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5 Questions about Church Discipline

This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.

Q: What is church discipline?

A: You might have noticed that disciple and discipline are related words. In the broadest sense, church discipline is one part of Christian discipleship.1 It involves teaching and correction. Not surprisingly, theres a centuries-old practice of referring to formative discipline and corrective discipline. We form by teaching. We correct by pointing out error.

More narrowly, church discipline means correcting sin. The process begins with private warnings. It ends, when necessary, with removing someone from church membership and participation in the Lords Table for unrepentant sinsin they refuse to let go of. Often, people use the words church discipline to refer especially to this last step, as when they say, We disciplined Joe from the church, meaning they removed Joe from membership in the church and the Table. They might also use the word excommunication (think ex-communion) to mean the same thing.

Church discipline is not about retribution or enacting justice. Its redemptive. Its meant to help the individual Christian and the congregation grow in godlinessin God-likeness. As Paul says, deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved (1 Cor. 5:5).


Jonathan Leeman

Church discipline is painful, but often necessary, and should always be loving. In this addition to the 9Marks Church Questions series, Jonathan Leeman presents succinct biblical answers to various questions posited about the nature and application of church discipline.

Q: Is church discipline in the Bible?

A: The answer is, yes, it shows up in a number of New Testament passages (for instance, see 2 Cor. 2:6; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 5:11; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:615; 1 Tim. 5:1920; 2 Tim. 3:25; Titus 3:10). Perhaps the two most well-known passages on church discipline are Matthew 18:1517 and 1 Corinthians 5.

Jesus raises the topic in Matthew 18 while teaching about how a good shepherd will leave the ninety-nine sheep to pursue the one stray (Matt. 18:1014). How do we pursue the one stray? Jesus answers like this:

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. 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. 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. (Matt. 18:1517)

So someone is sinning. Hes confronted privately. He doesnt stop. Hes confronted a second time. He still doesnt stop. Hes confronted by the church. He still doesnt stop. At that point, Jesus says, he should be treated as someone outside the covenant communityas an outsider. He must be excluded or excommunicated from the fellowship.

Notice Jesus wants to keep the matter as small as possible, but hes also willing to take a matter to the whole church. After all, its the whole church that affirmed that persons profession of faith when they brought him into membership. In a church, we all share in that mutual affirmation because we share a family name. We are responsible for one another, like different parts of the body.

Notice also that Jesus believes in due process. A matter must be established by two or three witnesses, just like in a Jewish court of law (Deut. 19:15). He doesnt want false charges or mob jus- tice to rule the church. He doesnt want pastors standing up and offering their interpretations of peoples character. He only wants churches to act when the facts are generally agreed upon.

Still, Jesuss words might seem startling. Didnt he just tell us a few chapters earlier, Judge not, that you be not judged (Matt. 7:1)? The interesting thing is, Jesus told his disciples not to judge in the same breath that he told them not to cast their pearls before pigs and to recognize a tree by its fruits, both of which involve judgment (Matt. 7:6, 20). How do we put all this together? Apparently, Jesus does not want us to presume to act as someones final judge, but he does want us to exercise discernment in whom we fellowship with, particularly when it comes to membership in a church.

Paul teaches the same thing in 1 Corinthians 5. He confronts the Corinthian church about a member who is sleeping with his fathers wife (1 Cor. 5:1). The church already knows about the situation, but for some reason they are proud. Perhaps they think they are being loving and tolerant? Whatever the case may be, Paul replies that they should not be proud but instead should let him who has done this be removed from among you (1 Cor. 5:2).

Notice that Pauls process looks a little different than Jesuss. Jesus offered a four-step process: first the one, then the two or three, then the church, then the removal. Yet Paul tells the church to remove the man immediately. Why the difference between Jesus and Paul? Two reasons stand out. First, Jesuss process moves step by step in order to test a persons repentance, whereas Paul has already determined that this man is unrepentant (1 Cor. 5:3, 11). Second, Jesus presents a scenario where the offense is private and unknown, whereas Paul tells us the whole Corinthian church already knows. In other words, Pauls real situation begins where Jesuss example situation ends.

Q: How does a church practice discipline?

A: Public accountability should be an outgrowth of whats already going on in the private lives of church members. Formal church discipline works best when members already know how to give and receive loving correction. They do it in their homes. They do it over lunch. They do it gently, carefully, and always with the good of the other person in mind. They dont offer corrective words selfishlyjust to get something off their chest.

