What Does Matthew 18:15-20 Actually Mean?

3 Ways to Misuse Matthew 18:15-20

Matthew 18:15-20 meaning

Matthew 18:15-20

Whenever there is an offense between Christians or a Christian leader is being disciplined, Matthew 18:15-20 is usually mentioned a lot. This is good, but it can also be misleading when this passage of Scripture is misapplied.

In this article we will review what Matthew 18:15-20 actually says and then discuss three ways this Bible passage about forgiveness is often misused.

What Does Matthew 18:15-20 Actually Say? 

One of the most common mistakes we make as Christians is to think we know a passage so well we do not need to actually read it anymore. However, over the months and years our human minds can start filling in the blanks and thus we can think we know what the Bible says when really we don’t. Therefore let’s read Matthew 18:15-20 one more time before discussing how this passage is often misused and abused:

15 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

  1. Matthew 18:15-20 Applies to a Sin Between Two Individual Christians

The most common abuse I see with Matthew 18:15-20 occurs by totally missing the context that this passage is addressing. This is not a Bible passage that should be applied to correcting every sin for every Christian. These instructions by Jesus on how to bring correction and forgiveness are directed specifically to Christian individuals, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15).

This is so important because often times people feel Matthew 18:15-20 should always be used to correct any Christian living in sin even if their sin was not directly against you. But again, this three step plan of going to the individual, bringing two or three witnesses, and then bringing it to the church is a plan specifically given to someone who has been sinned directly against, “If your brother sins against you . . . .”

Therefore if you see a Christian living in sin but their sin is not against you, this method in Matthew 18:15-20 isn’t a command you must follow. You wouldn’t be doing anything wrong if you followed this plan. It’s obviously a very wise plan regardless of who the sin was against. But if you wanted to confront the person about their sin that wasn’t against you with the help of two or three other people right from the start, you would not be wrong.

This point of clarification is especially important when it comes to correcting Christian leaders in the church. Many times when a pastor’s sin is exposed, people ask right away, “Well did you follow Matthew 18 when you corrected him?” This is biblically naïve and misinformed. In many ways it would be inappropriate for someone to correct their authority figure if that sin was not directly against them. Most times if a Christian leader is living in sin but that sin is not against you, the appropriate step is not Matthew 18:15-20. The proper step is to tell the elders of the church directly to let them handle the situation since they are the authority over the pastor. 1 Timothy 5:19-20 states:

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”

This verse does not say that an elder shouldn’t listen to an accusation against a pastor until the accuser talked to the pastor directly. The proper authority figures should gather the accusations from others and then handle the situation appropriately. Does Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Timothy 5:19-20 contradict? No because they are addressing two different types of sin occurring in two different types of relationships. Matthew 18:15-20 is to individuals. 1 Timothy 5:19-20 is about correcting the sin in a Christian leader when that sin is not directly against you.

  1. If Matthew 18:15-20 Is Not Followed, This Does Not Make the Sinner Any Less Guilty

The above section is so important because bad pastors and false prophets often use people’s lack of knowledge about Matthew 18:15-20 to garnish pity and power to avoid the consequences of their sins. When their sin is exposed, they take the attention off of their failures and try to get everyone to focus on how Matthew 18:15-20 was not followed (even though it did not need to be followed anyways). The congregation feels sympathy for the pastor they love and hold onto the fact that Matthew 18:15-20 was not followed.

This is wrong for multiple reasons. Again, Matthew 18:15-20 does not need to be followed when exposing the sinof a Christian leader. If they were stealing resources from the church, misusing authority, or involved in an affair, there is no need to talk to that pastor one on one. You should go right to the elders because they have been entrusted with the authority to rebuke the pastor on behalf of the whole church.

Secondly, even in cases where Matthew 18:15-20 should have been followed, the fact that it was not followed does not lesson the sin of the offender at all. A sign someone does not really want to repent is when they point to Matthew 18:15-20 not being followed and then expect to be treated more leniently for their sins.

While Matthew 18:15-20 should obviously be followed when the proper context calls for this, even if it is not followed this does not change the reality of a real sin having been committed that needs to be repented of and forgiven. If Matthew 18:15-20 was not followed, that is a separate issue that should be dealt with separately. It should not be used to take the attention off of the offense that really did occur.

  1. In Matthew 18:15-20, God Commands Full Forgiveness, Not Full Relationship Rights Again

The third most common misuse and abuse of Matthew 18:15-20 is when people think that after this process of forgiveness is followed, the offender should be given full relationship rights again with the person who was offended.

Nowhere in Matthew 18:15-20 does Jesus deny the reality of relationships. While forgiveness is commanded, God does not expect Christians to forget that damage was done and act the same before the offense occurred. When possible this should happen. But it is impossible to think that a wound can be instantly healed all the time. Forgiveness can be given in a moment, but sometimes it just takes time for the heart the relationship to heal. For example, if a husband and wife go through Matthew 18:15-20 after an affair occurred and forgiveness happens, the adulterer should not be punished for his or her sin. But that does not mean the one who was cheated on must act as though the affair never happened.

He or she has every right to ask extra questions if that person is going on a business trip similar to the trip where the affair took place. The person who was sinned against is not required to instantly no longer be sad or hurt. If the person who did the offending complains about the relationship still being different even though they asked for forgiveness, they are misunderstanding biblical forgiveness and Matthew 18:15-20.

Forgiveness is freeing someone of the punishment they deserve for their sins. Relationships, however, are built on trust and actions. A relationship will never be restored without forgiveness, but to have true restoration more things are often needed too.

