This is the fourth video in our series on shunning. In this video, we’re going to examine Matthew 18:17 where Jesus tells us to treat an unrepentant sinner as a tax collector or a gentile, or a man of the nations, as the New World Translation puts it. You may think that you know what Jesus means by that, but let’s not allow ourselves to be influenced by any previously held ideas. Instead, let’s try to approach this with an open mind, free of preconceptions, so that we can allow the evidence from Scripture to speak for itself. After that, we’ll make a comparison with what the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses claims Jesus meant when he said to treat a sinner like a man of the nations (a gentile) or a tax collector.
Let’s start by looking at what Jesus says at Matthew 18:17.
“…if he [the sinner] refuses to listen to even the congregation, let him become as a gentile or as a tax collector among you.” (Matthew 18:17b 2001Translation.org)
To most Christian denominations, the Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as most Protestant denominations, that means “excommunication.” In times past, that involved torture and even execution.
Do you think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he talked about treating a sinner as you would a gentile or a tax collector?
Witnesses claim that what Jesus meant was “disfellowshipping,” a term not found in Scripture just like other words not found in scripture that support religious doctrines, like the “trinity” or “organization.” Bearing this in mind, let’s see how the Governing Body interprets Jesus’ words about being treated like a gentile or a tax collector.
In the “Frequently Asked Questions” section of JW.org we find a relevant question: “Do Jehovah’s Witnesses Shun Those Who Used to Belong to Their Religion?”
In answer: “We do not automatically disfellowship someone who commits a serious sin. If, however, a baptized Witness makes a practice of breaking the Bible’s moral code and does not repent, he or she will be shunned or disfellowshipped.” ( https://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/faq/shunning/ )
So the Governing Body teaches the flock that follows them that disfellowshipping is synonymous with shunning.
But is that what Jesus meant at Matthew 18:17 when the sinner didn’t listen to the congregation?
Before we can answer that, we need to examine that verse exegetically, which means, among other things, considering the historical context and the traditional mindset of Jesus’ listeners. Why? Because Jesus doesn’t tell us exactly how to treat the unrepentant sinner. Instead, he used a simile, which is a figure of speech. He told them to treat the sinner like they would treat a gentile or a tax collector. He could have come out and simply stated, “Shun the sinner completely. Don’t even tell him ‘hello’.” But instead he decided to make a comparison to something his listeners could relate to.
What is a gentile? A gentile is a non-Jew, a man of the nations that surrounded Israel. That doesn’t help me much, because I’m not Jewish, so that makes me a gentile. As for tax collectors, I don’t know any, but I don’t think I’d treat someone from the Canada Revenue service any differently than the next fellow. Americans might have a different view of IRS agents. I can’t say for sure one way or the other. The fact is, no one, in any country, likes to pay taxes, but we don’t hate civil servants for doing their job, do we?
Again, we have to look at the historical context to understand Jesus’ words. We start by considering to whom Jesus was addressing these words. He was talking to his disciples, right? They were all Jews. And so, as a consequence of that, they would understand his words from a Jewish perspective. To them, a tax collector was someone who was in collaboration with the Romans. They hated the Romans because they had conquered their nation and were burdening them with taxes as well as pagan laws. They considered Romans to be unclean. Indeed, all Gentiles, all non-Jews, were unclean in the eyes of the disciples. This was a powerful prejudice which the Jewish Christians would eventually have to overcome when God revealed that gentiles would be included within the body of Christ. This prejudice is evident from Peter’s words to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to Christianity: “You know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with a foreigner or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28 BSB)
Here is where I think everyone goes wrong. Jesus wasn’t telling his disciples to treat an unrepentant sinner the way Jews in general traditionally treated gentiles and tax collectors. He was giving them new instructions which they would come to understand later. Their standard for viewing sinners, gentiles, and tax collectors was about to change. It was no longer to be based on traditional Jewish values. The standard was now to be based on Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6) That is why he said, “If he [the sinner] refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)
Notice that the “to you” in this verse refers to Jesus’ Jewish disciples who would come to form the body of Christ. (Colossians 1:18) As such, they would emulate Jesus in every way. To do that, they would have to abandon Jewish traditions and prejudices, many of which came from the influence of their religious leaders like the Pharisees and the Jewish governing body, especially with regard to punishing people.
