On Sunday night, January 10, 2016, I spoke about the difficult topic of Church Discipline. I want to follow up here with some written notes and Scripture passages for those who weren’t able to attend that service, as well as for future reference. Of course you can always watch or listen to the entire talk, Biblical Church Discipline.
For our purposes here, let’s begin by looking at Romans 12:1-2.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
What are God’s desires for His children in light of the great sacrifice that His son made for us on the cross?
- That we would present our bodies as living sacrifices to Him on a daily basis
- That we would not allow ourselves to be conformed to this world
- That we would allow our minds to be transformed and renewed by God’s Word
Now, because we are human, will there ever be a point in our lives where we will be perfectly characterized by these things? Unfortunately not. We are sinners, living in a sin cursed world, with a propensity to sin.
And when that propensity gets the best of us, and our lives become characterized by unruly and unrepentant living in some fashion, because of who our God is, He must step in. Let’s look at what Hebrews 12:5-11 tells us.
5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have trained by it.
When a child of God begins to be characterized by unruly and unrepentant living in some fashion, in what way does God step in? He steps in with His fatherly love and disciplines us in order to try and put us back on the right path.
Now, if God is so concerned with the holiness of His people, going so far as to discipline them when needed, then as a church we need to be very careful that we are concerned about sacrificial, holy living in each other’s lives and taking action when signs of sinful and unrepentant living are evident or made aware to us.
In fact, God has instructed us through Scripture that we as His children should be following His example and be involved in disciplining one another when necessary. Let’s look into God’s Word, considering God’s role for the church when it comes to the discipline of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are a part of a local body of believers.
Questions About Church Discipline
A. What is Church Discipline?
To answer that question, let’s look at Galatians 6:1-2.
1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Church discipline is really just a part of the edification process. The word “edification” means “to build up,” specifically the building up of our spiritual lives. It’s a process that involves the combination of the Word of God, our interaction with it, and the interaction of others in our lives.
Church discipline is simply part of the edification process that is specifically designed to minister to those within the body of Christ who are caught up in some area of sin. The word language here is one that describes a person falling into a trap and not being able to get out.
In all of our lives, it can be very easy for us to be caught up in a sinful trap set for us by Satan, and once in the trap, it can be very hard to get out of. When that happens, other believers — specifically, those who are spiritual and not caught in a trap of sin themselves — are to come alongside this brother or sister in Christ for the purpose of helping them become liberated from the trap of sin they are caught up in so they can be restored.
How do we do that?
- Gently — not critically or harshly
- Carefully — making sure those trying to help liberate the trapped believer don’t also get caught up in the trap
- Jointly — helping them bear some of the burdens that tempt a sinning believer to fall back into the trap of sin they have just been delivered from
B. What Does Church Discipline Look Like?
To answer that question, we need to consider Matthew 18:15-20.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The phrase “your brother” in verse 15 is absolutely inclusive of all believers. In other words, every child of God’s, whether young or old, man or woman, leader or follower — every child of God’s is to be confronted when involved in unrepentant sin.
The word “sin” in verse 15 is also all inclusive. In other words, any sin where there is no spirit of repentance in any believer’s life, requires discipline or edification.
Step 1. The person initiating the discipline first seeks private correction and reconciliation with the sinning believer.
This is really just one believer confronting another believer about sin in their life. In fact, “church discipline” should be happening all the time around a church because most church discipline is done on a one-on-one basis.
Here are a few tips to make sure this step of church discipline is done correctly and in the most profitable way:
- Confrontation must be done in private fashion — don’t involve anybody who doesn’t need to be involved
- Confrontation must be done with personal purity by the person initiating the discipline — make sure you’re not overlooking something in your life, or that you are doing this with the wrong motivation
- Confrontation must be done in such a way that the sinning believer cannot escape recognizing the sin in his or her life — use the Word of God and call sin what is SIN
- Confrontation must be done with great humility, meekness, love, and forgiveness — if you aren’t ready to forgive, don’t confront
- Confrontation must be done as soon as possible so as not to let the sin take root and grow in a person’s life — waiting only makes things worse
- Confrontation must be done face-to-face — in light of our technologically advanced society, I feel like I need to include this one as well. Don’t confront via text message, email, or social media.
Confrontation is never really an easy or enjoyable thing to do. However, if they listen to you and respond with repentance, the discipline process ends there, and you have restored that brother or sister in Christ.
Unfortunately, if after this first step, the sinning brother or sister does not listen and respond with repentance, Scripture continues to guide us in regards to the next step.
