Matthew 18:17 MEANING

Matthew 18:17
(17) If he shall neglect to hear them.--Better, refuse, the word implying something more than mere negligence.

Tell it unto the church.--Here, and here only in our Lord's teaching after the promise to Peter (Matthew 16:18), we have the word Ecclesia repeated. The passage takes its place among the most conspicuous instances of the power of a word. Theories of church authority, as exercised by the priesthood, or bishops, or councils, or the personal infallibility of the Bishop of Rome, have been built upon it. The last clause has been made the groundwork of the system of church discipline which loads the heretic with anathemas, excommunicates the evil-doer, places nations under an interdict. It can scarcely be doubted that the current thoughts and language of Englishmen as to ecclesiastical discipline would have been very different, if instead of "tell it unto the church," "if he neglect to hear the church," we had had the word "congregation." And yet this, or some such word (say "assembly" or "society"), is confessedly the true meaning of the Greek, and was the rendering of all the English versions, from Tyndale onwards, till the Rhemish translators introduced "church," and were followed by the Authorised version.

So understood, the words point to the final measures for the reformation of the offender, and the vindication of the divine law of righteousness. When the two forms of private remonstrance have failed, the case is to be brought before the society at large. The appeal is to be made not to the rulers of the congregation, but to the congregation itself, and the public opinion of the Ecclesia is to be brought to bear upon the offender. Should he defy that opinion and persist in his evil doing, he practically excommunicates himself. All societies are justified in excluding from their communion one who repudiates the very conditions of membership; and his being regarded as "a heathen and a publican" is but the legitimate consequence of his own act. Even here, however, we can hardly think of our Lord as holding up the Pharisees' way of acting towards "the heathen and the publican" as a pattern for imitation. They were to be made to feel that they were no longer within the inner circle of brotherhood, but they were still men, and, as such, entitled to courtesy and all kindly offices. St. Paul's teaching as to the treatment of the incestuous adulterer in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 2 Corinthians 2:6-7, and of fornicators generally in 1 Corinthians 6:1-7, may be referred to as a practical illustration of the meaning of our Lord's words.

It is obvious that the rule, as such, presupposes a small society, in the midst of a greater outside world, able to deal thus minutely with the offences of individual members. With the extension of the society, so that the church and the world became conterminous and hardly distinguishable, it was natural, perhaps, that it should follow the course of other human societies, and transfer its jurisdiction from the "congregation," or "assembly," to individual judges as its representatives. And so it was that, in the long-run, the bishops took the place of the congregation, and exercised its functions. So long as they were really in harmony with the mind of the church at large, this might work well enough, but there was the risk of their "lording it over God's heritage" (1 Peter 5:3); and, in any case, there was the loss of that activity of the reason and conscience of the society which the original form of polity implied, and of which St. Paul's appeal to its judgment as against the inconsistency of the chief of the Apostles, is a very striking instance (Galatians 2:11). How far that can be revived is one of the hard questions of our own time and, perhaps, of all times. The end may have to be attained by very different means. We cannot inform the Universal or the National Church of the misdeeds of each individual member. Practically, to submit them formally to the judgments even of the smaller society of the town or village to which the offender belonged, would not be workable. Possibly, the solution of the problem may be found in remembering that in a Christian nation the Church and the State, as far as morality is concerned, tend, in spite of doctrinal divisions, to be, as was said, conterminous, and hence that we are fulfilling the spirit of our Lord's commands when, after all private remonstrances have failed to check the evil, we appeal to the public opinion of Christians in the neighbourhood, larger and smaller, which is affected by it. How this is to be done will vary with the varying circumstances of each individual case, but it is no idle paradox to say that as society is now constituted, the most effective way of "telling the church" may sometimes be to appeal to that public opinion as represented by lawful courts, or otherwise impartially expressed.

