Sermon: Excommunication: The Process And It’s Implications: Matthew 18:15–20


“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. 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 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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:15–20, ESV).


It should be clear to the members of Emmaus as to why we have broken from our study of the book of Revelation to consider again the topic of church discipline with special attention given to the issue of excommunication.

Three months ago we held a congregational meeting to, among other things, present one of our members to the church for discipline. Today we’ve called for another congregational meeting with the intent of bringing that discipline case to a conclusion by way of excommunication.

Brothers and sisters, excommunication is a very serious thing. It is a weighty matter, one that we do not take lightly. There is great power in the act of excommunication. When Christ spoke of the decision of the church to excommunicate he said,

“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:18–20, ESV).

Please recognize that when a church excommunicates one of it’s members according to the command of Christ there is spiritual and heavenly power in it. Whatever we bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (that is assuming that what we have bound and loosed has been bound and loosed according to the truth of God’s word, and not according to the inventions of man). There is great power in the act of excommunication, friends. How important it is, therefore, that we understand what excommunication is. And once we have understood it, how important it is that we wield this weapon with great precision, caution, and care.

Perhaps you have noticed that I have used the first person plural pronoun “we” a lot in this introduction. That is very intentional, for it is we the church who have the power to excommunicate. It is not we the elders alone; it is not we the elders and deacons alone; and it is not you the members alone; but we the church who have the power to excommunicate. It is the whole church – the officers and members together, each group doing their part – who has the power to excommunicate. How important is, therefore, that we understand what excommunication is. And, once we have understood it, how important it is that we wield this weapon with great precision, caution, and care.

So what is excommunication? Excommunication is the disciplinary action of a local church to remove one of its members from the membership on the basis of his or her stubborn disobedience to the commands of Christ, or divisive distortions of the doctrines of Christ. It is the end of the disciplinary process. It declares that although the person may profess Christ with his or her mouth, they have denied him by their way of life. Excommunication, therefore, puts to an end all of the benefits of Christian fellowship for the one excommunicated. It also puts and end the obligations of the Church as it pertains to the care of the persons soul.

Excommunication is the word that we use to describe what Christ stated in Matthew 18:17, saying, “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” (Matthew 18:17, ESV). To excommunicate is to put a person out of the church and into the world, for his or her unrepentant way of life has made it plain that that is where he or she belongs – in the world and not in the church.

Excommunication is the word that we use to describe what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5. To the church in Corinth he wrote, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man [this proud and stubbornly unrepentant sinner] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:4–5, ESV). To “deliver a man to Satan” is to put a man out of the church, which is the kingdom of God, and into the realm of Satan, namely the world. Notice that the goal of excommunication is “the destruction of the flesh”, that is, the destruction of his sinful way of life,  “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”. The goal of excommunication is still repentance. Our prayer for the excommunicated one is, Lord save them. Bring them to repentance. May they repent, believe upon Christ, and walk according to his ways, bearing fruit in keeping with repentance.    

Excommunication is what the church must do if she is to obey the commands of scripture. Christ clearly commanded that put out from our midst the unrepentant sinner. Paul also says so. He states things most strongly in 1 Corinthians 5, which I have already made reference to. That chapter concludes with these words:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you’” (1 Corinthians 5:9–13, ESV).

That phrase, “purge the evil person from among you” is an interesting one. It is clearly an allusion to many Old Testament passages that warned Old Covenant Israel to get rid of the sinner, lest sin spread amongst the people of God. “Purge the evil from your midst”, or “purge the evil from Israel” is a phrase found, for example in Deuteronomy 13:5,17:7, 17:12, 21:2; 22:21, 22, 22:24 and Judges 20:13. How was Old Covenant, nationalistic Israel to purge the evil person from their midst? Not by excommunication, but by execution. When Paul uses the phrase “purge the evil person from among you” to sum up what he has to say about excommunication the clear implication is that what execution was to Old Covenant national and fleshly Israel, excommunication is to the New Covenant, multiethnic and spiritual Israel, that is, the church. The nation of Israel was to be vigilant in their pursuit and promotion of holiness. The most potent weapon in their fight against lawlessness was the sword. The church is also to pursue holiness.  See too is to “purge the evil person from among” her. But her weapon is not the sword, but the word and Spirit. She does not have the power to execute, but to excommunicate. “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3–4, ESV). Excommunication is not a physical weapon, but a spiritual one. What we bind on earth is bound in heaven, Christ says. There is spiritual power in the act of excommunication when we agree with one another on earth in Christ’s name.