Step 2. The person who initiated the discipline is to go and get witnesses who will serve to strengthen a second attempt of a private correction and reconciliation.
The same keys to making the first step of discipline effective are true for this step as well, except for this step, two or three witnesses are brought into the conversation. The reason they are called “witnesses” is because of what they are brought in to do:
- Include witnesses in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation by showing the sinning believer who their sins are actually affecting
- Include witnesses in order to confirm that the sinning believer was properly rebuked in case they do not respond correctly and the next step in the process needs to be taken.
If the sinning believer listens and responds correctly with repentance, then you have gained that brother or sister back to fellowship, at which time the discipline ends.
However, if after this second step the sinning brother or sister does not listen and respond with repentance, Scripture continues to guide us in regards to the next step.
Step 3. The sinning believer is brought before the whole congregation of a church, where the whole church is responsible to call that person back to holiness.
Whenever a matter of church discipline is brought before the church, we must understand that it is never to be a time for condemnation, criticism, and hostility. Instead, it is to serve as another call to holiness for the sinning believer. That is why it says in the text, “if they refuse to listen to the church.” Listen to what? Listen to the church’s call for personal holiness.
By the time we get to this step in the discipline process, it is going to take an act of God to change the person’s heart, so we need to be pleading with Him to do it!
If, as a result of this third step of the process, the sinning believer listens and responds correctly with repentance, then we have gained that brother or sister back into fellowship, at which time the discipline ends.
However, the church’s responsibility isn’t done. Look at 2 Corinthians 2:5-8.
5 Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure — not to put it too severely — to all of you. 6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.
It is obvious that someone within the church at Corinth had done something to bring harm and hurt to Paul and to the church. It is also obvious that the church stepped up and dealt with the problem through confrontation and discipline. Eventually, the person who had caused the harm and hurt repented, and so Paul in these verses instructs the church as to how they should respond now — a response that should involve:
- Forgiveness — accepting the person and their act of repentance, not holding their sin against them anymore
- Comfort — reaching out to them, assuring them of support, continued encouragement, and continued challenge to move forward in their walk with Christ
- Love — including them, drawing them close, and doing for them that which will aid their growth and complete recovery
If after this third step, the sinning brother or sister does not listen and respond with repentance, Scripture continues to guide us.
Step 4. The local body of Christ that the sinning believer is a part of is to put that believer out of their fellowship, while continuing to call back that believer in the hope that they will repent.
In [biblegateway passage=”Matthew 18:17″ display=”Matthew 18:17″], we are told to take the action of letting the sinning believer become like “a Gentile or tax collector” — in other words, to treat them as an unbeliever.
In [biblegateway passage=”1 Corinthians 5:5″ display=”1 Corinthians 5:5″], we are told to take the action of delivering such a one to Satan.
And in [biblegateway passage=”1 Corinthians 5:11″ display=”1 Corinthians 5:11″], we are told to take the action of not even keeping company with this person.
Now while these actions may seem serious — which they are — and harsh — which they are — Jesus was not teaching us to form a prejudicial hatred toward the person. Neither was He teaching us to have total exclusion of contact with the believer. Jesus’ point was that a believer, who persists in sin, is to be put out of the church where they will no longer know the blessedness of the church’s company, fellowship, and encouragement.
The fact of the matter is that these individuals were given the chance, on multiple occasions, of repentance and staying with God’s people, or of holding on to their sin and their ties with the world and Satan. And at each occasion they chose their sin and Satan over God and the church. Therefore, as a church, we have no other choice then to give that person over to the one they have already chosen.
When a church has to carry out this step of the discipline process, it is important to understand that it does not mean that we eliminate all contact with the person. The reason for that is because the process of discipline is not done in that person’s life. Ultimately, the discipline process of a genuine Christ-follower does not end until that individual repents of their sin or dies. So we do not eliminate all contact with those refusing to respond properly to the confrontation of sin in their life. When there is an opportunity to admonish the unrepentant believer, even after they have been put out of the fellowship of a local body of believers, the opportunity should always be taken to once again call that person to repentance.
That is why in Matthew 18 we are told that our interaction with such a person should be like our interaction with an unsaved person — meaning that we should have loving, caring interaction that is purpose-driven, with that purpose being to call that individual to repentance.
C. What Are the Reasons for Church Discipline?
To answer that question, we need to look back at Matthew 18:15.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
According to this passage, for what reason should the initial step of personal confrontation in the church discipline process take place?
Reason 1: “If your brother sins…”
The Greek word for “sin” here is one that has the literal meaning of “missing the mark” and is referring to missing the mark of God’s standards.
