Jesus’ instructions concerning two people dealing with the offense that has come between them and interrupted the harmony of God’s family can be found in Matthew 18:15–20. Here we turn to a related, but larger, more uncomfortable, and more difficult aspect of our responsibility to one another in Christ; namely, our responsibility to intervene when a brother or sister has strayed from living in line with the holiness and righteousness to which we are called and for which we have been redeemed.
I have reserved this facet of the New Testament vision for Christian community for the last chapter of this study because the kinds of interaction envisioned here—and the likelihood of individuals undertaking or accepting the kinds of interventions envisioned here—depend on two critically important things: trust and trustworthiness. Individual believers must be able to trust the goodwill and sincere motivations of others in the group to accept such interventions, and the members who make up the group must have proven themselves trustworthy so as to rightly nurture such trust. Only the members of those Christian communities that have significantly invested themselves in welcoming, encouraging, loving, and serving one another will have the moral authority and interpersonal connections necessary to engage one another at this deeper level.
We encountered Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15–20 already in the context of the mandate to forgive, and seek forgiveness from, one another. But there is an important alternative reading in the two earliest Greek manuscripts of this Gospel that have survived, manuscripts that go back to the fourth century AD. Instead of starting out with the phrase “If your brother or sister sins against you” (Matt. 18:15 CEB), these manuscripts read simply: “If your brother or sister sins.” In context, this becomes: “If your brother or sister sins, go lay bare the matter between the two of you alone. And if he or she listens to you, you won back your brother or sister” (Matt. 18:15, my translation). Jesus himself is elsewhere remembered to have instructed his followers to “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive” (Luke 17:3), a rather close parallel to this variant reading.
This extends the applicability of Jesus’ mandate—and our responsibility—considerably. I am charged not just with dealing in a healthy manner with the toxins that a brother or sister’s offense against me has introduced into my relationship with him or her, but also with dealing with the toxins that a brother or sister’s offense against God or against anyone has introduced into his or her relationships with God and with the family of God’s people. In these manuscripts, then, I am charged to take even greater risk by speaking with a brother or sister about something I observed in his or her behavior rather than remain silent beyond those things that have impacted me personally.
If the conversation results in my brother or sister acknowledging the problem and moving in a corrective direction (unless the conversation reveals that I misunderstood what I observed), that would be a win. If not, then the family becomes involved in increasing numbers in a kind of escalating intervention, seeking to bring the brother or sister back to embrace the values or practices that he or she had begun to abandon:
“But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and 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. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt. 18:16–20)
The second step in the intervention involves inviting one or more fellow believers into the conversation, not necessarily because they were witnesses to some particular sin, but because they can bear witness that a particular attitude or behavior is indeed sin and, therefore, something from which to repent and seek God’s grace to leave behind. They are to confirm that the subject is not just one member’s pet peeve, but reflects a value shared by the group. The brother or sister who has been straying has to come to terms here with the fact that his or her choices have not been in alignment with the Spirit-shaped life for which we were redeemed.
If the individual remains unconvinced, the whole assembly (which, we should remember, would have likely numbered no more than twenty or thirty) is brought into the conversation in an attempt to encourage the individual to return to a more sanctified practice. If the individual continues to refuse correction, there is really no more room for him or her in the company of those who are moving together in a different direction. Notice here the context of the oft-quoted passage about two disciples agreeing in prayer or the assurance of Jesus’ presence “where two or three are gathered in my name.” These statements are made specifically in the context of community discipline—the intervention of some Christians in the life of a straying brother or sister with a view to his or her reclamation. Jesus invests the body of disciples with significant authority to discern together the boundaries of attitude and practice, on the one side of which lies alignment with the group and on the other side of which lies incompatibility with the group. Indeed, he promises to be present specifically in this process of mutual restoration.
