Treat Them Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors

Rembrandt – “The Return of the Prodigal Son
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If you have spent time reading the Bible, you might be familiar with the story in Matthew 18:15-17. Jesus is talking to his disciples and this is what he says,

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

This passage is often cited in discussions about church order and discipline. Most of the time we use it to justify turning someone out of the church. But we are wrong when we do that. Here’s why.

Order and organization matters in the gospels. Take a look at what comes before and after this story in Matthew’s gospel. Here is Matthew 18:1-14 and here is Matthew 18:18-34. The writers didn’t merely record events in chronological order. A simple comparison of the four gospels shows us that. The gospel writers organized events and grouped incidents together to make important theological points. They want to help their readers understand who Jesus is and what he means for us and the world. We do the gospel writers a disservice when we ignore their careful and intentional organization and structure.

Right before this passage (Matt 18:15-17) are  Jesus’ warnings about the necessity to avoid being a stumbling block for anyone. Next is the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to search to one lost sheep. Right after this passage, Jesus tells Peter we are to forgive members of the church seventy seven times. And then Jesus tells the parable of the slave who is forgiven by his master but refuses to forgive his debtors.  Lots of stories about the importance of forgiveness. Verses 15- 17 are surrounded by teachings about forgiveness. Those teachings on forgiveness need to inform our understanding of verses 15-17.

Sometimes we think the story we are looking at today lets us stop forgiving after three tries. However that interpretation doesn’t really fit well with the stories and parables that come before and after.

Here’s my other interpretive question. Verse 17 tells us to treat  an “offender” as a Gentile and a tax collector.  So, exactly how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  Jesus heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He heals the Centurion’s servant. He calls a tax collector to be his disciple.

Jesus repeatedly invited tax collectors and Gentiles into the kingdom of God.

To “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” doesn’t mean wash our hands of them. It means we need to continue to  reach out to those with whom we have a conflict.  We must continue inviting them into the fellowship of the kingdom of God.

This is really difficult work. I’m sure you know that. To remain in relationship with someone with whom we have a disagreement is hard. To remain in relationship with someone who has sinned against us is even more difficult.

It seems to me, one of the things the church is supposed to do is to be a community that never gives up on each other. We’re not to push people out because they are difficult or annoying or wrong or sinners. The church is to continually seek reconciliation. We are to be the visible witness of the steadfast love of God.

The church is called to be a community of faith, of love and of care for each other. This doesn’t mean that no one ever sins against another person. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have disagreements. This doesn’t mean that any behavior or action is fine. It certainly doesn’t mean this is easy.

What it does mean is that we don’t give up on each other. Just as God doesn’t give up on us.


I’d like to know, what do you think?

31 thoughts on “Treat Them Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors

  1. Exactly right! It baffles me how, knowing the context of Christ’s teaching and ministry, we can assume this means anything other than to press forward towards our “enemies” in love.

    1. “Jesus repeatedly invited tax collectors and Gentiles into the kingdom of God.” Yes he did, because they were outside the Kingdom of God. One who rejects his Church rejects him and the one who sent him. Notice how Jesus no longer refers to the offender as a sister or brother. They have forfeited their inheritance (the Kingdom of God) by their disobedience to His Church. We can offer forgiveness to one who sins against us but if they refuse to acknowledge the sin then by default they reject my forgiveness and absent the offering and acceptance of forgiveness our relationship cannot be reconciled or restored. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to pray for, invite and charitably correct those who have lost their inheritance, not by sin, but by rejecting His Church. Sometimes it is necessary to censure, exclude or excommunicate someone, not as an act of vengeance, but as an act if healing. It is a type of intervention.

      1. so right. Grace abounds so why not live in sin. God forbid how can we live in what we are dead to. The scripture did not say keep moving forward it said treat them differently. Full salvation only comes from full repentance. True Healing not just forgiveness comes from those repentant.

  2. I stumbled across your article while researching church discipline. I think you present an interesting point, but I think you have missed out on some important context in other parts of the Bible.

    1 Corinthians 5 / 2 Corinthians 2
    Paul instructs the Corinthian church to turn him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord. Christians should not associate or socialize (even eat) with the brother in Christ who fits these characteristics.

    Romans 16:17-20
    Watch those who cause dissension and stay away from them.

    2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
    The brothers who did not work were not to be provided food rations. Further, there is a general instruction to not associate with brothers that are unruly or who reject the instructions in the word of God so that the brother will be put to shame. The brother is to be strongly warned.

