One of the more-frequently misapplied passages of Scripture is Matthew 18:20, where the Lord Jesus is recorded as saying: “For where two or three have gathered in My name, I am there in their midst.” Whether this verse is thrown around at a men’s prayer breakfast, a church potluck, or a small group conversation in a living room, the subtle suggestion is that Jesus is not going to bother to show up when one of His followers is flying solo. The transcendent and immanent King of Kings somehow needs at least two Christians gathered—and perhaps three—before He can make His way into their midst.
But is that what Matthew 18:20 is actually communicating? Is this verse about the Lord of the church setting a baseline attendance requirement before He will become involved in the lives of His people? The answer is no. Considered in its context, Matthew 18:20 bookends a section of Scripture which begins five verses earlier, in Matthew 18:15. There, we see Jesus Christ giving directions both to His earliest followers and to the modern church regarding the process of church discipline.
The central proposition of this article is that not only is church essential (a phrase that was birthed, of necessity, in 2020), church discipline is essential. This proposition is supported by the following three pillars of thought.
1. CHURCH DISCIPLINE IS COMMANDED BY CHRIST
To put it plainly, church discipline is essential because Christ commands it. Not only is it true of our Lord that “in Him all things hold together” (Col 2:17), it likewise is true that He is “the head of the body, the church” (Col 2:18). That is to say, at the same time He controls every aspect and dimension of the world He created, He concurrently captains the church for which He died. As such, He has every right, authority, and prerogative to instruct His church as to how she should function, whether in worship, in preaching, in serving, in giving, in practicing the various “one anothers,” and, yes, in addressing and confronting sin.
Which brings us back to church discipline. The Lord Jesus Christ has laid out for us, in Matthew 18:15-20, exactly how He wants sin to be dealt with in His church. He has set forth in these six verses the following four-step process by which churches not only of the apostolic era, but in the present day, are to address sin in the church.
Step One. According to Christ, when someone is in sin in the church, he is to be confronted privately, in a one-on-one context. In the words of our Lord: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matt 18:15). In most cases, church discipline matters end here. Because the sinning brother is approached with charity, concern, and love, oftentimes forgiveness is sought and extended, repentance and reconciliation occur, and brothers and sisters in the Lord return to life as normal in the body of Christ. While this first step will resolve most cases, this is not universally true, which explains the need for a second step.
Step Two. The second step, which only becomes necessary if a sinning brother or sister “does not listen to you” (Matt 18:16), involves taking “one or two more with you” (which is where the reference to “two or three gathering” in verse 20 comes from). At this stage, the additional “one or two” are brought in to serve as witnesses to the attempts that are being made to call the sinning brother or sister to repent of his or her sin and to be restored to fellowship in the church. If not at step one, many cases of church discipline will end here, at step two. But not all of them, which necessitates moving on to the third step.
Step Three. After one member—and then two or three members—of the church call on the sinning brother or sister to repent, if he or she remains in an unrepentant state, the next step involves “telling it to the church” (Matt 18:17). At this stage, the entire church membership becomes involved by way of a public declaration to the church that, notwithstanding multiple calls to repentance, “Brother X” or “Sister Y” is in unrepentant sin. The church at large is then encouraged to pursue their sinning brother or sister and urge them to repent. Certain church discipline cases will end here, after the church at large, functioning as a broad-based and broken-hearted search party, brings one of their straying members back into the fold. But not all cases will end on such happy terms, which necessitates the fourth and final stage of church discipline.
Step Four. If, after each of the steps listed above are carried out, there still is a lack of repentance on the part of the sinning brother or sister, the fourth step in the church discipline process involves putting him or her outside the church. In the words of our Lord: “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). If steps one through three do not result in repentance and restoration, the sinning brother or sister is no longer considered a “brother” or “sister.” They are put out of the church. They are treated as an unbeliever. They have watched three strikes whiz by, and now they are out and walking back into the dugout (translate: back into the world). They are delivered over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh (1 Cor 5:5).
Note that Christ’s words concerning the four-step process of church discipline are not divine suggestions, strong recommendations, or hopeful words of optimism. Far from it. Rather, the words of Christ in Matthew 18 are laced with forceful imperative statements – “go,” “show,” “take,” “tell” – meaning that Christ here is not laying out a “honey-do” list of items He would like His church to get around to eventually. Instead, these verses record the Lord issuing commands to His church, which He expects will be obeyed.
Church discipline, then, is essential because the Lord commands it. Jesus Christ has declared church discipline to be essential, and churches must treat the process accordingly by committing themselves (and training their people) to follow the steps mentioned above.
2. CHURCH DISCIPLINE DEMONSTRATES RESTORATIVE LOVE
Some of the commonly-asserted objections to a church’s institution of discipline proceedings are that the process is harsh, slanderous, and designed to unfairly kick people out of the church. The thread weaving each of these objections together is the assumption that church discipline proceedings stem from a lack of love – specifically, a lack of love toward the person facing discipline.
