If Your Brother Sins Against You (Matthew 18:15-17)

2012-06-17 If Your Brother Sins Against You

Matthew 18:15-17 (ESV) “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. 16  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. 17  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.


Scripture tells us that we are fellow members of the family of God and fellow members of the body of Christ.  

 1 Co. 12:27 (ESV) Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Romans 12:5 (ESV) so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Ephesians 4:25 (ESV) Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

And Jesus commands us to maintain that unity positively by:

Loving one another. Jesus, said, Jn. 13:34 (ESV) A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

And, As much as you possible, living in peace with one another. -Rom. 12:16, 18 (ESV) Live in harmony with one another… If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

However, he also teaches us what to do when we offend one another:

Last week we learned,

If you become aware you have offended someone, you should go even to great lengths to seek their forgiveness and reconciliation. Matt. 5:23-24 (ESV) So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

This week we will learn what we are to do

If someone offends or sins against us:

We know from other passages in Scripture that the first line of defense when we are offended is to

 Overlook a fault if you can. Prov. 19:11 (ESV) tells us, Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. To overlook an offense means to be able to understand what might have caused a person to offend you and to let it go.

But if it keeps nagging you, if you can’t get over it, the next thing to do is

  1. Go to the person who offended you

When we go to the person who has offended us, this passage tells us that

It is our INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY to do so. It says, You go to the person

 We know that it is an INDIVIDUAL action because all the pronouns and verbs in vv 15-17 are in the second person singular.

That means Jesus is speaking to “you” singular, not “you” plural. When he says, “If someone sins against you, “you” is singular. When he says, “you go” he means you – individually – go, not you – as a group – go. Even in verse 17, he says, “let him be to you” – singular, not plural – as a gentile and a tax collector.

Also, the phrase in v15, “Between you and him alone” emphasizes that this is initially intended to be a one-on-one encounter. So everything about these verses pertain to what you and I as  individuals should do “if your brother sins, or if your brother sins against you.”

You may see a text note in some of your Bibles that says some ancient manuscripts do not include the words “against you,” so we should also go individually to our brother if we see that he is sinning in general. But we are looking at this today especially from the perspective of a person who has been sinned against by a fellow believer.

The next three verses, 18-20, by contrast, are in the second person plural. The entire community of believers – you plural – is being addressed as a group. So we will look at those verses at another time.

We know also that it is our RESPONSIBILITY to act because all the verbs are in the Imperative mood.  It is something we must or should do because Jesus commands us to do it. All the verbs are commands, not mere suggestions. “Go – tell – take,” and “let him be to you” – are all commands.

Also, we are told to MINIMIZE PUBLIC AWARENESS – we are to go to the person privately first.

15a”If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.

Going first to the person who has offended us is found in other passages as well.

Lev 19:17-18 (ESV) says, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.” You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

This is also an individual command. God, through Moses warns you and me not to fall into sin ourselves by holding a grudge against our brother because he has offended us. Rather, we go and speak frankly with him, so that you can be reconciled and love him as you should.

Lk. 17:3 (ESV) also says, If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

“Rebuke” here is singular and also a command. It is the same word in the original language as “tell him his fault” found in verse 15 of our passage.

Notice also, the intent or purpose of going to the person is the same as in verse 15 – to be reconciled to your brother, through his repentance and your forgiveness. You are telling your brother his fault so that he might repent and you might forgive him. That’s what is meant in 15b –

15b If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

One translation puts it this way, “if that person listens to you and feels sorry that he has sinned against you, you will have restored your friendship with that person.” Gaining your brother means to be reconciled with and restored to friendship with that person.

In many cases, that’s where it can end. You go and speak the truth in love to your brother, he repents, you forgive him, and you are reconciled to one another, your friendship is restored.

Q? If Jesus commands us to go to our brother when he offends us, why is it so difficult to do?

I suggest there are several reasons. We may fear being offended again in the process, that insult may be added to injury making it worse than it already is. We fear we may be wrong and the person will think badly of us for accusing him of something he didn’t do. We fear he may tell his friends about us and noise it around the church ruining our reputation.

But we also know that “perfect love casts out fear.” 1 Jn. 4:18 (ESV) says, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. If we love that person, if we love the Lord, if we love the church, we will seek to overcome our fears in order to be reconciled to them and to maintain the unity that we once had in Christ.

I remember perhaps the first time I spoke to a person in this way. He was a pastor and had offended a fellow staff member in a meeting in front of a number of us. I was afraid because he was a powerful person, but went anyway. Thankfully, he accepted his fault and asked the person’s forgiveness. Surprisingly, he didn’t think badly of me for confronting him. Instead he seemed to have greater respect for me after I had spoken the truth in love to him.

I saw the same thing happen with another staff person. Because she confronted this pastor on another issue, he seemed to respect her even more. Sometimes when we do the right thing even when it’s difficult, others see us in a different light.

Another Q? Why are we tempted to go tell someone else instead of going first to the person who offended us?

Because we’re afraid, because we’re not sure how to approach the person, because we want someone to commiserate with us and feel sorry for us, because we are so angry we want someone to agree with us and support us in building a case against the person.

However, when we do so we put the cart before the horse. We are going to someone else before we go to the person who offended us. In so doing, we are passing on our offense to a third party, and they can do virtually nothing about it. In effect, we are polluting them with our offense, and they have no way to clean it up. They are stuck in the middle.

I suggest there is a right way and a wrong way to consult a third party if necessary.

