Question & Answer Forum

Does Matthew 18, verses 15 to 20 deal with an interpersonal problem?

“If thy brother trespass against thee” clearly seems to involve a trespass against an individual. However many translations and most of the manuscripts from which our translations come either omit “against thee” or note that it may not have been in the original writings.

Rather than leaving us in confusion, this calls for greater care in understanding the passage. If “against thee” belongs in the passage, the Lord is instructing an individual who has been injured by another’s sin. If “against thee” was not in the Lord’s teaching, the teaching is more general and addresses one who is concerned about his brother who has strayed. Actually, the context, an important aid in interpreting any passage, supports either possibility.

Consider the first possibility (“if thy brother trespass against thee”). At the beginning of the chapter (vv. 1-4), the Lord states the requirement for entering the kingdom. Apart from the simplicity, lowliness, and dependence that characterizes a child, no one will enter the kingdom. These who thus enter are like the One Who is meek and lowly (v. 4; 11:29); He identifies them with Himself. They are of inestimable worth to Him. Unbelievers who harm them face severe judgment, for He came to save them (vv. 6-11). As dependent as children and defenseless as sheep, His own have His protection against unbelievers who wrong them. But what if another believer wrongs his brother (not now pictured as a child or sheep)? The Lord has given full administrative authority to His own – to the assembly – to protect such a wronged brother.

Consider the second possibility (“if thy brother trespass”). In verses 11 through 14, the Lord shows that both He and His Father have shepherd hearts in their concern for these “little ones.” How suitable that one who belongs to this family should be like the Father and His Son and should persistently seek the recovery of his sinning and straying brother!

This second possibility flows more smoothly since it fits the context of the verses immediately preceding it. Furthermore, this second view includes the first view. The straying brother’s sin may be an interpersonal problem, but it is not limited to that. It includes other kinds of sins.

D. Oliver

How can we apply the teaching in this passage to interpersonal problems?

Some principles from this passage apply to resolving an interpersonal problem. However, because all Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16), the application of this passage must be in harmony with the truth in all the Scriptures (Psa 119:160).

If this passage teaches us how to pursue the redress of wrongs against us, it stands alone in the New Testament. When a brother wrongs us, the Lord teaches us to convince him of his wrong (Luke 17:3, 4). If he repents, we are to forgive, even when his expressed repentance seems questionable. Apart from that, the New Testament teaches us to be kind, forbearing, forgiving, and concerned toward those who wrong us (e.g.: 1 Co 6:7). In fact, the remainder of Matthew 18 advocates unlimited forgiveness and shows how inconsistent it is for those whom God has forgiven to exact redress for wrongs others do to them.

In light of this, several limitations guard how these verses apply to resolving interpersonal disputes. First, the primary goal is gaining the brother. To use this passage to demand redress (v. 28) violates the clear statements of the Lord (vv. 22-35).

Maintaining these truths balances the application of this passage to interpersonal problems.Focus on the purpose: to gain your brother. Keep it private: “between thee and him alone.” Many personal, family, and financial issues should never be repeated to the church. They will create factions among believers. If the matter does not affect the testimony of the assembly or clearly cross a moral boundary God has established, it is not an assembly issue. Perhaps the strongest limitation in applying this passage is that it presents a one-sided problem. Only one party has sinned. That is hardly ever (never?) the case in interpersonal problems; both have in some way contributed to the wrong. In the presence of the Light of the World, the Holy One to Whom nothing is hidden, he that is without sin in his relationship problems, let him cast the first stone at his erring brother.

D. Oliver

What is the main thrust of this passage?

“For” at the beginning of verse 20 indicates that this verse provides the reason for the previous teaching.

How does the Lord provide for the protection of His “little ones?” Is there a place where righteousness reigns? What authority does it have? How will it be able to make right decisions?

The church (v. 17) is the place where His own find ultimate protection. There they can be preserved, corrected, and restored to Him (vv. 15-17). The church is to be a place of impartiality where justice prevails. It has divine authority (v. 18). Obeying His infallible Word and humbly depending on God for guidance (v. 19), it carries out God’s will.

The reason for this is because He dwells there (“there am I”). This is not merely stating that He is present when believers are together. The church (v.17) has the character of the House of God (1Ti 3:15). This is the place of His administration, the “gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17). Here heaven and earth are united in carrying out the will of God (Mat 6:10; 18:18). When the King reigns on earth, He will be the One in Whom this administration centers (John 1:51). Anticipating that, He administers through His own, by His Word, on behalf of His own where two or three are gathered to His name. Here He protects His own and maintains heaven’s righteous standard.

This verse is a powerful statement, giving God’s view of an assembly.

D. Oliver