Compare Luke 17:3. We must pursue the straying sheep (Mt 18:10-14), but certain very exceptional circumstances demand expulsion of wolves in sheep's clothing who may not wish to leave (vv. 15-20; compare 7:15-23). In this context of forgiveness to the greatest possible extent (18:21-27), however, our ultimate goal must be restoration whenever possible, even when we must expel someone from the church (compare vv. 19-20; 1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 2:5-11; 1 Tim 1:20). The greatest sin of this context is being a continuing stumbling block to others (18:6-7, 15), which must include unwillingness to accept them back (vv. 28-33; compare vv. 1-14)-a sin that results in damnation (vv. 34-35). The principle would apply to many kinds of sin, but in this context such a sin, whether committed by those expelled or by those expelling others, is most probably an unrepented and continuing sin against the community or its members.
Admonish the Brother or Sister Privately First (18:15)
Although Jewish teachers preferred that the offender seek forgiveness first, Jewish law also emphasized proper giving and receiving of reproof (as in Sipre Deut. 1.3.2), which continued until the offender repented or decisively repulsed the reprover (Moore 1971:2:153). Rabbis emphasized that reproof was to be private whenever possible (as in b. Sanhedrin 101a); a sage could thus rule that publicly shaming one's fellow warrants exclusion from the coming age (m. 'Abot 3:11). The Dead Sea Scrolls also emphasize this sequence: private reproof, then before witnesses, and finally before the gathered assembly (compare Schiffman 1983:97-98). Public admonition was reserved for the severest of circumstances (compare Gal 2:14).
Witnesses Must Gather Evidence (18:16)
Although we hope for reconciliation, we must gather evidence in the proper order in case we later need proof of what transpired. As community centers, synagogues doubled as local courts, a function they maintained when evaluating internal disputes in Diaspora Jewish communities (see comment on 10:17); Christians transferred the same function to churches (1 Cor 5:4-5; 6:1-5). Later Jewish teachers regularly echoed the judicial requirement of Deuteronomy 17:6-7 and 19:15; under such rules to speak evil of another without supporting witnesses warranted a public beating (Belkin 1940:267). The requirement of two witnesses remained standard judicial procedure among Christians (2 Cor 13:1-2; 1 Tim 5:19-20).
The Church Must Discipline False Christians (18:17)
Jesus' repeated condemnations of "hypocrisy" apply to professed disciples, not just to the religious establishment of his day (24:51). If all else fails, the Christian community must publicly dissociate itself from a habitually sinning professed Christian: neither outsiders nor the sinner should continue under the delusion that this person is truly saved. Thus one should treat such a person as a tax gatherer (9:9; 21:32) or a Gentile (5:47; 6:7; 20:25)-unclean and to be avoided. Although lesser forms of discipline existed (as in 1QS 6.25 vs. 5.16-17; 2 Thess 3:6), this discipline was full excommunication, implying spiritual death (1 Cor 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20; Tit 3:10-11). Professing Christians never repudiated by the church have perpetrated many evils throughout history, bringing shame to the body of Christ.
In Such Cases the Church Acts on God's Authority (18:18)
God authorizes the Christian judicial assembly that follows these procedures to act on the authority of heaven. The unrepentant person has already left God's way and cannot be restored without repentance. The verb tenses allow (though do not demand) the meaning the context suggests: the earthly action follows the heavenly decree (compare Mantey 1973). By removing an unrepentant sinner from the Christian community, believers merely ratify the heavenly court's decree (see Keener 1991a:141-43; in Jewish courts, compare t. Rossashana 1:18), removing branches already dead on the vine (compare Jn 15:2, 6).
Bind and loose refer to the judicial authority of gathered Christians to decide cases on the basis of God's law. Most scholars thus recognize that this passage applies to church discipline (Cullmann 1953:204-5; R. Fuller 1971:141). The more popular use of "binding" today in many circles (exercising authority over the devil) resembles instead an ancient practice in the magical papyri-also called "binding" (see note on 12:29)-of manipulating demons to carry out a magician's will. (The Bible does support Christians' authority to cast out real demons-compare comment on 17:17-but the only "devils" in this passage are fully human ones, and they are being cast out of the church!)
Witnesses Are to Pray, Not Act Vindictively (18:19)
Given the context, the two or three gathered for prayer in verses 19-20 must be the two or three witnesses of 18:16. Whereas in Deuteronomy 17:6-7 the two or three witnesses were to be the first to cast stones, here they are to be the first to pray. While this could refer to the negative prayer of execration (which may have been more of a curse-compare 1 Cor 5:5), in this context of forgiveness the prayer may represent a prayer for ultimate restoration (though compare 1 Jn 5:16). Jewish excommunication even in its long-term form was normally reversible if repentance took place (p. Mo`ed Qatan 3:1, 11; though compare the extreme cases in 1QS 7.1-2, 16-17, 24-25).
Jesus Himself Is the Presence of God (18:20)
An ancient Jewish saying promised God's presence for even two or three gathered to study his law (m. 'Abot 3:2, 6; Mek. Bahodesh 11.48ff.; compare m. Berakot 7:3). Here Jesus himself fills the role of the Shekinah, God's presence, in the traditional Jewish saying (compare Smith 1951:152-53; Meier 1980:206; Barth 1963:135; Ziesler 1984). Jewish teachers often called God "the Place," that is, "the Omnipresent One" (see Keener 1991a:150 n. 27); Jesus is "God with us" (Mt 1:23; 28:20).