Brad and Anna had a happy marriage. They were both devout believers in Jesus, fell madly in love, and married soon after college. In time, they began having children, were active in their church, and to all appearances seemed to have a peaceful, happy family.
But something dark lurked in the shadows. Brad had an addiction to porn that he couldn’t shake. Anna didn’t even learn of it until after they were married. Sometimes Brad would talk about it with Anna, but shame kept his struggles mostly secretive. Brad began to lose his resolve to fight temptation and slowly sank even further.
Throughout their marriage, Anna expressed her support. She prayed for Brad and held him accountable when he asked. She cried to God on his behalf but felt powerless to help him. She urged him to see a counselor, but Brad was a private guy and went to the counselor only a couple times. He began to lie, telling Anna he was doing better. In actuality, his thought life grew darker and eventually he had his first affair with a co-worker.
Brad loved the Lord, but when the affair started he began to feel more distant than ever from Christ. He felt trapped. That’s when he signed onto a dating app and met a woman he really fell for. The second affair quickly became serious, and Brad’s heart toward Anna grew cold.
By the time Anna knew Brad was in a serious affair, it was too late. Brad pulled away from their church, divorced Anna, left her with the kids, and remarried.
Why do believers like Brad and Anna sometimes divorce? Christians really want their marriage to work, and yet the percentage of divorce among believers is virtually the same as among unbelievers. Are we missing something?
Yes. We’re not following Jesus’ path for relational reconciliation. Jesus’ way is very clear:
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Matt 18:15-17
If you’re married to a believer, then your spouse is also your brother or sister in Christ, and this passage applies to your marriage.
Most Christian marriages fail because of sin that hasn’t been handled Jesus’ way. Sin is like a deadly cancer that kills marriages when not removed carefully. We must identify sins that are hurting our marriage and go after them.
Start by asking, Is my spouse sinning against me? Am I sinning against my spouse? What commands of Scripture are being disregarded or violated? Start by identifying the sin, along with a verse that addresses that sin. Disciples of Jesus are eager to repent and pursue obedience with all their hearts.
Look at some of the things that destroy marriages: rage, railing language, not submitting to one another, adultery, being unkind, abuse, unforgiveness, threatening divorce. They’re all sins.
One of our biggest mistakes is to tolerate sin in our marital relationship. When we do, we violate Jesus’ command. When our brother or sister—our spouse—sins against us, Jesus commands us to rebuke them (Luke 17:3), and show them their fault (Matt 18:15). To refuse to do so is to refuse Jesus. This is one of the most rampant mistakes in Christians marriages today. Submit to Jesus and stop tolerating sinful behavior in your home. Let’s remove from our marriage any sin that hinders love.
In Matthew 18, Jesus gave us three steps resolving serious problems in our marriage. Let’s look at each.
Step One: Go to Your Brother or Sister
If your spouse sins against you, go first to them privately and tell them their fault. Explain to them the nature of the sin you think they’ve committed against you, hear their perspective on the incident, and then both of you will hopefully be eager to repent of the ways you were wrong. Bring Matthew 18:15-17 with you to the visit so your spouse understands you’re obeying Jesus.
When addressing someone’s sin, be gracious, wise, gentle, loving, kind, and ready to forgive (Eph 4:32). When you bring Matthew 18 to your spouse, you’re not stifling the romance of your relationship but are actually giving the romance of your relationship a basis to thrive. Nothing kills romance in a marriage faster than overlooking cancerous sins that undermine the relationship.
What if your spouse doesn’t hear you in step one? Then take it to the second step Jesus gave us. By doing so, you’re not dishonoring your spouse but are rather honoring both them and Jesus.
Step Two: Take One or Two Witnesses
Jesus said, “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’” (Matt 18:16).
Jesus told us to set up a gracious and kind confrontation. Find one or two witnesses to labor with you in helping your spouse find repentance. This is done when your spouse isn’t willing to go with you to consult a pastor or counselor. Jesus is describing something more confrontational than a counseling appointment. He’s describing your taking someone with spiritual authority to your spouse who is resisting repentance.
Be thoughtful about who you take to your spouse. Choose someone your spouse honors for their walk with Christ. That person may have some suggestions to help you walk out the crisis more wisely. When the time is right, take them to your spouse. If your spouse is a sincere disciple of Jesus, they will hopefully be won by the appeals of a wise leader in the body of Christ.
When step two is invoked, many situations turn around and move toward healing. But what should you do if your spouse doesn’t receive this leader? Jesus gave a third step.
Step Three: Tell It to the Church
Jesus said, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17).