Nothing could be further from the truth. At its core, church discipline stems from the love concerned members and leaders of a church have for their sinning brother or sister. Heeding the words of 1 Corinthians 16:14 – “Let all that you do be done in love” – those who pursue any of the four steps of church discipline are to do so with a deep, even-if-unrequited love for their sinning brother or sister, and with an earnest desire to see their brother or sister restored to fellowship in the body of Christ as they repent of the sin which has ensnared them.
Indeed, Scripture testifies extensively to the tightly-woven connection that exists between love and discipline. Consider Proverbs 3:11-12: “My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord or loathe His reproof, for whom the Lordloves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.” Or Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Or Hebrews 12:10-11: “but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
As with a father’s discipline of his son, or God’s discipline of His people, church discipline is borne of a deep love for the sinning brother or sister, and an equally-deep desire to see him or her restored, through repentance, to faithful and fruitful service in the body of Christ. Far from seeking to push believers out of the church, the four steps of Matthew 18 have been given to us, in love, as a way to keep Christ’s true sheep – who inevitably will sin (1 John 1:8-10) – in the fold. Alexander Strauch puts it well when he says:
“Love is not just happy smiles or pleasant words. A critical test of genuine love is whether we are willing to confront and discipline those we care for. Nothing is more difficult than disciplining a brother or sister in Christ who is trapped in sin. It is always agonizing work – messy, complicated, often unsuccessful, emotionally exhausting, and potentially divisive. This is why most church leaders avoid discipline at all costs. But that is not love. It is lack of courage and disobedience to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This motivation for church discipline is perhaps no better illustrated than in Jesus’ parable of the straying sheep, which immediately precedes His commands related to church discipline. In that parable, our Lord says: “What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish” (Matt 18:12-14).
Was Jesus painting in this parable a picture of a harsh and unloving shepherd gleefully driving away a lost sheep? No, and in fact, precisely the opposite. Jesus’ parable highlights a shepherd’s loving act of sacrificially going after the one who has strayed. So it is with church discipline. This process, as uncomfortable as it might make us in our flesh, is clearly rooted in love. The Lord is unwilling to lose even one, and neither should we.
Church discipline is essential because it is rooted in love.
3. CHURCH DISCIPLINE PROTECTS THE PURITY OF THE CHURCH
In premarital and marriage counseling settings, faithful pastors and biblical counselors routinely will take their counselees to Ephesians 5:25 in reminding husbands that they are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. While this is a legitimate and appropriate way to counsel a Christian husband, what can get lost in the familiarity of this passage is what comes next. Paul, moved by the Holy Spirit, tells us that Jesus not only loved the church, but also that He “gave Himself up for her, so that that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Eph 5:25-27).
The “He” Paul has in view here is not a twenty-first century husband. Instead, it is Christ. And the “she” Paul speaks of in Ephesians is not just any bride. Rather, the “she” Paul speaks of is the church. And what does Christ want of His Bride? He wants her to be spotless, without wrinkle, and blameless. In other words, Christ did not die for the church so that she would clothe herself in worldly attire. He did not die for His Bride with any sense of tolerance or acceptance of her falling in love with the very world from which He bought and rescued her. To the contrary, Christ wants – indeed, He demands – a holy church.
Church discipline, then, is essential not only because Christ commands it, and not only because of its love-anchored motives, it is essential because of its purifying effect. Just as bleach is an essential component of whitening a stained garment, church discipline is an essential element of purifying a sin-corrupted church.
Writing nearly five hundred years ago, John Calvin highlighted in his Institutes this connection between church discipline and the purity of the church. There, Calvin listed as one of the purposes of church discipline that “the good be not corrupted by the constant company of the wicked, as commonly happens. For (such is our tendency to wander from the way) there is nothing easier than for us to be led away by bad examples from right living.”
Church discipline, then, is essential because it is anchored in Christ’s call for the purity of His bride. A key means by which the Bride of Christ remains pure is by purging, through church discipline, the sin that remains in her midst.
Admittedly, the thought of not only reading about – but practically working through – the steps of church discipline may have the initial effect of making one squirm. Confronting a fellow brother or sister in Christ? Bringing two other Christians to confront them? Making a public statement to the church about a member’s sin? Casting them out of the church and delivering them over to Satan? The thoughts fog up our twenty-first century lenses and grate against our politically-correct sensibilities. They drag us out of our comfort zone. They cause us to think of the countless “what-if” scenarios. “What if they yell at me?” “What if they slam the door in my face?” “What if they turn things around and call me out on my sin?” “What if our church gets sued for airing a member’s ‘dirty laundry’ in a public worship setting?”
As committed followers of Christ, however, we cannot faithfully serve Him by functioning apprehensively in light of the “what-ifs.” We cannot, and must not, be driven by fear of man, circumstances, or outcomes. Rather, we are to reverently honor and fear the Lord by carrying out each of His commands, whether the command is to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20) or to “go,” “show,” “take,” and “tell” (Matt 18:15-17) in pursuing church discipline.
Church discipline is essential. Are you committed to pursuing it?
 Alexander Strauch, Leading with Love (Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers, 2006), 152.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 12:1-13 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007).