Matthew 18:15-20

15 “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. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”


  1. In the church, there will be occasions when one member will do or say something to wrong a fellow member.
  2. When that happens, go to him/her on your own and explain how they have harmed you.
  3. If they receive what you say, you will have rescued a relationship with a fellow member of God’s family.
  4. If they don’t respond to what you say, take one or two others from the church with you.
  5. Through the observations of two or three others, the wrongdoing can be authenticated.
  6. If they don’t listen to a few of you, share the matter with the whole congregation.
  7. If they don’t listen to the assembly, you should relate to them as you would if they were a Gentile or a tax-collector.
  8. What I am saying now may seem strange to you, but it is nonetheless true.
  9. Whatever you restrain on the earth will be restrained in the heavenly realm.
  10. Whatever you release on the earth will be released in the heavenly realm.
  11. This next statement is also true.
  12. If any two of you agree on something you are going to ask in prayer, it will be done by my Father in heaven.
  13. Whenever two or three of you join like this in my name, I will make my presence known among you.


There may be some conjecture here as to whether these verses represent a single teaching subject from Jesus or more than one. I am going to proceed on the basis that they are connected. When Jesus talks about binding and loosing, he is repeating things he said at Caesarea Philippi recorded in Chapter 16. On that occasion, Jesus is also referring to the collective authority belonging to a church. Then, the matter of agreement in prayer is also a church congregational issue.

A second question to ask is whether Jesus is talking about reconciliation or church discipline? My conclusion is different to most of the comment I have seen. This passage has been used to support what some Anabaptist groups refer to as the practice of “shunning.” [1] Others see this as a model for exercising church discipline where the goal is to expose someone’s sin so that they will repent. I don’t agree.

15 “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.

This is one of only two passages where Jesus refers to a thing called “church.” The other place is in Matthew 16 where he was probing his disciples to find out what they believed about him. On that occasion, he said a new corporate entity was going to emerge from the experience of personal faith: “On this rock, I will build the church and the gates of hell will not be able to resist it.” (v.18) It was the corporate entity that was going to have the power, not the individual. He continued by saying the words quoted again here, “whatever you (collectively) bind on earth….” He was, again, stressing the collective authority of followers gathered together into oneness or agreement.

In this church, there were going to be things that created disagreement and disunity. One of those things was sin. One person would do or say something that harms another person. The primary issue is that a break in relationship has occurred between two members of a group called to be in oneness. It is not that the offended person demands some form of satisfaction, nor that an offender needs to be punished. If we adjudge the motive in doing this by the best-anticipated outcome, then the reason for a person going one on one to the offender is to enable a break in fellowship to be mended.

In the kingdom of this world, the focus is on blame, guilt and some form of punishment. That is a self-focused issue of course. As people born and raised in this world’s kingdom, deep and strong feelings are aroused when we have been wronged. The wrong done is capable of consuming vast quantities of attention and emotional energy. The idea that there might be a more important issue is definitely counter-intuitive. The kingdom of this world, in our case, encourages us to focus on “me, myself and I.” It is different in the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom built on self-giving redemptive love (e.g. the cross) and the focus is on the least of “you, yourself and youse”[2] (the other person), closely followed by “we, ourselves and us“ (i.e. our relationship).

Customarily, Jesus pulls back the curtains on what heaven looks like if it happens on earth among a group of people who have made a commitment to living the life of heaven while they are still on the earth – which was what Jesus modelled. He is telling us that when someone does or says something that damages or hurts another person the covenant bond between them breaks. There is no real surprise about that. If you have never been damaged or hurt by some wrong that was said to you or about you, or by something that was done by someone else to you, you feel the separation immediately. Your attitude toward them changes, and if you go on that journey, your actions will likely change as well. You might keep away from them, and you might tell someone with the expectation that they will “take your side.” They will agree that you have been offended and agree that the offender has done the wrong thing. We all know that this pathway can lead to the most tragic of conclusions if the kingdom of this world is given the opportunity to have its way.

