There Am I Among Them: What to Do When a Brother or Sister Sins Against You
July 7, 2019
As we wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are being sanctified by God’s grace. This means that brothers and sisters in Christ will struggle with sin. And this means that a brother or sister in Christ can sin against you.
This is one of the most difficult things to go through in Christian life. And many believers react to being sinned against in many different ways.
But our Lord Jesus Christ is the king of the church. He rules and commands the church. He protects and perseveres the church. He feeds and grows the church. He cares for the church. He loves the church.
Thus, when a brother or sister in Christ sins against you, know that the king has spoken on the matter. In tonight’s scripture text, Jesus gives a four-step process for what to do when a brother or sister in Christ sins against you. Tonight, I will just focus on the first two steps in verses 15 and 16, and the end of verse 20.
Jesus’ first step is in verse 15. This is what he says: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
This first step is very important. Unfortunately, so many believers make big mistakes right here, right away. Notice what it does not say.
It does not say, “If your brother sins against you, pray about it and then just see what happens.”
It does not say, “If your sister sins against you, avoid her and unfriend her on Facebook and just stay far away from her.”
It does not say, “If your brother or sister sins against you, go immediately to your pastor so that he can comfort you over some soondooboo and listen to you for an hour and be on your side and take action and confront that wicked, trouble-making brother or sister.”
It does not say, “Tell your best friend everything.” It does not say, “Start a movement.” It does not say, “Harbor resentment.” It does not say, “Plot a good revenge.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
You are to actually go to the person, in-person, face to face.
You are to go alone, by yourself, privately.
And you are to go alone in order to gain the person, for the purpose of helping the person and winning the person back.
And that is it for the first step.
This is not complicated at all. And yet, so many believers with good intentions do not obey this command. Many believers think it is wise to immediately tell their friends or talk to their pastors when someone has sinned against them. Many believers think it is wise to knowingly or unknowingly skip step one and go to step two and beyond.
But I tell you the truth: this “wisdom” is utter foolishness. This “wisdom” is a human wisdom. This “wisdom” goes completely against the word of the Lord Jesus Christ. This “wisdom” has led to so much hurt and pain and trouble and conflict in churches throughout the land.
Jesus’ first step is plain and clear. And there are no exceptions to his first step. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” May we be a church of Christ that takes this first step very seriously.
But there are two important keys to remember in this first step.
The first key to this first step is to make sure that the brother or sister in view has actually sinned against you.
Are you sure it’s a sin? Or is it an accident? Be careful before applying Matthew 18 on a brother who accidentally tripped you during a game of soccer at a church picnic or on a sister who forgot to put a plate of kimchi on your table during lunch at church.
Are you sure it’s a sin? Or is it a misunderstanding? Be careful before applying Matthew 18 when a brother seems to have acted in a way that slighted you or a sister seems to have made a decision that went against you when you actually do not fully know the situations or circumstances behind their actions or decisions.
Are you sure it’s a sin? Or is it a game of telephone gossip? Be careful before applying Matthew 18 on a brother or sister who said such and such about you when you actually heard it from your friend, who heard it from their small group member, who heard it from a bunch of mothers at a sushi restaurant, who heard it from their husbands, who heart it at some church meeting, and so on and so forth.
Brothers and sisters, if you are going to apply Matthew 18 on a brother or sister, make sure that there is real sin in view and not an accident or a misunderstanding or a game of telephone gossip. This is so important. Because if you’re wrong about the person, if you go to the person and the person has actually not sinned against you at all, then all the irony falls on you and everything can supremely backfire on you. Because if you’re wrong about the person, then Matthew 18 can very well be applied to you. So be sure that the brother or sister in view actually sinned against you. Our Lord Jesus Christ has not authorized us to enact the steps of Matthew 18 if there is no sin in view.
The second key to this first step is to be ready to confess sin of your own to the brother or sister in view.
Let us be really honest with ourselves. In so many cases of relational conflicts, both sides have sinned against each other. More often than not, if someone has sinned against you, you have also sinned against that someone. If that is the case, then there is other Scripture, Matthew 5 to be exact, where Christ commands us to go an be reconciled if a brother or sister has something against us. In other words, if you’re going to apply Matthew 18 on someone, go also in the spirit of Matthew 5. And be prepared to confess your own sins before asking that brother or sister to confess their sins.