For more on this topic of forgiveness and church discipline you may want to read What Does the Bible Say About Forgiveness and Reconciliation? or Lay Aside the Weight of Unforgiveness or Bible Verses on Church Discipline.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “What Does Matthew 18:15-20 Actually Mean?

  1. Re: What Does Matthew 18:15-20 Actually Mean?

    Mark, thank you for posting this article. I found it through Julie Roys’ posting.
    I have a question about your first point, that the focus of the application of this passage should be to ones who have sinned “against you” – that it Applies to a Sin Between Two Individual Christians.
    The NET Bible notes translators commentary (https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Matthew+18 )
    shows for note 21, that “The earliest and best witnesses lack “against you” after “if your brother sins.” and includes some speculation for its inclusion.

    If it was not a part of the original manuscripts, how would that change our understanding of the verse?

    . . .
    I’ll assume with you for the following sentences that it WAS a part of the original.
    When another Christian sins, do they do so in isolation? Does it not also affect God and all other believers? See Paul’s discussion of the Body of Christ – Eph. 4, esp. vs. 14-15 – and note verse 21 – for we are members one of another.

    So when I sin, am I not sinning only against God, but against the Body of Christ also? If I’m doing the wrong thing, my right and proper place will be empty and I will not be able to fulfill my gifts and calling to equip others in the Body. So I am genuinely hurting others in the process of my sin.
    There are sins which have more direct negative consequences to specific people. When I sin against my wife, by tearing her down with my speech, not cherishing her and I’ve promised, she is directly hurt. If another believer observes my behavior, I hope they WILL follow Mt. 18 to help me be restored.

    Together for His Glory,
    Gary Dean

    • Hi Gary,

      Thanks for your email and comments here. Let me see if I can give some quick thoughts here.

      Even if Matthew 18:15 omitted the phrase “if your brother sins against you” (which by its presence in most modern translations does not seem to be the general consensuses among scholars), the context of the passage still seems to me to be about individual sins between two Christians. For example, in Matthew 18:21 it states, “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” Here Peter has a follow up question to Jesus’ statements and he too uses the phrase “my brother sin against me.” This shows that Peter understood Jesus to be talking about correcting a brother who sinned directly against you in a personal way.

      Secondly, while sin does hurt the whole body, I believe the Bible makes clear certain Christians have obligations to certain people more than they do to all Christians in general. For example, the pastor at your local church that you have committed to has a greater obligation to correct you than he does the Christian down the street who attends another church. For example, Hebrews 13:17 states, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Notice it does not say obey all Christian leaders. Paul states “your leaders” which means the local church has authority in context and not in general to correct all believers.

      Lastly, correction and discipline in the Bible are based on authority and relationship. If you don’t have authority over someone and you don’t have a relationship with someone, you don’t have an obligation to correct them. If this was not true, we would have to live every second of the day correcting people we don’t know. For example, I have the obligation to correct my children and not your children because they are “my” children. If I was to correct every child I saw acting out of line, I would be out of line. Likewise, God has not called all Christians to correct all other Christians. Our relationship to one another and the authority we allow each other to have in our lives will dictate who corrects who. My pastor is allowed to rebuke me. Don’t rebuke me if I don’t know you and if have not become a member at your church.

      The reason leaders are to correct their flock is because God has entrusted this responsibility with them. Matthew 18:15-20 demands individual Christians to correct a brother when that sin happens against them because they have authority over themselves. Individual Christians have authority over themselves, thus when someone sins against them directly they should rebuke and help correct the person who sinned as Matthew 18:15-20 explains because they have that right.
      If you sin against me directly, now I have skin in the game and a right to rebuke you. But if I’m not your leader, I don’t have a relationship with you, and you have not sinned against me, what authority and grounds do I have to pull you aside and rebuke you for your sin that I have nothing to do with? If I felt compelled to gently instruct you I would be fine to do that. My point is that I am not obligated to follow Matthew 18:15-20 in instances like this.
      However, when a Christian has not been entrusted with the duty to lead and shepherd, it would not be appropriate for that person to rebuke and discipline those in authority over him or her when they have nothing to do with the offense that took place. The proper chain of command should be followed, which is why a New Testament church must always be governed by a plurality of elders and thus there are always authority figures above everyone so correction can occur in the proper manner.

      For example, 1 Timothy 5:19 states, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” If a charge is brought by the proper amount of witnesses, this means you are to allow that accusation to stand and investigate it regardless if the accusers went to the accused directly or not. 1 Timothy 5:19 does not mention the need to talk to the leader first one on one. We can’t view everything through Matthew 18:15-20 when the Bible clearly gives other counsel for other contexts and issues, like correcting a leader who has not sinned against you directly.

      In short, to use Matthew 18:15-20 as license for all Christians to rebuke all Christians regardless of position or relationship to one another is unbiblical and contradicts other clear passages of Scripture that define the roles of elders and church leaders to disciple their local church.

      I think people often feel a leader was disrespected because Matthew 18 wasn’t followed. In my understanding of Scripture, it would be disrespectful if a leader in the church was corrected by someone under his authority and who had not been sinned against directly by him. “Respect” means to place in proper order. If I rebuke a leader, often times that is disrespectful even if they were wrong because they are still my leader. For example, see how Paul had to apologize when he rebuked a leader:
      2 At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
      4 Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”
      5 Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’” (Acts 23:2-5)
      The high priest was wrong for what he did, but Paul was wrong for correcting the man like that because of the position which the high priest held.
      To respect a leader, it is our job to allow those who have authority over him to correct him when he sins in ways that do not directly involve us. Otherwise there would be no order in the church and the sheep would be leading the shepherds.

      I hope this helps answer your question about Matthew 18:15-20.
      -Mark