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. (Ecclesiastes 8:11)
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. (I Timothy 5:19-20)
Clearly, while the public shame of a brother caught in public sin should never be harshly trivialized, that shame is always secondary to the well-being of the whole and the danger presented to them. Therefore, while we might exercise some discretion by initially, privately contacting a spiritual babe, eventually the uncorrected influence must be stopped; otherwise, the damage may never stop until it is too late. And, if the private rebuke is unproductive or if the transgression is too dangerous, immediate public response may be warranted. Such confrontations provoke the deepest emotions, so may all be on guard. May God's Word be given free course, and let no bond of kinship, friendship, or selfish motive stand in its way. And, may the cowardly repent before it is everlastingly too late (Revelation 21:8)!
No one likes confrontation. Few people take pleasure in issuing rebuke or receiving correction. Consequently, we must always be on guard against latching onto seemingly Scriptural reasons to avoid necessary confrontation. Ironically, people who use Matthew 18:15-17 as a cover to avoid public action will often publicly condemn those, whom they claim are in violation, thereby revealing their own hypocrisy. Now, we should not be a people always looking for a fight (II Timothy 2:14-16, 24-26), but likewise, let us not use a passage, which was designed to provide a course of action, to avoid essential action. If one is mistreated and turns wrongly to the gossip circles or prematurely to the church pulpit, let us turn back to the simple procedure provided in Matthew 18:15-17. However, if a sin is common knowledge, or if false teaching is publicly aired, then let no one misuse the Lord's commands to halt inquiry and response! When duty demands, may we have the knowledge, wisdom, and courage to be like Paul, willing to withstand even the most beloved brother “to his face ... before them all”.
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