Sadly, for most of Christendom, the exemplar, the image they follow, is that of men. The question is, do we follow the lead of religious leaders like the men making up the Governing Body, or do we follow Jesus Christ?
I hope that you answer, “We follow Jesus!”
So how did Jesus view gentiles and tax collectors. On one occasion, Jesus talked with a Roman army officer and cured his house servant. On another, he cured the daughter of a gentile Phoenician woman. And isn’t it odd that he ate with tax collectors? He even invited himself into the home of one of them.
Now a man named Zacchaeus was there; he was a chief tax collector, and he was rich…Now when Jesus got to the place, he looked up and said to him: “Zacchaeus, hurry and get down, for today I must stay in your house.” (Luke 19:2, 5)
In addition, Jesus called Matthew Levi to follow him even while Matthew was still working as a tax collector.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. (Matthew 9:9 NIV)
Now notice the contrasting attitude between the traditional Jews and our Lord Jesus. Which of these two attitudes is most like that of the Governing Body?
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13 NIV)
So, when dealing with a present-day fellow Christian who is an unrepentant sinner, are we to take the view of the Pharisees, or of Jesus? The Pharisees shunned tax collectors. Jesus ate with them so as to win them over to God.
When Jesus gave his instructions to his disciples as recorded at Matthew 18:15-17, do you think they grasped the full implications at that time? It is unlikely given the many instances in which they failed to grasp the significance of his teachings. For instance, in verse 17, he told them to take the sinner before the congregation or assembly, the ekklesia of “called out ones.” But that calling out was a result of their anointing by holy spirit, something they had not yet received. That came about 50 days after Jesus’ death, at Pentecost. The whole idea of a Christian congregation, the body of Christ, was unknown to them at that point. So we must assume that Jesus was providing them with instructions which would only make sense after he ascended to heaven.
This is where the holy spirit comes into play, both for them and for us. Indeed, without the spirit, people will always arrive at the wrong conclusion with regard to the application of Matthew 18:15-17.
The importance of the holy spirit is underscored by these words from our Lord just prior to his death:
I have yet many things to tell you, but you are not able to bear them now. However, when that one has come, even the Spirit of the truth, it will lead you into all truth because it shall not speak from itself, but whatever it shall hear, it shall speak. And it shall disclose to you the things to come. That one shall glorify Me because it shall disclose to you the things that it receives from Me. (John 16:12-14 A Faithful Version)
Jesus knew that there were things his disciples just couldn’t handle at that moment in time. He knew that they needed something more to understand all that he had taught them and shown them. What they lacked, but would soon get, would be the spirit of truth, the holy spirit. It would take the knowledge that he had given them and add to it: Understanding, Insight, and Wisdom.
To explain that, consider that “knowledge” is just raw data, a collection of facts. But “understanding” is that which allows us to see how all the facts are related, how they interconnect. Then “insight” is the ability to focus on key facts, to bring the relevant ones together so as to see the inner character of something or its underlying truth. However, all of this is of little value if we don’t have “wisdom”, the practical application of knowledge.
By combining what Jesus told them at Matthew 18:15-17 with his actions and example, the yet-to-be-created body of Christ, the future assembly/ekklesia of holy ones, would be able to act wisely and deal with sinners as befits the law of Christ which is love. At Pentecost, when the disciples were filled with holy spirit, they began to understand all that Jesus had taught them.
In subsequent videos in this series, we’ll look at specific instances where first-century Bible writers dealt with matters in accordance with Jesus’ instructions and example. For now, let’s consider how the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses implements Matthew 18:17. They claim to be the only true religion. Their Governing Body claims to be spirit anointed, and more than that, the one channel Jehovah is using to guide his people on earth today. They teach their followers that the holy spirit has been guiding them since 1919, when according to the latest information in the publications, the Governing Body was crowned as the Faithful and Discreet Slave by Jesus Christ himself.
