Two or Three Witnesses
New Testament church discipline is taught in one of Jesus’ teachings to His disciples at Capernaum, as recorded in Matthew 18:15–20. There is a sequence to the exercise of helping a brother or sister to shirk private sins. The goal of all church discipline is restoration (Gal 6:1).
First, an individual becomes aware of another individual in some sort of sin. The initial action is a humble, yet firm, approach for correction. It is to be done in the spirit of gentleness (Gal 6:1). This exposure, reproof, or conviction is also to be done in private. Most discipline begins and ends at this level.
Am I my brother’s keeper? According to Jesus…yes. The goal of all of our instruction, even disciplined instruction is love from a pure heart (1 Tim 1:5). The objective is to gain your brother. Sin benefits no one. The one in sin is not a beneficiary of her sinful thoughts, words, or actions. Others never benefit from one’s sinful behavior, either. Stopping sin is a win for everyone.
Second, if the desired result is not achieved during the first level of one-to-one encounter, then there is a second level. “Two or three witnesses” gives reference to the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 19:15. A matter, not just a sinful one, is established in this manner. One cannot be trusted to bear witness by himself. When Jesus was confronted with the need to support His claims to deity, He complied with this law of two or three witnesses. Jesus called John the Baptist, the Scriptures, His own miracle works, and His heavenly Father to join in, with the claim He Himself was making (Jn 5:30–47). Of course, the Holy Spirit is a witness to Jesus Christ, too (Acts 1:8).
Integrity is established and maintained in a matter through two or three witnesses. The sin remains in close quarters with the small conclave of humble, yet firm correctors. The setting is not judicial. The witnesses are not invited to join in the approach to make the prosecutor’s case against the sinner. To plead with a sinner for repentance is like the man on the bridge who pleads with the other guy who is ready for a suicide jump. Sin is dangerous. It leads to death. The witnesses are motivated by love for their brother in sin. They could ask, “Why die?” Sin is a suicidal tendency in all humans. It must be dealt with before ruin sets in.
Third, there is the penultimate level of church discipline, to address the matter of private sin, in the life of a Christian brother or sister. The third level is to tell the local church. Although the extent of awareness has widened, it remains “in the family.” It is a congregational matter.
Personally, I am an advocate of churches no larger than two hundred people for this very reason. Local church congregations larger than two hundred people simply lose the intimacy of family. People do not know one another well enough to exercise informed discipline. How can you know the character of someone you do not know?
The lust for mega church status is one of the reasons church membership is no longer practiced by the majority of churches in America. This, too, is an error. Church members must covenant with one another for accountability purposes. We must agree at the outset of the relationship, to work with one another if one falls into a particular sin, in the future. Antinomian attitudes toward sin lead church congregations into the entertainment business. Big stage show productions take precedent over our war with personal sin.
The local church is God’s design for God’s people to gather together for worship, fellowship, and church discipline. He has given us to one another as a gift of love, grace, and discipline. The holy and mature saints lift up the babes in Christ. This is done by example, personal relationship, and teaching. Church discipline is personal. It is done by example, and it must be taught.
A breach in the order of the sequence is very problematic for the local church. An individual who sees another individual in sin is often quick to tell the leadership of the church. Gossip can also hinder the process. These errors do not follow Jesus’ prescription to remedy a sin problem. A sin problem can quickly multiply into other sin problems. Elders in a local church are not policemen for the community of believers. They are not judges, either. If sin is a problem in the church, the mishandling of church discipline is also a problem.
Rare is the saint who has not attended an unruly church meeting. Passions produce disorder in the church. Instead of being slow and careful, the “anything goes” attitude turns into angry words, spoken by anyone who has an opinion. The notorious fist fights should cause everyone to don sackcloth and ashes. All of this is a result of neglecting Matthew 18:15–20.
Let us review the sequence. First, there is a one-to-one encounter. Second, there is a two or three-to-one encounter. Third, there is a church gathering, where the first one to approach the brother in sin, presents the sin problem to the church assembled. The two or three credible witnesses affirm their joining in the efforts, to encourage the brother in sin to repent. The church hears the matter. It may even take a period of time to recess for the sake of prayer and consideration. The church should lovingly, humbly, yet firmly implore the brother to turn back to righteousness and holiness. The sin must be clearly recognized as sin. Peoples’ preferences should never enter into this process.
The elders sit with the rest of the congregation, not lording over the situation. The individual who started the process is the one who continues to act throughout the entire process. This is clear by the second person singular pronoun “you” throughout the pericope. What changes is the witness configuration. It moves from one, to two or three, and ends with the full gathering of the local church. Again, imagine this happening in a mega church. It is almost laughable to envision such a scene, but we must never laugh at the negligence of it not happening.
The notable exclusion of elders in the church discipline process must be emphasized. The obvious implication is the equality of all members in the body of Christ. We have one Leader, that is, Christ the Lord (Mt 23:10). Men are sinful. They hunger for power and influence, and this is a problem in the local church. It becomes remarkably evident with the unbiblical formation of denominational hierarchies, which are man-made structures to facilitate the ambitions of men to positions as lords. They adopt titles for themselves to affirm their self-generated authority. All of this is unbecoming for a child of God, who is called into humble service to Christ the King. He alone has authority in the church, as its sole Head and Lord.
Excommunication is the final step in the process. The brother or sister in sin has not responded to the first approach, the second approach, nor the third approach. It is at this point the church must unite in closing off contact and communication with the unrepentant brother or sister. This is a very solemn exercise. It must remain private within the church family, for the sake of Christ’s reputation. The church’s dirty laundry strewn across the exterior façade, for all of the world to see, is an abomination. Without proper instruction and right practice, the church is prone to make this error. The names of publicly disgraced Christian leaders are too well known. This fact alone tells us much about the neglect of church discipline, in the early stages of sinful behavior.
In summary, we have considered the elements and sequence of church discipline. We have considered some procedures, and we have noted the wide-spread failure in the American church, to employ Matthew 18:15–20 in a proper manner…if at all.
In conclusion, we must re-group on this issue. The mishandling of church discipline is one strike of the death knell for the American church. We must repent of our poor practices in church discipline. In other words, we need to do church discipline on ourselves, for the sinful handling of church discipline. If we neglect to do this, we will only be excommunicating ourselves, from the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, who can only be grieved by our status quo. Too many church lampstands are wobbling in this generation. Time will tell us whether we reproved ourselves, rightly, in this matter of church discipline. If we take heed, we will have gained our brothers and ourselves.
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
December 29, 2020