Dear Working Preacher,
Thank you for what you do. Thank you for preaching and proclaiming the Word of God, in season and out of season. Whether in worship, beside a death bed, in a catechism class or in Bible study, or wherever you proclaim the counter-cultural gospel word, thank you. This sin-laden, law-centered world is in desperate need of gospel preachers.
Putting the verses in context
Before reading further, I want you to invite you to read this week’s Gospel text in two ways.
- First, read just the appointed verses: Matthew 18:15-20.
- Second, read the previous five verses, too: Matthew 18: 10-20.
When one includes the brief parable of the shepherd searching for the missing sheep, it changes how one hears the story.
First, the context in which Matthew places the story (caring for wayward members of the community) is different than that in which Luke places it (reaching out to the lost). That context significantly changes what we hear. In Luke, it is a story about the extravagant, even wasteful grace of God. In Matthew, it is about church leaders’ care for every member of the church.
Second, notice how including the parable of the lost sheep also impacts how we hear the following words about one brother or sister confronting another brother or sister about a sin. And it fundamentally changes how we think about church discipline.
Sin is a thing in the church
But notice a very strange thing! Jesus is telling the disciples that within the church—even within the very early church—sin was and is still a thing. The church is not a community of the redeemed who no longer sin or who are no longer in the grip of sin. Rather, the church is a community that must strive not to let sin separate us from one another.
The NRSV unhelpfully introduces language of “another member of the church” and “member.” So let me attempt a more literal rendering of the text, both because it helps us overhear Jesus more clearly and also to remove the inclusion of suspect textual variant:
If your brother sins, go correct him when you and he are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. If he does not listen, bring one or two others with you, so that every word may be established by two or three witnesses. If he does not 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 or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. And whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (adapted from Matthew 20:15-18).
[Note: NRSV translates the Greek adelphos as “another member of the church” rather than “brother or sister.” It also includes variant—“against you” (eis se), which I think is not original.]
“If your brother sins…” In the church, sin is a thing. I heard Robert Jenson say once, “Only the Triune God has a church, because no other god would want one.” Amen. And why might another god not want a church? Sin.
If you were idealistic, you might think that sin would not be that big of a thing in the very body that is formed by the death of Christ and the forgiveness of sins. But you would be both wrong and hopelessly idealistic.
Sin is a thing in the church. It’s a thing for pastors. It’s a thing for church musicians. It’s a thing for youth directors and volunteer coordinators. It’s a thing for the entire body of Christ—male and female, old and young, rich and poor.
And Jesus knows this. So what are supposed to do about sin?
Other than acknowledging the reality of sin, the first thing we are to do is do almost everything we can to retain a sinning brother or sister. The thing that Jesus values here is one brother or sister’s relationship with another brother or sister.
Moral purity or mutual relationship?
This paragraph is often used as a model for church discipline—following similar language and procedures found in other first-century Jewish communities. But the point here is not so much the moral purity of the community, but balancing the necessity of reasonable moral discipline with the need for brothers and sisters in Christ to maintain their mutual relationships. As Robert Smith wrote years ago, “This section, like the last, is addressed especially to leaders and teachers. It describes how the spirit of the shepherd is to be implemented in cases where brother or sister sins and stumbles and so begins the long fall out of the community.”1
And then we get to the truly frightening part of his passage—the office of the keys. Simply put, the office of the keys is the authority that Christ has granted the church to forgive sins or (terrifyingly) to bind sins.
Binding and loosing in a church full of sinners
That Jesus speaking here about forgiving or binding sins is clear because the language is almost identical to that in an earlier chapter, where Jesus gives such authority to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).
No authority designated to the church scares me more than the authority to bind or to loose. I’ve never dared binding someone’s sins.
And here is the thing about being a pastor and serving a church. To flip Robert Jenson’s earlier words on their head: “Only a Christian pastor has a church, because no other clergy person on earth would want one.”
Because the church is full of sinners.
And when it comes to the reality that sin is still a thing in the church, Jesus reminds us that while reasonable standards of communal integrity are important, Jesus places an even higher value on the hope of retaining every forgiven sinner in the community.
So if you are celebrating something like Rally Day this weekend, just remember—every one of those lambs that comes through the doors is a sinner. And so are you.
But to church has been given the power to forgive sins—and only if necessary, to bind them.
Thanks for what you do, dear Working Preacher.
- Robert Smith. Matthew (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 219.