There is a history in much of the church that calls for shunning people who do not repent of sin. In part that practice is picked up from the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 where he says that if a person refuses to repent after a process that involved three different encounters calling for them to repent, then they should be “treated like a pagan or tax collector”.
15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17
So just what does it mean to treat someone as a pagan or a tax collector? I think Jesus gives us the answer to that and it is far different from the shunning, rejection, and self-righteous attitude that is so often practiced by Christians. When we see Jesus engaging pagans and tax-collectors, or any other group of unbelieving sinners, we see someone who gives them huge amounts of time, attention, and grace. So much so that the religious leaders accuse him of being one of those pagans. In Matthew 11:19 Jesus says that they accuse him of being a drunkard because he spends so much time with the sinners.
Jesus showed unending love and respect to the “pagans and tax-collectors”. He treated them with the dignity that was due someone created in the image of God. He didn’t ignore their sin and he certainly did not condone it. When a woman who was caught in adultery was brought to Jesus he forgave her and said, “go and sin no more”. It acknowledged that what she did was wrong, but also gave her mercy and grace. That was his pattern. He gave people grace and mercy and treated them with dignity while calling them to a more holy way of life.
It must also be noted that Jesus spend a great deal of time with such people. In fact he would go out of his way to do so. The woman at the well, the home of Zacheaus the tax-collector, and the wedding at Cana are all examples of Jesus making time to spend with people who were not perfect, cleaned up, respectable church going types. What he did was love them.
But aren’t we supposed to love everyone? If so in what way is our treatment of someone who is a tax collector or pagan different from how we treat a brother or sister in Christ? That is the heart of the issue because Jesus began in verse 15 by saying is a “brother” sins against you. This is about how you treat a person who is also a follower of Christ who will not be reconciled to you. That person you are to treat like a pagan or tax-collector.
So what to you NOT do with people outside the Body of Christ that you do with people inside? One thing is you do not have communion with them. Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is to be a believer only event. In the early church it was a meal, just like the Last Supper in the Upper Room. It was an intimate religious and social event that included a confession of faith in Jesus as Lord and looking forward to his return. Only followers of Christ participated in it. In fact as worship services became more public and had non-believers present, when it came time for communion, they would be dismissed. It is from this biblical concept that the Roman Catholic Church denies communion to people who are not in good standing. It is a practice that most Protestant churches also have in their history. So what is being said is that treating someone like a pagan or tax-collector means that you do not include them in things that are reserved for followers of Jesus. You don’t have communion with them. You don’t marry them. You probably don’t pray with them though you can pray for them. You would not allow them to serve in a position of spiritual leadership but you would allow them to serve in some capacity that does not require faith in Christ. I have had non-believers go on mission trips that did not require faith in Christ, only the ability to swing a hammer.
The point is, there are lots of things that you can and should do with tax-collectors and pagans if you want to be like Jesus. Likewise there are lots of things that you can and should do with the brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against you. The goal of doing those things to either group, is to demonstrate the love, grace, and mercy of God in order to lead them to repentance and restored relationships with you and Jesus. Paul said in Romans 2:4 that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. That kindness should be evident in our dealings with one another, even if we are required to treat someone as a tax-collector or sinner. The goal of such treatment is not to exclude them from the fellowship of the Body, but to lead them back to it in a way that brings glory to God.
48 thoughts on “Provocative Bible Verses: Treat Them Like an Unbeliever”
Good article Dan. I have struggled with this and tried to make sense of it. It’s not always easy to see things as Christ does even though He dwells in me.
You are absolutely correct. Jesus spent much of his time with sinners and tax collectors. In fact, one of his own apostles, Matthew, was a tax collector for Herod Antipas.
“And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.” (Matthew 9:9-10)
The Lord calls on us to open our hearts to everyone and strive to be more like him. We can’t serve Christ by sitting on the committee of judgement. If you know someone that is not save, bring them to Christ. However, be patient. If they are unwilling to accept the Lord, understand that everyone has their set time and place. It is in the Lord’s hand.
