Christ, having cautioned his disciples not to give offence, comes next to direct them what they must do in case of offences given them; which may be understood either of personal injuries, and then these directions are intended for the preserving of the peace of the church; or of public scandals, and then they are intended for the preserving of the purity and beauty of the church. Let us consider it both ways.
I. Let us apply it to the quarrels that happen, upon any account, among Christians. If thy brother trespass against thee, by grieving thy soul (1 Cor. 8:12), by affronting thee, or putting contempt or abuse upon thee; if he blemish thy good name by false reports or tale-bearing; if he encroach on thy rights, or be any way injurious to thee in thy estate; if he be guilty of any of those trespasses that are specified, Lev. 6:2, 3; if he transgress the laws of justice, charity, or relative duties; these are trespasses against us, and often happen among Christ’s disciples, and sometimes, for want of prudence, are of very mischievous consequence. Now observe what is the rule prescribed in this case,
1. Go, and tell him his fault between thee and him alone. Let this be compared with, and explained by, Lev. 19:17; Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; that is, “If thou hast conceived a displeasure at thy brother for any injury he hath done thee, do not suffer thy resentments to ripen into a secret malice (like a wound, which is most dangerous when it bleed inwardly), but give vent to them in a mild and grave admonition, let them so spend themselves, and they will expire the sooner; do not go and rail against him behind his back, but thou shalt in any ways reprove him. If he has indeed done thee a considerable wrong, endeavour to make him sensible of it, but let the rebuke be private, between thee and him alone; if thou wouldest convince him, do not expose him, for that will but exasperate him, and make the reproof look like a revenge.” this agrees with Prov. 25:8, 9, “Go not forth hastily to strive, but debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself, argue it calmly and amicably; and if he shall hear thee, well and good, thou hast gained thy brother, there is an end of the controversy, and it is a happy end; let no more be said of it, but let the falling out of friends be the renewing of friendship.”
2. “If he will not hear thee, if he will not own himself in a fault, nor come to an agreement, yet do not despair, but try what he will say to it, if thou take one or two or more, not only to be witnesses of what passes, but to reason the case further with him; he will be the more likely to hearken to them because they are disinterested; and if reason will rule him, the word of reason in the mouth of two or three witnesses will be better spoken to him” (Plus vident oculi quam oculus—Many eyes see more than one), “and more regarded by him, and perhaps it will influence him to acknowledge his error, and to say, I repent.”
3. “If he shall neglect to hear them, and will not refer the matter to their arbitration, then tell it to the church, to the ministers, elders, or other officers, or the most considerable persons in the congregation you belong to, make them the referees to accommodate the matter, and do not presently appeal to the magistrate, or fetch a writ for him.” This is fully explained by the apostle (1 Cor. 6:1-20), where he reproves those that went to law before the unjust, and not before the saints (Matt. 18:1), and would have the saints to judge those small matters (Matt. 18:2) that pertain to this life, Matt. 18:3. If you ask, “Who is the church that must be told?” the apostle directs there (Matt. 18:5), Isa. there not a wise man among you? Those of the church that are presumed to be most capable of determining such matters; and he speaks ironically, when he says (Matt. 18:4), “Set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church; those, if there be no better, those, rather than suffer an irreconcileable breach between two church members.” This rule was then in a special manner requisite, when the civil government was in the hands of such as were not only aliens, but enemies.
4. “If he will not hear the church, will not stand to their award, but persists in the wrong he has done thee, and proceeds to do thee further wrong, let him be to thee as a heathen man, and a publican; take the benefit of the law against him, but let that always be the last remedy; appeal not to the courts of justice till thou hast first tried all other means to compromise the matter in variance. Or thou mayest, if thou wilt, break off thy friendship and familiarity with him; though thou must by no means study revenge, yet thou mayest choose whether thou wilt have any dealings with him, at least, in such a way as may give him an opportunity of doing the like again. Thou wouldest have healed him, wouldest have preserved his friendship, but he would not, and so has forfeited it.” If a man cheat and abuse me once, it is his fault; if twice, it is my own.
