Was Jesus Being “Unforgiving” In Matthew 18?

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone…. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” -Matthew 18:15, 17b, 32, ESV

Was Jesus Being “Unforgiving” To Demand the Sinner Listen To His/Her Victim?


Christians often lose their commonsense when it comes to issues of forgiving infidelity. They are quick to point out Jesus’ command to forgive (e.g. Mt 6:14-15); but they fail to pay attention to this important passage from Matthew 18 about church discipline. Forgiveness seems to be mean treating the adulterous spouse as if they did nothing wrong. Certainly, this charge to forgive is utilized to invalidate even healthy and righteous anger in the faithful spouse. Then it goes even further. Forgiveness is often equated with relationship restoration, which it is not.

Jesus requires more than just a Christian telling another sinning Christian that they are forgiven.

He demands the sinner listens.

In fact, if the adulterous sinner does not listen even to the church, they are supposed to be treated like “a Gentile and a tax collector.” This is essentially Jesus teaching his followers to treat an unrepentant Christian as if they are social pariah while they continue to refuse to listen.

A good Jew would not fellowship with a Gentile. Plus, a tax collector was a traitor and often times a thief who used his position to pilfer from his fellow Jews to enrich his own pocket. These were not people one had over for dinner or with whom one spent anything except the most minimal time to do absolutely necessary business.

As a church, we have so messed up our Biblical understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation that we censure faithful spouses who treat their unrepentant, adulterous (ex) spouses in these Jesus-proscribed ways. The faithful spouse is told they have a forgiveness problem when they want nothing more to do with a spouse who continues committing adultery and lying even after confrontation. Perhaps the problem is not the faithful spouse’s lack of forgiveness but rather the lack of the adulterous spouse’s listening to the one they have greatly wronged?

Since we seem to have some confusion on the matter, let me be clear about what “not listening” may look like when adultery or infidelity has taken place:

-Continuing in committing adultery is not listening.

-Lying about the adulterous relationship(s) is not listening. 

-Blaming the faithful spouse in any way for cheating and lying is not listening.

-Minimizing the damage they did through committing adultery and lying is not listening.

-Divorcing the faithful spouse against his/her wishes is not listening.

Finally, I say that the church has lost it commonsense on this matter because we do not treat people the same with under different sinful situations. We understand a wife’s need to ascertain that she is safe before we instruct her to return to her husband who beat her up putting her in the hospital. A reasonable Christian leader understands it is not a forgiveness issue on the battered spouse’s part that keeps her away from her batterer. It is a matter of wisdom.

Similarly, adultery is destructive to the faithful spouse. It comes with its own physical health risks not to mention the financial and emotional risks in addition to those. The adulterous spouse has already demonstrated they can and will rape their spouse’s soul. Commonsense says you do not re-enter this relationship without clear indications the abusive adulterous spouse has recognized they did something wrong and has taken steps to ensure it does not happen again. Pushing a faithful spouse back into a marriage with an adulterous spouse is like pushing the battered wife back to her batterer. It is not a forgiveness issue to stay away from one’s abuser. It is a matter of wisdom.

To use God’s name and command to forgive to pressure faithful spouses back into unaddressed adulterous situations is especially wicked in my opinion. It is an abuse of the concept of forgivness utilized to manipulate. Furthermore, it is a shirking of Christian duty to confront the spouse who sinned against the faithful spouse as outlined in Matthew 18:15ff.

Do I believe we need to forgive those who sin against us? Absolutely. We need to do this. But that might mean just giving the offender over to God to punish or forgive as God sees fit.

Forgiving the adulterous spouse does not mean we refuse to address and confront the sin as Jesus taught us to do in Matthew 18. Sometimes wisdom means we minimize our contact with an adulterous (ex) spouse who refuses to listen and repent. That is the Biblical response to such stubborn refusal to repent.

And it is commonsense wisdom.


7 thoughts on “Was Jesus Being “Unforgiving” In Matthew 18?”

  1. There is a down side to this unfortunately DM, I know my case is not the norm but as it was managed by the church I experienced the following.
    The church in their own way did challenge my XH. And he apparently did ask their forgiveness and the forgivness of God. And according to him received forgivness from both. As a result, He never asked my forgivness as he is of the opinion mine is not needed.
    According to the church elders he is repentant and has been delivered of what caused him to sin, yet I have seen no sign of repentance nor have I seen a change in his character for the good. Seen heaps for the bad. But because he has verbalised his repentance to the church elders is respectful and considerate to them they accept he has changed, they have made no attempt to ensure that he be this way towards the one who’s life he destroyed. I am of no consideration.
    Instead they have endorsed his having a relationship with another woman that began before we were officially divorced and has been reinstated to his position of ministry within the church. He is almost being treated as if he is a widower.
    Because I have not seen any change in him no respect on any level that really counts. (I am actually having to take him to court to have our family home sold so I can afford to keep a roof over the head of myself and our three children. Because he is refusing to sell it unless I give him unrestricted access to the house and engage with him on all decisions I may make in preparing the property for sale. Yes he will only agree to sell if I return to my possition unquestioning submissive wife allowing him to have full control.
    He is sickly sweet to me in public, in private he is the total opposite so there is no way that is ever going to work. But because others only see the sweet side of him and because they have chosen to only accept what they see. I am seen as the one who is acting inappropriate (as the sinner) Because I left the church and challenged eldership on their actions I have now been advised that I have slandered the church and have been un officially excommunicated.
    What ever that means.
    It breaks my heart the lack of integrity in all of this and I understand I can’t fix it I just need to place my trust in God and the skills of my solicitor. My hardest issue is that my EX is still smack bang in the middle of all of my social environment. His GF is the mother of a kid in our youngest child’s class, she attends a local church where many family’s of the school attend, and many members of our local football club of which my kids and I are members. Her mum is in my new church which makes it very awkward at times. It is just a huge mess that in my opinion could have been contained if dealt with, with integrity.