Instead of doing that, Jesus says that the kingdom of God has a different approach. Instead of wanting people to sympathise with your hurt and bolster your resentment, Jesus says you should only talk about the matter with the individual who has offended you. Instead of sending them a text railing against them for the pain you have experienced, you should allow God to show you an even deeper pain. That is the pain of a relationship designed for oneness being attacked and the “body of Christ” designed to make Jesus tangible to the world being thwarted – from the inside, not the outside. When you realise there is a more important issue than your own pain or disappointment, you then want to go to them privately (since at this point it only involves the two of you) and seek for the damage to be understood and the relationship to be repaired.

In the case of the offending person, in the kingdom of this world, the offender would want to avoid taking any responsibility and refute any accusation. They would likely become resentful and angry at the accusation. Once again, in the kingdom of God, things are meant to be different. In our kingdom, we regard ourselves as people with logs in our own eyes and the faults of others are like specks by comparison.[3] Our primary goal is to become more like Jesus, so when someone points out some fault, we are not defensive but grateful – AREN’T WE??? If you make this matter a guilt and punishment thing the bigger issue of relationship will sink back into its hole and become more and more difficult to resolve. If we go to someone seeking for our relationship to be restored, the matter of their sin is not a matter of selfish personal “honour” but reconciliation. Power and authority are restored to the church so that it can fulfil its task in the world.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that when someone in the church sins against you, you should simply suck it up and get over it. People do this in marriages and families as well as in the church. It is often much easier to try and forget about it and move on. I would suggest that from the advice Jesus gives us here, that is not going to solve the problem. Some people are damaging and harming others in the church and will go on doing it just because we have developed the idea that forgiving them and saying nothing is the more godly thing to do. It is clear from this reference that it isn’t. I am convinced that this passage is about relationship breakdown in the church. Jesus is telling us that it is not alright to simply forgive and forget. The reason is clear. He wants people who damage other people to stop harming them. He wants it to be a matter of importance. Not only do we NOT move on and say nothing, but if it doesn’t work privately, we are called to pursue other options.


16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If someone is saying and doing things that damage and harm you, they will be doing the same to other people. If the one-to-one approach doesn’t result in the offended person “gaining their brother” that’s not the end of the story.  It just underscores the importance Jesus places on unity in the church.  I am assuming from this next phase that the offending person has failed to accept responsibility for what has happened. We must also assume that the issue is still about repairing the relationship, not about payback. The two or three brothers and/or sisters will qualify to be called because they can verify the fact that an offence has been caused. It is helpful to notice that acknowledgement of responsibility on the part of the offender is an essential tool for the repair to happen – not just forgiveness on the part of the victim. Remember that this is not about justice being satisfied, but a relationship is healed. If there is no recognition by the offender that they have sinned, then the repair will not be complete. The worst part of this is that the person will go on offending and covering up their offence. That is a bad deal for the health and future of the church. A look at Christian history will tell the sad tale of disregard for this issue. We have solved our differences and justified our attitudes by becoming more and more divided. We have sought to prop up our division with attitudes of self-righteous arrogance and sometimes even hatred and violence.

This second involves two or three others who want to see the restoration of a broken relationship. It is not a “brute squad” seeking to castigate a sinner for their sin. Someone’s actions or words have damaged a relationship. Integrity and spiritual growth require the offending person to understand what they have done and to learn from it. Of course, there are times when the offending person did not actually intend to offend. In that case, I should be sad that my actions were perceived in such a way. I am not responsible for something I didn’t do, but I am sad that someone feels hurt or damaged. To find out why they felt hurt and show compassion for their misconception IS a forward step toward “gaining your brother.”

What if the offending person still refuses to accept any responsibility for causing damage or pain to another member of the church?


If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.

