If, as Jesus taught, Christian leaders are not to use authority, how can there be any church discipline? Won’t sin among the saints be allowed to go unchallenged and unpunished? Not for a moment. It is my belief and personal observation that sin can be dealt with much more effectively using spiritual means than by using natural means. As Paul warned us:

the commandments and teachings of men… have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.1

But how can we fight sin in the church if we cannot ‘exercise authority’? We can take seriously what Jesus said we should do and, as we consider His words in Matthew 18:15-17, we will see they contain no trace of the exercise of authority.

To deal with sin in a saint, He told us to act in four distinct steps:

(i) Step One: “If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother”2

Who is to go? Why do we usually assume that this is only for the ‘pastor’ or an elder or ‘someone with authority in the church’? If we as adult disciples always leave it to others, are we not just joining with Cain in his questioning of God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”3 And what need of authority (‘the right to enforce obedience’) is there here? Jesus does not say, “If one of those under your authority sins…”  A brother has no legitimate authority over a brother.

We are to go to each other, not because of our authority but specifically on the basis of our relationship as brothers, which presumes a closeness, and our equal standing in God’s sight. All sin is firstly against the Father’s will4 so a brother going to another is to get him listening to God, to encourage his obedience to the Father of both.5

Of course, we need wisdom here. God doesn’t want us acting as heavenly policemen, looking for infringements everywhere. Our initial response to any apparent sin in other saints should always be to pray for them. Since God is already at work in them,6 it may be He only wants us to pray and show grace.7 Also, the presumed closeness mentioned above usually needs to be recognised by both parties.8

Now this is an awful lot more than quibbling over words. To go to someone to talk about their sin is to take the initiative, to offer a kind of leadership, but if we offer it wrongly, we should not be surprised at it being rejected. Jesus said the rejection of wrong leadership is actually healthy.9

Let’s be very clear about this – what kind of leadership is Jesus describing here? Brother to brother. What authority does one brother have over another? None in the Kingdom. A brother can have authority over another as an employer over an employee10 or an officer over a soldier, but not as a brother over a brother since our spiritual brotherhood is a non-authoritarian relationship. As we saw earlier, when the disciples argued over who was ‘the greatest’ in authority among them, Jesus said even the youngest child is greater than them all if he or she is delivering His message.

If we fail to get this right, the issue of sin we’re trying to address will be obscured. Instead of this process helping another to discern the Father’s will, it will become yet another argument over which disciple has the greatest authority, to which there never can be a resolution.11 On the other hand, if the one correcting can early on acknowledge he or she has no authority, only love, this argument is avoided and everyone can stay focussed on the issue.

If this first step is successful, Jesus says: “you have won your brother”. Speaking from my personal experience of over forty years now, having been careful to take this step in the attitude described above, I have seldom needed to take the second. If in dealing with sin, we can help restore or improve this brother’s son-father relationship with God, we keep our brother-brother relationship intact; if the sinning brother continues in his sin, he will eventually cease to be a son of God,12 and so no longer be a brother (see Step Four).

(ii) Step Two: “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”13

Notice how the concept has changed from ‘brother’ to ‘brother’? Jesus specifies that the ones dealing with the undealt-with sin are now to be “witnesses”. But here’s an odd thing – Jesus wants us to put this sinning saint into a kind of spiritual courtroom as a defendant. This requires a judge and witnesses to testify to the facts so that the judge can make his or her judgment and declare the defendant guilty or innocent.

So who is the judge in the court Jesus describes?

Well, consider all the participants in this process. In the first step, brother is to go to brother “in private”. No one else is allowed to be present. In the second step, there are the defendant, the first brother and “one or two” more in order  to have “two or three witnesses”. No one else. So, if the only ones there besides the sinning saint are “witnesses”, who is to be the judge?

My first thought was that the judge must be God, the Judge of all ultimately, but why would God need the two or three witnesses? He already knows the secrets of everyone’s hearts. The witnesses cannot be judge and jury too as that would be manifestly unjust. That only leaves the sinning saint himself – in this particular courtroom, he is to be the judge.  And what authority do we as witnesses have over a judge? Absolutely none. Here again we see that no authority is needed.

In this second step of going to a brother who is continuing in sin, we are not to consider him as a defendant while we approach him as his judges. Rather we are to encourage him to take his rightful place as judge while we respectfully enter his courtroom as witnesses.

In the courts of Israel, judges were not allowed to make their decisions until they had heard the testimonies of two or three witnesses.14 Jesus therefore instructs us that in order for the sinning brother to be able to properly judge his own sin, in the absence of the witness of his own heart,  he is to be given two or three others. What I love about this is that it necessitates in us a humble and non-authoritarian attitude in going to speak with him, an attitude required of us anyway as a lifestyle both by Jesus15 and Paul.16

And if the sinning saint as the judge now “judges with righteous judgment”,17 facing up to his sin on the evidence he has heard and responding to the will and authority of God? There is no need for any more to be done by the “witnesses”, except to offer continuing love, help and encouragement. If however he refuses, Jesus has a third step for us to take.

