Because of its detail and sequence, Matthew 18:15-20 has long been recognized as a central passage in dealing with sin, conflict resolution, and discipline in the church. In these verses Jesus provides His disciples a pattern for dealing with a sinning brother, and describes a process to facilitate the desired outcome of a sinning brother’s repentance and restoration. The discussion also considers the undesirable possibility that the sinning brother will not be penitent, and prescribes action to be taken under those less than ideal circumstances.
As this is the only Biblical passage outlining a step-by-step process in the church for dealing with sin, conflict, and discipline, it is regularly applied in churches that hold to Biblical authority. Furthermore, the details provided in the passage help us to assess and measure whether the process has been engaged correctly or not. And that ability to assess and measure is vitally important, because any missteps in applying the process can have profound negative impact not only on the individuals involved, but also on the broader health of the church.
This analysis of Matthew 18:15-20 includes a brief exegesis (employing the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic, which has been, in large part, the church’s historical interpretive method), and a consideration of the present-day implications of Jesus’ teaching on these matters.
Text and Translation
While the New American Standard Bible is a close word-for-word translation from the original Greek New Testament, there are some textual issues we need to consider in these verses before proceeding. For each verse we catalog significant manuscript variants and translation issues (from Greek to English, as represented in the NASB). The earlier readings (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, for example) are given more weight here than are the later, but more numerous manuscripts of the Majority Text in this writer’s translation.
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Mt. 18:15, NASB). Ἐὰν δὲἁμαρτήσῃ [εἰς σὲ] ὁἀδελφός σου, ὕπαγε ἔλεγξον αὐτὸν μεταξὺ σοῦ καὶ αὐτοῦ μόνου. ἐάν σου ἀκούσῃ, ἐκέρδησας τὸν ἀδελφόν σου· 
Sinaiticus and Vaticanus do not include the phrase εἰς σὲ(unto or against you: i.e., if your brother sins against you), though the Majority Text does.
But if sins the brother of you, you go correct him between you and him alone. If you he hears, you have gained the brother of you.
“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (Mt. 18:16, NASB). ἐὰν δὲ μὴἀκούσῃ, παράλαβε μετὰ σοῦἔτι ἕνα ἢ δύο, ἵνα ἐπὶ στόματος δύο μαρτύρων ἢ τριῶν σταθῇ πᾶν ῥῆμα·
The phrase μετὰ σοῦἔτι ἕνα ἢ δύο (with you also one or two) has some minor transposition in P44 and Vaticanus, but is as written above in Sinaiticus and the Majority Text. The phrase δύο μαρτύρων ἢ τριῶν (two witnesses or three) has some slight transposition in Sinaiticus.
But if not he hears, take with you additionally one or two, in order that upon a mouth of two witnesses or three every word is established.
“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” (Mt. 18:17, NASB). ἐὰν δὲ παρακούσῃ αὐτῶν, εἰπὲ τῇἐκκλησίᾳ· ἐὰν δὲ καὶ τῆς ἐκκλησίας παρακούσῃ, ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ ὁἐθνικὸς καὶὁ τελώνης.
The word ὡς(like) is inserted between καὶ and ὁ in Bezae Cantabrigiensis.
But if he is not listening of them, speak to the assembly (or church), but if even of the church he is not listening, he is to be to you (singular) as the Gentile and the tax collector.
“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:18, NASB). Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν· ὅσα ἐὰν δήσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ, καὶὅσα ἐὰν λύσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ.
The phrase ἔσται δεδεμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ, καὶὅσα ἐὰν λύσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (it will be having been bound in heaven, and whatever has been loosed upon the earth) is omitted in Bezae Cantabrigiensis. The first occurrence of οὐρανῷ(in heaven) is replaced with τοῖς οὐρανοῖς (in the heavens) in Sinaiticus, and with τω οὐρανω in the Majority Text. The second occurrence is replaced with τοῖς οὐρανοῖς in Bezae Cantabrigiensis.
