The Way to Restoration
In this passage, we are given the biblical way of restoration and forgiveness, and the process of dealing with church conflict. The unfortunate reality is that it is rarely used. We live in a day where church discipline is non-existent; after all, if a church did institute such a system as here described by our Lord, and some member didn’t like the result, that person would just join the church down the street, which would be happy to take the “wounded” brother in, without even asking questions about where he came from and why. It wasn’t always this way. Times were when Baptist churches required a letter from a sister church about the “standing” of the brother or sister asking to join that church. That process meant something; it kept people honest, maintained integrity between churches emphasizing cooperation over competition, and kept all abreast of trouble-makers. Still, a church must remain faithful to God’s word whether other churches do or not.
The method is quite simple. If two people in the church have an issue between them over which one or both have been offended, they should work it out amongst themselves in a loving way. This is hard to do. Few enjoy confrontation. But if it is straining fellowship, it needs to be addressed. If it can be dealt with between the two, that is all the better. If the two still can’t reconcile, then one or two brothers or sisters should be brought in to help in a gentle and impartial way. If one or both still refuse to reconcile, it should be brought before the church, or at least the elders or some significant governing body thereof. If one or both won’t reconcile, then Jesus says, “Let him be to you as a Gentile [unbeliever] or tax collector,” lending evidence against those who delude themselves into thinking that Jesus never made harsh judgments. This statement is actually a blessing. There must be an end to the process, or else a person could abuse the system indefinitely and keep a church in a constant state of turmoil. So Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18), implying that some people just won’t be reconciled.
Jesus ends this with a declaration of the incredible authority of the local church. As long as the church is in accord with God’s word and in agreement, that church may “bind or loose,” that is, forgive or withhold forgiveness depending on the spirit of the offending brother. But we must always remember that reconciliation is what we are pursuing. Paul urged forgiveness of the offending brother after he had repented, lest he “be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).