Step three requires leaving the so-far strictly limited audience of the judge’s courtroom. Now the sin is to be “told to the church”, to the assembly of believers:

“And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”18

Most of us will have either seen or heard about this step going horribly wrong. During the Dark Ages, the Roman Catholic threat of excommunication brought many kings to their knees to avoid hell-fire. In recent times, many exclusive cults and sects have used similar tactics to cowe their adherents. Even among atheistic regimes, there have been the infamous ‘show trials’ and ‘struggle sessions’ of the People’s Courts of the Marxists, Nazis, and Maoists, where innocent people were often pilloried and publicly humiliated to terrible effect.

Because of this, some have decided to ignore Jesus’ words instead of examining them more carefully. In other words, they have lost faith in the Lord’s way of dealing with sin. I am convinced that the way of the Lord is perfect and it is our application of His words that is the problem. So before we look at step three, let’s read the whole passage:

“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother 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 and 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-gatherer.”19

Notice, there are five “if”s here – every step is conditional. “If he sins” – what if we’ve actually misunderstood his actions or motives? Only humble and open dialogue can resolve that. The next four “ifs” show that each step is wholly dependent on a negative response to the previous step – it’s only if there is a rejection of reproof offered at step one does step two become necessary, and so on.

This also assumes that those correcting have carried out each step properly. In practice, as I see it, those correcting usually haven’t carried out each step properly, and the lead they are offering has often been the wrong kind. The result has been either that the lead has been rejected, and rightly so since the rejection of wrong leadership is healthy,20 or it has been accepted, as in the show trials and struggle sessions, resulting in ungodly, unnecessary, and ineffective humiliation. As mentioned earlier, in my personal experience, whenever the use of authority has been carefully avoided in order to allow the sinning saint to face their sin on the basis of truth alone, it has been enough to resolve the problems we’ve faced.

Imagine yourself in the position of the sinning brother for a moment. To whom would you be more likely to listen, as you face a painful and potentially humiliating situation? Someone who is coming in authority as your judge, possibly with a judgmental attitude, or someone coming in humility as a brother who loves you, or even the two or three who have come as witnesses who genuinely respect your right to be the judge?

“Therefore, however you want people to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the prophets.”21

In summary then, if step one or two is not carried out correctly, in procedure or in attitude, the whole redemptive process may veer completely off course and the result will then be only destructive.

(iii) Step Three: “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”22

Only if the sinning brother persists in his wrong judgment, despite the testimony of the two or three witnesses, are we to go on reluctantly to the third step: “telling it to the church”. This step is where the sin is heard for the first time by others. It is no longer private. The assembly of believers is now told what is happening and asked to tell the brother how they see it.

How can and should this be different from Mao’s China, where erring socialists were called to account for daring to think differently to the Chairman, or from cultic and legalistic church discipline? By our staying faithful to the Scripture’s standard:

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him.23

If we are ever to grow up, our standards must always be enduring love and obvious truth:

(i) Any group gathering to address issues must commit to strong and sincere brotherly love, an earnest desire for the restoration of broken fellowship with absolute respect for each other’s conscience. Even in cases where emotions and anger may be legitimately high, no one should be allowed to address the brother with malice or contempt.

(ii) The issues must be clear-cut and possible to resolve Scripturally so that a consensus of opinion can be arrived at without conspiracy.

If the issue cannot be defined Scripturally, the church itself can be unnecessarily divided. On issues that are not clear-cut or essential, there can be no church discipline. This says a huge amount about the doctrines we need in order to have true fellowship. The only issues I have so far found for breaking Christian fellowship are for wilful persistence in: denying Christ,24 blasphemy,25 immorality, dishonesty, and debauchery,26 and being unwilling to work or to be self-disciplined.27 N.B. the doctrinal issues, while very serious, are also very few.

If even this step fails to win the brother, “if he refuses to listen even to the church”, and everything has been done properly, the next step is the logical result.

(iv) Step Four: “…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”28

Many imagine that this means to treat him with contempt (at last!), but is that what Jesus meant? How did He treat Gentiles and tax-gatherers? How did He treat harlots and sinners?

“Behold, …a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!”29

“This man receives sinners and eats with them!”30

When Jesus ate with the sinners, He was under no illusions as to their lack of righteousness.31 He remained a friend to Judas to the very last, even when Judas was betraying Him.32

In the same way, we are not called to break off friendship with the one being disciplined, nor are we called to stop loving him and seeking to win him back, nor are we yet called to not eat with him, but we are called to no longer recognise him as a brother. In failing to deal with his sin, the sinning saint has reverted to being a sinner and the fourth step is to acknowledge that fact, both for his sake and ours, because the Kingdom has clearly defined boundaries.33

If he refuses to accept this non-recognition and insists on calling himself a Christian and a brother while wilfully persisting in his sin, we now learn from Paul that we have one last step.