Truly I say to you, if whatever you bind upon the earth, it will be having been bound in heaven, and whatever has been loosed upon the earth it will be having been loosed in heaven.
“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 18:19, NASB). Πάλιν [ἀμὴν] λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν δύο συμφωνήσωσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς περὶ παντὸς πράγματος οὗἐὰν αἰτήσωνται, γενήσεται αὐτοῖς παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου τοῦἐν οὐρανοῖς.
Sinaiticus omits ἀμὴν (truly), while Vaticanus and the Majority Text include it. Vaticanus’ συμφωνήσωσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν (if they agree of you) is slightly altered in several manuscripts.
Again I say to you that if they agree two of you upon the earth about everything of the matter that they ask it will be done for them from the Father of the Me in heavens.
“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20, NASB). οὗ γάρ εἰσιν δύο ἢ τρεῖς συνηγμένοι εἰς τὸἐμὸν ὄνομα, ἐκεῖ εἰμι ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν.
The phrase οὗ γάρ εἰσιν (for where they are) is slightly altered in a few manuscripts.
For where they are two or three having gathered together in the name of me, there I am in amidst of them.
Implications of Variants and Working Translation
The only variant in this section that might have an impact in the final application of the passage is the omission of εἰς σὲin 18:15. The Majority Text reading is reflected in the King James (KJV) rendering, “if thy brother shall trespass against thee…,” whereas Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are represented by the NASB, which reads, “if your brother sins…” The implication of the KJV reading is that the process should only be engaged if a sin is committed against the one engaging the process. In other words, if your brother sins, but it isn’t against you, then this process is not applicable. The NASB rendering does not carry this implication, and does not seem to limit the process to be engaged only by the offended. This issue is discussed further in the final section of this analysis.
But if sins the brother of you, you go correct him between you and him alone. If you he hears, you have gained the brother of you. But if not he hears, take with you additionally one or two, in order that upon a mouth of two witnesses or three every word is established. But if he is not listening of them, speak to the assembly (or church), but if even of the church he is not listening, he is to be to you (singular) as the Gentile and the tax collector. Truly I say to you, if whatever you bind upon the earth, it will be having been bound in heaven, and whatever has been loosed upon the earth it will be having been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if they agree two of you upon the earth about everything of the matter that they ask it will be done for them from the Father of the Me in heavens. For where they are two or three having gathered together in the name of me, there I am in amidst of them.
Background and Context
Matthew’s Gospel centers on Jesus Christ as Israel’s Davidic King-in-waiting, and this account bears a strong Hebrew cultural flavor. Jesus’ first public proclamation recorded in Matthew introduces the theme: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand” (Mt 4:17). As we discover in the Gospel, Jesus is announcing that God’s eternal, spiritual kingdom will come to earth in a physical manifestation, through the line of David, as was initially introduced in 2 Samuel 7. The famed Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) is an exhortation by Jesus to the Jewish people (and His disciples) regarding the qualities needed for one to enter the promised kingdom. The way of entry was not external following of the Mosaic Law, but rather was an internal spiritual humility that went far beyond what the Law required – hence, the call to repent (or change the mind). Matthew 8-11 included a period of consideration, wherein Jesus demonstrated His qualifications and warrant for the Davidic throne, and Matthew emphasizes that Jesus fulfilled messianic prophecy. Nonetheless, the forerunner and herald who announced the kingdom –John the baptist – was rejected, imprisoned, and ultimately murdered. Likewise the King that he proclaimed was also rejected in Matthew 12-13. From that moment forward, Jesus spoke in parables in order to veil the truth from the rejecting leaders and masses, and He turned to privately explaining the parables and teaching His disciples, preparing them for what was to come. The kingdom would be postponed, and the King would give His life as a ransom, even on behalf of those who had rejected Him. Even amidst the proclamations of judgment in Matthew 14-15, Jesus still demonstrated His power and His mercy.