Wow! Here is a biggie. Phase three of the redemptive process is for the whole church to hear about the matter. Is it a fact that broken relationships in the church are so important to the proper functioning of the church that it should come to this? Apparently, Jesus thinks so. The advance of the kingdom of God on the earth will be impeded without it. You must try to avoid thinking about the church as being a form of ecclesiastic courtroom. In a courtroom, the issue is never about reconciliation. It is always about establishing guilt. If a court of law finds a person guilty, they are punished for what they have done and experience some form of punishment supposedly befitting the crime. Mind you, we need courts to do this to keep our community safe from unrepentant offenders. But courts take no responsibility for the repair of a broken relationship. Take the family court. It often boils down to who is most at fault and then a judgment is made, and a kind of justice is carried out. In the kingdom of God, it is not primarily personal justice that is the most important issue. If it was, then Jesus got it wrong. He didn’t come to Jerusalem seeking justice. He came to provide grace and mercy. He did so at the expense of personal justice. But he was more than willing to set aside any thought of personal justice to gain something far more worthy. We are called to follow him. Just listen again to First John 3:16,

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

So, when the church gathers, and a matter that has now entered the third phase of redemptive purpose is raised, it is not to shame the person or just to find them guilty. It must be the same as it was in the beginning. “That which was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be” (as the words of the Lesser Doxology remind us.) There is absolutely no intrinsic reason to assume that a process that began as an attempt to “gain your brother” should now turn into a congregational high court. To my shame, I must admit to participating in making a congregational announcement that two people would no longer be welcome as part of our group. I feel massively ashamed of it, but it is true. In that case, there was no offence to another person, just an eighteen-month season where they were involved in an open display of sin which they were not prepared to acknowledge. We tried everything we could to approach them, counsel with them and offer them our support to deal with the matter. They declined. I am not here trying to justify my/our actions but to explain them.

This is a relationship matter. The sin has been committed by one person against another person in the same congregation. That relationship has been broken as a result. Two former attempts have been made to find a way for the relationship to be repaired by the person acknowledging their action and repenting and seeking repair from their side. Those attempts have failed. Now the matter has been brought before the whole group. It is the whole church, acting in unity, who are now saying to this person, “We want this offence to be recognised. We want you to take responsibility for what has been established by three or four people who are in agreement. All we are seeking is for the unity for which we are designed should be repaired. Our success in our task depends on this unity. That’s why we, the whole church, are in united in this desire. Please let the relationship have a basis for repair and restoration.” Again, this would be an awesome moment. I have just remembered one occasion where I was part of a congregation that engaged in this way. It was in the Asia Pacific region. It is not for me to tell that story now, but it was awe-inspiring. I could almost see the devil losing any power, just because of the strong, caring but healing things that were done.

Just think of some of the other scenarios we have seen. People take sides based on their conclusions about who is to blame for what action. Then we have people taking sides and telling polarising stories about each other. The variations are endless and just create more destruction. Acrimony and division are two of the enemy’s weapons for keeping the church divided and therefore powerless. What if the whole church had one mind in wanting to see the relationship restored and were willing to confront in this redemptive way? Then, a congregation becomes a powerful kingdom of God weapon – as Jesus said it was meant to be.[4]


And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

It is here that we need to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions. We know that the prevailing attitude of the religious leaders and their followers was to shun, avoid, denigrate and hate both classifications of people. Gentiles were considered to be lesser humans in somewhat the same way as whites have denigrated non-whites. Tax collectors were to be hated and enemies and betrayers because of their association with Rome and because they ripped their own people off for financial gain. I don’t want to suggest who we might take as contemporary examples in our own culture -perhaps paedophiles, rapists or people who invade homes of old people to abuse and rob them. If we assume that the subject here is church discipline and we think Jesus is encouraging us to model our attitudes on these religious groups it would be entirely inconsistent with everything he had otherwise said or done.

If, on the other hand, the motive is redemptive and the goal is to “gain your brother” then Jesus has something entirely different in mind. We only have to ask, “What was Jesus’ attitude and approach to Gentiles and tax collectors?’ He befriended them, loved to be in their company intending to offer them unconditional love and power to make them whole and happy. We know this not only because of him, but we know sinners loved being around Jesus. His kind of righteousness was attractive to them. Not only that, but he was able to make spiritual truth known to them even though they may have had no understanding of traditional Jewish religion.

