Jesus said to His disciples: “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 word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, ; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
What is this church of which Christ speaks? Is this just any group of believers, and cohort of Christians however loosely connected, a particular instance of group-faith organized around a pastor? Is this church invisible or visible? Is it any group aligned around a particular Truth or set of truths? And who determines that Truth? And how is one to “listen even to the church”? Who is speaking? And then, if one is to be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector” does that mean to be kicked out of this church? Is one excommunicated? If so, who enforces that? Who sets the rules? And if it is important that “that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses,” does that not mean this is similar to a kind of legal proceeding? If so, should there be some standard practices, some formality, and some final arbitration and/or judgement? At what point does the judgement come to an end? Where does the buck stop?
Also, I does seem clear in this short passage we, in fact, do have something that is called “the church”, and there is an inside and outside to that church. And that a sinner in that church, who refuses to listen to the church regarding his sin, should be considered out of fellowship with that church and treated as such. Consider, this is a sinner who has sinned against another individual. That individual brings up the sin to the sinner in private (it is a private matter), who then refuses to see it. Then a couple more people from the church come to the sinner, who still refuses to repent. Then again it plays out before the church in some way. And the conclusion? Because this sinner has sinned against an individual, he is out of fellowship with the church. The whole church.
In order for this to happen there has to be a visible church at some level. There has to be something that can be pointed to, described, understood as the church. And some way to say what is not the church. There also must be a way for the church to speak, and thus for some level of authority under which all in the church must live. It does not seem that either anarchy or even democracy are good enough, though perhaps all may participate at some level in decision making. And the process here clearly begins with the individual, then the small group, then the church. It is a kind of flow through a hierarchy, rising from the intimate, local interaction to a larger appeal, to eventually to some final level of authority. But the individual is always, even at the personal, private level, in relation to the church – though this is not the same as an invasion of privacy, or a controlling force. This can get tricky given how all of us are sinners. Of course, local bodies must be the ones that take care of business, but in the New Testament we get the sense that all these individual local churches are to be understood as part of the larger whole church, the catholic church.
If that final level of authority is merely the congregation, with perhaps their particular interpretations of scripture, then what truly is the end of obedience, and what truly is the purpose of excommunication? Is it just a punishment, a loss of some friends, getting kicked out of one church to then go to another? The goal, of course, is not about saving the church, but about the soul of the sinner, to “gain a brother” as Christ says. But the context here is clearly not the “me & Jesus” kind of Christianity so popular these days. It is not merely about this brother repenting, but repenting in order to be in the church, to be in fellowship. The question, then, is what does it truly mean to be in the church? Is this merely a personal choice thing, or does it matter at all? Is it only a matter of how you feel? Can you switch at any time, choosing a church like choosing a different favorite restaurant, switching chefs and a new menu. Or is one’s eternal destiny at stake? And does it matter which church? Are you willing to take the gamble?