Tell It to the Church 

The Biblical Basis for Leader-Led Disciplineby David V. Edling, Senior Ministry Consultant, Peacemaker Ministries

Jesus said, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…” (Mt.18:17). Throughout history, telling the church that a brother or sister in Christ has become hardened in sin and refuses to repent has proven a difficult task. Today, in our culture of acceptance, obeying Christ and utilizing the authority of the church to deter and turn our friends from a path of sin to a path of repentance continues to be both difficult and rare.

The challenge presented by Matthew 18:17 has become almost intolerable to those who have defined the church as a loose association of those “experiencing Jesus” together by enjoying the warmth of fellowship, rich contemporary music, and entertaining speakers.  Adding the element of personal accountability for sin to such a “fun” community ruins the appeal. This is especially true in those churches that historically have practiced Congregational polity where “tell it to the church” has been interpreted as “tell it to the congregation.” Telling the congregation just isn’t something feasible in a “fun” church that is on the move! Furthermore, telling the often-sensitive matters of discipline to a congregation composed of spiritual babies (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-2) as well as mature saints is an open invitation for polarization and church conflict. (Those who do not understand the biblical reasons and necessity for discipline frequently interpret such practices as “judgmental” and “intolerant”.)

Polity practices are not the only barriers to the faithful practice of Matthew 18:17. Fear of man, even for biblical church leaders, is a real deterrent. In addition, church leaders can be personally sued for “telling the church!” Churches that fail to obtain the “informed consent” of their membership, and who fail to regularly teach an expectation for personal accountability run the very real risk of litigation for defamation of character if the church is “told.”

While the authority of the church to reclaim one wandering from a righteous path is clear, the traditional interpretation of Matthew 18:17 (“tell it to the church” means “tell it to the congregation”) has often been a stumbling block to churches considering practicing redemptive church discipline. With the threefold goal of preventing dishonor to God, protecting the purity of the church, and reclaiming Christian sinners and restoring them to fellowship, I have written this paper in order to help churches, regardless of polity, evaluate how and why they should faithfully obey Matthew 18:17. As you will see, my thesis is that “tell it to the church” does not mean “tell it to the congregation.”

The Church’s Authority is Congregational

Certainly the authority for church discipline resides in the congregation. That is clear from 1 Corinthians chapter 5. Paul exhorts “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan (author’s note: this is an act of the application of church discipline), so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Mark Dever, a Southern Baptist pastor and convinced Congregationalist, eloquently writes in his wonderful book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL, Crossway Books, 2000), a strong defense for the “congregational context of church leadership” including arguments from Matthew 18:15-17 and Acts 6:2-5. I agree that the authority to discipline is an authority of the church. The distinction I make, however, is one actually anticipated by Dr. Dever when he states:

“God does not, however, leave us merely to operate all the time as a “committee of the whole.” We need to trust that God gives particular people gifts to serve as church leaders. We should therefore desire to see in our church the right balance of authority and trust. It is a serious spiritual deficiency in a church either to have leaders who are untrustworthy or to have members who are incapable of trusting. As individual members, we must be able to thank God for the leaders He puts among us, to recognize those so gifted, and to trust them. In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of such leaders as God’s gifts to His church. We should cultivate a church culture in which such leaders are honored and esteemed.” (page 213)

One of God’s gifts to his church is leaders who properly exercise within the church the authority that Jesus has given to the church. Elders (or deacons depending on the polity structure and language used for church leaders) who govern the church never govern as ones who have an authority that is apart or divorced from that of the corporate authority of the church. This is true in both Congregational and Presbyterian forms of church governance (by “Presbyterian” I mean the form of government, not the Presbyterian church per se). Church leaders have no special power apart from their relationship to the rightful authority of the church as a corporate body. But one of the special powers that church leaders bear within the context of the church’s authority, as a trust from the King of the Church, is the keys of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 16:19)—the unique authority to bind and loose.

