The Seed Plot of the Assembly, Part 1 – Matthew 18:15-177 min read
“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” – Matthew 18:15-17
Just as Genesis is the seed plot for Scripture’s major doctrines, because it contains their primitive yet foundational forms, so is Matthew 18:15-20 a premature glimpse into local assembly life that will be developed more fully in other books of Scripture, especially in Acts and the Pauline epistles. Yet with this claim come many objections, such as the use of verse 20 in an assembly-specific sense, the context of the passage, what kind of “assembly”/ekklesia is meant here, etc. These claims can be eradicated with a few simple questions.
- Some would claim that the local assembly can’t be seen here since the disciples wouldn’t have understood fully what Christ meant by an ekklesia. But are New Testament truths really unable to be expressed in this passage since the full revelation had not been given? This can’t be true since the concept of the Church which is His Body was mentioned in chapter 16, though the full development comes with Paul; thus we don’t need to be close-minded about finding such truth in this passage.
- At the time when the disciples would apply this, in what context would they be applying it? It would be in a local assembly as revealed in the rest of the New Testament. Otherwise, if this were a general principle that had nothing to do with the assembly, they only would have been able to apply it in a non-assembly sense for about one year only since Pentecost was coming relatively soon. The assembly is the assumed accompaniment of the believer, and it would make sense that Christ would incorporate this for the disciples to apply, though the fullness of what He meant had not been revealed.
- One other question is, what other entity can this passage be describing if not a local assembly? It fits both the types of the Old Testament as well as the doctrines of the New; God doesn’t have another entity that functions like this. Thus, we can be assured that the local assembly is in mind here, as the context and clear affirmations of the text will show.
The Assembly and It’s Preservation of Fellowship – 15-17
The assembly will always be a sifting ground if it is functioning Biblically. That sifting will be thorough and yet patient. And what is the motive? Fellowship. This is the idea we have in verses 15-17.
The first level of that sifting is seen in verse 15, which is actually two-way. On the one hand, we see that in accompanying God’s people, we will more than likely be faced with failure that hurts us in a personal way. This makes us seriously assess how greatly we want to be part of that assembly, in spite of the apparent inconveniences that exist there. On the other hand, though, we see that the person who sinned against the believer will also be tested as to how he handles rebuke. But before that ever happens, it is the believer who sees the sin in the other person’s life that must make the first move. Now, this needs some serious disclaimers to be understood. The person who sinned was not necessarily in the wrong because it happened to affect another in a negative way; this can be done unintentionally. When this happens to us, we should go to the latter part of the chapter where it says “Forgive seventy times seven.” In an assembly, we are not looking for excuses to rebuke other believers, nor are we going to confront every thing that comes across to us the wrong way. This is called immaturity. Rather, the issue is this: the man committed a trespass and it was against another believer. In other words, he had sin in his life that would have been just as sinful regardless of who it was against. So then, our motive for approaching such a person is not because we were simply offended at one of his ignorant blunders or such; our personal feelings don’t really come to the fore in this passage. On the contrary, our motive is three-fold: (1) because the person sinned, we want him to be restored (2) because the person sinned against us, we want interpersonal fellowship to be restored (3) because the man is associated with the assembly, we want its ultimate good in the whole situation. These are expressed in the clause “thou hast gained thy brother” – one of the most noble motivations in all of Christianity.
It would be nice if this is the farthest extent the situation went to; however, sometimes that is not the case. Some refuse to listen to another believer’s concerns. Thus, here we are presented with step two of the “sifting process,” that is, the bringing in of one or two witnesses. These would prove that the one sinned against was not simply splitting hairs but that since others were willing to get involved it was a serious issue. They would also allow for confirmation in any accusations that were made or that were not made. It is vital in a matter that could escalate to the pubic sphere for there to be, not simply biased accusations, but established facts affirmed by a third party. At this point, if the man who sinned rejected both personal confrontation and the confirmation/persuasion of witnesses, clearly he would have in himself an attitude that does not submit, when the assembly cannot function without a humble mind that submits (Phil. 2). To have an unsubmissive attitude will produce strife and division, which is why the assembly is brought in here. Not only must they plead with this man for restoration to both repentance and fellowship, but they must see if his character will cause destruction in the assembly since it may have been capable of destruction in a relationship. If the assembly should plead with the man to think reasonably and he resists, then it is clear at that point he is not part of it to edify but to live for self. And when such open rebellion is manifested against the assembly in order that he might defend a clear sin, such demands discipline. This is what is meant by “heathen man and publican.” These were outside religious affiliation and association to the Jews. This concept is applied in 1 Corinthians 5, where it says “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” It is only when a man with such a rebellious attitude is understood to be in need of restoration that the process of restoration could begin. And it was when they were identified as being outside the gathering that they would be seen as needing abundant grace, as a tax-collector would have needed in their eyes in those days.
Now the question comes to us, why are believers in assembly context so concerned with fellowship and reconciliation? It is true that this would make no sense if it were optional for believers to fellowship with an assembly; yet because the very context of a believer’s life is the assembly, this fellowship between even only two brethren is so vital to maintain. In this first mention of a local ekklesia – a local assembly – it is precious to find that fellowship is one of our greatest motivating factors as a part of it. And this factor is only possible because there actually is a distinct inside and outside of assembly fellowship. That is why it is called an ekklesia, a called out people. Our goal is to preserve the unity of this calling with our greatest effort. Nevertheless, we are also careful in approaching things which compromise unity since it is such a solemn issue: this is why there are three distinct, carefully trodden steps laid out in this passage. It is no light thing to fellowship with God’s people. It means responsibility. It means discernment. It means selflessness. It means endurance. And in all of these things, let us be mindful of the good of others: “thou has gained thy brother” has no hint of selfishness, but only sincere care. This is an assembly.