Here is the obvious principle communicated in each of these passages that seems to be ignored in so many of our churches today: Christ’s church is to pursue holiness. We are to pursue holiness individually, but also corporately. The object of the church should not be to grow big, but to grow in a way that is holy and true according to the scriptures. Those are two goals that are very different. They produce two very different kinds of churches. Holiness matters, friends. If it were so then how could Paul use such strong language, saying, “purge the evil person from among you”?

It is true, we are saved by grace! It is true, God has poured out his love upon us in Christ Jesus! It is true, we are not saved by the keeping of God’s law, but through faith in Christ alone. These are precious truths that we must remember and never forget! But we must also remember that we have been redeemed, not to serve self, but Christ. We are slaves, not to sin, but to Christ! The law no longer stands over us to condemn us, for Christ has obeyed the law for us. But that does not mean that we are lawless. No, God’s law is still to be followed. We are to keep it, not for salvation, but to the glory of God and for our good.

What did Christ say? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15, ESV). Christianity is not legalistic, but neither is it lawless!

Listen to the promise of the New Covenant from Jeremiah 31 and see that the New Covenant cannot be lawless:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31–34, ESV).

The church is to pursue holiness, friends. The church is to be a disciplined organization – one that has standards for entrance, one that is active in the maintenance of it’s membership, and one that has the right of excommunication should those standards be violated in an unrepentant way. The standards are not man’s standards, but Christ’s – how important that principle is! But there are standards for membership in Christ’s church , namely faith in Christ and a way of life that is consistent with that profession of faith. The Christian life is to be marked by repentance. The Christian life is to be lived in obedience to God’s law, for it has been written on the Christians heart. The Christian is to pursue holiness in a disciplined way.


Matthew 18 is all about discipline. It’s all about the process by which holiness is to be pursued  within the church. And there is a clear progression to it. There is to be self discipline. After that, mutual discipline. After that church discipline. Then lastly, excommunication. If a church is committed to carrying out this process according to the way of Christ it will go a long way to advance her fight against sin.

Self Discipline

Notice, first of all, that Christians are to constantly discipline themselves. Here I am referring to the individual’s commitment to examine themselves according to the word, to confess particular sins as sin, and to turn from them. This is to happen moment by moment, day by day, Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day.

Look with me at Matthew 18:7:

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Matthew 18:7–9, ESV).

The language is exaggerated. Christ does not really want you to cut off or pluck out body parts. What’s the point? Identify sin (how can you do that if you do not have a law by which to examine yourself?). And once you have identified it, do what you need to do to overcome it.

Confess it as sin. Resolve to turn from it. Pray that the Lord give you victory. Go to the word of God for help. Go to your brothers and sisters for help. Go to your pastors for help. Remove the source of temptation, if possible. Do everything in your power and in full dependence upon Christ to fight against that sin. That is what Christ is calling you to do. The language is exaggerated in order to get your attention concerning the seriousness of the matter. Don’t play with sin. Turn from every sin quickly and fully. Examine your thoughts, words, and deed against the backdrop of God law, and repent whenever you are found to be in sin.

Christians are to constantly discipline themselves. If everyone did, there would never be church discipline nor excommunication.

Mutual Discipline

Sometimes mutual discipline is required. This is what Christ describes in Matthew 18:15:

“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. 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” (Matthew 18:15–16, ESV).

