Christ, having cautioned his disciples not to give offence, comes next to direct them what they must do in case of offences given them; which may be understood either of personal injuries, and then these directions are intended for the preserving of the peace of the church; or of public scandals, and then they are intended for the preserving of the purity and beauty of the church. Let us consider it both ways.
It should be remembered, however, that this method is prescribed for private sins only. The offence given by public sins cannot be removed privately, but only by a public transaction. (b) Public sins make the sinner subject to disciplinary action by the consistory at once, without the formality of any preceding private admonitions, even if there is no formal accusation. By public sins are meant, not merely sins that are committed in public, but sins that give public and rather general offence. The consistory should not even wait until someone calls attention to such sins, but should take the initiative. It was no honor for the Corinthians that Paul had to call their attention to the scandal in their midst before they took action. I Cor. 5:1 ff.; nor was it an honor for the churches of Pergamus and Thyatira that they did not rebuke and exclude the heretical teachers from their midst. Rev. 2:14, 15, 20. In the case of public sins the consistory has no right to wait until someone brings formal charges; neither has it the right to demand of anyone who finally feels constrained to call attention to such sins that he admonish the sinner privately first. The matter of public sins can not be settled in private.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology 600.
Matthew 18 addresses a specific situation where “thy brother shall trespass against thee.” It is a pattern for dealing with personal offences. It has nothing to do with how to handle someone who breaks a law of the civil government or a rule within a family or within an organization. . . . Matthew 18 should always be followed for personal offences, and its general principles applied whenever prudent in non-personal offences. It must not, however, be allowed to become something the Lord never intended it to become—a once-size-fits-all to be applied to every situation.
While placing a child in the middle of the disciples, explaining the necessity of unencumbered child-like faith, and describing the Shepherd’s love for just one lost sheep, Jesus explains the believers’ interdependence. If Jesus loves us so much that He would risk life and limb to get us out of a snarl of our own making, surely we can risk cultural pretense to talk to each other one-on-one.
The biggest criticism regarding student life at Bob Jones University is the systemic muddling of Matthew 18. Check out their argument for yourself. Their explanation is that Matthew 18 is sure nice to follow, but it can’t be applied universally.
While Henry and Berkhof both distinguish between private and public sins, Berg distinguishes between personal and institutional. The shift is subtle but important. Personal sins can be public: a public figure caught in a sexual indiscretion is a sin against his wife but it is widely known. An institutional sin can be private: unwittingly printing too many documents at a time on the company printer is best addressed one-on-one even if it is an institutional “sin.”