Sep 10 • 13M

I'll See You in Court!

Church is the primary court for believers

Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Jake Dell
The Puritans called their preaching "experimental" not because they were trying new things in the pulpit, but because they wanted to be tested and proven by the Word of God.
Episode details
1 comment

The local church is the primary court for believers. Christians are to be a self-governing people. However, justice is seldom, if ever, sought or imposed in American churches today.

Proper 18
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Matthew 18:15-20


The word “lawfare” is much in the news today. It is defined as “the use of legal action to cause problems for an opponent.” There is even a blog devoted to it.

This is not a sermon on legal or just war theory, but it does seem to me that using a system that is meant to settle differences as a means for exacerbating them is unethical.

Something like lawfare seems to have occurred in the Corinthian church, prompting St. Paul to write to them and ask:

“So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?”

It’s clear from this that Paul intended the local church to be the primary court for believers.

What if this were so again? What if the Church of Jesus Christ were to reassert her rightful role in her members to be reconciled to each other?


Jesus lays the groundwork for the Christian redress of grievances in today’s gospel reading from Matthew.

Jesus describes the local church as a kind of court of appeals, saying that if an offending church member does not respond to a personal appeal, neither to the appeal of one or two other members of the church, then the whole church must assemble to try the case.

“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.”

In other words, the offender is to be excommunicated, stricken from the membership rolls.


No one thinks of the church this way and we haven’t for a very long time. That is due in part to the legacy of Christendom, where the ministry of justice — and it is a ministry — was taken up by nominally Christian kings who ruled over nominally Christian subjects.

Justice was executed in the king’s name and king answered only to God.

In our country justice is executed in the people’s name but if the people do not answer to God, then justice is perverted.

That Americans are increasingly becoming a people who do not think they have to answer to God seems evident to me, given some of the recent laws that have been passed.


This was also the situation that Ezekiel is dealing with in today’s reading.

The nation of Israel — both king and people — had turned from God. The situation is dire. It is life or death. God appoints Ezekiel to be his prophet of justice.

Listen to the words of Ezekiel’s commission:

“Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.”

What strikes me about this commission is the responsibility that’s placed on Ezekiel. He must pronounce the verdict of God’s justice on a wicked people. If not, he himself will be punished along with them.

This implies two things.

The first is this: justice is a mutual responsibility. If a brother sins against me and I do not go and tell him his fault, I will be punished along with him.

That cuts against the grain, doesn’t it? How many of us are conditioned to “be polite” and “not say anything”?

Answer: all of us.

What happens when we don’t bring our grievance to our brother’s attention?

We seethe with resentment. After all, justice delayed is justice denied.

Meanwhile, our brother continues to live in ignorance that he has done anything to hurt us. That only makes our resentment more delicious because now we can feel superior.

But in fact, we are not superior to our brother at all, and God will hold us accountable if he dies in his sin.

The second implication is this: the whole church is to play the role of “watchman for the house of Israel.”

This means we need to know the law of God ourselves and be willing to hold our fellow church members accountable to it.

We need to be at the ready to form those ad hoc one- and two-person juries to hear the testimony against a brother (or sister) in Christ, render judgment, receive his repentance, and be be a witness to the restoration of fellowship.

The right to be tried by a jury of one’s peers is a bedrock principle of our legal system.

But who is the peer of a believing Christian?

Only another believing Christian.

Who better to know when a Christian’s soul is in danger than a fellow Christian?

Your brother or sister in Christ will care a good deal more than the world ever will about your relationship with God and you doing something that could damage it.

By contrast, the world only tends to care about justice when some powerful interest has been offended.

For this reason, the local church needs to be willing to assemble as a whole to minister justice and discipline and the ministry of reconciliation to her members.


I conclude with two words of application.

The first is a word of warning. The warning is from Jesus’ own lips. The warning is this:

“And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

In other words, as a member of an alien race — and a corrupt, fraudulent member at that.