Notice that mutual discipline is to happen in two stages.

First, if a brother or sister sins and you know about it you are to go to them alone to them their fault. “Brother, you have sinned offended me with your words”, or “Sister, you are sinning and it is bringing shane to the name of Christ”, or “dear friend, you are sinning and it will lead to your destruction if you do not turn”. This is the kind of a face to face meeting that needs to take place first. Hopefully the brother or sister will listen and repent. If they do, you have gained them – you have been used by God to bring them back from their wandering.

If they do not listen you are to take one or two others along with you. The reasons for this should be obvious. One, the thought of gathering one or two others to confront the unrepentant one should make you pause to ask the question, is the person really sinning or am I just being petty? Do you see how that would be? When you bring one or two others along you are not only inviting them to inspect the one that you think is in sin, but also you. Maybe you are wrong. Maybe you have misunderstood. Maybe you don’t have the full story. Others can help you see more clearly if you are indeed in error. Two, if the person is indeed in sin that charge needs to be established by more than one witness.  The principle is stated in Deuteronomy 17:6: “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness” (Deuteronomy 17:6, ESV). It was true in civil cases involving capital punishment in Israel, and it is true concerning discipline within the church. Charges must be “established by the evidence of two or three witnesses”.

This is mutual discipline. First, it is to happen one to one. Second, if there is no repentance one or two others are to be brought along to serve as witnesses. The standard by which we judge is God’s word, not the traditions of men. The goal is repentance. The motivation is love for God and Christ, his church, and the one who has been caught up in sin.

Church Discipline

If mutual discipline fails, church discipline is required. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church”, Christ says (Matthew 18:17, ESV).

When Christ said “tell it to the church” he was anticipating the church that would be born after his death and resurrection and after Pentecost. The book of Acts tells us all about the founding of the church. The letters of Paul instruct us concerning the church. Clearly Jesus had in mind local congregations consisting of officers and members, that is, elders, deacons, and congregants.

If the mutual discipline does not bring about repentance the matter must be brought to the church. It is natural for the matter to be brought first to the elders of the church, since they are tasked with the leadership and shepherding of the flock, but they are to bring the matter to the body if indeed there is one on their members who is stubbornly unrepentant, living in a way contrary to the word of God. The matter is to be told to the whole church – not just the elders, not just some within the church, but the whole church. The church, having heard the matter, is to then call the unrepentant one to repentance with one voice.


“And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17, ESV). Here is what we call excommunication.

Do you see, brothers and sisters, how serious the church is to be in it’s quest for purity?

None of us are perfect. If perfection were the standard for coming into the church and remaining in the church, there would be no church. None of us are perfect. But the the church is to be distinct from the world. The church is the assembly of the redeemed. The church is the bride of Christ. The church is the house of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. The church is to marked by holiness. The church made up of those who have faith in Christ. And true faith produces obedience. True faith involves repentance.

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:9–12, ESV).

No one here is perfect. But if you are a member of Emmaus that means you have professed faith in Christ and it is expected that you will indeed walk with Christ in way that is consistent with your profession of faith. If you will not, then it is only right that we excommunicate in obedience to the scriptures.


So I have again outlined the discipline process for you. The church is to be a disciplined organization. If self discipline fails, there must be mutual discipline. If mutual discipline fails, there must be church discipline. If church discipline fails, there is no other option except to excommunicate.

Another way to think of discipline is in four stages. One, go to your brother or sister alone if he has sinned. Two, take one or two with you. Three, tell it to the church. Four, the church is to excommunicate if each of these stages fails to bring about repentance. Repentance at any stage would end the process. Repentance would require forgiveness from the one offended, and restoration of the repentant. No repentance requires excommunication. The hope after excommunication is that unrepentant one would repent and come to believe in Christ truly.