So, how might we treat a brother or sister in the body of Christ who has wronged a fellow church member? They have resisted the conciliatory approach of a person they have hurt and similarly treated a small group of fellow members. They have even rejected the unified desire of the whole congregation. What Jesus is calling on the congregation to do is to have the same attitude as they would to someone who is a complete outsider. Their refusal to engage in a reconciliation process has shown that they are living as if they know nothing of the kingdom of God or its ways. They no longer qualify as a committed follower of Jesus. They need to be treated like a person from outside the church. Think about how church members might relate to people who have no church background and have never come to church before. We take responsibility to go to them, welcome them and reach out to them. We don’t expect them to know what we or others know, so we host them carefully and lovingly. We speak to them differently, and we find ways to love them where we are not expecting them to respond the same way as a mature Christian person would. Once again, the posture of this principle is as redemptive as all the others. Instead of being shunned outcasts they need to be loved as God loves sinners who are estranged from him. They should be treated like the father of the prodigal thought about and acted toward his lost son.


Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

I have suggested earlier that this statement takes the matter of broken relationships a step further rather than starting up a new subject. In my view, it pertains to the redemptive kingdom of God authority possessed by the unified church. I think it is the same whether we are talking about a single broken relationship (as here) as it is when we want a city to be transformed by the gospel. A unified church can say and do things on earth that affect the heavenly realm where the real enemies of God have their operations bases. [5]

If we are trying to win a political battle or seeking justice or freedom by using human weapons, we will certainly fail. Only when we learn how to engage the principalities and powers as Jesus did, will we see the change we long for. And Jesus did not just start a prayer meeting in some safe and secluded church hall unless you hadn’t noticed. Often people presume that Jesus was talking about something that happens in a prayer meeting when they read this. This is an assumption without evidence. I am not suggesting prayer is unimportant. I am saying that this statement is not referring to prayer. If Jesus himself was modelling this principle, then we need to notice what he did and how he did it so that we can follow him.

If the case in point here is a person responsible for a broken relationship and has resisted at least three attempts to foster reconciliation, then there are bound to be spiritual forces involved that need to be dealt with. Some things are on the loose and having influence and need to be bound. There are also things that are locked up that need to be released. This is exactly what the church has the power to accomplish.


Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

There seems to be a clear progression happening here. Oneness is important to the local church because they are called by God to exercise his authority and accomplish his purposes on earth. Part of that ministry involves doing things in the physical realm that impact what happens in the spiritual realm – i.e. binding and loosing. Maybe some of that involves battling against the disunity we have been discussing above. The beginning of any exercise of the King’s authority will need to happen in the presence of the King, namely in prayer. I am not talking about a religious activity but a relationship with God. I am referring to the kind of relationship encounter that will fill our hearts with faith, our wills with obedience so that our actions represent divine strategy. When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon, Jesus told them they would only gain what they lacked through prayer and fasting.[6] On this occasion, Jesus teaches us that the authority we need will come when the church has reached a place of agreement about what we should ask God to do. This kind of oneness is a primary weapon in the fight against the forces that want to oppose God and destroy his work. After all, God has revealed Himself as a triune God: three persons dwelling in perfect oneness. So, the church needs to work its way toward the same oneness.[7]

The early church gives us plenty of encouragement as we read the Book of Acts.[8] They were of one heart and one mind about what they needed to do in each situation. This oneness was expressed as they prayed together. When they prayed together, they received what they needed, and the work of God continued to advance amidst hostile opposition.

On the matter of corporate prayer, I am always curious to know why corporate prayer seems so stilted and unnatural for believers, especially in western nations. We either have a tribal group who hive off to do nothing other than pray. Then we have the “unwashed” believers who come late to corporate prayer, pray reluctantly and privately (even when they are together) and then leave early. Prayer actualizes the presence of God. People who talk a lot in a discussion become silent when the focus of attention turns directly to the presence of Jesus in the midst. We need to help each other to build a oneness that promotes the greatest liberty in prayer. That way, we will encounter God together and then be empowered to carry our authority to resistant and disinterested neighbourhoods and workplaces.