…great artlicle, Dan!…And refering to the account of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), whom you mentioned…it brings to mind Christ’s purpose for coming in the first place, vs. 10 – “…to seek and to save that which was lost.” If we truly are to treat our brothers who are fallen as pagans and tax collectors, then should we not have that grace which would not only love them, but would desire to “seek” them out, in order to save or restore them back into the fold? Jesus won Zacheus over, precisely because he treated him differently than the others had treated him, and it was ultimatey that amazing love which brought salvation to the house of Zacchaeus!…
Agree a good article and perspective. But what do you do when it doesn’t work like outlined in scripture? Several years ago during a local church service one of the men in a study group said some cruel and insulting things to my wife. Later the rest of the church met to discuss what was said and all completely and fully agreed that it was cruel, and insulting to any Christian, very wrong and that I should go confront him as scripture states. I did confront him in a gentle and kind way and he blew it off and said he had nothing to apologize for. Denied he ever said it to begin with even though everyone in the room heard it. It was then time for two or three to go to him but none of the others wanted to even though they stated he was seriously wrong in what he did. They didn’t want problems with him and admitted that he has some pretty wrong concepts but just leave it at that and accept him like he is. That church has now diminished to very few (less than a hand full) who attend and he is now a central person in the church – still vengeful, self righteous, and only his interpretation of the bible is right, any one who disagree’s is wrong. We left that church and later he had the audacity to tell me that I could come back to the church like I needed a personal invite from him.
We have since seen that person damage and destroy other Christians and non Christian alike. So my question is what do you do when it doesn’t work? We left and so have most of the others because of this man.
Bruce…This must be a true source of pain for you. The enemy will most certainly, continually seek to use this as a stumbling block in your life. Sad that the greatest pain we often suffer comes at the hands of fellow believers, and not from the outside world, as we would expect. Some verses that have been a comfort and encouragement to me, when faced with similar circumstances, are found in Matthew 18:21-22, and Matthew 5:43-48. Christ’s example of unfailing and unconditional love is something I aspire to…even though forgiving those “70 times 7” seems so far out of reach. Yet the Father wishes for us to be transformed into the very image of his Son, who displayed a pure and perfect love to both friends and enemies alike…Loving our enemies and praying for them seems like an impossible task,and therefore, requires a total dependence on the Holy Spirit…Only He can give us the strength we need to aid us in developing that “mind of Christ”. That mind which seeks to do good even to those who hurt us…and keeps us from falling into the trap of reacting in kind to their offenses. Be strong, my brother…He has forgiven this man…and will give you joy and peace, as you seek to do likewise…
God asks us (when we sin) to repent, turn away from sin, change our thinking… this is required before God can forgive. So what do you mean God has forgiven him?
This article is a possible interpretation of what Jesus was saying. Another is to simply take it at face value: “treat him as YOU would a pagan or a tax collector” — in other words, how Jewish culture treated them.
That interpretation fits perfectly with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13:
“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler – not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
He also discusses dealing with professing believers in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15:
“If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
John Piper comments: “In other words, if a professing believer lives in open, persistent, unrepented sin, then we are to treat him with an aching separation, that longs for his repentance and return, but does not spend time together in casual ways as if nothing seriously were not amiss.”
This is so incredibly convicting. I had never connected the “pagans and tax collectors” with how JESUS treated pagans and tax collectors.
So utterly convicted.
I have some people to go love on. Thank you immensely.
We take scriptures for example, judge and love and forgiveness and run with it across the board however we are teaching false doctrine. We are suppose to forgive those that repent if they repent 70 times we are suppose to forgive 70 times. Not just forgive the arrrogant and prideful ones that will not admit to their sins. Judging has turned into not saying anything because we feel we are judging which is not scriptual. God says he will judge the ones outside of the church but the ones inside of the church that will not repent, we are to expel the wicked ones from amongst us. We turn them over to their wicked ways that they will be brought to a sorrowful state and repent. So that they will be saved in the end. This watered down gospel that we are teaching to love everyone, forgive everyone no matter what they have done is harming the church and I pray that we go to the scriptures and be doers of the word.
The verse says let him be to you as the nations and tax collectors. It does not say as I treat or think you should them, but as they be(esto). What gives you the indication that Jesus is communicating how he thinks they should treat the nations and tax collectors, as opposed to how they are(be, esto) to them?
Yes, good article. I am reading the Purpose Driven Life and that phrase came up ‘treat them like an unbeliever’, and I thought, what does that mean? So thanks for helping clarify that.