    1. Yes, the verses you cite are also in the Bible. And I could respond by citing Galatians 6:1-2 and 1Thessalonians 5:14-22.
      But your comments raise a larger and important consideration, what do we do when the Bible appears to contradict itself? How do we know, in this example, when to remain in fellowship with someone and when not to? There is a lot to think about here, more than can be dealt within “comments”.
      Briefly, the fact that Paul gives us seemingly contradictory advise suggests that this isn’t a one size fits all situation, we as the church need to carefully discern what the boundaries are. I think that historically we have erred too often on the side of overly quick judgment and exclusion, rather than loving patience and persistence.
      Issues of church discipline are, and rightly should be, tough decisions. It seems to me, we ought to always wrestle and struggle with these decisions.
      If you are researching church discipline because you have a decision to make, God bless you and God be with you.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      1. Just putting this out there to be seen, one thing we need to recognize is that the scripture of Matthew 18:15-17 says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The person is not repentant, see. They won’t repent and change. In the case of a physically abusive raping violent person, this is NOT OK. Therefore, discernment is vital and things like this mentioned is NON TOLLERABLE behavior. That is why Jesus says to treat them like a Gentile and a Tax Collector, because they have to be cast out. And they will realize people don’t condone and lovingly love them from a distance till they start behaving. It’s called Tough Love. God does it to us all the time. There is a time to forgive, yet when they absolutely refuse and don’t repent, they can’t receive forgiveness when they don’t ask for it and don’t want it. They need to leave at that point or be escorted out like we would take a child that is hitting someone out of the room. They immediately are separated. When Jesus hung out with Tax Collectors, murders, thieves, prostitutes, etc. is because He saw they were repentant. They wanted to get out of that mess and did not cause dissension. This is how we learn to draw that line of discernment. This is how. Be blessed in the Lord Jesus Christ.

        1. Natalie- I appreciate your comment. I have an unrepentant family member who causes much dissension when with us and is unrepentant. She wants to come back into my life and yet I cannot embrace her but pray and love from a distance and treat her in a gentile way until God works a miracle. Peace

  3. I know this is right, but if one cannot reconcile, should one just do it through prayer. I still pray for that person, but no matter what I have tried, it does not work and only causes me great sadness when I am confronted with another affront.

    1. It is really difficult sometimes, isn’t it? It seems that sometimes all we can do is our part and then hope and pray that God is at work even if we don’t see it. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  4. Even a wall can affect its transmission across a given area.
    Here is a comparison and few details on the Cat-5e and Cat-6 cabling systems:
    . Backbone cables must have standard imposed fire rating specifications.

  5. This scripture begins ‘If another member of the Church’. So we are probably only talking about minor differences. Therefore Nancy has a good point. And this argument cannot be countered with scriptures that are really aimed at more serious evil. The oppressors of the defenseless are not members of the Church. Therefore it is permissible for Christians to take up the sword for the defense of the faith, self and the victims of evil people. Thus there is no contradiction, just a need to read carefully. Also there were those who refused Jesus. So treating them as a Gentile can still mean leaving an offer of reconciliation and praying for them but generally avoiding contact. Sometimes not making contact is the best solution. Remember also ‘the wolves within.’ How do we deal with those we suspect?

