Treat Them Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors

Rembrandt – “The Return of the Prodigal Son

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If you have spent time reading the Bible, you might be familiar with the story in Matthew 18:15-17. Jesus is talking to his disciples and this is what he says,

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

This passage is often cited in discussions about church order and discipline. Most of the time we use it to justify turning someone out of the church. But we are wrong when we do that. Here’s why.

Order and organization matters in the gospels. Take a look at what comes before and after this story in Matthew’s gospel. Here is Matthew 18:1-14 and here is Matthew 18:18-34. The writers didn’t merely record events in chronological order. A simple comparison of the four gospels shows us that. The gospel writers organized events and grouped incidents together to make important theological points. They want to help their readers understand who Jesus is and what he means for us and the world. We do the gospel writers a disservice when we ignore their careful and intentional organization and structure.

Right before this passage (Matt 18:15-17) are  Jesus’ warnings about the necessity to avoid being a stumbling block for anyone. Next is the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to search to one lost sheep. Right after this passage, Jesus tells Peter we are to forgive members of the church seventy seven times. And then Jesus tells the parable of the slave who is forgiven by his master but refuses to forgive his debtors.  Lots of stories about the importance of forgiveness. Verses 15- 17 are surrounded by teachings about forgiveness. Those teachings on forgiveness need to inform our understanding of verses 15-17.

Sometimes we think the story we are looking at today lets us stop forgiving after three tries. However that interpretation doesn’t really fit well with the stories and parables that come before and after.

Here’s my other interpretive question. Verse 17 tells us to treat  an “offender” as a Gentile and a tax collector.  So, exactly how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  Jesus heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He heals the Centurion’s servant. He calls a tax collector to be his disciple.

Jesus repeatedly invited tax collectors and Gentiles into the kingdom of God.

To “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” doesn’t mean wash our hands of them. It means we need to continue to  reach out to those with whom we have a conflict.  We must continue inviting them into the fellowship of the kingdom of God.

This is really difficult work. I’m sure you know that. To remain in relationship with someone with whom we have a disagreement is hard. To remain in relationship with someone who has sinned against us is even more difficult.

It seems to me, one of the things the church is supposed to do is to be a community that never gives up on each other. We’re not to push people out because they are difficult or annoying or wrong or sinners. The church is to continually seek reconciliation. We are to be the visible witness of the steadfast love of God.

The church is called to be a community of faith, of love and of care for each other. This doesn’t mean that no one ever sins against another person. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have disagreements. This doesn’t mean that any behavior or action is fine. It certainly doesn’t mean this is easy.

What it does mean is that we don’t give up on each other. Just as God doesn’t give up on us.


I’d like to know, what do you think?

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12 Responses to “Treat Them Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors”

  1. Beloved Spear Says:

    Exactly right! It baffles me how, knowing the context of Christ’s teaching and ministry, we can assume this means anything other than to press forward towards our “enemies” in love.

  2. The Day God visited the Baddest Boy in Town | Jesus Carries Me Says:

    [...] Treat Them Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors ( [...]

  3. Face to Face L4L.11 « Pinkshoesministries's Blog Says:

    [...] Treat Them Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors ( [...]

  4. Daniel Says:

    I stumbled across your article while researching church discipline. I think you present an interesting point, but I think you have missed out on some important context in other parts of the Bible.

    1 Corinthians 5 / 2 Corinthians 2
    Paul instructs the Corinthian church to turn him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord. Christians should not associate or socialize (even eat) with the brother in Christ who fits these characteristics.

    Romans 16:17-20
    Watch those who cause dissension and stay away from them.

    2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
    The brothers who did not work were not to be provided food rations. Further, there is a general instruction to not associate with brothers that are unruly or who reject the instructions in the word of God so that the brother will be put to shame. The brother is to be strongly warned.

    • Nancy Says:

      Yes, the verses you cite are also in the Bible. And I could respond by citing Galatians 6:1-2 and 1Thessalonians 5:14-22.
      But your comments raise a larger and important consideration, what do we do when the Bible appears to contradict itself? How do we know, in this example, when to remain in fellowship with someone and when not to? There is a lot to think about here, more than can be dealt within “comments”.
      Briefly, the fact that Paul gives us seemingly contradictory advise suggests that this isn’t a one size fits all situation, we as the church need to carefully discern what the boundaries are. I think that historically we have erred too often on the side of overly quick judgment and exclusion, rather than loving patience and persistence.
      Issues of church discipline are, and rightly should be, tough decisions. It seems to me, we ought to always wrestle and struggle with these decisions.
      If you are researching church discipline because you have a decision to make, God bless you and God be with you.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Biblical Contradictions « Conversation in Faith Weblog Says:

    [...] when Paul gives conflicting advise about dealing with difficult people in the church ( see this post and comments ). Or discrepancies about the number of animals Noah takes on the Ark. Or differences in the gospels [...]

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  7. rose Says:

    I know this is right, but if one cannot reconcile, should one just do it through prayer. I still pray for that person, but no matter what I have tried, it does not work and only causes me great sadness when I am confronted with another affront.

    • Nancy Says:

      It is really difficult sometimes, isn’t it? It seems that sometimes all we can do is our part and then hope and pray that God is at work even if we don’t see it. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

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  9. Mark Says:

    This scripture begins ‘If another member of the Church’. So we are probably only talking about minor differences. Therefore Nancy has a good point. And this argument cannot be countered with scriptures that are really aimed at more serious evil. The oppressors of the defenseless are not members of the Church. Therefore it is permissible for Christians to take up the sword for the defense of the faith, self and the victims of evil people. Thus there is no contradiction, just a need to read carefully. Also there were those who refused Jesus. So treating them as a Gentile can still mean leaving an offer of reconciliation and praying for them but generally avoiding contact. Sometimes not making contact is the best solution. Remember also ‘the wolves within.’ How do we deal with those we suspect?

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