In Matthew 16 Jesus introduces the assembly (τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, translated by the NASB as the church), which would be built upon Himself (Mt. 16:18; 1 Pet. 2:4-10), and specifically so in that His identity and His prescribed means of righteousness for those who would enter the kingdom would be a stumbling block to the nation of Israel. This is the first indication in the entire Bible that there would be a temporary shift of God’s focus from the nation of Israel to the church (Rom. 9-11 explains the reasons for the shift and how God would, at the time of His choosing, return His focus to the nation of Israel and save the nation). Matthew 17 adds yet more confirmation of His identity and qualification as King, and yet in that passage Jesus predicts His own death and resurrection. In this context Jesus is preparing His disciples for their challenging task ahead – for a time when He will no longer be physically with them.
Matthew 18 begins with the disciples’ query regarding who would be the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens. Jesus responds by emphasizing the importance of childlike humility, and the importance to Him of those who demonstrate that humility of faith. Invoking the example of a shepherd who would leave his many sheep in order to find one lost one, Jesus describes how His Father does not wish for any of these little ones to perish. It is in this context that Jesus introduces the process for restoring a brother who is in sin. There is an important correlation between the brother in sin (18:15) and the sheep that has strayed (18:12-13). Just as there is joy at the sheep’s finding, there is joy at the restoration of the straying brother. The process Jesus describes must be understood in that light – as a part of God’s design for restoration, and not for judgment. As the process is engaged, that goal must remain in view, even if it will not always be reflected in the outcome.
Immediately following 18:15-20 is a dialogue between Peter and Jesus, in which Peter inquires how often he should forgive a stumbling brother. Jesus’ thorough response leaves no doubt of the centrality of forgiveness in the daily lives of His followers.
As Matthew’s Gospel belongs to the genre of historical narrative, the structure of the book is readily identifiable by sequential flow of narrative. Matthew introduces his record as “a book of genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1). Jesus’ connections to those two men is vital in order for the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants to be fulfilled in Him, and Matthew chooses historical narrative as the vehicle for demonstrating those necessary connections. After the brief statement of genealogy, we are told in narrative form that, “the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows…” (1:18), and that “all this took place…” (1:22).
Matthew continues with the frequent use of chronological terms throughout, and leaves the reader with no doubt that what is written is presented as a truthful historical narrative – even to the final paragraph. The structural keys, or building blocks of the book – and the keys to recognizing transitions – are found in the chronological and sequential terms that are so often found in narrative.
In light of the transparency of structural keys in Matthew, there is clarity in reckoning the major and minor divisions of the book, so that when we arrive at a pivotal passage like 18:15-20, we can have confidence that we are able to discern its proper placement and context within the greater narrative. In short, both the broader context and the passage itself are simple to ascertain because of Matthew’s chosen genre and writing style.
Within the immediate context is an additional structural key that is vitally important for understanding 18:15-20. In 18:3, Jesus begins his exhortation with the phrase, “Truly I say to you” (ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν). He repeats the phrase again to introduce the pericope of 18:18-20. This discursive tool is commonly used by Jesus and indicates a transition in subject matter. It is especially important to recognize that the transition occurs after the resolution process is given in 15-17, and introduces a unique authority and empowerment of the disciples in 18-20.
Grammatical and Syntactical Keys
In 8:15 the phrase the brother of you (ὁἀδελφός σου) contains a noun and pronoun – both singular. Further, the imperative verb (ὕπαγε) translated go, is also singular. This is describing a situation in which individual is dealing directly with another. At this stage, there is no third party involved, whatsoever. That condition is accentuated by the qualifier between you and him alone (μεταξὺ σοῦ καὶ αὐτοῦ μόνου). At this point, the matter is exclusively private, between only the two parties, and if the brother responds well, then the brother has been won and the matter is closed, never to see the light of expanded discussion (at least in regards to the specific application of the process described here). The lost sheep has been found and there is joy as a result.