II. Let us apply it to scandalous sins, which are an offence to the little ones, of bad example to those that are weak and pliable, and of great grief to those that are weak and timorous. Christ, having taught us to indulge the weakness of our brethren, here cautions us not to indulge their wickedness under pretence of that. Christ, designing to erect a church for himself in the world, here took care for the preservation, 1. Of its purity, that it might have an expulsive faculty, a power to cleanse and clear itself, like a fountain of living waters, which is necessary as long as the net of the gospel brings up both good fish and bad. 2. Of its peace and order, that every member may know his place and duty, and the purity of it may be preserved in a regular way and not tumultuously. Now let us see,
(1.) What is the case supposed? If thy brother trespass against thee. [1.] “The offender is a brother, one that is in Christian communion, that is baptized, that hears the word, and prays with thee, with whom thou joinest in the worship of God, statedly or occasionally.” Note, Church discipline is for church members. Them that are without God judges, 1 Cor. 5:12, 13. When any trespass is done against us, it is good to remember that the trespasser is a brother, which furnishes us with qualifying consideration. [2.] “The offense is a trespass against thee; if thy brother sin against thee (so the word is), if he do any thing which is offensive to thee as a Christian.” Note, A gross sin against God is a trespass against his people, who have a true concern for his honour. Christ and believers have twisted interests; what is done against them Christ takes as done against himself, and what is done against him they cannot but take as done against themselves. The reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me, Ps. 69:9.
(2.) What is to be done in this case. We have here,
[1.] The rules prescribed, Matt. 18:15-17. Proceed in this method:
First, “Go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone. Do not stay till he comes to thee, but go to him, as the physician visits the patient, and the shepherd goes after the lost sheep.” Note, We should think no pains too much to take for the recovering of a sinner to repentance. “Tell him his fault, remind him of what he has done, and of the evil of it, show him his abominations.” Note, People are loth to see their faults, and have need to be told of them. Though the fact is plain, and the fault too, yet they must be put together with application. Great sins often amuse conscience, and for the present stupify and silence it; and there is need of help to awaken it. David’s own heart smote him, when he had cut off Saul’s skirt, and when he had numbered the people; but (which is very strange) we do not find that it smote him in the matter of Uriah, till Nathan told him, Thou art the man.
“Tell him his fault, elenxon auton—argue the case with him” (so the word signifies); “and do it with reason and argument, not with passion.” Where the fault is plain and great, the person proper for us to deal with, and we have an opportunity for it, and there is no apparent danger of doing more hurt than good, we must with meekness and faithfulness tell people of what is amiss in them. Christian reproof is an ordinance of Christ for the bringing of sinners to repentance, and must be managed as an ordinance. “Let the reproof be private, between thee and him alone; that it may appear you seek not his reproach, but his repentance.” Note, It is a good rule, which should ordinarily be observed among Christians, not to speak of our brethren’s faults to others, till we have first spoken of them to themselves, this would make less reproaching and more reproving; that is, less sin committed, and more duty done. It will be likely to work upon an offender, when he sees his reprover concerned not only for his salvation, in telling him his fault, but for his reputation in telling him of it privately.
“If he shall hear thee”—that is, “heed thee—if he be wrought upon by the reproof, it is well, thou hast gained thy brother; thou hast helped to save him from sin and ruin, and it will be thy credit and comfort,” Jas. 5:19, 20. Note, The converting of a soul is the winning of that soul (Prov. 11:30); and we should covet it, and labour after it, as gain to us; and, if the loss of a soul be a great loss, the gain of a soul is sure no small gain.
Secondly, If that doth not prevail, then take with thee one or two more, Matt. 18:16. Note, We must not be weary of well-doing, though we see not presently the good success of it. “If he will not hear thee, yet do not give him up as in a desperate case; say not, It will be to no purpose to deal with him any further; but go on in the use of other means; even those that harden their necks must be often reproved, and those that oppose themselves instructed in meekness.” In work of this kind we must travail in birth again (Gal. 4:19); and it is after many pains and throes that the child is born.
