The Meaning of Matthew 18:15

Jesus gave instructions for conflict resolution in two gospels. In Luke the focus is on forgiveness, but in Matthew the focus is on the proper procedure for excommunication. The offender should always be given a chance to defend himself, or at least to forsake his wicked way, first privately with the hope of reconciliation, and then with a couple of (legally binding) witnesses so it's not an ambiguous case of "he said, [s]he said," followed by a public trial before the whole church, then failing those measures, expulsion.

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that "every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matt.18:15-17 (oNIV)
What seems curious to me here is the presumption of guilt. I guess if he is actually innocent, then he implicitly has the right of reciprocal accusation by the same procedure.

In the first century, when this was spoken and then written down for the rest of us, and extending to (and somewhat beyond) the time of the Reformation, there was only one church (in each town), so excommunication had some meaning. In our modern pluralistic culture, with churches of opposing denominations across the street from each other, and people driving great distances to attend a church of their choice, conflict can be implicitly left unresolved by the parties separating and going to different churches, or else solved by taking their cause to the secular courts. I do not propose to address that issue here.

Instead I want to focus in this essay on what it means to "go" in verse 15. This question came to my attention in connection with a recent seminar held at a Dallas church, where four prominent scholars attempted to answer the atheistic criticism that the gospels cannot be trusted because research shows that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. An important part of their rejection of that claim is that the gospels were composed in the context of an aural society, which we no longer live in; the referenced research was conducted within a modern written culture, so its findings are not necessarily relevant to an ancient aural society. That's an important distinction in the present context.


Most people go into a procedure informed by this text with the ultimate purpose of excommunication. They have already made up their minds to exact revenge and public shame and expulsion. That is not a Christian perspective. The Second Great Commandment, Jesus said, is to love your neighbor as yourself. We are even to love our "enemies" that way, and the parable he told in support of this command picked such a person as the Good Guy. Do you want expulsion? Do you want public shame? Then don't do it to even your enemies. It may be necessary, but it should be avoided if at all possible.

Jesus gave an explicit purpose to two of the steps in the process -- but not to the end of the whole process. That's a curious omission.

In verse 15, the stated purpose of meeting with your "brother" alone is reconciliation, finding a common ground for working out our differences. This verse tends to get skipped over in the implementation of this process because we don't want reconciliation, we want revenge. That is not a Christian attitude, because God alone is allowed to exact revenge. If the causing event is only a mistake or a misunderstanding, fix it. If you are angry, wait until you have cooled off before trying to fix it, because human anger does not bring about God's righteousness. If you have reconciliation (and not revenge) as your purpose, then the private meeting is all that is needed. You won't get there while you are angry. Wait until you can do it in a civilized and loving manner, with due consideration for the other guy's perspective. After all, he might be right and you wrong. You need to listen to each other.

The stated purpose in verse 16 is legal accountability. In an aural society like the first century, that meant two or more independent witnesses. Jesus quoted the Old Testament law as it pertains to the death sentence. It has far broader application in Scripture, but its main purpose is so that we are not arguing over unprovable opinions but dealing in legally provable facts. In the 21st century legal evidence can take many forms: forensic residue such as unique artifacts or DNA left behind, written documentation, or even video recordings. These things can be forged, but it's not easy; witnesses also can be bought or compromised. The focus is on getting good evidence for the legal proceedings of verse 17, not on the small chance of fraud or corruption.

With good evidence in hand, the function of verse 17 is to remove troublemakers from the community. It might be that the actual troublemaker is the guy bringing (false) charges. A legal procedure can determine that -- unless the presiding leadership itself has a conflict of interest. Jesus did not go into that, probably because it was obvious from the context that he was describing a legal procedure that everybody understood. Basically his purpose was to give a process biased toward Christian reconciliation, not towards division and fragmentation.

What is your purpose? Get your motives straight before you start, otherwise the result will be wrong.


The Greek text here "between you and him alone" (metaxu sou kai autou monou) clearly says that should not involve other people. If you embarass the guy in public you may win your case, but you have destroyed any possibility of reconciliation. Jesus said so. You have ample opportunity to do that later, if it is necessary. If it's just a misunderstanding, clear it up in private. The first step seeks a friendly encounter, not a formal process for destroying the guy. Do it in some manner and place where they are both comfortable.

In Person

I looked very carefully in my Bible for the phrase "in person" (kata proswpon or proswpon pros proswpon or en sarki or stoma pros stoma) and did not find it in this text. There are nine verses in the New Testament (and another thirteen in the OT) that refer to personal appearance, none of them in any of the four gospels. If Jesus had intended that it must be in person  (and if Matthew correctly wrote what Jesus said), then surely our text would say "in person" (or "face to face" or something like that). It does not. In person may be a good way to achieve "between you and him alone," especially in a first-century context where no telephones and no email and no public postal system were available, but we have all of those modern media for implementing private dialog, and the Biblical text here does not forbid them. It only requires that it be private.


Matthew's gospel tells an interesting story about a centurion who came to Jesus and asked him to heal his servant, remotely. The centurion understood that Jesus had that power, and he also knew that (as a Gentile) his house would defile Jesus (as a Jew). Jesus didn't seem to have that problem, but he admired the centurion's faith and granted his wish remotely.

Luke's gospel tells the same story, but with an important difference: the centurion did not come to Jesus personally, but sent Jewish elders to speak on his behalf. The atheists love to point to discrepancies like this as proof that the gospels are contradictory and therefore unreliable, but that is not the only way to understand the difference. Traditionally, and as seen from internal evidence, Matthew wrote his gospel to a Jewish audience, while Luke wrote for the benefit of Gentiles. Jews would understand that an emmissary who speaks for the sender is the same thing as being there himself in person, while Gentiles have no such implicit understanding, and must be told of the intermediaries explicitly. There is no contradiction, only a different cultural context and a different audience, for whom a different way of telling the same story can communicate the same sense. The story is not about which or how many people came with the request, but about the faith of the centurion in expecting a remote healing.

Notice that it is in Matthew that the centurion appears to come in person to Jesus (but we know from Luke that it was only vicariously, through messengers). It is also in Matthew's gospel that Jesus seems to (but does not actually) say that you should go to your brother in person. Is it not unreasonable that the same kind of distance messaging might be permitted? Except he also said it should be "alone" so the messengers or intermediaries probably are not permitted (except perhaps if translation services are needed) -- but other means of distance communication is clearly not forbidden.

Do you disagree? Tell me why.

Tom Pittman
rev. 2015 October 23