Using Matthew 18 Properly: Trespasses, Gossip, or Heresy?

When controversial discussions arise, frequently someone states that the discussion cannot continue because Matthew 18 has not been followed. The verses in question—verses 15 through 17—state:

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. (KJV)

In these discussions, the first phrase is often ignored—”Moreover if thy brother shall trespeass against thee.” Against thee. This oft-overlooked first phrase is essential to understanding the context in which this passage is to be applied.

Personal Trespasses against you

Matthew 18 specifically applies to trespasses committed against you. The passage appears to assume the context of both individuals being members of the same local church. However, it would appear to be within the bounds of orthopraxy (correct practice) to attempt to follow this approach when a personal wrong has been committed by a Christian attending another church—likely involving leadership of both churches if it must get to that point.

Personal Trespasses not involving you

Let’s suppose a personal trespass has been committed that does not involve you in any way. You’re not the person who did the wrong, the person wronged, or part of the local church leadership adjudicating the matter. Isn’t there a word for jumping into this discussion? Might it be six letters long, beginning with a “g” and ending with a “p”?

Public Statements of heresy

When a wolf in sheep’s clothing—or a misguided and misguiding sheep—proclaims heresy, it is the Christian’s responsibility to proclaim truth. Matthew 18 applies to personal wrongs—but heresy is a sin committed against the entire Body and Bride of Christ.

Context alone should be sufficient to make this clear. But lest there be any doubt, let’s look at a few passages.

  • In Matthew 23 (and elsewhere), Jesus spoke against the sins and excesses of the scribes and Pharisees in detail, going so far as to call them “hypocrites.”
  • In Galatians 2, Paul spoke out against Peter and Barnabas’s hypocrisy in acting one way with Gentiles and another with Jews. He referred to a past situation, where he spoke to Peter “before all men”—not one on one.
  • In 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul stated, “For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica.” Paul had listed Demas as one of his co-laborers in Col. 4:14. Yet Paul here implies that Demas was no longer with him because of his love for this present world—and thus this is less a personal wrong and more a matter of apostasy. Flip the situation around; if Paul had remained silent and Demas presented himself to any of the churches in which the epistle to the Colossians had circulated, they would have assumed that he was speaking for Paul and followed him astray.
  • In III John 9, John publicly stated that Diotrophes would not receive him as an apostle. Honestly, in this case, we do not know whether John approached him one on one first, but since the issue was not accepting John’s authority, there is a reasonable presumption that he did not.
  • In Revelation 2:20, John conveys Jesus’ warning to the church in Thyatira, calling out Jezebel the self-styled prophetess by name.


The timing of this column was inspired by two controversies over the bookends—a speaker denying Genesis / creation and an author denying Revelation / Hell.

Yet it has its applications to Southern Gospel. When a sin of a personal nature has been committed by an artist, it is indeed appropriate to follow Matthew 18—if you are personally involved in the situation. (Naturally, there are no Biblical grounds for believing that buying a CD or ticket gives you standing to get involved in a matter of a personal sin, where you were otherwise uninvolved.)

Please do not misunderstand this; I am not using this to condone any sin. I Timothy 3 gives qualifications for church leadership; while the Bible does not specify that these are also to be applied to those who minister in multiple churches on an itinerant basis, group managers could find no better checklist in the process of hiring co-laborers. While it may be appropriate for a church issuing an invitation to a group to share their platform to inquire whether its members meet the Bible’s qualifications for local church ministry, these issues are rarely matters where it is appropriate for an observer to step into the situation!

On the other hand, when an artist or other public figure publicly proclaims heresy—or a song lyric intentionally or unintentionally proclaims a heretical teaching—it is quite appropriate for Christians to proclaim truth.

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