Treat Them Like Unbelievers and Tax Collectors!

“Treat them like unbelievers and tax collectors!” Does that phrase make you stop and take pause?  It did me.  In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gives instructions on dealing with believers who sin and do not repent. He gives very specific instructions:

  • Go to them and point it out.  Just you and them.
  • If that doesn’t bring repentance, take one or two with you.
  • If there is still no repentance, take it to the church.
  • If they still don’t repent, treat them like a pagan/unbeliever or tax collector.

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

– Matthew 18:15-17 NIV

Before we talk about what it means to “Treat them like a pagan and a tax collector,” let’s dig a little deeper into the first part of those verses. 

Brothers & Sisters

Jesus narrowed the list of those we are to treat like unbelievers and tax collectors down to a “brother or sister” who sins against us.  Brother or sister refers to a fellow believer. The word sin refers to missing God’s mark, wandering from the path of righteousness and honor, to do or to go wrong. Now we know we are talking about a Christian who is missing God’s mark; they are wandering off the path of righteousness and choosing to do wrong.  We have a responsibility to go to them in private first, then with two or three others, and finally to the church.

Now we get to the part that made me take a step back.  If they still will not repent, Jesus said to treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. What does that even mean?

Unbelievers & Tax Collectors

Who are the pagans?  They are unbelievers who are outside of God’s covenant. That means they are alien to the worship of the one true God.

What about the tax collectors? As you would assume, they were the ones collecting taxes.  What you may not know is that they were detested; they were known for their harshness, greed, and even thievery.   

The natural way of thinking would be to shun them, to turn away from them. Possibly despise them.  I began to ask myself, is that really what Jesus meant?  Since Scripture interprets Scripture, I decided to look at exactly how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. After all, He is the one who gave the instruction, and He is the one we follow.

Jesus eats with sinners and tax-collectors. (2022, September 21). In Wikipedia.

Matthew chapter 9:9 talks about Jesus seeing Matthew sitting at a tax collection booth.  Jesus did not snub him or ignore him.  Instead, Jesus called him, He said, “follow me.”  Matthew rose up and began to follow Jesus.  The next few verses are so powerful.  Jesus is seen reclining at the table, in a house, with many tax collectors and sinners.  This indicates relationship and fellowship.

Let’s look at what Paul has to say in 2 Thessalonians 3:12-15.

12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. 14 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. 15 Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.

Paul is giving instructions to live by.  He then admonishes the believers not to regard those who don’t obey the instructions given as enemies but to warn them as you would a fellow believer. 

Hurt By Religion

As I read these scriptures, my heart broke over the many people who have been hurt by religion.  In my own life, we have had family members choose not to enjoy a meal with us in our home. Their reason was based on the verse we started with – Matthew 18:15-17.  In their opinion, my husband was not honoring the Scripture.  Why? Because he worked for a company that was owned by a religion not based on Christianity.  While I truly believe my husband was not doing anything contrary to God’s Word, the actions of these family members pushed him away from the church, not toward Jesus. 

Jesus tells us in John 13:35 people will know we are His by our love for one another. 

This man, Jesus, welcomes sinners and eats with them. Luke 15:2

So how exactly are we to treat a believer who is not following Jesus and obeying the Word of God?  We are to love them.  We are to tell them the truth in love. We are to continue to pour into them.  I did not say we are to spend all our time with them or that they are to be our closest confidants.  They should not be our inner circle, the ones having the most influence and impact on us.  We are called to continue to be salt and light to them.  We are not called to be their judge. We are called to love. The word for love used in John 13 is from the Greek word agape.  It denotes the highest form of love, sacrificial love. It is a love that is unconditional. 

Now, let’s go be love, light, and salt!


  • Collette Sawyer

    My true passion is the local church. I enjoy encouraging other women to find their hope, joy, peace, and in our Lord Jesus. I desire to help others fulfill their destiny by living their life on purpose…with intentionality. James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” That is my heartbeat, drawing near to Him and helping others draw near to Him. My husband, Tom, and I have been married for over 25 years. We met while working at ORU and have lived our entire married life in Tulsa, OK. We have one son, who recently completed his service with the USAF and his preparing for his next season. We love traveling and exploring new places, and visiting family. I have worked in the early childhood education field for almost 30 years as a teacher, administrator, coach, and consultant. I am currently overseeing a grant that allows us to provide childcare providers with business consultants who coach and mentor providers in business and leadership practices to help them provide high-quality care for children.

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