However, if the brother does not hear, 18:16 adds another step: take with you one or two (παράλαβε μετὰ σοῦἔτι ἕνα ἢ δύο). The imperative verb and pronoun is still singular. This second step can only be engaged by the one who initiated the first step, and the initiator must remain actively involved in the process. The one or two others are included for the purpose of confirming, or adding weight to what was originally discussed. They are not the central figures in this step, but they are required. While there is no discussion of the possibility of a positive outcome to this step (i.e., that the brother listens and heeds), the implication from the initial goal is that if the brother listens, then the brother has been won and the matter is closed – with no further discussion, just as in the case of the first step.
Yet again, if the second step does not conclude with a positive response by the offending brother, the initiator is himself prescribed (as indicated by the aorist active imperative, second person, singular εἰπὲ) to bring the matter to the attention of the assembly. At this point, the assembly becomes involved verbally in the correction process. While there is not imperative (second or third person) given to the assembly, the desired outcome of this third step is that the brother will listen to the assembly. If the brother does respond positively by listening to the assembly, then the brother has been won, and the matter is concluded with no further discussion.
If the third step does not yield a positive response from the offending brother, then a fourth step – a consequence of sorts is meted out. He is to be to you (ἔστω σοι)…with this phrase including the singular pronoun, the process is no longer about the one or two additional witnesses nor the assembly, but rather we are back to the original two parties: the offending brother and the initiator of the Matthew 18 process. There is not here any specific discussion of an assembly-wide response to the offending brother (though one might infer that the broader response should be the same as the specifically identified individual response), instead what is stated restores focus to the interaction between the two individuals: He (singular) is to be to you (singular) as the Gentile (singular) and the tax collector (singular).
Regarding the binding and loosing of 18:18, Jesus had already announced to Peter that He would give to Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (16:19). Jesus repeats the second half of this statement in 18:18 in addressing the disciples (plural). There is a subtle but important shift from the singulars used in 15-17 to the plurals used in 18-20. This transition indicates that a general and broadly applicable principle is identified in 15-17, and a more narrow primary application is intended for the disciples in 18-20. In short, 15-17 is phrased in such a way that the entire church can follow the clearly delineated instructions, and 18-20 provides for the disciples a unique authority and empowerment for their ministry ahead.
The occasion for the Matthew 18 resolution process is when (if) a brother sins. The verb sins (ἁμαρτήσῃ) in 18:15 indicates a transgressing or doing of wrong. The object or recipient of the wrongdoing is not readily apparent in Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, while the Majority Text adds the object (εἰς σὲ). If the earlier readings are preferred (as it is by this writer), the occasion could include not only an offense against the initiator of the process, but any offense of which the initiator is aware. On the one hand this broader application allows for a heightened degree of accountability and concern among brethren, on the other hand this broader application could encourage an overly critical spirit. Balance seems important at this juncture, but in either case – whether the earlier or later reading is preferred, there has clearly been a measurable wrong done.
The desired outcome is that the offending brother listens or hears (ἀκούσῃ). Evidently the term connotes more than simple auditory perception. BDAG cites the Matthew 18:15 usage as an instance of listening and following.
If the offending brother does not respond positively to the first two steps, the matter is only then to be communicated to the assembly (τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ). The term is rendered as church in the NASB, the KJV, and the ESV – three prominent translations following formal equivalence. While the term is used in the LXX to indicate various assemblies, the term is first used in the NT in Matthew 16:18, and refers to a new entity to be built (οἰκοδομήσω, future) by Jesus, on Himself. It is possible that James’s Epistle preceded Matthew’s Gospel chronologically, and therefore, it is possible that James’ lone usage of the term in James 5:14 referred to a general assembly, rather than to the new assembly that Jesus would build, however, James wrote at least a decade after Jesus predicted the new assembly, and as James was a prominent elder in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15), it is far more likely that James’ reference was specifically to the new assembly that is the church, rather than to a generic assembly.
