In our day, respect for church authority has all but vanished. Many professing Christians think their “private lives” are no business of the church. Excommunication from a local body is hardly ever taken seriously since it rarely prevents someone from joining the church next door with no questions asked.
Several phenomena explain this sad reality. The church’s fragmentation makes it easy to move from one denomination to another. Many church leaders exalt numerical growth and will not ask hard questions of the people in the pews for fear of learning a fact that would bar someone from membership. Furthermore, individualism and the way our culture falsely divides our private and personal lives makes it hard to honor the authority of Christ’s church.
Yet our “private sins” are the church’s business, and her judgments, when they conform to Scripture, are divinely authorized. We see this in today’s passage as Jesus in Matthew 18:18–19 gives to the apostles primarily, and the church derivatively, the keys of the kingdom first given to Peter (see Matt. 16:18–19; John 20:19–23). Matthew Henry writes, “If the censures of the church duly follow the institution of Christ, his judgments will follow the censures of the church, for Christ will not allow his own ordinances to be trampled on.”
Church discipline decides whether or not a person is a member in good standing of Christ’s church, and such decisions have weight only if they agree with God’s Word. The keys belong first to the apostles, making their inspired writings determinative. Moreover, the curse on the self-proclaimed “prophets” who denied the Word (Jer. 23:9–15) teaches the church to make decisions according to Scripture. Augustine warns that unbiblical verdicts are null and void. In discipline, the church must “bind [people] justly. For unjust bonds justice doth burst asunder” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 6, p. 359).
Safety resides in an abundance of counselors (Prov. 11:14), and a decision church elders make corporately is more likely to be biblical than if made by one man alone. Thus, Jesus assures us of His approving presence when two or more gather in His name to make decisions according to His will (Matt. 18:19–20).
The church’s ability to liberate people, says John Calvin, is not limited to the restoration of disciplined members to full participation in the congregation. Such liberation is also discharged when elders, according to Scripture, assure repentant people of pardon after sin is confessed. This “awakens in the godly no ordinary confidence, when they hear that their sins are blotted out before God and angels, as soon as they have obtained forgiveness from the Church.”
For further study:
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