In Matthew chapter 18 Jesus employs six illustrations to teach about the nature of love within the church community. The first three call us to a humble and self-denying love that is relentlessly tough on oneself, so as to not damage the faith of others. The last three call us to love one another in a way that demonstrates passion for other individual disciples in the church. As Matthew reports these stories he is sequentially building to the climax in verses 15-20 – what is often referred to as the process of church discipline. Here Jesus teaches the sin-confronting process whereby straying individual disciples are won back into the family.
Jesus describes a four-step process to apply when a wandering disciple strays from an occasional struggle with a weakness, into willfully participating in something that is clearly sinful. When a disciple goes over the line from weakness into wickedness, Christ commands the covenant community around him to confront the individual disciple and urge him to repent. If there is one thing that is very clear in Jesus’ teaching, it is that He is protecting the reputation of the sinning one; He is in no rush to expose sin. The matter is to be contained first between the one in sin and the person confronting him, and then between the witnesses; ample time must be given to repent. Church discipline is not a matter that is to be taken lightly; to do it right requires time, patience, and energy, as love always does. The ultimate goal of this process is restoration and reconciliation. Even if the final step of church discipline is carried out, and a person is removed from fellowship, the church ought to continue to love and pray for his repentance.
“The church” that Jesus speaks of, refers to the local assembly. This is not a reference to the church leadership. Though the elders are involved in the process, it is the assembled church body that takes the responsibility of the final step of discipline. This shows the authority that Jesus entrusts to local congregations. Jesus authorizes the local church to remove (bind) or allow (loose) someone from their communion, and seals that decision with a promise of His presence with the church, and that wherever this “binding” or “loosing” is done on earth, it has the authority of heaven behind it.