We could make another important observation from the context of Jesus’ instructions concerning our intervening healthfully in the life of a brother or sister who has moved away from walking in Jesus’ teaching and example. In Matthew’s Gospel, these instructions are preceded by the parable of the lost sheep:
“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt. 18:10–14)
In Luke’s Gospel, this same parable is used in the context of a dispute between Jesus and other Jewish religious experts. There the parable is used to illustrate Jesus’ own mission to seek and to save the lost. Here, however, the parable underscores the importance of keeping those who have previously been brought into Jesus’ fold walking in his paths. The instructions that follow, then, lay out the community of disciples’ part in helping ensure that “not . . . one of these little ones should be lost.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Have you had the experience of a brother or sister in Christ taking you aside and helping you identify some area in which you were not walking in line with the Spirit? What was the outcome of that experience, both in your own life and in your relationship with that fellow disciple?
- Have you taken that same initiative with a brother or sister in Christ? Again, what were the outcomes?
- Can you recall one or more times when, in hindsight, you might wish to have taken that initiative—or that someone had taken that initiative with you?
Passages from the New Testament letters also speak about our responsibility to restore one another to the path of holiness and love when we see one another moving in directions contrary to “a manner that is worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called” (Eph. 4:1). Indeed, they are so numerous it is surprising to find such interventions in one another’s lives so rarely practiced in the church. Paul, for example, gives clear expression to this dimension of our obligation to one another in the community of faith:
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:1–2)
Paul has spent the greater part of Galatians demonstrating that, on this side of the coming of Christ, God intends for God’s people to follow and be formed by the Holy Spirit rather than the law of Moses. He has assured his converts that the Spirit-formed life would accomplish all that the Law had ever sought to achieve in terms of shaping human behavior and interaction. But Paul also knows that we will not always fully “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25 NIV) but run the risk of being misled by our own self-serving inclinations and desires—by “the deceitfulness of sin” (to borrow a phrase from Hebrews 3:13). For just such eventualities, God has supplied each of us with the necessary guardrails to get us back on track—our brothers and sisters in Christ! Our discernment together of what impulses and actions originate from the Spirit rather than from our self-centeredness, and our willingness to keep one another on track in regard to the former, constitute the safety net for living in freedom from the written code of the Law.
Paul instructs us, when coming alongside an errant sister or brother, to suggest a course correction, to do so in a spirit of “gentleness”—not incidentally a manifestation of the Spirit’s fruit in our own lives (Gal. 5:23). We are not given license to use another’s stepping into sin as an opportunity to puff ourselves up or bring shame upon the other, but are charged with approaching him or her with the humility and sympathy that come from knowing our own vulnerability to temptation and from realizing how we ourselves have needed and will need again such intervention in our lives on our sisters’ or brothers’ part. Helping one another recognize where sin is gaining a foothold again in our lives, and praying with and strengthening one another against those incursions, is one way in which we “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2 ESV). It is a practical expression of loving my neighbor as myself, since I take up my neighbor’s burden alongside him or her as my own and commit to his or her restoration.
James and Jude speak in unison with Jesus and Paul on this point, urging believers to invest themselves in helping one another to recognize when they are veering off the Spirit’s course and to find their way back:
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19–20)
But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies. (Jude 20–23)
Fulfilling these mandates requires of us that we engage in the uncomfortable—and, in the current climate, unpopular—activity of discernment, making a judgment call that some behavior that we’re observing doesn’t line up with God’s best wishes for his people. This should be done with humility, more in the mode of inquiry than indictment, if only to be sure that we are dealing gently with our sister or brother, and also with a single-hearted commitment to seek God’s best for our sister or brother. Whatever Jesus meant when he enjoined his hearers, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Matt. 7:1), he clearly did not intend to exclude us from engaging in these processes of restoring one another, for which he and his apostles gave far more extensive and explicit instructions.
While we might find these instructions difficult to put into practice, the alternative to confronting and restoring is often far less kind. You may have witnessed this alternative in your own congregational experience; I know that I have. A husband married for more than thirty years decides that his marriage is unsatisfying and begins an affair with a much younger woman. No one confronts him about his choices or calls it sin. Rather, they quietly condemn his actions (though not quietly among themselves when he’s not in the room, of course). They grow cold toward him and treat him differently enough that eventually he leaves the fellowship unchallenged and unrestored to the life of holiness and self-giving for which Christ had redeemed him.
