Posted in theology

Matthew 18: “Did you go to her?” and the part that people ignore

By Elizabeth Prata

There remains much confusion about the process outlined in Matthew 18. Whenever a public Bible teacher is questioned, confronted, or critiqued, people invariably charge the questioner with failure of “having gone to her/him.”

Their reference is to a process outlined in Matthew 18:15-17.

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

This is a process for individual church members and pastors, to employ among members inside a local body. It is commonly known as church discipline. We understand that by the first verse where one is called brother, and the third step where one must get his church involved.

It is not a process to be used for global students commenting or critiquing a public Bible teacher.

An example of the Matthew 18 church process might be, totally hypothetically, if I saw a brother in my church sideswipe my car at the Kroger Grocery store and he didn’t leave a note or come to me to fix it. If I knew a church friend was having an affair with a married man. Going to that person gives them the opportunity to repent to Jesus and make the situation right. If a brother denies sideswiping my car or the sister denied having the affair, we’re told to go back to that person privately with one or two additional people. This again inserts grace into the situation and allows the person opportunity to repent. If they still rebel and deny, then go to the pastor and lay out the case. The church is now responsible for calling that person back to holiness.

The main goal is stated in verse 15a, ‘you have won your brother.’

I find it bemusing that Christians insist that “loving” a person always means tolerating whatever sin they perpetrate, and in a honeysuckle sweet voice and attitude as well. They say, Jesus “hung out with sinners after all.” They always charge anyone who brings up something disagreeable in public regarding a public teacher, as having failed to go to them, which as we saw, is a mistreatment of the verse. More resources will follow.

But those who always clamor that someone has failed to ‘go to them’, who insist on tolerating all manner of sin in the name of love, themselves fail…to see the end result of the very process they want to see enacted. Surprise! There ARE times when a person is to be shunned.



If they refuse to repent and fail to pursue holiness, they are to be ostracized from all fellowship, denied the blessings of the church, and even as S. Lewis Johnson preached, disallowed to partake in the Lord’s Supper.

2 Thessalonians 3:6 also speaks to this- Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.

This has been the traditional understanding of the discipline process for centuries; various Commentaries follow:

and so such that have been privately admonished and publicly rebuked, without success, their company is to be shunned, and intimate friendship with them to be avoided. Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible. 1746

Publican – See the notes at Matthew 5:47. Publicans were people of abandoned character, and the Jews would have no contact with them. The meaning of this is, cease to have religious contact with him, or to acknowledge him as a Christian brother. It does not mean that we should cease to show kindness to him and aid him in affliction or trial, for that is required toward all people; but it means that we should disown him as a Christian brother, and treat him as we do other people not connected with the church. This should not be done until all these steps are taken. This is the only way of kindness. This is the only way to preserve peace and purity in the church. Barnes Notes. 1830

Lastly, If even this fail, regard him as no longer a brother Christian, but as one “without”—as the Jews did Gentiles and publicans. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary. 1871

Quit his company- he has despised the last tribunal. Now you must leave him. Be not angry with him. Freely forgive him, but quit him. Spurgeon, 1889.

The purpose of ostracism is not to punish but to awaken, and it must be done in humble love and never in a spirit of self-righteous authority…the fourth step in the discipline process is therefore to put out and to call back-to keep the sinning brother out of fellowship until he repents, but also keep calling him back in hopes that he will. John MacArthur Commentary, 1988

So using the logic of the day, IF we were to ‘go to them’, meaning, go to the public teacher, AND they refuse to hear reason, THEN you’d have to shun them.

But we don’t have to use an If-Then statement, mainly because Mt 18 doesn’t apply in this case. Elsewhere, the Bible gives plenty of commands and instructions for what to do regarding false teachings. It gives advice and instruction for what to do to verify a teaching, in order to determine if it is false or true.

The several points for the takeaway here are-

1. Critiquing a public Bible teacher’s works doesn’t have to be done within the context of a local church. We don’t have to “go to them.” You can if you want, IF they are accessible (many are not) but it’s not part of any biblical mandate. They are teaching publicly, we critique (or applaud) publicly.

2. The very process of ‘going to them’ means that once you start on this path it might end up where you have to shun them. That’s the process. If going to them is loving, then 2 verses from that point, shunning them is also loving. You can’t insist on step 1 of  the discipline process and then abandon step 4 as ‘unloving’. It’s all or nothing.

3. The version of love insisted upon by liberal and nominal Christians is often not biblical love. Love means offering the whole counsel of God, declaring sin as sin…pointing to God’s wrath as well as His love…knowing and publicizing that some teachers are not to be trusted..that there are times and cases when an individual or a whole church must ostracize a rebel. And so on.

If you are ever on the receiving end of the Matthew 18’s local church discipline steps, please realize it is God’s way of bringing you back to the fold. If you’re wandering, sinning, then the love that the brethren are showing is true love. Ignoring sin or coddling it isn’t love. Confronting it so you can live a holy life again, is.

Further Resources

D.A. CArson: Editorial on Abusing Matthew 18

Some of the “angriest, bitterness-laced emails I have ever received—…were those whose indignation was white hot because I had not first approached privately those whose positions I had criticized in the book. What a hypocrite I was—criticizing my brothers on ostensible biblical grounds when I myself was not following the Bible’s mandate to observe a certain procedure nicely laid out in Matt 18:15–17. Doubtless this sort of charge is becoming more common. I… This pattern of counter-attack, with minor variations, is flourishing.

Josh Buice: Matthew 18 and the Universal Church

Every once in a while I receive an e-mail from a concerned reader of this blog asking me if I had taken time to contact someone before I publicly named them in my article.  This past week, I received more than one e-mail asking me that very question.  In fact, I received at least ten such e-mails and some were quite critical of my intentions as they accused me of sin for not following the model of church discipline found in Matthew 18.  So the question remains – should I have contacted Pastor Andy Stanley before I made him the center figure in a critical article?

Tim Challies: Matthew 18 in a shrinking world

And when I write about people or their books, it is nearly inevitable that someone sends me an email or leaves a comment saying, “Did you follow the procedure laid out in Matthew 18?” This is sometimes a kind suggestion and sometimes a harsh rebuke. But either way, it almost always seems to come. This was true when I wrote critical reviews of 90 Minutes in Heaven and The Shack. It was true when I shared some concerns about men whose ministry I respect. In each case, people suggested that I ought to follow Matthew 18 and speak to the men themselves before publicly critiquing them.



Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

3 thoughts on “Matthew 18: “Did you go to her?” and the part that people ignore

  1. I think those making the charge are trying to get the criticism to stop – and throwing whatever at the wall to see what might stick. If they can charge you with hypocrisy, and publicly ostracize you, and make you stop, all well and good. These are the same people who would scream bloody murder if you DID go to someone in private and follow all of the steps. They aren’t concerned with holiness or following Scripture as much as they want to stop the criticism of their favorite sacred cow. (I do think if there is a personal relationship with someone who is also a public figure, that before criticizing them in print, it would be the loving thing to indeed go to them in private first, but in the vast majority of cases where no personal relationship is present and the only ministry is public, there is no practical way to do this.)

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    1. I totally agree. It’s an attempt to cease criticism of false teachers, usually their beloved idol. A person concerned with holiness wouldn’t say such things. You’re right, they’d scream if the steps were followed to the end, too!

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