You sometimes might hear a bit of “us vs. them” in my preaching, but it’s right here in the text, from the lips of Jesus Himself.

And remember, the “us” is always the children of God who have been reconciled to Him and to each other and the “them” is always those children who refuse to be reconciled and forgiven.

Jesus intended for there to be a bright line between the church and the world, between the justice administered by the saints of God in the house of God and the justice administered by the ungodly in the courts of iniquity.

By saints I don’t mean people with halos. I mean the ordinary members of an ordinary church who are anything but ordinary by virtue of being born again.

We fear the justice of the unjust world because it can lock us up, confiscate our property, and put us to death.

But we ought to take more seriously the justice of the saints who have the power to bind people in fellowship to Jesus and to each other or to set them loose from that fellowship, which also means the loss of their friendship with God.

The second is a word of hope. The point of the church’s discipline is to achieve reconciliation through repentance. We cannot have the first without the second and we cannot repent if we are not convicted — that is if we do not own what we have done wrong.

Here is what conviction sounds like. Listen to the words of the people of Israel, pleading with Ezekiel:

“Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?”

Conviction in God’s court always means the death penalty and yet the church ministers a mercy that promises new life — a resurrection life — through repentance and reconciliation.

Again, from Ezekiel:

“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”

This ministry of mercy is vital to the church’s mission. It is so important that whenever the church assembles to exercise her ministry of discipline, mercy, repentance, and reconciliation — even if it’s just one or two church members — Jesus promises to be with us. Amen.

Preached on September 10, 2023 at St. Peter’s Lithgow, Millbrook, New York.


Questions for reflection and discussion:

1.       St. Paul intended the local church to be the primary ____________ for Christians.

2.       Explain the steps Jesus wanted His followers to take when redressing their grievances with fellow believers.

3.       If the offender will not accept the judgment of the church, he or she is to be ____________.

4.       Explain why the church is no longer the primary court to which Christians turn.

5.       If the king (or in the American context, the people) do not answer to God, then justice is ____________.

6.       Explain the responsibility placed on Ezekiel.

7.       Justice is a mutual ____________ between Christians.

8.       Therefore, it is incumbent upon Christians to know and study God’s ____________.

9.       Jesus intended for there to be a ____________ between the church and the world.

10.    Earthly justice can result in ____________, the confiscation of ____________, and the loss of ____________.

11.    Excommunication results in loss of ____________ with the church and the loss of ____________ with God.

12.    Church justice is hopeful because it always aims at ____________ and ____________.

Parents and Grandparents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents or the minister after church. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Count how many times “justice” is mentioned. 2) Discuss with your parents what to do when someone hurts you in some way.

(1) court; (2) speak to the offender alone first, then with two or three, finally assemble the whole church; (3) excommunicated; (4) the legacy of Christendom, justice became a ministry of the state alone; (5) perverted; (6) He must pronounce the verdict of God’s justice on a wicked people or else be condemned along with them; (7) responsibility; (8) law; (9) bright line, division, or separation; (10) imprisonment, property, life; (11) fellowship, friendship; (12) repentance, reconciliation


An attempt was made to restore the congregation’s role in church discipline at the time of the Protestant Reformation and many churches took that seriously for a long time.

A disciplinary meeting was often needed before the sacrament of Holy Communion could be administered. For instance, the rubrics from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer read:

“If a Minister be persuaded that any person who presents himself to be a partaker of the holy Communion ought not to be admitted thereunto by reason of malicious and open contention with his neighbours, or other grave and open sin without repentance, he shall give an account of the same to the Ordinary [Bishop] of the place…”


See: Ps. 94:20, “Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth mischief by a law?”


There is a limit to church discipline. Paul gives an example in 1 Cor. 5:3-5 of “deliver[ing] such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” Some offenses require handing the offender over to the civil authority for punishment. This is on top of the penalty of excommunication.