  6. You make some wonderful points that I have recently contemplated myself. To add to your points, I would say:
    – It is beautiful to notice these 3 verses are sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep (which is so amazing once you start to see yourself as the one sheep and not the 99), and the parable of the unmerciful servant (which the church should heed lest they actually be seen as the more powerful, unmerciful servant).
    – Notice the use of “you” throughout Matt 18:15-17. Even in the Greek, it is used in the singular tense. So when it says, “let such a one be to YOU as a Gentile and a tax collector”, it is a grammatical stretch to say the entire church body should look condescendingly upon (as the Jews did to such types in those days) the sinful BROTHER, I don’t read it that way and think it dangerous to do so.
    – One point to add to Christ’s treatment of the Gentile, He only told two individuals that we know of that they had Great Faith; both were Gentiles. Oh, and Matthew was a tax collector (this is the only gospel where these verses are discussed, and throughout Matthew in ch9 and ch11, we see a beautiful commentary regarding the tax collector and sinner – Christ came for the sinner, not the righteous, he came for the sick (the lost sheep), not the healthy (the 99), and Christ wants us to know He desires mercy, not sacrifice).
    – One last point (it’s longer, so please stay with me), Christ follows up v17 with v18 saying, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loosen on earth will be loosed in heaven”. This is why seeing this as authority to excommunicate is extremely dangerous here…however, we are swept away from going there by watching Peter’s immediate response where he sees these verses ultimately as an instruction to forgive. Why is this significant, because it was just 2 chapters back, in Matt 16, that Peter, when asked who he thought Jesus was, says he believed Jesus was the Christ, son of the Living God. Peter – the first professing Christian! Christ gives him the keys of heaven, offers to build the church upon him, and says to Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loosen on earth will be loosed in heaven”. (A side note that is just my humble opinion, I can see where all professing Christians are given the keys and told the same thing at the moment of their heartfelt professing of who Christ is to them). Peter, who now has had time to contemplate, or even had asked Christ on the side what that meant, now immediately questions Christ in such a way that he seems to be concerned with forgiving even an habitual sinners, is 7 times forgiving enough? Christ basically tells him, if you are keeping count, that shows more of what your heart is about than the “offender’s”. And this is where He gives us the parable of the unmerciful servant.
    – Compare that to 1 Cor 5 and 2 Cor 2. You noted some concern that there seems to be a contradiction in God’s inerrant Word…I think I see where it might reconcile. In 1 Cor 5 v1, Paul is troubled that there is a member with a “sin rap sheet” that includes something detestable in both the OT & NT, and even detestable among the pagans. In v2, however, Paul displays his deeper concern that the church leadership is actually proud to have this member in their congregation (maybe someone famous or powerful?). Paul is disgusted with their pride and in v13, tells them to expel the member. Jump to 2 Cor 2 and we see Paul is following up on his earlier letter explaining himself. 1 Cor was written in a time of great distress and anguish. In 2 Cor 2 v5, Paul says the sinner didn’t cause him this distress, but it should have (and apparently did) cause the church leaders distress. Jumping to v9, Paul confesses he asked them to expel the brother as a TEST to know whether they would be obedient. For obedience trumps the pride they were feeling back in 1 Cor 5. Instead, Paul now BEGS them to forgive, love, and comfort him. For love trumps obedience (and Christ desires mercy, not sacrifice). And in v10, he says “anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive…for your sake in the presence of Christ”. In other words, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loosen on earth will be loosed in heaven.
    – The message in Matthew 18 as well as 1 Cor 5 is really, like the rest of the bible, about FORGIVENESS. The Bible drips with forgiveness, there is no contradiction, not even here.

  7. Hello Ms Nancy. I was blessed to ‘stumble :-)’ upon an older post in a search today “Treat Them Like Gentiles and Tax Collectors”- I was considering what i believe to be an errant way in which some folks i’ve met/loved combine and perhaps confuse the heart of this particular scripture w/ the Lord’s teaching when sending out the !2 in instructing them on whom and what town to ‘shake the dust from their feet’- seemingly so very different teachings to me and a source of some frustration when bandied about interchangeably. /end rant/released and grateful:-)/

  8. Hi there
    I’m really struggling to know what to do in the case of child sexual abuse. As you know it would be hard for a victim to be involved in a relationship with the offender to be able to treat as a gentile or tax collector.
    How would a victim proceed in a Godly-way towards repentance of ones sin etc. when the offender is still in downplay and denial about abusing the victim? This is after confrontation and extending forgiveness, from both the victim and the church. Would this be a mere disagreement between two Christians?
    If the offender is still denying the abuse and continue to live as though there has been no sin, should the case be brought before the laws of the land, when the church has left the situation ‘high and dry’?
    Child sexual abuse seems to be a moot point in most churches leaving little to no positive outcome for victims, until the full force of the law is laid upon them. An obvious earthly judgement. Should we wait for God to judge these crimes without the need for earthly authority to be involved?
    Also, on the one hand interpreters of the Bible are saying, show him love and extend the hand of fellowship towards the offender. And on the other hand the interpreters are saying, children are of special concern to God, and if you hurt them it would be better that a millstone be tied around your neck and you drown – not literally of course.
    How far should justice go on this earth concerning the sin of child sexual abuse?
    We know what happens in cases of rape and murder and stealing etc… What about child sexual abuse?
    Sorry there’s a lot of info and questions there 🙂

    1. Miryam, I think child sexual abuse must always be reported. And the child and the child’s family encouraged to get therapy from a licensed therapist with expertise in abuse treatment. Forgiving someone, especially in case of such extreme injury, is not easy and should not be rushed into. Much healing may need to occur before forgiveness can be offered. And forgiveness does not imply or require an ongoing relationship. It would be morally and criminally negligent to allow a suspected child abuser to be around children- whether the suspected abuser is repentant or not.