  1. This has challenged me very deeply. I have always known that unity is important for the church, but I have gained a new insight into how the church can experience the kingdom of God. As a Christian leader, I have seen plenty of people sinned against, including myself. Until now I have not realised that the issue from God’s point of view is the relationship, not just the offence. The offended person needs to forgive and seek reconciliation. The offending person needs to acknowledge their liability and seek reconciliation. That’s what is important to God. I am going to make sure I approach personal and corporate instances with this in mind.
  2. I am also going to chase up a few people where long-standing division has been allowed to remain unchallenged. I can think of one instance where I have tried the first of the four actions (gone to the person myself). When that didn’t work, I just gave up. I need to find ways to persist. This is important if the church to going to be effective.
  3. I live in a city where there is huge division. It’s a parliament town, why would we be surprised that division is rife. But the church is divided, and I need to work hard to find ways for the offences that divide us (theological, cultural, etc.) to be acknowledged and dealt with through willing and open forgiveness and repentance – forgiveness on the part of the offended party and repentance on the part of the offending party.
  4. I need to make sure that the leadership groups in my own world are united and then given to prayer. We must learn how to break the “let’s-protect-our-individuality” addictions.


  1. Jesus has drawn back the curtain and shown how the priorities of the kingdom are different from those of the culture we have grown up in. When we experience someone sinning against us we tend to think of justice: i.e. the guilty person needs to be made aware of their guilt. God wants us to forgive and then pursue reconciliation so that we can “gain our brother.” This is a powerful weapon for every church. Unity, oneness of heart and mind, is paramount to the exercise of authority. That’s why we need to go after it. Failure to do so will ensure failure to fulfil our God-given mission.
  2. There is a realm of authority in the church when it operates in oneness – its called binding and loosing. The gospel that gives us new life is the only tool that will produce this oneness.[9] We need to keep on preaching this gospel everywhere in and out from the church. Disunity and division are everywhere in our community: families, households, workplaces, etc.
  3. The call to oneness in prayer is a gospel call to the church. There are segments of the church around the world and segments in our own nation who understand this principle, but there is huge work to be done. If we are to drive out the demons who are currently destroying our communities, we are going to need churches in our cities who are of one heart and mind as they join together to pray. I am not referring here to the many ways in which we privately engage with God. I am talking about what we do as a whole church: a whole congregation in a single location as well as unified congregations in a city or region.

[1]         Shunning can be the act of social rejection or emotional distance. In a religious context, shunning is a formal decision by a denomination or a congregation to cease interaction with an individual or a group and follows a particular set of rules. It differs from but may be associated with, excommunication.

[2]         This is an Australian way of referring to the second person plural pronoun. I understand its original use was in Ireland. It sounded better than simply repeating the word, “you.” It is a weakness of our language not to differentiate between the two. So, I think we Aussies have found a way to redress this inadequacy.

[3]         Matthew 7:3-5 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

[4]         Matthew 16:18 “And the gates of hell will not be able to resist it.”

[5]         See Ephesians 6 and 2 Corinthians 10

[6]         Matthew 16:21 or Mark 9:29

[7]         cp. John 17:21-23

[8]         Acts 1 United in prayer to wait for Holy Spirit empowering.

Acts 2 New believers united in prayer to hear the apostles’ teaching.

Acts 3 United in prayer in the missional sphere.

Acts 4 United in prayer for boldness when threatened by the authorities.

Acts 6 United in prayer so that they could exercise strategic leadership.

Acts 8 United in prayer for the Holy Spirit to me upon new believers in Samaria.

Acts 12 United in prayer for Peter to be released from prison.

Acts 13 United in prayer, seeking the fulfilment of the strategic mission of the church in Antioch.

Acts 14 United in prayer for the new leaders of new churches.

Acts 16 United in prayer for a breakthrough in a new mission field.

Acts 20 United in prayer at the beginning of a new season in the life of the church in Ephesus.

Acts 21 United in prayer in preparation for a time when Paul would be arrested and imprisoned.

[9]         See Ephesians 2

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About Brian

Passionate follower of Jesus. Member of a family that keeps on growing because I keep on meeting up with more great people from every nation and background who I belong to because of Jesus. Husband of an amazing woman, father of four forgiving kids and eight almost perfect grandkids. And loving it.