Matthew’s second reference to the term, in 18:17, seems a decisive reference to that assembly predicted just two chapters earlier. Hereafter, the term is always used in the NT to reference “the church or congregation as the totality of Christians living in one place” or to other more specific designations of the Christian assembly. Consequently, this is a passage with direct application to the church throughout its generations, including the modern era.
That Jesus would use the term tax collector (τελώνης) in 18:17 is understandable if His intent was to communicate that the offending and unheeding brother should be considered as one who has a different agenda than the rest of the assembly. Further, it is notable that Matthew included the term – being a former tax collector himself (Mt 9:9). Matthew would have recognized firsthand the cultural stigma against tax collectors, who were noted for their unfair practices. Also of importance in this context is how Jesus treated tax collectors. Matthew observes that they were seeking Jesus out and were dining with Him and His disciples (9:10). In this context, Jesus did not seek them out, but was receptive when they came to Him (presumably) with a teachable spirit. Of course, in Matthew’s case, Jesus did seek out a tax collector (9:9). The implication in this context is that the offending and unheeding brother is not to be ostracized to the point of rudeness or cruelty, but is not to be sought out for fellowship unless there is openness, a submissiveness, and arguably a change of mind that would lead to the brother hearing and receiving the chastisement.
That Jesus employs the word ἐθνικὸςis a bit more difficult because of the ethnic connotations. The NASB and ESV render the term as Gentile, while the KJV opts for heathen man. Note that the KJV reading removes any ethnic association, instead rendering the word in such a way as to focus more on the spiritual condition. The KJV’s is a difficult translation to justify, for, while there is extra-biblical precedent for the term’s spiritual connotation, the word, naturally understood, has a definitive ethnic connotation. There are four NT instances of the term, including this one, and none give any decisive indication regarding which translation would be best. In 5:47, Jesus contrasts expectations for His primarily Jewish audience with the actions of the Gentiles. In 6:7, He contrasts the prayers of that same audience with the meaningless repetitions of the Gentiles. In 3 John 7 there is a simple statement that brethren did not accept anything by way of provision from the Gentiles.
If the term here is best translated heathen, then the offending unheeding brother is to be treated as an unbeliever. Once again, never is it justifiable for a believer to treat an unbeliever with rudeness or cruelty. Rather it should be understood that there are different worldviews in play, and the believer, it would seem, is not encouraged to seek out the offender until and unless there is an openness to correction. If the term is best translated Gentiles, the meaning is not far different, as Jesus is communicating to an entirely Jewish audience (His disciples, 18:1) who indeed had some cultural aversion to non-Jews. Importantly, Jesus does not advocate such an aversion to Gentiles, but rather this may be an instance where He utilizes an existing cultural stigma to indicate the kind of stigma that should be associated with a lack of repentance in the church. In short, Jesus is not advocating racism, but is advocating a kind of discrimination against the unrepentant brother.
Exposition and Implications
Matthew 18:15-20 introduces a corrective and restorative process to the disciples for application in the soon-to-be formed church. Jesus outlines specific steps, whereby that correction and restoration can take place. Equally as important as the outcome is the process, as Jesus directly prescribed it. His process is as follows:
Step 1: But if sins the brother of you, you go correct him between you and him alone. The condition for the process is a sinning brother (SB) and an individual who has either been sinned against, or who has observed the sin – this is the correcting brother (CB), and can be any individual in the church. CB is directed to go to SB and meet with him alone. That this meeting happens in private only between the two parties is a necessary and prescribed element of the process, and if this privacy is betrayed in any way, the entire process is undermined and cannot be engaged as designed.
Step 1, Possible Outcome 1: If you he hears, you have gained the brother of you. If SB is receptive, the matter is resolved and closed, the goal having been achieved. The process is complete.