Paul instructed his congregations to take such a person aside, identify the sinful outcome of a series of choices, and pray with him or her for his or her restoration: “Don’t regard him [or her] as an enemy, but warn him [or her] as a brother [or sister]” (2 Thess. 3:15 ESV). Too often, because of an aversion to initiating difficult conversations and interventions, we find it easier to pull back and treat the wayward brother or sister as an enemy, even if only in passive-aggressive ways.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Can you recall one or two incidents where a member or two of a congregation of which you were (or are) a part began to live in a way clearly outside of the instructions of Jesus and the New Testament writers? How did other members of the congregation respond? What was the outcome in the faith journey of the errant member or members?
- What are the pros and cons of belonging to a congregation or small group where members invest themselves in keeping one another on track with their own best intentions for themselves? Is this a dimension you would wish to experience and promote in your Christian circles?
Toward the end of his collection of wise instruction for living together as communities of disciples, James wrote:
Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. (James 5:14–16)
The culture of the early Methodist movement was purposefully and explicitly a culture of watching over and restoring one another in love. Wesley organized these Methodists in small bands, which were even smaller groups than his classes (perhaps only four or five people). Concerning these bands, Wesley wrote: “The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.’” The agenda for these bands was simple. Their members would gather “once a week, at the least, . . . to speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting,” and then “to end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each person present.” Before a person was admitted as a member of a band society, he or she had to agree to speak openly and honestly and give others permission to freely voice their concerns about his or her walk before the Lord.
It might seem terribly daunting to step into such a group, though it is helpful to remember that such groups tend to emerge in the contemporary scene more organically from circles of people who have already learned to trust one another in other settings. At the same time, without the intentionality of forming and belonging to such a group, it is difficult to find the level of commitment and intimacy in congregational settings that allows us to form the kinds of mutually supporting relationships that were taken for granted in the early church. Simply put, we need one another’s encouragement and intervention if we are to escape being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12–13, my translation) and if we are to “make it all the way that God’s favor would take us” (Heb. 12:15, my translation).
It is my sincerest prayer that every Christ-follower will be intent on experiencing the fullness of the deliverance from sin’s power (and not just sin’s penalty!) that Jesus has won for us, and that they will find—or form—the bands of disciples that will sustain them all the way to the end of that journey
Questions for Reflection, Discussion, and Action
- When, if ever, have you found strength to deal with temptation or to extract yourself from some sinful practice through confessing the temptation or sin to one or more brothers or sisters in Christ, through praying together over the matter, and through ongoing accountability?
- Are there two or three people in your life right now with whom you could do such a thing if and when the need arises? Who would these people be?
- Consider an experiment. Invite those two or three others to meet to talk about where each of you finds yourself in your walk with God and where each of you would like to find yourself in that walk. Pray for each other, that God would lead each of you closer to that end. After a few days, check in with one another to see if meeting again might be part of God’s leading.
Closing Prayer for Session Seven
Almighty God, you have set all of us who call upon the name of your Son Jesus upon a journey of transformation, and you have charged each of us with helping our sisters and brothers find the strength and support they need to persevere in that journey in the face of the many temptations that we all encounter. Help us to nurture such harmony, love, and trust among our fellowship that we may honestly confess our temptations to one another before they become sins. May we receive strength from one another to resist temptations and to invest ourselves in greater holiness. Grant us also the courage to risk coming alongside a sister or brother who may be falling into temptation and the wisdom to approach in such a way as allows defenses to be lowered and help to be received. Deepen our fellowship, gracious Lord, so that we may fully be for one another the gifts and the community of support that you intended for us to be. We ask all this in the name of Jesus. Amen.
If you’re ready to take community life to the next level, get the foundational study that will lead you into this deeper understanding of the Christian life. One Another by David deSilva paints the New Testament vision for our relationships, interactions, and interventions with one another in a local Christian community. This vision impels us to encourage and support one another, offering reinforcement for holy living that, according to the apostles, we owe one another as the people not only welcomed into relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but given as gifts to one another for this very purpose.
- Group leader training
- Small group studies
- Sunday school classes
- Discipleship bands
In these pages you’ll:
- Gain an appreciation for how we thrive in community
- Wrestle with our command to receive from and contribute to others’ faith
- Understand the biblical teaching on God’s people, the body of Christ
- Be challenged to abandon individualistic versions of the Christian faith