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.