Therefore, Christ is instructing the church that any sin, in any genuine Christ-follower, that is not being dealt with any in any way, requires the process of church discipline to begin in their lives. There are not certain sins that a church an overlook and certain ones they cannot. Since all sin is an offense against God, all sin should be an offense to all of God’s children.
So, the initial step of the church discipline process, the step of personal confrontation is done for the reason of any and all sin in a Christ-follower’s life that is being left unchecked and undealt with in their life.
Now as you keep reading in the text, the reason given for the remaining steps of the church discipline process is different than the reason given for the first step. Notice the text:
16 “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
According to this passage, for what reason should the remaining steps in the church discipline process take place?
Reason 2: “…if he refuses to listen…”
So the only reason that the remaining steps of the church discipline process takes place within the church is because a person refuses to repent of their sin. And ultimately, that is why, when the entire church is called upon to participate in the discipline process, their initial action should be to prayerfully call for the Holy Spirit to work in the unrepentant heart of the believer so that they are brought to a place of brokenness over their sin and complete repentance before God.
D. Why Do Church Discipline? What Is the Purpose?
1. We are commanded to do it in Scripture.
9 But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10 As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
1 Timothy 5:19-21
19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.
2 Thessalonians 3:6, 13-15
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 13As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
In any of these passages, do you see God giving us any real option when it comes to the process of discipline? We have been clearly commanded to involve ourselves in the process of church discipline when it is required. Therefore, failure to exercise this responsibility demonstrates a lack of obedience and belief on our part to the authority of the Bible.
2. We should do it in order to restore, heal, and build up a sinning believer.
As a body of Christ that says we love God and each other, we should never want to see a family member in Christ trapped by Satan. So following the example of our loving Heavenly Father, we should take appropriate measures in order to see that family member in Christ freed from their entanglement in sin, in order that they might be restored and continued to be built up in the body of Christ.
3. We should do it in order to set an example for the rest of the body and promote Godly fear.
Proper church discipline can set an example for the rest of the body and promote Godly fear, a fear that has a proper respect for God and His hatred of evil, which as a result inspires a wholesome dread of displeasing God.
I personally believe that in our society and churches today, we have lost a lot of that fear. Fewer and fewer people have a proper fear of displeasing God, and part of the reason for that is because the church hasn’t involved itself as much as it should in the God-given process of discipline.
But as a church takes seriously its responsibility of edification, accountability, and discipline, that Godly fear will come as those within the church see firsthand the consequences of sinful action, and God’s standards being held in a very high regard.
4. We should do it in order to maintain the church’s purity and integrity.
1 Corinthians 5:1-7
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. 3 For though absent in the body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
In ancient times, when bread was about to be baked, a small piece of dough was pulled off and saved. That little piece of leaven, as it was called, would then be allowed to ferment in water, and would later be kneaded into the next batch of fresh dough to make it rise.
That little piece of leaven represents unchecked sin, and just as it was able to have such a great effect on a fresh batch of dough, a little unchecked sin can have the same effect on any church by slowly destroying that church’s purity and integrity.
The purity and integrity of the church is something that is so precious and special that it should be guarded at all costs, because nothing can have such a negative effect on a church as when it loses its purity integrity. Because when a church loses its purity and integrity, it’s a pretty good sign they also lost the power of God through the Holy Spirit as well.
5. We should do it in order to continue to receive God’s blessing.
The LORD said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. 12 Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you. 13 Get up! Consecrate the people and say, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow; for thus says the LORD, God of Israel, “There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.”‘”
I know that this is an Old Testament passage dealing with the nation of Israel, but it is a great illustration of what effect sin can have on the church when the sin is unchecked or not dealt with.
We need to remember that the only reason a church is able to accomplish anything for Christ is because of the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through those within the church.
Ephesians 4:25-32 clearly teaches that sin that is not checked and dealt with grieves the Holy Spirit and therefore quenches His power.
25Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
If a church chooses not to participate in the process of church discipline, then it is safe to conclude that the Holy Spirit will be grieved and His power will be quenched in such a church, due to the all the unchecked and undealt with sin. And when this happens, it ultimately will lead to the unavoidable result of losing the Lord’s blessing until that sin is dealt with.
I know that the church discipline process is not something that is easy to do, nor is it something that we really like to do. It can make us feel uncomfortable and even a little scared.
However, in light of all of these reasons, I hope you see how important it is for us to make sure that we are involved in this God-given process for the church when it is necessary.