When you tell your story to the church, you are asking the church to come to a unified judgment on the matters between you and your spouse. The church stands as a corporate witness before you both, appealing to both of you to receive the judgment of the entire congregation. The witness of the church carries more authority than just one or two leaders. The church’s united witness carries an authority that no true disciple of Christ can dismiss. Our hope in implementing this step is that the sinning spouse will come to their senses, submit to the witness of the church, and repent.
Bring your appeal to the governing body of your local church, whether elders, pastors, or deacons.
If your sinning spouse is unwilling to go with you, then present it by yourself. This council of leaders will determine the course of action they’ll take in order to pass an informed judgment.
If your sinning spouse is unwilling to receive the judgment of the church council, Jesus said, “Let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” In other words, he is to be viewed at that point as an unbeliever—someone who has broken faith, is no longer walking as a disciple of Jesus, and needs to be evangelized again.
I’m appealing to local church leadership councils to hear every case brought to them by their members. Even when cases aren’t handled perfectly, Jesus honors our efforts to obey His process.
Jesus meant for the local church to serve as a governing body for the health of its members. Leaders in a church court are deeply invested in the health of the church and care deeply for each and every member. The entire process is bathed in the affections and love of Jesus Christ.
It’s time for believers in troubled marriages to use Jesus’ wisdom in Matthew 18 to bring resolve and healing to their home. Jesus’ path seems rather confrontational, however, so why would someone want to invoke His three steps?
Let me suggest six reasons to do this.
Jesus gave us Matthew 18:15-17, not as an option but as a command. He left no room for sins between brethren to fester or be ignored. As disciples of Jesus, we follow His pathway simply because we want to obey Him.
Jesus’ way is a fabulous gift to you. He has provided for the church to cover you spiritually so you don’t have to weather the storm alone. To obey Him is not burdensome. Rather, His way will lift a burden from you. Don’t deny the gracious gift He’s provided for your marriage. Do it His way and He’ll honor your obedience.
A second reason to follow Matthew 18:15-17 is because we believe in Jesus’ wisdom. He alone is wise.
The unrenewed mind thinks, “If I follow the steps of Matthew 18 in my marriage, it’ll be blown apart or become intolerable to stay in.” But faith believes His wisdom surpasses ours and produces eternal fruit.
Some people don’t follow Jesus’ advice here because they feel hopeless about anything changing. In other words, their faith is depleted. Build yourself up, therefore, in your faith (Jude 1:20). Get your eyes back on God and renew your confidence in His ability to heal your marriage.
When we believe and obey the words of Christ, God steps in! (Because God likes faith.) He makes up for our lack, releases His power, and does amazing things on our behalf that can leave us astounded.
When you follow Matthew 18:15-17, you’re being a peacemaker in your marriage. Where anger, resentment, suspicion, frustration, and anxiety have damaged the peace in a marriage, repentance will restore it.
Outbursts of wrath kill the peace in a home. We must confess such sins so we can see the peace of Christ restored to our home.
To make peace is to declare war on all the divides and separates.
When a home is in good spiritual order, it’s guarded by an encampment of angels that circle everyone in the home with safety (Psa 34:7). Sin can compromise that spiritual perimeter around a believing family. Follow Matthew 18:15-17, therefore, to re-establish a spiritual hedge around your home.
Don’t be shocked when your home becomes a battleground. Satan has declared war on marriages and families. The war is real. He wants to break up your marriage and devastate your children.
Parents, you’re the gatekeepers of your family. Withstand every attempt of darkness to compromise the spiritual security of your home. Do it for the sake of your children.
Another reason to do Matthew 18:15-17 is for the sake of love. Let your love for your spouse and Jesus win the day. When sin has caused a breach in love, go after the breach. You’re not attacking your spouse, you’re pursuing love.
Tackle the issues head-on, early in the journey, to preserve love and restore the romance of your marriage.
A final reason to obey Matthew 18:15-17 is to avert divorce and preserve your marriage. I consider this the greatest benefit of following Jesus’ counsel. When we resolve conflicts Jesus’ way, our courage can save the marriage. Passivity is deadly, but courage is redemptive. Doing it Jesus’ way doesn’t guarantee that your spouse will be won to the wisdom of Christ, but it provides the best chance of saving the marriage.
I’m presenting this message to militate against divorce and to fight for marriage—your marriage.
We have a vision—for radiant wives who are nurtured and loved by their husbands, for respected husbands who demonstrate integrity in business and family, for upright children who establish healthy families of their own, and for grandparents who glory in the legacy they grant their descendants. It’s a vision worth fighting for.
If we’ll fight for our marriages Jesus’ way, I’m persuaded many marriages like Brad and Anna’s can be saved, reconciled, and restored to health.
This blog post is adapted from Bob Sorge’s new book, STUCK: Help For the Troubled Home. For information, visit bobsorge.com/stuck.