Jesus’ second step is in verse 16. This is what he says: “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
If step one does not work, then things begin to get more serious. In step two, other people get involved - people who can provide witness to the sin done against you. By the way, our Lord Jesus Christ continues a principle here that he put into place for Israel of old in Detueronomy 19. Hopefully, the believer in view comes to his or her senses and realizes the seriousness and the reality of his or her sin when more than one person is approaching them about their sin.
If the believer in view does not, then you are to take the matter to the church. And if the believer in view does not turn before the church, then you are to treat the person as a non-believer, with the hope that the person really is a believer and that he or she will turn back from this final and super serious action of excommunication from the church.
All of this can be a very difficult process. But notice that Christ our King attaches a wonderful promise to this second step and beyond.
In verse 20, he says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
This verse is one of the most misunderstood in all of Scripture. This verse does not mean that you need two or three with you in order to worship God. This verses does not mean that Jesus is not there with you in step one of Matthew 18.
This verse means that when sin is being dealt with, when two or three witnesses are doing step two of Matthew 18, Jesus will be there. It means that this is Jesus’ step. It means that Jesus will be perfectly and sovereignly involved in this process of conflict resolution.
These are his commands. And if a brother or sister does not listen, if nothing comes of step one, then be comforted and know that Christ will be with you each and every step in the process as you move forward to regain and win over your brother or sister.
Remember, this is his process. This is the visible way in which he rules and commands the church. This is the visible way in which he cares for and loves the church. What a wonderful promise from our King!
I’d like to answer two big “what if” question before I close.
One common question that gets raised is this: What if the person sins against me and listens and repents and then sins against me and does this over and over again? Do I continue to start over each and every time with step one? Or after a certain number of cycles, can I just start with step two and beyond?
The interesting thing about this “what if” is that Peter asks this same question right after tonight’s passage!
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
So the answer is no. If a believer sins against you over and over again but repents before you over and over again but then sins again and repents again and keeps doing it over and over agin, you are never authorized to go to step two!
Now, if you think that is ridiculous, then consider the fact that you’ve probably repeatedly committed the same sin against your parents throughout your life. Yet I do not believe any of your parents have pushed hard for your excommunication.
If you think that is ridiculous, then consider the fact that you’ve probably repeatedly committed the same sins against God throughout your life. If you don’t think it is right to forgive your brother or sister over and over again, then let’s be consistent: God should stop forgiving you too then I guess. Let’s be consistent: all of us are well past steps three and four. We all should have been excommunicated a long time ago.
If a brother sins against you and listens and repents and then sins against you and does it over and over again, then go to him alone over and over again and tell him his fault over and over again so that he can listen to you over and over again and so that hopefully you can gain your brother over and over again.
You see, you have to understand something here. Sanctification is often very, very slow. Believers in Christ change, but more often than not, they change very, very slowly.
Christ our King feeds and grows the church. And as a pastor, I’ve come to realize that his change doesn’t often happen in a matter of minutes or hours or days. His change often happens in a matter of weeks and months and years. And I’ve come to realize that more often than not, believers need second and third and fourth and fifth and twentieth and chances. Believers need practice. And the Lord’s timing is good. Can you handle the reality of Christ’s sanctification? I hope so.
Here’s another common question: What if the person in question is really not a believer in Christ? Should we just skip to the fourth and final step? The answer is no. We need to take people’s confession of faith as is and not play God and judge whether or not people are the true elect that make up the invisible church. Matthew 18 places us firmly in the realm of the visible church. We simply do not know what God knows. We do not know the eternal destination of others. There are so many believers who go to church but don’t seem like believers for a long time. Sometimes they even leave the church. But then they come back and listen and are gained and won back to the church. We are not God. Do not treat people as non-believers until after step four. How would you like it if the church quickly jumped to the conclusion that you’re not a real Christian and cast you out?
In closing, let us obey and do the commands of our Lord in Matthew 18. But make no mistake, the ultimate goal is not to merely do Matthew 18 correctly. That would be cold. The ultimate goal is to love others. The ultimate goal is to love the church. And the ultimate goal is to love the one whom the church belongs to: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When we gain a brother or sister, we win a real victory - a victory for Christ and his church. Do not avoid Matthew 18 and be peacebreakers. Be mindful of Matthew 18 and be peacemakers.