The right way is to ask a friend for counsel without revealing the identity of the offender or the details of the offense. For example, I might say, “Friend, I have been offended by someone in the church. I am very angry, but I just don’t know how to approach them. Would you help me know what to say, and would you pray for me, and would you hold me accountable to go to them and not to anyone else?” In that way your friend knows you’re upset, but not who offended you or even what the person did to offend you. They do not think anything less of the offender, and they are not stuck in the middle. They have simply served as your counselor.

The wrong way is to identify the offender and the details of the offense. For example, I shouldn’t say, “Friend, Sam Smith has spoken badly about me to Sheila Sampson behind my back. Sheila told me about it yesterday. She and Sam were talking about our recent committee meeting and Sam told her he thought I made a mess of the meeting. I am so angry with Sam. I will never speak to him again. I’m actually angry with Sheila too for even listening to him. Don’t you think they’re just horrible?

See how my friend is polluted by this, and cannot fix the problem unless he breaks my confidence? He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. He is not my counselor as before. I have made him my unwilling co-conspirator. I have passed on what amounts to gossip.

Q? What should my friend do if I bring my offense to him instead of taking it to the person who offended me? He should ask if I have spoken to the person, and if I have not, he should encourage me to go to the person and he should refuse to listen to my offense except to counsel me in the right way as we saw above.

I shouldn’t put him in that position in the first place. I should go to the person first. Then, if the person is not willing to listen and ask forgiveness for what he did, I should go to the next step which is to

  1. Take one or two persons with me – so they can help mediate and/or judge the situation

This is found in v16 (ESV) 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.

 In this verse Jesus quotes Deut. 19:15 (ESV) which says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.

Taking this second step seems to work for the advantage of both parties.  It protects the person who is being accused if he is in the right, and it provides further witnesses against the offender if he is in the wrong.

This second step protects the accused person from false accusations begin spread to the entire church and it protects the offended person from being subjected to further offenses.

There is no indication that this is a judicial process at this point or that “official” persons such as church leaders are necessarily involved. Mediators in this kind of process can be any person or persons who are respected by both sides.

It is simply one person presenting a case against another who he believes has sinned against him.  The additional persons serve as mediators or arbitrators to seek reconciliation between the initial two persons. There should be no assumption of guilt by the mediators. They should listen to both sides and try to determine if sin has occurred and seek repentance and forgiveness between them if there has.

I served as a mediator for several individuals who had become offended by another person in a former church. They had met with the person individually but there was no resolution. After bringing them together individually with the alleged offender, I had each person present his or her case against the person without being interrupted, then allowed the alleged offender to say his peace in response without interruption.

I even allowed each party to have someone with them so they would not feel any intimidation about presenting their case to the other party.  Also I allowed them to confer with their friend before they spoke their peace.  That way each person could hear what the other had to say, have time to think about what had been said, discuss it with their friend, and then reply.

Doing this resolved a lot of hurt feelings and laid the case to rest so that others in the congregation would not become involved any further.  We did not have to take it to the next step.

Sometimes, however, if the person does not listen to one or two mediators, the next step has to be taken.  And that is to

  1. Tell it to the church

We see this in verse 17 (ESV) If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.

This does not necessarily represent a judicial action by the leaders of the church, but it would involve telling a larger group of people in the church and therefore would likely involve informing the leaders of the church. This should be done very carefully by consulting a number of wise counselors.

The purpose of bringing this information to a wider group of people is to persuade the offending person that this is not a personal vendetta against them by the accuser.  Rather it is the conclusion of a larger number of people that the offending person has in fact sinned and should repent so that forgiveness can be given and reconciliation can be accomplished. The purpose should always be reconciliation and restoration.

This is similar to an intervention by a whole family whose father or mother or son or daughter has become addicted to alcohol or drugs or some other substance or behavior. The members of the family have already confronted the person individually and in small groups, but now they want the weight of their combined testimony to persuade the person he or she is going down a path to destruction and should do whatever it takes to turn it around.

If this step is not successful and the offending person does not repent, then the next step is for the offended person to

  1. Refrain from fellowship with the offending person

17b And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

This is still in the second person singular. We are not talking about removing the person from the fellowship of the church as in a judicial proceeding by the leaders of the church. We are talking about the offended person’s individual relationship with the offending person.

Sometimes a person is so stubborn, after you have tried everything else to no avail, it’s best to just stay away from them in order to protect yourself from further abuse. You should simply keep your distance from that person by whatever means necessary. You are not required to put up with behavior that is consistently unlike Christ. You should treat them as you would an unbeliever who is unrepentant. Keep your distance to prevent further abuse, pray for them to repent, pray that the Spirit will enable you to forgive them in spite of their condition, and continue to pray for reconciliation and restoration.

PRAYER: Father in heaven, you have given us such a gift to be part of your family and fellow members of the body of Christ. Help us to maintain and preserve the unity we have in Christ by doing as you have commanded us – to go to the person who has offended us and seek to be reconciled. Help us to overcome our own anger and fears.

Help us to keep others from getting stuck in the middle between ourselves and the person who has offended us. Help us as we counsel one another to encourage each other to do the right thing.

Help us when we are the offending person to be willing to listen and ask forgiveness so that as we are reconciled the world might see how we love another and that they too might believe in you and become part of your family, your body, and your kingdom, and that above all, you might be glorified in all these things.

Categories: 2012, Matthew, Resolving Conflicts in the Church, Sermons

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