      As the church we are called to seek reconciliation and to love each other, but that does not mean turning a blind eye to serious, criminal actions. Love also holds the other accountable. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Forgiveness is part of the victims healing (and again cannot be forced or rushed). Reconciliation does require an admission of guilt and a sincere apology.

      Miryam, if you suspect a child has been abused, you MUST report it, for the safety of the child and for the safety of other children. Please.

      1. Hi Nancy,
        What you are saying resonates overwhelmingly in my mind and heart. I did forget to mention that the abuse happened 15-20 odd years ago, so the victims are now in their late 20’s early 30’s. Knowing that, would it change your opinion?
        My main concern now is for the wider community and that it will not happen to anyone else. If I don’t do something now, it could very well happen to someone else.
        I sincerely thank you for your insightful opinion. It is very well received. Regards. Miryam.

        1. Hello Miryam, I’m just a person with a blog and no special expertise in this area. Different countries have different laws about how long a crime is still able to be prosecuted. And different countries, no doubt, have different laws about who must report suspected abuse. It seems to me that if you are concerned that abuse could be ongoing, you should report it to the proper authorities.

          From what I have read the emotional and mental health consequences of abuse are long lasting, so I would repeat my suggestion to encourage the victims to seek appropriate therapy if they have not already done so.

          Miryam, I’m praying for you to have wisdom about what to do. And praying for healing for the victims and the abuser.

          One more comment about the churches responsibility. As I see it the church ( as in the larger church, not only a local congregation) has a responsibility to both the abused and the abuser. Caring for both parties may not be possible within a single church. It very likely could be quite unwise. Caring for others also involves appropriate boundaries. As in abusers are not allowed to be around children, but could help with older adult activities- for example. Not every congregation can do everything or meet the spiritual needs of every person. That’s why we need each other. Again, you are in my prayers.

  9. Wow. God through the Holy Spirit lead me to this blog. I feel blessed with this article you wrote a few years back. And now, few years later, it is still helping and saving people (lives), me including. Thank you and I thank God for you.

  10. The answer here is simple all the tax gatherers and sinners that Jesus associated with sought him out and were in a repentant state of heart and they were welcomed Matthew 18:15-17 is about people in an unrepentant ,rebellious state of heart that refuse to stop sinning and just as God is willing to forgive and accept us back into the flock so should we be if that person repents and turns from his sin.

  11. I think you’re 100% right. This is exactly what the Message translation says is meant by this passage. I agree! Jesus didn’t deny or turn his back on anyone. Not even those who He had to rebuke like the Pharisees. Thank you!

  12. I think Jesus was telling them to treat the person that they have tried multiple times to reconcile to God but refuses to repent like a gentile or tax collector. Plain and simple. You are not a sheep if you refuse to repent. You are a goat. He didn’t say treat them as I treat tax collectors but how YOU would treat them. And I think we know how they treated them. I’m not sure how a church who allows members to continue to sin works. Sin running rampant while we try to love it the sin out. Ha that sounds funny.

  13. I love what you said I have had a pro nlem with a few particular people talking disrespectfully to me in a church where other people hot hurt by them and left so our church I’d down to ten to 15 people and I had a agreement with one of them and she says she will never talk to Mr again in this chur h ashamed to say the pastor got wind of it and asked if I was on I am tryi g to Che kt spirit and I said I hurt you.but you hurt me she always does this in front ofmy husband but treats him in with respect I don’t know how to Handel this situation have a problem with jealous of my husband around her cause she cuts me down I. Front of him I took her aside to talk to her about it before she always said it was my fault not hers we had an all out argument and the pastor told her don’t interfere with a husband and wife’s dealings let them work it out I’m glad he said that cause it made me know that I was feeling threatened by the position I felt of respect she was taking from me as a wife no other girlfriends of myself do I feel this threatened by but she’s in the church. It not close friend

  14. We must also remember to be humble. Sometimes scripture is clear, but sometimes it requires interpretation. If we disagree as to what it says, we are not in a position to discipline one another. I don’t remember God coming down from on high and appointing me his personal spokesman.

    I have been in that position before, very certain I was correct, and doing God’s work by censuring those who were straying from the path. Later I came to realize that my interpretation was very flawed and I was just enjoying the feeling of being right. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the feeling of righteousness we don’t realize that we are seeking our own pleasure in that feeling and not God’s will.

    Admitting I’m wrong is very difficult, but every time I manage to do so, I know I am on the right path.

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