In order to properly understand the passage in Matthew 18:17, we need to review all the Scriptures to see whom God has entrusted with the administration of the Church of God.
The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:18-19). It is He who leads and directs the Church, the building of God the Father (1 Corinthians 3:9). He adds those to the Church whom He wants (Acts 2:47). He is composing the body — the Church (1 Corinthians 12:18, 24). He is the One who places members in certain positions and appoints the ministry (1 Corinthians 12:28). He uses appointed ministers to appoint others to the ministry (Titus 1:5; compare Acts 14:23) by, among other things, the laying on of hands (1 Timothy 5:22).
Christ gives the ministry certain responsibilities and the “authority” to carry out these functions and duties. Christ gives the Church the ministry for edification of the Church membership (Ephesians 4:11-16), and with that ministerial responsibility comes authority (2 Corinthians 13:10: “… lest being present I should use sharpness according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification.” Compare 2 Corinthians 10:7-8). Although this might not sound good in the ears of some who have developed an attitude not unlike that of ancient Korah (Numbers 16:1-3), God has given His ministers “rule” over the members (Hebrews 13:7; compare Titus 2:15). God expects the members to follow that “rule” and obey the faithful ministers, unless their instructions or commands violate God’s Word (1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:10-11; 5:12-13; 1 Timothy 6:17). God expects that the members submit to the administration of His faithful ministers (1 Corinthians 16:15-16; 1 Timothy 5:17). God’s ministers are to conduct themselves in such a way, of course, that the membership CAN follow their (good) example (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Corinthians 4:16-17; Philippians 3:17; 4:9).
The ministers are to teach the membership the Word of God (Romans 10:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:8; John 17:20; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2). The administration of the Church includes the proclamation and preservation of sound doctrine. When doctrinal decisions have to be made, they are to be made through the ministry. In Acts 15:6, the apostles and elders came together in Jerusalem to consider a doctrinal matter. After the apostles had spoken, James announced the decision (Acts 15:19) that had been “determined by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). The entire Headquarter church, including the membership, agreed with it (Acts 15:22-23), but the lay members did not participate in the decision-making process (compare again Acts 15:6). Christ gave Peter and subsequently all of the apostles, and by extension, His leading ministers the authority to bind and loose — that authority was not given to all of the members (compare Update Number 127, dated January 23, 2004, Q&A, “Power to Bind and Loose”). That authority includes the responsibility of the leading ministers to determine, with the help and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whether or not somebody has repented of his or her sins (John 20:22-23).
Christ charged His ministry to protect the flock from false teachers or ravenous wolves (Acts 20:17-38). The purpose is for the edification of the body of Christ, that is, to prevent, that false teachings overthrow the faith of some and draw them away from the simplicity which is in Christ. Paul admonished Timothy to instruct the brethren in the right way of life, and to protect them from wrong teachings (1 Timothy 4:1-7). He admonished the members in the letter of Hebrews not to be carried about with various and strange doctrines (Hebrews 13:9). He told the Church membership to hold on to what Paul had taught them (compare 2 Timothy 1:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:15).
The Church was told to “note” a person that would be disobedient to the instructions contained in the letter (2 Thessalonians 3:14). At the same time, he instructed Timothy not to receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). So, it is Timothy who is to receive an accusation against an elder — not the entire church membership — to deal with the situation. We read in 1 Timothy 5:20 that Timothy is to rebuke a sinning and unrepentant elder in the presence of all — again, it is Timothy who is to administer this situation, after he has heard the charges. This example shows how Christ’s command in Matthew 18:17 was understood by the Church: The offended member and two witnesses were to bring an accusation against another person, including a minister, to the MINISTRY of the Church — NOT to all the Church members — as the MINISTRY was understood to deal with the situation and render a decision. If the decision was to disfellowship the unrepentant and stubbornly rebellious person, then this would be announced to all the Church — or at least to the local congregation. (We should also mention that Christ expects His ministry to administer situations involving sinning members or ministers with MERCY and LOVE. When Jesus saw the repentant attitude of the woman caught in adultery, He did not condemn her, compare John 8:11. Jude 20-23 encourages all of us to have a merciful and compassionate attitude toward others, as we ourselves are waiting for God’s mercy.)
Returning to the passage in Matthew 18:17, we are told that the offended brother is to bring the matter involving unrepentant sinful conduct of a Church member, along with two witnesses, to the Church, and if the offender does not hear the Church, he is to be looked at as a tax collector or heathen. The word for Church is ekklesia in the Greek, which is also used in Matthew 16:18-19. Although it most certainly can refer to the entire Church membership or the membership of a local congregation, it can also refer to the leadership of the universal or local Church. In Matthew 18:17, it clearly refers to the Church leadership or ministry, as the following verse, verse 18, addresses the LEADERSHIP or MINISTRY of the Church, giving THEM the binding and loosing authority, as discussed earlier. The meaning of Matthew 18:17 is that if the offender does not even hear the leadership of the Church, the entire congregation needs to be involved, by sharing in the ministry’s decision to treat the offender as a heathen or tax collector. Once the person comes to repentance, as determined by the ministry, he is to be invited and received back into the fold (compare 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Corinthians 2:6-11).
We should also remember that the Bible uses, for instance, the words for “king” and “kingdom” interchangeably (Daniel 2:37, 39). The word “kingdom” refers at times to the king, the leader or representative of the kingdom. Likewise, the word “God” can refer to God the Father; to Jesus Christ the Son; or even to all of us — when considering our future as sons and daughters of God the Father and members of the God Family. Still, the Father will always be the highest in the Family of God, followed by Jesus Christ. The point is that also the word “Church” can refer to the entirety of the Church membership, as well as to the leadership or leading ministers, depending upon the context.
If one wants to teach that the entire Church, or at least the local Church congregation, needs to be involved in the decision-making process of excommunication, imagine the problems to be encountered if the congregation consists of 400 or 500 members. On what basis would a “decision” be reached — especially, if some of the brethren would not want to participate in the “voting” system?
The Bible does not teach that God’s Church be ruled by democracy. Rather, God’s government is that of a hierarchy — with God the Father above all. God’s Church is administered by His ministers, with love and mercy, but with the authority to rebuke and correct, if need be. Local “Church” groups which have disassociated themselves from the ministry to “rule” themselves and to independently administer their own affairs are in clear violation of God’s command that His Church be administered through His ministry. This is also true for those “Church” groups that are being “administered” by self-proclaimed or “elected” ministers, not approved by God (compare 2 Timothy 4:3-5; 3 John 9-10). In extreme cases, God’s ministry may even have to excommunicate someone from spiritual fellowship with His people, to protect the flock, and to, at the same time, motivate and encourage the offender to come to repentance, so that he or she can be restored to God’s fold.