Well, judge for yourself whether those claims match up with the evidence.
Let’s keep it as simple as possible for now. Let’s focus on verse 17 of Matthew 18. We’ve just analyzed that verse. Is there any indication that Jesus was referring to a body of elders when he said to bring the sinner before the congregation? Is there any indication based on Jesus’ own example that he intended his followers to totally shun a sinner? If that were the case, why be ambivalent? Why not just come out and state it clearly and unequivocally. But he didn’t, did he? He gave them a simile, one which they wouldn’t be able to understand properly until the Christian congregation was actually formed.
Did Jesus totally shun gentiles? Did he treat tax collectors with disdain, refusing to even speak with them? No. He was teaching his followers by example just what kind of attitude they should have to people they formerly viewed as impure, unclean, and wicked.
It’s one thing to remove a sinner from our midst in order to protect the congregation from the leaven of sin. But it is quite another thing to totally shun that person to the point of cutting them off from all social interaction, with former friends and even with their own family members. That is something Jesus never taught, nor is it something he exemplified. His interactions with gentiles and tax collectors paints a very different picture.
We get that right? But we’re not special, are we? Other than being willing to open ourselves to the leading of the spirit, we have no special knowledge? We’re just going by what is written.
So, was the so-called faithful and discreet slave of Jehovah’s Witnesses guided by that same spirit when it instituted its disfellowshipping/shunning policy? If so, then the spirit led them to a very different conclusion than we’ve reached. Given that, we must ask, “From what source is the spirit that is guiding them?”
They claim to have been appointed by Jesus Christ himself to be his faithful and discreet slave. They teach that the appointment to that role came about in 1919. If so, one is moved to ask, “What took them so long to understand Matthew 18:15-17, assuming they’ve understood it correctly? The disfellowshipping policy only came into effect in 1952, some 33 years after their alleged appointment by our Lord Jesus. The first three articles in the March 1, 1952, Watchtower introduced that official policy.
IS IT proper to disfellowship? Yes, as we have just seen in the above article…There is a proper procedure to follow in this regard. It must be an official act. Someone in authority must make the decision, and then the person is removed. (w52 3/1 p. 138 par. 1, 5 Propriety of Disfellowshiping [2nd article])
Let’s keep this simple for now. There is much to discuss about how Jehovah’s Witnesses implement their disfellowshipping policy and we’ll get into that in future videos. But for now, I’d like to focus on what we’ve just learned in our focused study of just one verse, verse 17 of Matthew 18. Do you think that after what we’ve learned, you have a grasp of what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to consider the unrepentant sinner as they would a gentile or a tax collector in their midst? Do you see any reason to conclude that he meant that they—that we—should totally shun such an individual, not even saying so much as a “hello” to him? Are we to implement the pharisaical interpretation of shunning sinners as was practiced in Jesus’ day? Is this what the holy spirit is guiding the Christian congregation to do today? We’ve seen no evidence for that conclusion.
So, let’s contrast that understanding with what Jehovah’s Witnesses were and are taught about how to interpret verse 17. From the aforementioned 1952 article:
There is one more scripture quite pertinent here, at Matthew 18:15-17…This scripture here has nothing to do with disfellowshiping on a congregational basis. When it says go to the congregation, it means go to the elders or the mature ones in the congregation and discuss your own private difficulties. This scripture has to do with merely a personal disfellowshiping… If you cannot straighten it out then with the offending brother, then it just means a personal avoidance between you two persons, your treating him like a tax collector or a non-Jew outside the congregation. You do what you have to do with him only on a business basis. It has nothing to do with the congregation, because the offensive act or the sin or misunderstanding is not any grounds for disfellowshiping him from all the company. Things of that kind should not be brought into the general congregation for decision. (w52 3/1 p. 147 par. 7)
The Governing Body of 1952, claiming to be guided by holy spirit, is instituting a “personal disfellowshipping” here. A personal disfellowshipping? Did the holy spirit guide them to that conclusion?