(v) Step Five: “Do not associate with any so-called brother…, not even to eat with such a one.”34

This final step is to break off association. We have a Biblical example of this, and its effectiveness, in Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. In the first, he wrote:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I was present.35

Paul’s rebuke to the whole Corinthian church shows that they were allowing a publicly acknowledged sinner, in the midst of his immorality, to be in their midst as if he was still a believer. His self-delusion was thus being reinforced by the church so Paul called for them to not associate with him. However, let’s be clear of the exact conditions:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with the immoral people of this world; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolator, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God will judge. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.36

Paul’s intentions are very clear – he was trying to break the delusion of the ‘so-called brother’ and win back the sinner. With regard to the ‘not even to eat with such a one’, the Early Church saw the taking of meals together as much more than simply satisfying a physical appetite; it was a mark of friendship and fellowship,37 so this needed to be withheld from the one no longer in Christian koinonia.

Paul then went on to do something that is easily misunderstood today:

In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.38

These verses have been used to justify the most inhumane behaviour and ungodly ‘church discipline’, such as the torture, drowning, or burning at the stake of Protestants by Catholics and of dissenters by Protestants for failing to recant their supposed heresies. Jews have also historically suffered from our blindness and, as a direct result, to this day have been largely closed to the gospel, which demonstrates yet again the folly of Christian leaders exercising authority.

So what did Paul mean? Did he call on Satan to destroy people? Not even close. The ‘flesh’ to be destroyed was not the man’s physical body, as in ‘flesh and blood’, but his ‘fleshly indulgence”, his inner self or carnal nature with its wrongful desires, as in ‘the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit’.39 Paul, in acknowledging the man’s fallen state, simply withdrew all the spiritual blessing and protection that the man had been receiving, not from God directly, but from his association with the saints.


This was not an unusual thought to the Corinthians  – they understood that an unbelieving marriage partner is blessed through being married to a believer.40 To remove this man’s protection was merely to leave him in the same state as the rest of the world, and ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’.41 Paul’s hope was that in seeing the removal of fellowship and sensing the renewed work of Satan in his life, the man would repent and so be ultimately saved. In his letter to Timothy, Paul used the same concept regarding Hymenaeus and Alexander, except that their sin was blasphemy rather than immorality.42

And the result for the unnamed Corinthian man?

Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him…  in order that no advantage by taken of us by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his devices.43

The man properly repented in response to ‘the majority’ of the church, and Paul’s response was to ensure that he was quickly and thoroughly received back into the family of God.

What is clear then, is that the Early Church was able to deal effectively with sin and yet at all times the disciples maintained a respect for one another, actively taking into account the need for each to judge himself. And all of this was accomplished without exercising authority.

This teaching is spelled out in more detail in Peacemaking – Only for the Mature which includes some important intermediate steps.

Leadership in the Kingdom Appendix D – The Fallacy of Delegated Authority Over Believers
As we saw at the beginning, ‘authority’ has two very different meanings. It can mean either an expert on a particular subject or ‘the right to enforce obedience; delegated power’.1 One attempt at justifying Christian leaders exercising authority draws on the latter, that of ‘delegated power’. Read more >>

  1. Col 2:22-23
  2. Matt 18:15
  3. Gen 3:9
  4. Psa 51:4
  5. Heb 3:12-13
  6. Phil 2:13
  7. John 5:19
  8. Prov 13:10
  9. John 10:5
  10. 1 Tim 6:2
  11. Luke 22:24-27
  12. Jas 5:19-20, Luke 15:24
  13. Matt 18:16
  14. Deut 19:15
  15. Matt 7:1-2
  16. Rom 14:4 & 10
  17. John 7:24
  18. Matt 18:17
  19. Matt 18:15-17
  20. John 10:5
  21. Matt 7:12
  22. Matt 18:17
  23. Eph 4:15
  24. 1 John 2:18-23, 2 John 8-11
  25. 1 Tim 1:20
  26. 1 Cor 5:1-13, 6:9-10
  27. 2 Thess 3:6-15
  28. Matt 18:17
  29. Luke 7:34
  30. Luke 15:2
  31. Mark 2:15-17
  32. Matt 26:50
  33. 1 Cor 6:9-11, Gal 5:19-21
  34. 1 Cor 5:11
  35. 1 Cor 5:1-3
  36. 1 Cor 5:9-13, emphasis added
  37. Acts 2:46
  38. 1 Cor 5:4-5, emphasis added
  39. Gal 5:17
  40. 1 Cor 7:14 & 16
  41. 1 John 5:19
  42. 1 Tim 1:2
  43. 2 Cor 2:6-8, 11, emphasis added