I would like to briefly draw your attention to some of the implications of texts like Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. By “implications” I mean that although Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 do not state these principles directly they must be so given what is clearly said.

First of all, these passages imply that the church is a local assembly made up of people who have professed faith in Christ and have willingly joined. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 command us to put a person out of the congregation if they fail to live out the Christians faith. But could you possibly put a person out of something that they have not willing joined? It would be strange, wouldn’t it, to receive a letter in the mail informing you that you had been kicked out of a club that you never joined? I think this is a problem for our Paedobaptist friends who make their children to be a part of the church at birth – they did not willingly join. It is also a problem for churches that are closely associated with a particular culture or state. There have been, and even are, places in the world where to be born into a particular country means to be born into a particular church. We say no. The church is local assembly made up of people who have professed faith in Christ and have willingly joined

Similarly, these passages also imply the need for local church membership. There must be some way for local churches to identify who is it that belongs to them. Who is a part of them? Who are the pastors responsible for? Who is subject to the discipline process that we have outlined above? For how could a church ever exercise church discipline, much less excommunication, without first knowing who it’s member are? I can’t even begin to imagine how this would work. If it is true that you can only put out those who have come in, then there must be a way to come in! This is what we call membership! It is the process by which those who profess faith in Christ join themselves to a local congregation. The membership process, whatever it looks like, must be clear, consistent, and deeply biblical.

A local church needs to know who it is that is joining them. Are they Christian? Do they understand and believe in the gospel? Are they living in a way that is consistent with their profession of faith? In other words, do they make a credible profession of faith? There is no way to know for sure, but we must try to receive true Christians! It would be awkward to carelessly receive members only to have to immediately intact discipline, don’t you agree?!

Also, the person joining needs to know what they are joining. They must ask, what are the beliefs of this church? What are the expectations? And of course the beliefs and the expectations of the church must not be unique from church to church – they must not be the inventions of man – but biblical. The local church is obligated to teach and defended God’s word, not their own. The local church is obligated to encourage a biblical way of life amongst it’s members. The pastors work is ministerial. The pastor is to serve Christ. He is to uphold God’s word within the church. We do not have the freedom to invent doctrines or to make laws. We only have the power to teach what has already been written and to uphold God’s laws. But the one joining the church must know these things. They must know what they are joining themselves to. The must join willingly and knowingly.

There are a lot of educators in my family. From time to time I’ll hear of a student who has been expelled from the school. But what happened before that child was expelled? Did they not first enroll in that school? Were the expectations of the school not first communicated to him? Did not the teacher go over the class rules on the first day of school? Certainly! For it was only after the repeated and willful breaking of those stated rules that the child was could be expelled. He joined willingly and knowingly, and he was removed having failed to uphold the standards of that institution.

Churches without formal membership are destined to be disorderly churches. They cannot excommunicate in obedience to the command of Christ for no one has ever joined! People attend those church, they do not join! You see the difference, don’t you? Friends, you do not go to church – you are the church! You are members of the body of Christ. The “pastors” of these churches without membership are destined to become, not pastors, but only preachers. People will come to listen to them, they do not expect to be shepherded by them, for they have not become a part of anything, they only attend something.

Actually, I would argue that most of the churches who say, “we don’t believe in formal membership” really do have a membership process, they just don’t know it. The fact that they are offended by what I just said proves it. “We do pastor”, they would say. “We do more than preach! We shepherd the flock!” Good! I’m glad that you do! But the fact that you say that you do proves that you have some way of determining who is with you and who is not. You do have a “membership process” then. But I would argue that your membership process is secret. It exists within the minds of the pastors and members. No one agrees upon what exactly it is but everyone agrees that at some point a person transitions from being a visiter to a member of that church. Where that line is is unclear, but there must be a line. Is it when the person fills out a communication card for the third time? Is it when they have come for a year? Is it when they begin to give? Who knows? What I do know is that a church that handles membership in this way will be disorderly and will rarely, if ever exercise discipline. How could they? The careless way in which members are brought in makes it nearly impossible to put them out with any sort of authority.