Verse 17. - Tell it unto the Church (τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ). This is the third step to take. Our Lord is contemplating a visible society, possessed of certain powers of discipline and correction, such as we find in the history of the apostolic Church (see 1 Corinthians 5:1, etc.; 1 Corinthians 6:1, etc.; 1 Timothy 1:20). Christ had already spoken of his Ecclesia in his commendation of Peter's great confession (Matthew 16:18); so the twelve were prepared for this use of the word, and would not confound the body here signified with the Jewish synagogue. To the latter the expressions in vers. 18-20 could not apply. The custom and order of procedure in the synagogue would afford an idea of what the Lord meant; but the congregation intended was to be composed of Christians. the followers of Christ, who were delivered from the narrowness of rabbinical rules and definitions. The institution of ecclesiastical tribunals has been referred to this passage, but, as understood by the apostles, it would denote, not so much ecclesiastical rulers as the particular congregation to which the delinquent belonged; and the offence for which he is denounced is some private scandal or quarrel. The course of proceeding enjoined would be impracticable in a large and widely extended community, and could not be applied under our present circumstances. If he neglect to hear the Church. Now comes the final stage in corrective discipline. An heathen man (ὁ ἐθνικὸς, the Gentile) and a publican (ὁ τελώνης, the publican). The class, not the individual, is meant. If he turns a deaf ear to the authoritative reproof of the Church, let him be regarded no longer as a brother, but as a heathen and an outcast. Christ, without endorsing the Jews' treatment of Gentiles and publicans, acknowledges the fact, and uses it as an illustration. The obdurate offender must be deprived of Church membership, and treated as those without the Jewish pale were commonly treated. The traditional law enjoined that a Hebrew might not associate, eat, or travel with a heathen, and that if any Jew took the office of publicans, he was to be virtually excommunicated. In later times, there naturally arose in the Christian Church the punishment of offenders by means of exclusion from holy communion, and excommunication. But even in this extreme case charity will not regard the sinner as hopelessly lost; it will seek his salvation by prayer and entreaty.

18:15-20 If a professed Christian is wronged by another, he ought not to complain of it to others, as is often done merely upon report, but to go to the offender privately, state the matter kindly, and show him his conduct. This would generally have all the desired effect with a true Christian, and the parties would be reconciled. The principles of these rules may be practised every where, and under all circumstances, though they are too much neglected by all. But how few try the method which Christ has expressly enjoined to all his disciples! In all our proceedings we should seek direction in prayer; we cannot too highly prize the promises of God. Wherever and whenever we meet in the name of Christ, we should consider him as present in the midst of us.And if he shall neglect to hear them,.... The one or two, in conjunction with the offended person that shall hear the ease, and admonish and reprove; if he takes no notice of what they say to him, but remains stiff and impenitent, tell it unto the church: which some understand, of the or "multitude", before whom it was lawful to reprove, after such private methods had been taken: others, the political magistrates, or sanhedrim; who took cognizance of cases between one person and other, either by themselves, or messengers; and gave admonitions and reproofs, as to parents, when they did not provide for their families (x), and to wives that were perverse, and provoked their husbands (y), &c. others, of the presbyters and governors of the Christian church; others, of the church itself, and so the Ethiopic version renders it, "the house of Christians"; to which it is objected, that as yet a Christian church was not formed: but what were the twelve apostles of the Lamb? They were the great congregation and church, in the midst of which Christ sung praise to his Father: and since the whole of this advice, and these excellent rules are given to them, and they are spoken of in the next verse, as having the power of binding and loosing, they may well be thought to be meant here; and that the design of Christ is, to instruct them how to behave, in case of offence to one another; that the reproof should be first private, and if it did not succeed, to be made before one or two more; and if that did not do, the whole body was to be acquainted with it; and which rules hold good, and are to be observed by all Christian men and churches, in all ages: though no doubt but allusion is made to the Jewish customs, in rebuking before the multitude, or carrying of a private case, after all other means used were ineffectual, to the sanhedrim.

But if he neglect to hear the church: the advice they should give unto him, the reproof they should think proper for him, or the censure they should pass upon him,

let him be unto thee as an heathen man, and a publican. This is not a form of excommunication to be used among Christians, nor was there ever any such form among the Jews; nor could Heathens or publicans, especially such publicans as were Gentiles, be excommunicated, when they never were of the Jewish church.

"A religious person indeed, that becomes a collector of taxes, they first said, is to be driven from the society; but they afterwards said, all the time that he is a tax gatherer, they drive him from the society; but when he goes out of his office, lo! he is as a religious person (z).''

But one that never was of a religious society, could not be driven out of it. And besides, this is given, not as a rule to the church, but as advice to the offended person, how to behave towards the offender: after he has come under the cognizance, reproof, and censure of the church, he is to look upon him as the Jews did one that disregarded both private reproof by a man's self, and that which was in the presence of one or two more, , "a worthless friend", or neighbour; as a Gentile, with whom the Jews had neither religious nor civil conversation; and a "publican", or as Munster's Hebrew Gospel reads it, "a notorious sinner", as a publican was accounted: hence such are often joined together, and with whom the Jews might not eat, nor keep any friendly and familiar acquaintance: 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.

(x) Maimon Hilehot Ishot, c. 12. sect. 14. (y) Ib. c. 14. sect. 9. & Moses Kotsensis Mitzvot Tora, pr. neg. 81. (z) T. Hieros. Demai, fol. 23. 1.

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