Camilla: Thank you so much for your point. Otherwise, how are people broken into the will of the LORD? God does not excuse the sins of anyone, no matter who they are. There are times when sins break down the very fiber of a family or church. They cannot be tolerated. And the sinner has no insight into their behavior. We don’t have to be unkind, but after following the protocol set forth in this scripture with no ensuing change or even understanding in the person, we may have no other choice but to have no more to do with them unless and until they repent. God does not forgive anyone who is unrepentent. Forgiveness and unrepentence are incongruent. Unrepentence is wicked and destructive. To continue as if nothing must change sends the wrong message. I believe in the scripture that asks what the light and darkness have in common–nothing. I also believe in the scriptures that encourage protecting our own hearts and not associating with those with bad characters, as they will inevitably rub off onto us. Jesus is GOD. We are not. His strength to repel the indwelling of others’ bad characters was superior and unquestionable. We probably do not, in our humanness, possess the ability to fend off attacks on our characters by the evil one, who can definitely influence the believer, false believers among us, or unbelievers in the world. You have to ask yourself if what you’re doing is forgiving or overlooking, tolerating, and thereby encouraging sin to continue. I think it’s something to think about.
To confront (lovingly) someone who is in sin demonstrates love towards that person. It is what the Lord would do for us, since He desires that we should have an opportunity to repent instead of continuing in our sin. For if we willfully continue in our sin, no sacrifice is left for our sins (see Hebrews 10:26). And if we keep willfully sinning, but remain in church and continue to hear the Word of God–and still refuse to repent–our hearts become hardened to the very life that is in the Word of God. (Hebrews 4:12–For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.) It is my belief that we shouldn’t associate with a believer who refuses to see his/her sinful ways. We MUST forgive them and not hold any bitterness, and to pray for restoration for that brother or sister. And upon repentance by that brother or sister, we receive them back with joy! For the Father’s heart is about reconciliation and restoration.
Loved the article. Now what about these God-breathed Scriptures in dealing with an unrepentant believer such as:
1 Cor. 5:1-2: It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?
5: hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,[a][b] so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister[c] but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
This iscvery helpful information. Thank you.
Christ loved even the unlovable ones and as followers of Christ we should love all people, but hate the sin! Love and kindness on our part is what the bible teaches as a complete thought! The Pastor is the spiritual leader of the church and all problems within the body should be dealt with according to scripture as for believers who need to be corrected. We must never come to a point where we let the flesh and its hatred overcome the love that Christ has put in our hearts. Words can hurt and we need to pray for those who do this things, but never allow them to turn us away from what God says we are to do “LOVE ONE ANOTHER”! God will judge all in the end and everyone will receive a true righteous judgement and it will be far worse than anyone of us can place upon anyone here so follow the command to LOVE and let God do the judging!!! It takes a bigger peron to forgive than to harbor ill and hatred so follow the examples of JESUS!
I am living in sin. I am 65 years old, been through two divorces that left me broken and lacking motivation to live. Why me? After two years of being alone, I am living with a man and we are committed to each other. It is because of our age and money situation that we have not married.
I know that this is wrong and that it is not the example for our family and friends. For the past eight months, my brothers wife, who goes to church and professes to be a Christian has lashed out at me in front of family and has recently called me a most unkind word in front of family. I am crushed and
feel so very sad and hurt. No one knows my heart, but God, and I don’t know how to deal with life anymore. When two people are committed to each other, do we really need a piece of paper to make it right in the eyes of God?
Sara, I am praying for you. Dear Lord God please reveal to Sara the truth. Heal her broken heart, save her, give her peace, love, truth, and light. Please bless, protect, heal, and deliver her and her family from evil. Be with them and restore their relationships, In Jesus name. Amen. Thank you Lord God. Sara, I encourage you to read the Word of God- the Holy Bible, and pray often. Make it a priority above all else. God speaks to us through is Word, eventually you will know what to do, God himself will tell you. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matt 6:33) Your life will work itself out on it’s own once you make the Almighty greater than those things that drag you down. “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God and in due time He will exalt you.” (1 Peter 5:6) You will know what to do when you have faith. But “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17) So just get out your Bible and read it sweetheart, and everything will be ok. God bless you. Your sister, Faith.
I find it hard to believe your exposition on the text in regards to treating an errand brother it is true that Jesus treat the publican with such grace but they are not yet save. Unlike this suppose to be a brother they already have light of the gospel and brought to the process in obedience to Christ command in Mt.18.
