In Matthew 18:17, Jesus' instructions on the brother who sins reach a climax:

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.

I'm curious about the phrase "tell it to the church." Most the commentaries I've read agree that "the church" refers to the local church as compared to a universal church. What I'm wondering, though, is whether "the church" necessarily refers to the whole gathered assembly, or whether the phrase can be properly read as a metonym, similar to a phrase like "waiting for an answer from the White House" where "the White House" obviously doesn't refer to the building, but to the president and his staff. Is such a reading plausible here?

  • To be clear, are you asking whether church discipline must take place before the whole congregation of a local church vs. the elders of a church?
    – sbunny
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 3:40
  • 1
    I don't think the move from exegesis to application is that straightforward in this case. A full theology/ethic of church discipline would need to take into account relevant passages from Acts, Paul, the letters of John, etc... But, yes that question is the basis for wanting to ask the question I have here.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 12:52
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    Also I avoided mentioning elders, because I didn't want to import an ecclesiology that might be anachronistic to the passage anyway.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 12:55
  • I get what you're saying. Elders indeed were not part of the picture at this point. And the basis of any answer toward your question does require some foundation to be built in biblical ecclesiology. I'm going to look into it.
    – sbunny
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 15:36

6 Answers 6


I can see where the interpretation you ask about is plausible, however the progression in that text, Paul's practices of church discipline, and the precursor of Old Testament corporate punishment indicate that this "church" is more representative of the body as a whole rather than a metonym.

Jesus takes it from confronting with one person [v15] to confirming it (in obedience to the Law) by 2 or 3 witnesses [v16] to an even larger group in the church [v17].

But “if he does not listen,” that is, if he chooses to justify his sin as if it were a just action, “take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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.” Don’t consider him now in the number of your brothers. But not even so is his salvation to be neglected. For even the heathen, that is, the Gentiles and pagans, we do not consider in the number of our brothers, yet we constantly pray for their salvation. - Augustine Sermon 82.7

Treating the sinner as a tax-gatherer or Gentile would be difficult for only leadership to carry out as the rest of the church (without being briefed on the circumstance) may wonder why he/she is being treated that way. For that person to not be numbered among the brothers, all the church would need to know.

Numerous times Paul calls out people in his letters: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 1:15; 2 Timothy 2:17; & 2 Timothy 4:10,14. Those letters were sent to church leaders, but also circulated among the church as a whole. He tells the believers in those churches not to associate with those who have resisted correction. These instances appear to be a walking out of "telling the church".

In the Old Testament Law we find instruction on handling a sinner much the same way with accusation confirmed by investigation and witnesses then followed by all the people dealing with the sin.

If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the Lord your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, by transgressing His covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, which I have not commanded, and if it is told you and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. And behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed, to your gates, that is, the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to death. On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. - Deuteronomy 17:2-7

Obviously, Christ's instruction is not to stone them, but removing the obstinate from the church as a whole is consistent with the Israelite practices of sanctifying the community of faith.


Perhaps modern interpretations of this verse are different, but in antiquity "telling it to the Church" was understood to mean to the rulers of the Church and not to some assembly of persons in general. John Chrysostom makes this clear in his 4th century commentary:

But if he shall neglect to hear them also, tell it to the church, that is, to the rulers of it; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be to thee as an heathen man and a publican. For after this such a one is incurably diseased.

Homily LX on the Gospel According to St. Matthew

Exegeses of Matthew 18 frequently overlook the fact that Jesus is not speaking to the multitude, but to the disciples (18:1), whose successors were the hierarchs and presbyters of the Church. All of 18:15-20 pertains to the Apostles and their successors and not anyone whosoever claims to be a Christian, including His teaching regarding what they should bind on earth should be bound in heaven (18:18), as well as that when two or three of them are gathered in His name, he would be in their midst (18:20).


And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. (Mt 16:18-20 [NET])

The church of Jesus in Matthew 18:17 is made up of disciples according to Matthew 16:20.

It was not a local church, but itinerant.


Am I missing something, or did not the Church start soon after the death and resurrection of our LORD Jesus Christ? In my opinion then this word assembly was probably not referring to the pharisee, but rather those disciples (not just the 12) that were following; much then like the question, "who is my neighbor," we need not ask who our "all" our sisters and brothers are.

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    – enegue
    Commented Sep 23, 2017 at 0:55

The Church or Ecclessia is a group of believers called out of the world and regenerated in their spirits. As you correctly note, the Church has a local and universal aspect. But in practicality, we live and fellowship in the Local Church. If I have a problem with a brother in Dallas, it is not practical to travel or call up some members in ( universal Church) Philippines, Australia and Mongolia etc.,to talk about the issue. However, you do have your local chapter where there is a group of members you are vital with and have a relationship. Having said that, I believe the Church in your question simply refers to a group members in your local fellowship. "Telling it to the Church" probably does not refer to a public announcement, but probably a discrete fellowship with some members of Church who will find an appropriate way to deal with the issue. The "Church" could just refer to a few members in the locality. Just like if you have a problem with a sibling and you "discuss with the family" it might not mean that you brought the issue to all your aunts, uncles, cousins, grand parents etc. You probably discussed with a couple of brothers and your Dad only.

As far as the idea of elders being anachronistic with the moment the Lord mentioned. We need to understand that in the spiritual realm and with the Lord, the time element is treated differently or maybe is non-sequitur. Otherwise verses in the old testament and in fact the whole Bible would be largely irrelevant to us today. Hence the Lords words are timeless.


Ecclessia doesn't have a sense of just the people of one denomination who meet at that local church building you see in your suburb of the city. From the level of communication about issues in local church communities to and from Paul and so on, I'd say it was harder to imagine back then a great deal of difference between a local church congregation and the whole body of Christ - the Church.

Not that "tell it to the church" would have meant to original audiences "send messages to every community of believers in the world", but it has to mean that the issue is now not something involving the personalities or experience level of a few people directly involved, but a decision by the church in general (probably communicated better/wider than in our Internet Age!).

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