Not based on what happened just two years later.
From: Questions From Readers
- The main article of the September 15, 1954, Watchtower told about one witness of Jehovah not speaking to another witness in the same congregation, this going on for years because of a personal grievance, and the point was made that this showed a lack of true neighbor love. However, could this not be a case of a proper application of the counsel given at Matthew 18:15-17?—A. M., Canada. (w54 12/1 p. 734 Questions From Readers)
Some bright star in Canada saw the idiocy of the “personal disfellowshipping” instructions in the 1952 Watchtower article and asked a pertinent question. How did the so-called faithful and discreet slave respond?
No! We can hardly view this scripture as advising such a time-consuming process and possibly ending up in two members of the congregation not speaking and avoiding each other just because of some minor personal disagreement or misunderstanding. It would be contrary to the requirement of love. (w54 12/1 pp. 734-735 Questions From Readers)
There is no acknowledgement here that this unloving “time-consuming process” was their doing as a result of what they published in the March 1, 1952 Watchtower. This situation was a direct result of their interpretation of Matthew 18:17 published just two years prior, yet we see no hint of an apology from them. In a woefully characteristic move, the Governing Body took no responsibility whatsoever for the harm their unscriptural teachings may have caused. Instructions that by their own unwitting admission went “contrary to the requirement of love”.
In this same “Questions from Readers”, they now change their disfellowshipping policy, but is it for the better?
Hence we must view the sin mentioned at Matthew 18:15-17 as a serious one that must be terminated, and, if that is not possible, then the one so sinning is to be disfellowshiped from the congregation. If the sinning one cannot be made to see his grievous error by mature brothers of the congregation and cease his wrongdoing, then the matter is of such importance that it be brought before the congregation committee for congregational action. If the committee cannot induce the sinner to repent and reform he must be disfellowshiped from the congregation in order to preserve the cleanness and oneness of the Christian congregation. (w54 12/1 p. 735 Questions From Readers)
They use the word “disfellowship” repeatedly in this article, but what do they really mean by that word? How do they apply Jesus’ words about treating the sinner as a man of the nations or a tax collector?
If the wrongdoer is wicked enough to be shunned by one brother he merits such treatment by the entire congregation. (w54 12/1 p. 735 Questions From Readers)
Jesus said nothing about shunning the sinner, and he demonstrated that he was eager to gain the sinner back. Yet, in examining the past 70 years of Watchtower study articles, I was unable to find a single one that analyzed the meaning of Matthew 18:17 in light of Jesus’ own treatment of tax collectors and gentiles, according to the law of love. It seems they didn’t and don’t want their readers to focus on that aspect of Jesus’ dealings with sinners.
You and I have been able to understand the application of Matthew 18:17 in just a few minutes of research. In fact, when Jesus mentioned treating a sinner as a tax collector, didn’t you immediately think: “But Jesus ate with tax collectors!” It was the spirit working within you that brought about that insight. So, why is it that through 70 years of Watchtower articles, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to bring those pertinent facts to light? Why did they fail to share that gem of knowledge with their flock?
Instead, they teach their followers that anything they deem as a sin—smoking a cigarette, or questioning one of their teachings, or just resigning from the Organization—must result in complete and utter ostracism, the total shunning of the individual. They implement this policy through a complex system of rules and a secretive judicial procedure that hides their rulings from the average witness. Yet, with no scriptural evidence, they claim that it’s all based on God’s word. Where’s the proof?
When you read Jesus’ instructions to take the sinner before the congregation, the ekklesia, the anointed men and women making up the body of Christ, do you see any reason to believe he’s only referring to centrally appointed committee of three elders? Does that sound like a congregation?
In the rest of this series of videos, we’ll examine some examples of how Jesus’ instructions were implemented in specific cases faced by the first-century congregation. We’ll learn how some of the apostles, who were truly guided by holy spirit, instructed the members of the body of Christ to act in a way that both protected the congregation of holy ones and still provided for the sinner in a loving way.
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