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Does this mean that we are then free to go to all the other church members and tell them all of the offender's infraction? No, of course not! Doing such a thing would likely precipitate an unpleasant and unnecessary split in the congregation.
It is interesting to note that, at the time that Jesus gave these instructions to the disciples, the church per se did not yet exist! His disciples were, of course, the nucleus of His future church. Yet, even they sometimes had jealousies and disagreements between themselves—yes, even after the coming of the Holy Spirit. We see a few examples of these disagreements in the gospel accounts and the epistles.
The idea that Jesus is getting at here anticipates the establishment of His church and its leadership. It is to that leadership—the church ministry—that the offended person is to go in the event of the failure of Step Number Two.
So Step Number Three is the appropriate time for the ministry to become involved. Again, we must avoid the temptation to jump the gun by trying to involve the ministry before we have completed the first two steps.
Moreover, we should not use the involvement of the ministry as a threat! Doing so will almost certainly inflame the problem. It is vital that we also understand that there are no absolute guarantees that the involvement of the ministry will definitely resolve the problem. Jesus' words in the second half of verse 17 show this possibility clearly. The offending member might not recognize the authority or experience of the minister who is brought in to intervene, or he may adamantly refuse to admit that he did anything wrong. Whatever the reason, there is still the possibility that Step Number Three might also fail. If it does, then we go on to Step Number Four.
Continuing in verse 17, Jesus says finally, "But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector."
If the problem gets this far, and assuming from the beginning that our case is a fair and valid one, we are within our rights at this point to treat the offender as the Jews of Jesus' time would have treated the most despised people, both of their own people (the tax collectors) and of the Gentiles (the heathen).
Jesus implies that, if negotiations fail even after the involvement of "the church" (the ministry), then the offender's unwillingness might cause him to be officially treated henceforth by the church and its leadership as a non-member—maybe even to the point of disfellowshipment or even marking. The apostle Paul comments on this in Romans 16:17-18:
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.
Paul says here that the church leadership is to "note" those who cause offenses. In the King James Version, the term "note those" is given as "mark those." Paul is telling church leaders to mark or name before the church, those who cause division or offense.
"Marking" is the extreme form of disfellowshipment from the church. If a person is disfellowshipped, it is done privately. But if he is "marked," he has done something so serious that it must be announced to the entire congregation. This illustrates what a serious sin the giving of offense can be if not properly resolved.
Islands and Offenses