Let me emphasize the main point again before moving on. Local churches must have a way to answer the question, “who is a part of us?” That process should be clear, consistent, and deeply biblical. The standards for membership in the local church must be exactly the standards set forth in the scriptures – not less, and not more. Faith in Christ is required. Baptism is required. Living in a way consisted with your profession of faith is required. The membership process, what ever it looks like, is there to make sure these things are so in the life of the applicant. The process is also there  so that the applicant has an opportunity to really get to know the church, to understand it’s doctrine and it government.

Thirdly, these passages imply that local churches should respect one another in discipline cases. Here is what I mean by respect. I mean that if a person comes to them and it is discovered that they are under discipline or have been excommunicated from another church, that new church is obligated to either uphold the decision of the original church straight away or to investigate the discipline case themselves, if they feel there is reason to do so. Both of these actions would be respectful.

To say to the one under discipline – “you are not welcome here. Repent of your sin, go back to your church and make things right with them before moving on”,would obviously be respectful of the original congregations authority (authority given to them by Christ, mind you!). But if it seems to the new church as if discipline was not done properly at the original church, it would be respectful for the new church to investigate the matter. It would be right for them to say to the original church, “so and so has come to us. He says that you handled the discipline badly. Out of respect for you we are coming to you to investigate the claim. May we speak to those who witnessed the matter?” It may be that they uphold the decision or oppose it. But if they oppose it, they should really oppose it! They should make their decision having thoroughly investigated the matter. But to receive a person in who is under discipline or who has been excommunicated from another local church without any real consideration given to the decision of the original church is most disrespectful. Also, it puts that new church at risk and brings shame upon them and the name of Christ, for they have most likely received an unrepentant sinner into their midst. They have forgotten that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6, ESV). In due time that unrepentant sinner will have his negative effect upon that new and undiscerning congregation. The cancer is now theirs to deal with.

Fourthly, these passages imply that both law and gospel are to be active within Christ’s church. The good news – the gospel – is that Christ has died for us and that we are forgiven of all our sins by his grace alone and through faith alone. Nothing we do can contribute to our salvation in any way. But that does not mean that the Christian life is a lawless one. God’s law has been written on our hearts, if we have truly been regenerated. We have been freed from sin and are now slaves of Christ. If we love him we will keep his commandments. Therefore, anyone who is says, “I love Christ”, while actively sinning in a stubborn and unrepentant way shows by his actions that he does not know Christ truly.

Fifthly and lastly, these passages imply the church is to be filled to the brim and overflowing with love and forgiveness.

There is has been so much talk today about discipline, confrontation, and even excommunication. These things are negative things when considered by themselves. But what motivates us to do it? Why would we even think about following the process that Christ and his Apostles have set forth? Is it not our love for God and Christ that compels us? Is it not our love for the church, which is the bride of Christ? And are we not moved by our love for one another? Why would we possibly take the time and invest the energy into this were it not because we love one another deeply? Trust me, there are easier ways to do church. I understand why people are tempted to go to a church rather than be a part of one. I know why pastors stop being pastors and become only preaches instead. Preaching is kind of enjoyable. It’s clean and somewhat of a glamorous task. Pastoring is hard and messy, especially when it comes to discipline. Why do it? Is it not because we love one another?

If we are going to confront sin in others we must be moved to do so by love, and we must stand ready to forgive. The hope is that the person will repent, and if they repent we must extend forgiveness! This means that we must have already forgiven them in the heart!

Peter understood this. After he heard Jesus teaching on discipline here is the question he asked: “‘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’” (Matthew 18:21–22, ESV), and then we have that powerful parable of the unforgiving servant.

How important it is that we be filled to the brim and overflowing with love and forgiveness. We may do church discipline, but we will not do it well if we are not moved by love standing ready to forgive should the one who has sinned repent.

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