“Take with thee one or two more; 1. To assist thee; they may speak some pertinent convincing word which thou didst not think of, and may manage the matter with more prudence than thou didst.” note, Christians should see their need of help in doing good, and pray in the aid one of another; as in other things, so in giving reproofs, that the duty may be done, and may be done well. 2. “To affect him; he will be the more likely to be humbled for his fault, when he sees it witnessed against by two or three.” Deut. 19:15. Note, Those should think it high time to repent and reform, who see their misconduct become a general offence and scandal. Though in such a world as this it is rare to find one good whom all men speak well of, yet it is more rare to find one good whom all men speak ill of. 3. “To be witnesses of his conduct, in case the matter should afterward be brought before the church.” None should come under the censure of the church as obstinate and contumacious, till it be very well proved that they are so.
Thirdly, If he neglect to hear them, and will not be humbled, then tell it to the church, Matt. 18:17. There are some stubborn spirits to whom the likeliest means of conviction prove ineffectual; yet such must not be given over as incurable, but let the matter be made more public, and further help called in. Note, 1. Private admonitions must always go before public censures; if gentler methods will do the work, those that are more rough and severe must not be used, Titus 3:10. Those that will be reasoned out of their sins, need not be shamed out of them. Let God’s work be done effectually, but with as little noise as may be; his kingdom comes with power, but not with observation. But, 2. Where private admonition does not prevail, there public censure must take place. The church must receive the complaints of the offended, and rebuke the sins of the offenders, and judge between them, after an impartial enquiry made into the merits of the cause.
Tell it to the church. It is a thousand pities that this appointment of Christ, which was designed to end differences, and remove offences, should itself be so much a matter of debate, and occasion differences and offences, through the corruption of men’s hearts. What church must be told—is the great question. The civil magistrate, say some; The Jewish sanhedrim then in being, say others; but by what follows, Matt. 18:18; it is plain that he means a Christian church, which, though not yet formed, was now in the embryo. “Tell it to the church, that particular church in the communion of which the offender lives; make the matter known to those of that congregation who are by consent appointed to receive informations of that kind. Tell it to the guides and governors of the church, the minister or ministers, the elders or deacons, or (if such the constitution of the society be) tell it to the representatives or heads of the congregation, or to all the members of it; let them examine the matter and, if they find the complaint frivolous and groundless, let them rebuke the complainant; if they find it just, let them rebuke the offender, and call him to repentance, and this will be likely to put an edge and an efficacy upon the reproof, because given,” 1. “With greater solemnity,” and, 2. “With greater authority.” It is an awful thing to receive a reproof from a church, from a minister, a reprover by office; and therefore it is the more regarded by such as pay any deference to an institution of Christ and his ambassadors.
Fourthly, “If he neglect to hear the church, if he slight the admonition, and will neither be ashamed of his faults, nor amend them, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and publican; let him be cast out of the communion of the church, secluded from special ordinances, degraded from the dignity of a church member, let him be put under disgrace, and let the members of the society be warned to withdraw from him, that he may be ashamed of his sin, and they may not be infected by it, or made chargeable with it.” Those who put contempt on the orders and rules of a society, and bring reproach upon it, forfeit the honours and privileges of it, and are justly laid aside till they repent and submit, and reconcile themselves to it again. Christ has appointed this method for the vindicating of the church’s honour, the preserving of its purity, and the conviction and reformation of those that are scandalous. But observe, he doth not say, “Let him be to thee as a devil or damned spirit, as one whose case is desperate,” but “as a heathen and a publican, as one in a capacity of being restored and received in again. Count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” The directions given to the church of Corinth concerning the incestuous person, agree with the rules here; he must be taken away from among them (1 Cor. 5:2), must be delivered to Satan; for if he be cast out of Christ’s kingdom, he is looked upon as belonging to Satan’s kingdom; they must not keep company with him, Matt. 18:11, 13. But when by this he is humbled and reclaimed, he must be welcomed into communion again, and all shall be well.
