the Matthew 18 bludgeon

A very widely misunderstood passage is the church discipline outline given by our Lord in Matthew 18.

KJV  Matthew 18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

NAU  Matthew 18:15 "If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 "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. 17 "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.

This paragraph is often used as a bludgeon to stifle public criticism of public religious leaders in their public capacity. The person who uses it asks, “Have you talked to so-and-so personally (and privately) about this?” The questioner ignores the fact that he has not done so himself with the person he is questioning. Never let inconvenient details get in the way of shutting down public debate!

Now, what are we to make of this passage? A couple of significant details are always ignored when the passage is used as a bludgeon to silence criticism:

  • The matter under discussion in the passage is a personal offense rather than a public action. (‘against thee’ 15)

Now, the ‘against thee’ is a debated term. It is in some early manuscripts but not in others. It is in the Majority Text manuscripts. There is a possibility that it might have been added, reflecting the language of verse 21, but it could also have been inadvertently dropped as well. The critical text retained it in brackets. The NASB has dropped it, but interestingly enough, the ESV keeps it.

Thus, I think it is quite a reliable term. The offense we are talking about is a personal offense between two brothers, not a public offense of someone acting in his capacity as a church leader where his actions affect the Christian world at large rather than an individual relationship between two Christians.

  • The matter under discussion in the passage is a local church matter, not an issue in wider Christendom (or the universal church if you are so inclined). (17)

Even if we conceded that we should contact the Christian we are criticizing before we offer any public criticism (which concession we are not making), how can we bring this process to completion? To whom do we appeal if the one we are criticizing will not hear us or won’t respond even when we bring witnesses? What assembly has authority over this brother whom we criticize that we can expect will bring him to account? Are we, as outsiders, supposed to appeal to that individual’s local church and then expect we are going to get somewhere?

The fact that final appeal rests with the local assembly demonstrates that the offense in view in Mt 18 is a local matter. It does not apply to the actions of a Christian official acting in his public capacity as a Christian leader.

The reality is that some people want to simply shut down debate when ‘their guy’ is being criticized. They will use many stratagems to accomplish their goal. The Matthew 18 bludgeon is one of them.

The use of the Matthew 18 bludgeon is the result, it appears to me, either of faulty teaching concerning the passage or of faulty understanding of the teaching that was given.

It is high time that Christians were open and transparent in public scrutiny and ensuing debates, willing to criticize and be criticized so that we can come to clearer understanding of the issues at least. None of us should be above criticism.

Of course, there is a charitable way to criticize, one we often fail to achieve. Such lack of charity is worth criticism, but please, let’s give up the ‘have you talked to him first’ bludgeon.



  1. Hi Don,

    I appreciate your remarks. Personally, I’ve always been leery of the counseling cults and the products they produce. In more than a few instances, I’ve seen a wholesale disregard for appropriate exegesis of texts used to address problems. And great harm followed. I think these so-called Biblical counselors pose a real threat to the church.

    Have a good one!


  2. d4v34x says:


    I don’t know who you are addressing with this, but I hope you went to them personally . . . :^)

    Hope you and your family have a blessed Christmas!

    • Hi Dave,


      Blessings to you and yours as well.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3