The Keys of the Kingdom: The Authority to Bind and Loose

In all of the gospel accounts Jesus uses the word ekklesia (church) only three times: once in Matthew 16:18 and twice in Matthew 18:17. In each case he uses the word in relationship to the authority of “binding and loosing.” In Matthew 16, after hearing Peter’s great “confession” (the “rock” on which the church is to be built), the first thing Jesus does is bestow authority on men to build his church. Jesus calls that authority “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”:

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16: 17-19).

Throughout history, theologians have debated the nature of the authority called by Jesus “the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.” The phrase only appears once in the Bible. Wayne Grudem, a Reformed Baptist, writing in his Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), states,

Elsewhere in the New Testament a key always implies authority to open a door and give entrance to a place or realm. Jesus says, “Woe to you lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52). Moreover, Jesus says in Revelation 1:18, “I have the keys of Death and Hades,” implying that he has the authority to grant entrance and exit from those realms. The “keys of the kingdom of heaven” therefore represent at least the authority to preach the gospel of Christ (cf. Matt. 16:16) and thus to open the door of the kingdom of heaven and allow people to enter.

Is there any other authority, in addition to this, that Jesus implies by the phrase “the keys of the kingdom of heaven”? There are two factors suggesting that the authority of the keys here also includes the authority to exercise discipline within the church: (1) The plural “keys” suggests authority over more than one door. Thus, more than simply entrance into the kingdom is implied; some authority within the kingdom is also suggested. (2) Jesus completes the promise about the keys with a statement about “binding and loosing,” which closely parallels another saying of his in Matthew 18, in which “binding” and “loosing” mean placing under church discipline and releasing from church discipline. But if “binding” and “loosing” clearly refer to church discipline in Matthew 18, then it seems likely that they would also refer to church discipline in Matthew 16, where Jesus’ words are very similar. This understanding of binding and loosing in terms of church discipline also fits the context of Matthew 16, for, on this understanding, after promising to build his church (v.18), Jesus promises to give not only the authority to open the door of entrance into the kingdom, but also some administrative authority to regulate the conduct of people once they are inside. Therefore it seems that “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” which Jesus promised to Peter in Matthew 16:19 included both (1) ability to admit people to the kingdom through preaching the gospel, and (2) authority to exercise discipline for those who do enter (pages 889-890).

Presbyterian Edmund Clowney agrees. Writing in The Church (Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1995), Dr. Clowney states,

Jesus made the confessing Peter a rock of foundation in his church. He was given, along with the other disciples, the authority of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The broad description of the keys in Matthew 16 is applied to practice in Matthew 18. Anyone who will not submit to the discipline of the church is to be “bound”- declared to be as a Gentile and a publican, outside the company of the kingdom. Jesus extends the power of the keys to later situations in the church, where two or three are gathered to judge an offence committed by a brother (Mt. 18:19). The use of the keys is not limited to the twelve, but is an authority possessed by his church”(page 73). (See also Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, P & R Publishers, 1962.)

Keeping in mind these similar perspectives on “binding and loosing” held by these theologians of differing polities, let us look closely at the most overlooked verses of the so called “church discipline” process. In Matthew 18, verses 15-20, Jesus established the ministry of church discipline for the building of his church. A careful reading of these verses, however, clearly shows that Jesus did not mean “tell it to the congregation” when he commanded his followers to “tell it to the church.”

“Two or Three” Vested with “Binding and Loosing” Authority

Theologians universally agree that Matthew 18:18-20 must be taken in the larger context of still dealing with church discipline. As I have written in my paper, God’s Search and Rescue Plan: Church Discipline (Billings, MT, Peacemaker Ministries, 2001), Matthew’s fourth discourse found in chapter 18 is a unit of instruction responding to the relational conflicts that Jesus knew would develop in the church as represented by the disciple’s question of verse 1, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18:1). Verses 18-20 define, I believe, the specific nature and practice of that authority given to those who may “bind and loose.” As we have seen, it is an authority that resides within the church (not the congregation per se), but specifically one born by those who have been vested with the authority of the keys of the kingdom, the authority to “bind” a person’s unrepentant sin to them, or to “loose” the confessed sin of the repentant. A specific example of the exercise of this authority to decide a case of discipline is recorded at 1 Corinthians 5:3 when Paul (a bearer of the authority of the keys of the kingdom) says, “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who has did this, just as if I were present”. The great church reformer, John Calvin, took this position hundreds of years ago. Writing in Book 3, chapter 4, section 12 of Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin states:

For, while the duty of mutual admonition and rebuke is entrusted to all Christians, it is especially enjoined upon ministers (author’s note: Calvin’s reference here to “ministers” means those who in the church bear the authority of the keys of the kingdom of heaven to bind and to loose. This is clear from his supporting reference to Mt. 16:19 and 18:18). Thus, although all of us ought to console one another and confirm one another in assurance of divine mercy, we see that the ministers themselves have been ordained witnesses and sponsors of it to assure our consciences of forgiveness of sins, to the extent that they are said to forgive sins and to loose souls. When you hear this attributed to them, recognize that it is for your benefit.

Calvin appeals to Matthew 16:19; 18:18; and John 20:23, the latter verse confirming (and generally accepted by the church) that the power of binding and loosing refers to the forgiveness or not of one’s sins. That this authority in the temporal realm has been given to men and also bears the very real eternal seal of Jesus is confirmed by verse 20.

Here is the heart of the matter. The words of verses 19 and 20 do not make much sense if the references to the “two of you” in verse 19, and the “two or three” coming together in verse 20 do not specifically refer to those who bear the authority to bind and loose as spoken of in verse 18. This authority, as I have said, while an authority of the church (one residing within the church), is one to be administered by those referenced as the “two or three,” the elders (or deacons) of the church vested with the authority of the keys. What Jesus gave as an authority for the building of his church resides with those called and ordained as church leaders. This is not to say that the full weight of all of the church’s membership is not involved with the actual application of the discipline decided by the church’s leaders (see 1 Cor. 5:4 as noted above). It does, however, mean that the process of discipline is administered and decided by those leaders as bearers of that unique authority. “Tell it to the church,” therefore, as defined by verses 18-20, means “tell it to those in the church who bear the authority of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Convinced Congregationalists should not be fearful that this perspective of Matthew 18 will undermine their other arguments for their chosen form of polity. It does mean, however, that many Congregationally governed churches should reexamine their practice of church discipline.

Broader Implications for the Church Today

This brief paper has attempted to demonstrate from Scripture and the writings of careful theological scholars that one barrier to the practical practice of biblical restorative church discipline—the need to involve the entire congregation in deciding a case of discipline—need not be the stumbling block, nor the threat, that it has been for so many churches. Regardless of polity (except one following Roman Catholic or Episcopalian prelacy that attempts to vest such authority in individual priests), the church may, with biblical warrant, respond to cases of church discipline within the confidentiality and confines of the church’s leadership; those vested with the special authority called the keys of the kingdom of heaven. As Dr. Dever has noted, such leaders are ones to be trusted. The sad fact that some church leaders have abused their flock in the name of “discipline” cannot be denied. Still, the sins of a few poor shepherds cannot be a legitimate excuse for any church not to obey what her Lord has commanded.

To learn more about how your church can benefit from the gracious ministry of biblical church discipline, I recommend you obtain the Church PeacePack from Peacemaker Ministries. This set of practical and biblical resources will help you to develop and implement one of the most powerful tools of discipleship ever given to the church–redemptive church discipline.

May God be glorified as his church’s foundation is built on biblical truth and as her practice reflects all that the Lord commands.


David V. Edling holds an MAR (Theology) degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in California and a JD from California Western School of Law. He is a Senior Ministry Consultant for Peacemaker Ministries (, an international ministry committed to equipping and assisting Christians and their churches to respond to conflict biblically.

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Posted on

February 18, 2015