[2.] Here is a warrant signed for the ratification of all the church’s proceedings according to these rules, Matt. 18:18. What was said before to Peter is here said to all the disciples, and in them to all the faithful office-bearers in the church, to the world’s end. While ministers preach the word of Christ faithfully, and in their government of the church strictly adhere to his laws (clave non errante—the key not turning the wrong way), they may be assured that he will own them, and stand by them, and will ratify what they say and do, so that it shall be taken as said and done by himself. He will own them,
First, In their sentence of suspension; Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. If the censures of the church duly follow the institution of Christ, his judgments will follow the censures of the church, his spiritual judgments, which are the sorest of all other, such as the rejected Jews fell under (Rom. 11:8), a spirit of slumber; for Christ will not suffer his own ordinances to be trampled upon, but will say amen to the righteous sentences which the church passes on obstinate offenders. How light soever proud scorners may make of the censures of the church, let them know that they are confirmed in the court of heaven; and it is in vain for them to appeal to that court, for judgment is there already given against them. They that are shut out from the congregation of the righteous now shall not stand in it in the great day, Ps. 1:5. Christ will not own those as his, nor receive them to himself, whom the church has duly delivered to Satan; but, if through error or envy the censures of the church be unjust, Christ will graciously find those who are so cast out, John 9:34, 35.
Secondly, In their sentence of absolution; Whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Note, 1. No church censures bind so fast, but that, upon the sinner’s repentance and reformation, they may and must be loosed again. Sufficient is the punishment which has attained its end, and the offender must then be forgiven and comforted, 2 Cor. 2:6. There is no unpassable gulf fixed but that between hell and heaven. 2. Those who, upon their repentance, are received by the church into communion again may take the comfort of their absolution in heaven, if their hearts be upright with God. As suspension is for the terror of the obstinate, so absolution is for the encouragement of the penitent. St. Paul speaks in the person of Christ, when he saith, To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also, 2 Cor. 2:10.
Now it is a great honour which Christ here puts upon the church, that he will condescend not only to take cognizance of their sentences, but to confirm them; and in the following verses we have two things laid down as ground of this.
(1.) God’s readiness to answer the church’s prayers (Matt. 18:19); If two of you shall agree harmoniously, touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them. Apply this,
[1.] In general, to all the requests of the faithful praying seed of Jacob; they shall not seek God’s face in vain. Many promises we have in scripture of a gracious answer to the prayers of faith, but this gives a particular encouragement to the joint-prayer; “the requests which two of you agree in, much more which many agree in.” No law of heaven limits the number of petitioners. Note, Christ has been pleased to put an honour upon, and to allow a special efficacy in, the joint-prayers of the faithful, and the common supplications they make to God. If they join in the same prayer, if they meet by appointment to come together to the throne of grace on some special errand, or, though at a distance, agree in some particular matter of prayer, they shall speed well. Besides the general regard God has to the prayers of the saints, he is particularly pleased with their union and communion in those prayers. See 2 Chron. 5:13; Acts 4:31.
[2.] In particular, to those requests that are put up to God about binding and loosing; to which this promise seems more especially to refer. Observe, First, That the power of church discipline is not here lodged in the hand of a single person, but two, at least, are supposed to be concerned in it. When the incestuous Corinthian was to be cast out, the church was gathered together (1 Cor. 5:4), and it was a punishment inflicted of many, 2 Cor. 2:6. In an affair of such importance, two are better than one, and in the multitude of counsellors there is safety. Secondly, It is good to see those who have the management of church discipline, agreeing in it. Heats and animosities, among those whose work it is to remove offences, will be the greatest offence of all. Thirdly, Prayer must evermore go along with church discipline. Pass no sentence, which you cannot in faith ask God to confirm. The binding and loosing spoken of (Matt. 16:19) was done by preaching, this by praying. Thus the whole power of gospel ministers is resolved into the word and prayer, to which they must wholly give themselves. He doth not say, “If you shall agree to sentence and decree a thing, it shall be done” (as if ministers were judges and lords); but, “If you agree to ask it of God, from him you shall obtain it.” Prayer must go along with all our endeavours for the conversion of sinners; see Jas. 5:16. Fourthly, The unanimous petitions of the church of God, for the ratification of their just censures, shall be heard in heaven, and obtain an answer; “It shall be done, it shall be bound and loosed in heaven; God will set his fiat to the appeals and applications you make to him.” If Christ (who here speaks as one having authority) say, “It shall be done,” we may be assured that it is done, though we see not the effect in the way that we look for it. God doth especially own and accept us, when we are praying for those that have offended him and us. The Lord turned the captivity of Job, not when he prayed for himself, but when he prayed for his friends who had trespassed against him.