So how would you treat the errant brother? I think it is very clear that Jesus said to treat them as a tax collector or sinner and we see how Jesus treated such people.
good article had wondered a lot on what it means to treat them as pagans and tax collectors, but this has good insight into the need for restoration and not condemning the person. it can be noted that this is not dry – dry situation where there is 100% sin and 100% innocence . we all all guilty in some sense
I had a conflict with a family member and I went to her in a very humble and loving way telling her I was so hurt(and she had hurt me deeply) but I want to make things right with her. I told her I was very sorry for getting upset with her and I ask her to forgive me .I ask her if she would be willings to wipe the slate clean and just put it in the past. I ask her what can I do to make our friendship better.She told me she forgave me but she would not forget and she hasnt forgot .She has left our church and going to another church.Her pastor ask her if she would be willing to meet with me and him and work on our realtionship she said she didnt want to talk about it. That has been 2 years ago and she still wont speak to me .She walks out of restaurants if I walk in and tells family Im not welcome in her house . So to me that isnt true forgiveness like she said.i really wonder if she knows what true forgiveness is. It’s has effected all of my family when it could have been so different. I wonder if her consience bothers her. Any advice on this ?
Paul tells us in Romans that as much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. It sounds to me as if you are doing just that. You can’t force a change in someone. It sounds as if she is unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility in all this and is blaming you for it all. All you can do is continue to pray for her, love her as Christ loves you and let the rest be on her. Bitterness has a way of consuming the person who is bitter. That is what is happening with her. Don’t let that happen with you. I am giving you a link to another post I wrote about forgetting and forgiving. Let me know what else I can do for you
1 Corinthians 5:
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sisterc but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.
12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
“Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them.” Titus 3:10
“Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed.” 2 Thessalonians 3:14.
There is a lot of good advice and truth here. I thank you all. One thing, what if its your pastor that is unwilling to stop hurting people?
i am in that position now ….. it has gone to the church and they are now not including me in the church things and my husband which is a follower is doing the same… he wont eat with me or do anything with outside of what has to be done….. i want to repent and tell all my sins and give them to the lord but i dont know the proper way to do it…… i try to tell them what i have done but not every-one wants to hear it and so i get shut up and things just keep getting worse…. even if my husband doesnt want me any more and the community is ignoreing me and treating me as though i was an idiot …. i am not running and i want to make it right even if they dont want me back in there fold …. what do i do …. it hurts so bad i have never went through this in my life ad i am lost… i know the word of christ and the test that they are throwing at me is so un fair cause now i dont know which end is up now in order to set things right….. i am on the verge of not existing at all.they are treating me as the tax collector and i dont know how to repent to our pastor if they will not let me tell what sins i am sorry for …
thank you so much for this. you have explained it very well. 🙂
Reblogged this on Trisha Sebastian.
I agree, we will only reach potential believers with the Good News, like Jesus did. Not with self-righteousness, and (I see too often) – hate
Lisa, please contact me on facebook so I can make some time with you in councelling and prayer. john Mawunu Hammond
The only comment I would like to give, pertaining to the christians in South Africa is: unbelievers will become believers, once they see christians become true believers based on the Living Word of God. As the unbelievers in South Africa say today; ” Beware of the christians, because you just might be facing the Devil himself”. My saying is and will always be: “Do not tell me that you are a christian, but show me that you are a christian, by doing all that which God commands you to do in deed and in truth. It is a proven fact that the majority christians in South Africa have become eraser christians, by erasing the scriptures in God’s Living Word that they do not agree to. These christians, even when proven to be wrong, see themselves always to be right. There is now a new secret service in South Africa, and this secret service is called Christianity. You do not know who they are, and you do not know where they are. Their places of gathering is all wired up with security, and have high security fences with gates that are kept closed and locked. The sign on the gate makes it clear to all outsiders; “NO BEGGARS AND NO HAWKERS”. More secret than what any other religion can ever be, and this is what the unbelievers can see, showing that unbelievers know and believe the Word of God better than the majority so called self-righteous christians in South Africa today.
Jesus spent time with those who WANTED his company. This commentary fails to understand the difference between repentant sinners and outright unbelievers and unrepentant sinners. Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites”, serpents” and a “brood of vipers”. Paul is very clear about the “foolish” and “defective” minds of unbelievers in Rome.
Yes, anyone open to thoughtful dialogue ought be respected. Those who disrespect and deny God? Not so much. Turn your back on them and shake the dust from your feet.