    1. Thankful,

      It is hard to deal with a sin if you don’t know the situation. The whole point of Mt 18 is to resolve the sin between the sinner and the one sinned against. In your situation, that means you and your now ex-husband. And it seems strange they thought they could cancel someone else’s debt…as if the church was the primary victim in this. They were not following Mt 18 as I read it. The primary person your xH needed to listen to was you–i.e. the person he sinned against. Disgusting.

      Glad you found another church even though it is tough dealing with his GF’s mom May God give you a good settlement in the house situation for both you and the kids.


  2. “Do I believe we need to forgive those who sin against us? Absolutely. We need to do this. But that might mean just giving the offender over to God to punish or forgive as God sees fit.”

    Dear Divorce Minister, I have been struggling with the forgiveness, I actually don’t think I am capable except perhaps forgiving my now XH for being such an unbalanced and soulless man.

    I cannot forgive him of all the hurtful things said, the lies and deceit, the cruel treatment I sustained because of his adultery. I held true to my vows and I have lost my husband and best friend.

    Is it correct that I can accept and admit to God that I am unable to forgive him and let God serve justice and forgiveness on my behalf. Will that be enough to fulfill my obligation to forgive as required in the Bible?

    Thankyou this has troubled me as everyone says I have to forgive to heal and move on toward peace and contentment.

  3. Also wanted to mention that my XH has not repented but is still with the other woman, he said before we divorced that God had forgiven him and what he was doing was OK by God. He also said that marrying me was his biggest sin, not the adultery.

    I told him I must be praying to a different God and reading a different Bible than him. ChumpLady refers to these types of cheaters as Jesus Cheaters. Seems as if they can justify it using God as their backup to cover their sins.

    1. spiritwoman,

      Your xH clearly is deceived. Adultery is a violation of the Ten Commandments. Even Jesus Himself reiterated this prohibition. Marriage is not the sin. Does not sound like he serves the same God as you and I.

      As to your question regarding forgiveness, I would suggest telling God of your difficulty and asking Him for grace to let go of this wrong. Forgiving does not mean excusing the sin. And it does not mean it did not happen. Plus, I would suggest keeping contact with you ex to a minimum as he does not sound like a healthy person for you to be around with his destructive thinking. Forgiveness takes time just as healing from a deep physical wound takes time. We have the power to choose not to punish even in our minds. Slowly, the betrayer becomes less present in our thoughts as we let go. We know what happened but no longer feel like we have to get our retribution from them. They are God’s problem. That’s one way I look at forgiving unrepentant adulterers/adulteresses. It is not going to happen overnight likely. And it is important you do not “forgive” as a denial mechanism. Know that the wrongs happened. Don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position to a known untrustworthy person again. Just choose to walk away. Hope that helps.


  4. – Forgiveness is often equated with relationship restoration, which it is not. –

    This is something that upsets me lately, DM. Whenever I hear anyone talk about forgiveness, especially, “You need to be a good Christian and forgive them!” it seems like the forgiveness they are speaking of is being forced to act like the person did nothing wrong, and if you draw any kind of boundary with them now, you are being unforgiving.

    I know I heard that from X, “You’re just never going to forgive me, you’re always going to hold it over my head, so forget it!” Even though he said he was sorry, he didn’t do a single thing that I had asked for me to consider reconciliation. But I was hateful and unforgiving and that’s why we couldn’t reconcile.

    I have a friend who have been told to forgive and mend fences with someone who isn’t asking for forgiveness, if you would ask them now would say they have done nothing wrong and continues to do the very thing that caused the relationship fraction. And yet my friend is hateful and unforgiving because they won’t let this person back into their life.

    1. Kira,

      Yeah, so much confusion exists on this topic. Boundaries are really important and denying reality–i.e. your X and this other person did destructive things to the relationships–is not healthy. To me, it sounds like your X–like mine–was just looking for a self-righteous excuse to leave. You cannot mend a relationship from only one end. It takes two for reconciliation to happen.


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