(2.) The presence of Christ in the assemblies of Christians, Matt. 18:20. Every believer has the presence of Christ with him; but the promise here refers to the meetings where two or three are gathered in his name, not only for discipline, but for religious worship, or any act of Christian communion. Assemblies of Christians for holy purposes are hereby appointed, directed, and encouraged.
[1.] They are hereby appointed; the church of Christ in the world exists most visibly in religious assemblies; it is the will of Christ that these should be set up, and kept up, for the honour of God, the edification of men, and the preserving of a face of religion upon the world. When God intends special answers to prayer, he calls for a solemn assembly, Joel 2:15, 16. If there be no liberty and opportunity for large and numerous assemblies, yet then it is the will of God that two or three should gather together, to show their good-will to the great congregation. Note, When we cannot do what we would in religion, we must do as we can, and God will accept us.
[2.] They are hereby directed to gather together in Christ’s name. In the exercise of church discipline, they must come together in the name of Christ, 1 Cor. 5:4. That name gives to what they do an authority on earth, and an acceptableness in heaven. In meeting or worship, we must have an eye to Christ; must come together by virtue of his warrant and appointment, in token of our relation to him, professing faith in him, and in communion with all that in every place call upon him. When we come together, to worship God in a dependence upon the Spirit and grace of Christ as Mediator for assistance, and upon his merit and righteousness as Mediator for acceptance, having an actual regard to him as our Way to the Father, and our Advocate with the Father, then we are met together in his name.
[3.] They are hereby encouraged with an assurance of the presence of Christ; There am I in the midst of them. By his common presence he is in all places, as God; but this is a promise of his special presence. Where his saints are, his sanctuary is, and there he will dwell; it is his rest (Ps. 132:14), it is his walk (Rev. 2:1); he is in the midst of them, to quicken and strengthen them, to refresh and comfort them, as the sun in the midst of the universe. He is in the midst of them, that is, in their hearts; it is a spiritual presence, the presence of Christ’s Spirit with their spirits, that is here intended. There am I, not only I will be there, but I am there; as if he came first, is ready before them, they shall find him there; he repeated this promise at parting (Matt. 28:20), Lo, I am with you always. Note, The presence of Christ in the assemblies of Christians is promised, and may in faith be prayed for and depended on; There am I. This is equivalent to the Shechinah, or special presence of God in the tabernacle and temple of old, Exod. 40:34; 2 Chron. 5:14.
Though but two or three are met together, Christ is among them; this is an encouragement to the meeting of a few, when it is either, First, of choice. Besides the secret worship performed by particular persons, and the public services of the whole congregation, there may be occasion sometimes for two or three to come together, either for mutual assistance in conference or joint assistance in prayer, not in contempt of public worship, but in concurrence with it; there Christ will be present. Or, Secondly, By constraint; when there are not more than two or three to come together, or, if there be, they dare not, for fear of the Jews, yet Christ will be in the midst of them, for it is not the multitude, but the faith and sincere devotion, of the worshippers, that invites the presence of Christ; and though there be but two or three, the smallest number that can be, yet, it Christ make one among them, who is the principal one, their meeting is as honourable and comfortable as if they were two or three thousand.