I am sorry but your article does not answer that question.
Solomon, i believe he did answer the question.
“to demonstrate the love, grace, and mercy of God in order to lead them to repentance and restored relationships with you and Jesus”
What always puzzles me about Matthew 18 is that Jesus is referring to “the church” as if it were already established! The fact that Jesus had yet to be crucified, as He is in Matthew 18, means that the church was not even in existence!
Enjoyed your thoughts about treating one as a pagan or tax collector–I have thought similarly before reading this. A “lost” brother or sister should be treated as we treat a pagan or tax collector–one in need of converting.
and this perspective is the problem with not considering scripture in its entirety…
Greg, would you elaborate on that?
What about 1 Corinthians 5:13?
I believe this is direct advice to shun, actually as I see Matthew 18 also. To use what Jesus does with sinners to obviate these two clear passages could be a mistake. We are not Jesus…..He can do things in direct opposition to His clear advice to us, but we cannot. I have seen to many people be led down this very dangerous path.
ok.. the passage talked about someone who claims to be ‘Gods follower’ and LIVE in sin, instead of sinning against you.. there is a huge difference. If you accept Christ in your life, you automatically get rid off sin.. slowly but surely. But to know that you are wrong, and keep going, said something else. If you caught up with something bad, you’re surely not free. Meaning.. turns against it..
I think everyone indicated some very valid point as it relates to the subject of forgiveness. However, in order to know how to apply scripture carefully in situations like this is cruel. For example, in Romans 12:2 this scripture encourages the believer to live a life that is in conformity to the bible, so that you can see clearly which scripture to rightly apply to the problem at hand.
He doesn’t say “treat them as I would a tax collector” but, “treat them as YOU would a tax collector”.
The difference indicates why the Christian church has shunned unrepentant Christians instead of holding them closer.
Christina, are you saying that we should treat people differently from how Jesus treated them?
Christina is not saying we should treat people differently than Jesus would treat them, she is saying Jesus was communicating using an understood cultural norm “how YOU treat tax collectors”. As in “You know how people here tend to treat tax collectors, treat this unrepentant person that way”
Others above have written on this and their interpretation squares with numerous others passages in the epistles about not associating with people who openly sin and claim they are in Christ.
Just passing through
Thanks for your input. I appreciate it but find it very difficult to believe that Jesus was telling us to treat people differently from how he treated people. If we are to become like Christ should we not treat people as Jesus did?
As to not associating with the unrepentant I think you will find that the language and context of Pauls statements are related to the intimate fellowship of believers. He is not saying to shun people but to not associate with them in the manner of Christian fellowship. We have turned such fellowship into coffee and donuts in a fellowship hall or Starbucks. That is not what Paul is concerned about. He is concerned about treating the unrepentant as if nothing is wrong and giving them full fellowship in the Body, including being welcome at the Lords table. Unrepentant tax collectors are not welcome there and neither are unrepentant brethren. But we still are to love and care for them to lead them to repentance.
Ok let’s give this an actual real life situation instead of just philosophical and biblical discussion. My ex husband claimed to be a Christian and emotionally and psychologically abused me and our children, he committed adultery and ran up a hundred thousand dollars of secret debt. He was a Sunday School teacher and on the board of Elders at our church. When I told my pastor what was going on, he and some of the elders threw my husband out of the Elders and out of his teaching position. They asked him to repent and get right with his relationship with God, and he refused to do so. They had to explain to him that if he ever came to church with his affair partner again that he would be escorted off campus. I feel all of their actions were admirable, courageous and covered under Matthew 18. Two years later, my ex is still stubbornly unrepentant and continues to be abusive but what you are saying Dan is that we should still be welcoming him and guiding him to repentance. Just his mere presence upsets me and triggers my Complex PTSD and I don’t want him there. Sometimes sin is so deep, the person is evil and we should not associate with that. Sometimes it is best to keep working on the sinner but sometimes the situation is not that simple and I am grateful my church leadership could see the difference.
II understand trying to get sinning Christians to repent by love, but then what are we supposed to do with 1Corinthians chapter 5? Are we supposed to pretend it doesn’t exist and just erase it from the Bible. We cannot pick and choose the verses we want to believe can we?
Nicole, I’m so sorry this happened to you; but I’m so glad your church backed you up! That is very rare. I’m finding it almost impossible to get anyone to stand up for me in our church community!