Church Discipline: A Call to Faithful Obedience
This subject is one that many people avoid or misunderstand. The idea of church discipline conjures feelings of shame, or public humiliation and harsh treatment. Others view it as unloving, claiming that love is always welcoming. But the Bible shows several truths that make church discipline necessary. Here are some:
· A Christian is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and has received not only forgiveness but a new nature (Colossians 1:13-14). Consequently, a Christian ought to demonstrate change from his former life (Ephesians 2:1-5, Galatians 5:19-24, Titus 2:11-14).
· We are called to holy living (Hebrews 12:14) and to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12-13). Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is in fact one, and church discipline is one of the means through which the distinction is maintained in the local church.
So what is church discipline? One short but helpful definition would be:
"Church discipline is the process by which a local church works to restore a professing Christian who has fallen into sin.” - R. Stanton Norman, The Reestablishment of Proper Church Discipline, in White, Duesing & Yarnell, Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, Kregel, 2008, p.207
Church discipline upholds the corporate witness of the local church as a body of Christians, and serves as a warning, both to the unrepentant and to the faithful. It also serves to protect the church from false teachers and sinful, immoral behavior. As noted by John Hammett, church membership and church discipline complement each other:
"Church discipline and regenerate church membership are related in that the former can be effectively practices only by a congregation composed of the latter, and that the former is necessary to maintain the genuineness of the latter." - John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, Kregel, 2005, pp.106-107
A church that does not practice biblical church discipline shows that it is indifferent to God’s holiness and is complacent towards sin in its midst. It callously disregards God’s command and call for His people to be holy. It harms not only the gospel witness, but also poses a danger to its members, not the least of whom is the person living in unrepentant sin. This is because it lulls the person into false complacency, thinking that sin is trivial and holiness optional. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, we are to:
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)
Categories that merit church discipline. According to Ted Kitchens, there are four major categories of sins for which church discipline may occur.
a. Private and personal offenses that violate Christian love;
b. Divisiveness and factions that destroy Christian unity;
c. Moral and ethical deviations that break Christian standards; and
d. Teaching false doctrine.
- Ted Kitchens, Perimeters of Corrective Church Discipline¸ BibSac 148 (1991) 211-212
As can be noted, those categories undermine the collective Christian life and witness, and as such, should be taken seriously by the church.
How the church disciplines. The following text expresses the pattern of church discipline:
“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.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
When a person claims to be a Christian yet his or her life is totally inconsistent with what one would expect of a believer in Jesus, the Bible tells us to undertake certain steps:
First, we are told to lovingly call this person to repentance (Matthew 18:15). If the brother or sister acknowledges the sin and repents, we are said to have gained him or her back.
However, if the person does not listen, we are to call Him back together with one or two witnesses to talk to the person (Matthew 18:16).
If he or she still refuses to listen to the three witnesses, we are to tell the church, and have the church pray and call the person to repentance (Matthew 18:17).
Finally, if the person stubbornly persists and does not repent, it becomes the necessary but sad duty of the church to exclude him or her from the fellowship of the church (Matthew 18:17-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13).
Not all acts of discipline lead to removal, as the steps above show. Sometimes, it starts and ends with just two people talking, acknowledging the offense and repenting. Sometimes it requires intervention and counseling of other brethren, who may or may not be elders. For example, Paul says to the Galatians:
1Brothers, if anyone is caught in any 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. (Galatians 6:1-2)
Jeremy Kimble explains further:
“One who becomes aware of another’s sin should privately speak to the offender in order to restore him or her to fellowship with Christ. This restoration to spiritual health and vitality should be done in a humble manner. One who truly loves others and is walking in the Spirit approaches another person with firmness in dealing with sin and humility in seeking to treat them with gentleness.” - Jeremy Kimble, 40 Qustions About Church Membership & Discipline, Kregel, 2017, p.162
Note also how these steps apply in the restoration of broken relationships, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of holiness in a manner that demonstrates grace, patience and love. As such, they should not simply be seen as mechanical steps that have to be done in succession, but as a process that affords every opportunity for reconciliation and repentance before the last, final and tragic step has to be taken, which is exclusion, or more commonly known as excommunication.
Excommunication / exclusion / disfellowship is a serious matter. Paul uses words like “deliver this man to Satan” (1 Corinthians 5:5, cf. 1 Timothy 1:20) to describe the removal of the unrepentant, but with “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Thomas Schreiner explains;
“What does it mean to say that he was handed over to Satan? The answer is that all those who are outside Christ and not members of the church are in Satan’s sphere, for ‘the whole world is under the sway of the evil one’ (1 John 5:19)…Delivering the man to Satan means he is removed from the sphere of salvation and that he resides in Satan’s sphere.” Thomas Schreiner, The Biblical Basis for Church Discipine, in John Hammett & Benjamin Merkle (eds.), Those Who Must Give An Account, B&H, 2012, p.115-116
By removing the unrepentant, the church is declaring that as far as they can tell, they cannot confirm that the person is a Christian. This does not remove salvation, assuming that the person is truly saved. Rather, it withdraws the affirmation of his testimony the local church. This is a serious, sobering matter, and one that requires prayer and thoughtful consideration.
This is something that the gathered church decides on “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4) and the decision is like one considering amputation. No one wants a limb cut off, but to stop an infection from contaminating others, it may become a painful necessity. Because of the difficulty, some churches avoid church discipline altogether, and some even call it as harsh and unloving. However, a church that refuses to discipline the unrepentant offender is one that severely undervalues God’s holiness. You cannot have biblical love without biblical holiness.
Repentance and restoration. This is hopefully not permanent exclusion, since the ultimate goal is to bring the person to repentance and restoration. When the person under discipline repents, he or she is to be lovingly welcomed and restored into fellowship. In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, we are warned to forgive the repentant sinner, to “turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 5:7), lest they “be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Also, as one can see, this pattern also serves as a basis for resolving conflicts within the church. By openly and honestly talking and confronting each other lovingly, a venue is provided for people to settle their differences before things get worse.
Church discipline, when properly done, is an act of love, since it warns the sinner who professes to be a Christian to repent and turn by to God and to live in obedience to God’s word. It is also loving to other Christians since it excludes those whose beliefs and practices who deny what faithful believers hold to, and it is loving, albeit in a “tough love” manner, to the sinning person, since it serves as a loud and final wake-up call to repent and turn back to God.