Step 1, Possible Outcome 2: But if not he hears… if Step 1 does not result in the desired outcome, move to Step 2.
Step 2: take with you additionally one or two, in order that upon a mouth of two witnesses or three every word is established. CB is to initiate another meeting, including one or two more. By definition of the numbers prescribed, privacy during this step is again required and vitally important. In practical terms, privacy at this point allows for individuals to fail, repent (change their minds), and be restored without public spectacle. In this step the matter is confirmed by the additional one or two, offering yet another private setting wherein the matter can be resolved.
Step 2, Possible Outcome 1 is implied, but not stated: If you he hears, you have gained the brother of you. If SB is receptive, the matter is resolved and closed, the goal having been achieved. The process is complete.
Step 2, Possible Outcome 2: But if he is not listening of them…if Step 2 does not result in the desired outcome, move to Step 3.
Step 3: speak to the assembly (or church)…Sadly, SB’s actions and negative response demands that the matter be made public (within the context of the church). At this point CB is now to communicate the matter to the church. At this point the entire assembly becomes involved for the purpose of restoration. Perhaps the many can impress upon SB the error of his ways, and the need for resolution.
Step 3, Possible Outcome 1 is implied but not stated: If you he hears, you have gained the brother of you. If SB is receptive, the matter is resolved and closed, the goal having been achieved. The process is complete.
Step 3, Possible Outcome 2: but if even of the church he is not listening…if Step 3 does not result in the desired outcome, move to Step 4.
Step 4: he is to be to you (singular) as the Gentile and the tax collector. At this point, and only if the first three steps have been undertaken as prescribed, CB is to acknowledge a different relationship with SB. This step is not a repudiation of SB’s status as a brother. It represents broken fellowship, but not a severed relationship (positionally speaking). The goal here, though implied but not stated, remains restoration, and the hope would be that the loss of fellowship would cause SB to reconsider, and move toward (public, at this point) repentance and restoration. If this happens, CB should apply the infinite forgiveness described in 18:21-35.
It is worth noting that while 18:18-20 is in close proximity to the corrective and restorative process of 18:15-17, the later verses are not a part of the process. By virtue of transitional language (“Truly, I say to you”) and a comprehensive shift in pronoun number (singular in 15-17, plural in 18-20) it is evident that the latter three verses have primary application only for the disciples Jesus was addressing. Of course, in all Scripture there are secondary applications which may be drawn by all believers, it is critical that there be proper distinction between primary and application. In short, not all believers engaging in the corrective and restorative process are endowed with the unique authority and power shared by the disciples.
Even still, that distinction does not weaken the process described in 18:15-17. Jesus prescribes it and it is the central Biblical passage for understanding how believers should interact with an offending brother. There is sufficient authority and power in following that process. If Jesus is both the builder and the Rock upon which the church is built, we can trust Him to know how to best handle within that assembly sin, conflict resolution, and discipline: with obedience, consideration, discretion, privacy, patience, purity, and love.
 All English Scripture quotations, besides those translated by this writer, and unless otherwise noted are from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995). Hereafter referred to as the NASB.
 All Greek Scripture quotations are from Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Matthew Black et al., The Greek New Testament, 4th ed., 50 (Federal Republic of Germany: United Bible Societies, 1993).
 W. Bauer, W. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F. Danker, “ἁμαρτάνω“ in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 54. This source is hereafter referred to as BDAG.
 BDAG, “ ἀκούω,“ 42.
 English Standard Version.
 The Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.
 Both chronologically and sequentially, if the early authorship (circa 45) of Matthew’s Gospel is accepted. James’ Epistle was probably written in near chronological proximity, and probably after Matthew, as Eusebius implies (P. Schaff and H. Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I: Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 152-153)
 BDAG, “ἐκκλησία,” 293.
 BDAG, “ἐθνικός,” 267.