Several other principles for conducting church discipline are crucial.

The process should involve as few people as possible. This principle clearly emerges from Matthew 18:1517. If a one-on-one encounter yields repentance, good. If it takes two or three more, then leave it at that. A matter should only be taken to the whole church when all other avenues have been exhausted.

Individuals should receive the benefit of the doubt. As we have already observed, Jesus prescribes something like a careful judicial process in Matthew 18:16 that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. Charges must be established. Evidence must be presented. Witnesses must be involved. Christians should move slowly and carefully, and churches should approach discipline cases with something like the courtroom principle of innocent until proven guilty.

Church leaders should lead the process. Sin is deceitful and complex. Its easy to be deceived. Jude therefore writes, have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh (Jude 2223). Generally speaking, once a matter of discipline moves beyond the first step or two, church elders should lead the process. The Holy Spirit has given them oversight over the whole congregation (Acts 20:28). Therefore, they should ordinarily be the ones determining whether a matter should go to the whole congregation.

Church discipline should involve the whole church. Different denominational traditions have different ways of involving the entire congregation in the process of formal discipline. But no matter the denomination, leaders should look for ways to tell it to the church (Matt. 18:17). Discipline, particularly in its final stages, is a deeply significant event in the life of a body, which, by virtue of our shared union in Christ, every part surely does own. Pastorally, its a significant event that every part surely should own.

All will learn. All will be warned and challenged. All may have something to contribute.

Q: Is church discipline always loving?

A: We need to acknowledge the difference between loving church discipline and unloving church discipline. Abusive church discipline, like abusive parents or police officers, does great damage. Its hateful, and God hates it. Loving church discipline yields life, health, holiness, and growth. It helps our churches stay healthy and furthers the witness of the gospel.

Scripture teaches that discipline and love are actually closely connected: The Lord disciplines the one he loves (Heb. 12:6). God doesnt regard love and discipline as being at odds but teaches that love motivates discipline. The author of Hebrews continues, God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Heb. 12:1011 NIV). That phrase harvest of righteousness and peace makes me think of golden fields of wheat, only I imagine that those fields are righteousness and peace in a church. Doesnt that sound like a beautiful picture?

Church discipline grows a church in righteousness, peace, and love. This is true whether or not a sinner repents of his or her sin and is restored to the church. At the same time, by Gods grace, I have also seen marriages restored, lies confessed, addictions abandoned, the gospel re-embraced, and love rescued through church discipline. These stories of restoration after repentance are glorious.

Church discipline is not about retribution or enacting justice. Its redemptive.

Q: What exactly does removing someone from a church say about the person?

A: Removing a person from membership and participation in the Lords Supper is a way of declaring that a church is no longer willing to affirm publicly that someone is a Christian.

Think for a second about what a church is saying when it brings a person into membership. The church is publicly affirming an individuals profession of faith. It is declaring before the nations, Joe professes to be a follower of Christ, and we hereby publicly testify that we agree with him. We believe Joe is a citizen of Christs kingdom. The church makes this declaration through baptism and the Lords Supper.

So if membership involves the churchs public affirmation of a profession, church discipline involves the removal of that affirmation. The person may continue to profess he or she is a Christian. Yet now the church says, We can no longer affirm this.

Or let me explain it this way. If Joe came up to you and told you he was not a Christian, and then I asked you whether Joe was a Christian, you would say, No. Right?

But suppose Joe said he was a Christian, yet then you watched him do something we dont expect of Christians and not apologize for it, like leaving his wife for another woman. What would you say if I asked you whether he was a Christian then? I expect you would probably feel uncomfortable offering an absolute yes or no. Removing someone from membership in the church, likewise, is not an absolute yes or no in response to someones profession of faith. It is the removal of the yes. It is saying we will no longer affirm this profession. A church reaches a point where, after multiple attempts to call a person to repentance, it feels dishonest continuing to affirm a persons profession of faith.

Notes:

  1. These five points drawn from 1 Corinthians 5 are quoted from Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline and the Love of God, Capitol Hill Baptist Church website, January 1, 2012, https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/sermon/church-discipline-and-the-love-of-god/. This article is handed out in Capitol Hills membership class.

This article is adapted from Is It Loving to Practice Church Discipline? by Jonathan Leeman.



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