Church Discipline

In 2008, the Wall Street Journal ran an article that said churches are bringing back the ancient practice of confronting sinners and excommunicating those who will not repent.[1] It’s sad that parts of the word of God are considered ancient and in need of being revived. But that’s just the case with church discipline. For too long we have allowed this part of the scripture to become ancient and it needs to be revived if we are to be the first century churches we profess to be. This morning I would like for us to engage in a simple study of this difficult subject and together let’s determine what the bible says on this topic of church discipline by answering questions of why is the church supposed to discipline?; how does the church discipline?; and who is the church supposed to discipline?

Why Is The Church Supposed To Discipline?

When we examine the scriptures we find that church discipline serves a fourfold purpose.

  1. The Church wants the erring to repent (1 Cor 5:5). When Paul instructed the Corinthians to discipline the immoral man in their midst he said in 1 Cor 5:5, that the purpose was so the man’s spirit could be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. How could such a sinner be saved? Only if he comes to repentance.
  2. Because we love the body of Christ (Heb 12:5-6; Phi 2:5; 2 Cor 2:6; 2 Ths 3:14). Hebrew writer tells us that Lord loves those whom He chastens (Heb 12:5-6). We know from Jhn 13:34 that we are to love one another just as Christ loves us. So then the church disciplines its members because the church loves its members. The church disciplines because it loves the body of Christ. Church discipline is punishment for a lack repentance (2 Cor 2:6) designed to produce shame (2 Ths 3:14) in the heart of the person disciplined. We punish and shame them (discipline) because we love them.
  3. Because we love the Lord and we want to follow His word. The Lord said “If you love me you will keep My commandments.” (Jhn 14:15) If we love the Lord then we will keep His command to discipline. We must realize that the command to discipline carries just as much weight as does the command to take the Lord’s Supper each first day of the week. Would we say that we are faithfully executing the word of God if we neglected to follow the commands for the Lord’s Supper? Of course not. And neither can we say that we are following the commands of the Lord if we neglect to exercise discipline in the church.
  4. To cause other Christians to fear sin and the discipline of the church (1 Tim 5:20; Act 5:1-11). Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim 5:20 illustrate for us that discipline is not just for the unrepentant brother/sister. Discipline serves the purposes of causing other members fear sinning. Sadly many churches avoid disciplining members because they are afraid of running people off. But the Holy Spirit says members will be strengthened through fear. This is best seen in the fear that was a result of divine judgment against Ananias and Sapphira in Act 5:1-11.

How Does The Church Discipline?

Matthew 18:15-20 serves as an excellent guide on how to discipline an erring brother/sister. This is not a formula that must be followed in the case of public sin, because the context is a private sin between two Christians, it does provide an excellent guide on dealing with an unrepentant brother or sister.

  1. Discipline should be administered after multiple words of admonishment and encouragement (Mat 18:15-17). From Matthew 18 we learn how this can be done (this is but a model that can be followed, not a formula that has to be followed in order for discipline to be scriptural):
    • One on one (Mat 18:15),
    • As a group of 3 or 4 or multiple people (Mat 18:16), and
    • And as a congregation (Mat 18:17).
  2. But when the erring brother/sister will not heed the multiple warnings of their brethren then more corrective action must occur. Then the Church withdraws fellowship from the unrepentant brother or sister. This means they are to be:
    • Treated like they are Gentiles and tax collectors (Mat 18:17). We know that the Jews had nothing to do with gentiles and tax collectors and that is the thrust of this passage.
    • Marked (noted) as someone the church does not keep company with (Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 5:11; 2 Ths 3:14). Paul warns that we are to publicly address the unrepentant sinner so that the entire congregation knows that this person is an unrepentant sinner who is not to be associated with.
    • The church does not keep company with them (1 Cor 5:11; 2 Ths 3:14-15; 2 Jhn 1:10-11). The members of the church are not to keep company with a brother who through their sins have lost the fellowship of the church. Paul and John explain this as eating with them (1 Cor 5:11).
  3. All discipline is to be administered…
    • With love and with patience (2 Cor 2:6-8; 1 Ths 5:14). We are not to discipline in anger or malice but in all love and patience.
    • With hope that the lost will be restored. The thrust of our words and actions should show that we do not desire to discipline but desire repentance of the sins committed. Note the desired results in Gal 6:1 restore, Jms 5:19-20 turns him back and saves a soul. Any discipline that the church uses should be done with the goal in mind that it is to restore the lost.
    • With distinction given to spiritual maturity. Jude reminds us that we are to make a distention between those who are spiritual immature (compassion) and those who are spiritually mature (save with fear) (Jud 22-23).

Who Is To Be Disciplined?

We recognize what Paul said in Rom 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We realize that none of are perfect in our service to God. But we must understand that scriptures are clear that there are those whose sin calls for discipline:

  1. Those who are Divisive (Rom 16:17-18; Tit 3:9-11). This is not limited to merely those who cause divisions but also those who seek to cause divisions. We are to discipline the one who seeks to form parties, seeks to subvert the plans of the church, or is successful in accomplishing division.
  2. Any brother who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard (1 Cor 5:11). Paul is addressing not only sins that were present in the church at Corinth (1 Cor 5:1) but he was instructing them that if any returned to those sins (1 Cor 6:9-11) which they had escaped from they were to not associate with such a person.
  3. Those who walk disorderly by not working but are busybodies and do not obey the words of the apostles (2 Ths 3:6, 11-15). The Thessalonians had a problem with some Christians who did not want to work but would go from house to house meddling in other’s people affairs. These people were not following the apostle’s doctrine of work and quiet living.
  4. Those who reject the faith and blaspheme the church (1 Tim 1:18-20). Paul uses Hymenaeus and Alexander as examples of those who have rejected the faith and blaspheme (speak evil) against Jesus and His church.

As we close let’s consider one last passage. In 2 Cor 2:9, Paul said that he was testing the church in Corinth to see if they would actually do what he said and withdraw from their erring brother. They passed the test? The question is will we, as congregations, pass the test if and when the test is given to us? We must realize that when we became Christians we accepted the responsibility to abide by the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles and that includes disciplining our brethren when it is deemed necessary. Let us patiently, humbly, and lovingly maintain church discipline.

[1] WSJ, Jan. 18, 2008, “Banned From Church” by: Alexander Alter

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