Church Discipline

One of my recent doctoral seminars at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary required me to articulate the Bible’s teachings on certain matters pertaining to the church. The past three weeks, we have seen a definition of the local church, as well as an explanation of the ordinances of the church (baptism and Lord’s Supper). Today we will continue in this series by talking about a not-so-popular subject: church discipline.

What is church discipline?

Is it biblical?

Who should be disciplined?

Who should enforce the discipline?

The following is what I submitted to my professors and peers as an attempt to answer these questions and others:

“Being a church member is a serious matter; being a Christian is even more so. Both Christianity and church membership provide an individual with certain rights, but with these also come responsibilities. In everything a believer does, they represent both Christ and the church at which their membership resides. For these reasons, sinful behaviors and activities must not be taken lightly. Christ-followers, and especially pastors/elders/overseers, have the God-given responsibility to rebuke and correct fellow believers, always with a spirit of love and a goal of repentance and restoration.

“In Mt 18:15 Jesus told His disciples that if a brother sins against them they are to rebuke him in private. In Gal 6:1 Paul told the believers that if they catch someone in wrongdoing, they should seek to restore them with a gentle spirit. 1 Cor 5:9-13 instructs churches to judge those who are inside, i.e., fellow members. In 2 Tm 4:1-2, part of Paul’s charge to Timothy included rebuking, correcting, and encouraging by means of great patience and teaching. From these passages a clear picture emerges that both individual Christians and the (local) church as a whole must not turn a blind eye on sin. Sin must be dealt with, and this is done through the practice of church discipline.

“Returning to Jesus’s words in Mt 18, we find that He lays out a three-step process to be followed when rebuking a sinning Christian. First, according to verse 15, the brother should be rebuked in private by the one he has sinned against. This means that when someone sins against you, your first move is not to go tell your pastor or anyone else. No, you go straight to that person and seek restoration. In this way the matter remains private and keeps the sinning brother from being shamed publicly. The goal is that the brother will listen and the matter will be settled. If this is the case, then no further action is necessary.

“If this is not the case, proceed to step two, which Jesus describes in Mt 18:16. Based on the Mosaic tradition of establishing facts through two or three witnesses, the one who has been sinned against should take two or more brothers with him to confront the sinner a second time. This step provides the benefit of an objective third-party who may be able to help resolve the matter. While not prescribed by Jesus, a good practice would be to include a pastor/elder/overseer in this third-party. He will be able to speak biblically and theologically to the situation, and this will also prepare him should the third step in the process become necessary.

“If the sinner does not repent after these private and semi-private steps have been taken, then—and only then—should the matter be taken before the entire church congregation (Mt 18:17). Now the matter becomes public, and the entire church body becomes involved in seeking to restore the sinning brother. This step should not be misconstrued as a form of gossip or condemnation; the purpose is still to convince the brother to repent of his sin. Yet if this does not happen and he remains unrepentant, the church is charged by Jesus to take action. He is to be considered as an unbeliever and a tax collector—an outsider who no longer belongs to the body. This means that the person should be stripped of their membership and removed from the fellowship of the church. This act should take place by a vote during a meeting called for that specific purpose.

“While this seems harsh, and indeed it may be, it is both important and necessary. It speaks to the seriousness of sin in the life of a believer, which harms fellowship with Christ and with other believers. The New Testament provides both prescriptions for and examples of disassociating with unrepentant believers. Ti 3:10 instructs believers to first warn a divisive person twice before finally rejecting such a person. In 1 Tm 1:18-20 Paul says that Hymenaeus and Alexander lost their faith and were delivered over to Satan. This clearly suggests they were no longer part of the church. Maybe the best instructive example is found in 1 Cor 5:1-5, a passage to which we will now turn.

“The process Jesus provided in Mt 18 is to be followed when one believer sins against another. There may be other cases of sin in the church that do not meet this criterion, such as sins involving sex or alcohol. If a church becomes aware of a legitimate sinful behavior/lifestyle in the life of one of its members, they must take action; it is not permissible to allow known, unrepentant sin to run amuck in the church. Since this sin may not be against a specific person, the three-step process of Mt 18 does not fully apply. When Paul hears of the sexual immorality taking place in the church at Corinth—a man living with his father’s wife—he instructs them to handle the situation promptly. When the church is assembled, that person should be turned over to Satan (1 Cor 5:4-5). In this case, the issue goes straight to the church. If the person is not repentant at that point, then the directive of Jesus in Mt 18:17 is to be followed and fellowship with that individual should be broken off. Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor 5:11, stating that the church should not associate with someone who calls themselves a “brother” yet is living in sin.

“The removing of a member from church fellowship is not to be taken lightly and should always be done under the leadership of a pastor/elder/overseer while the whole congregation is gathered. Biblical instruction regarding the practice should be given, and the details of the matter should be presented before a decision is reached. Church members should follow the leadership of their God-appointed leaders in exercising discipline.

“In sum, the rebuking of a sinful brother and the exercise of church discipline should be done with a gentle spirit in hopes that the person will repent and be restored to proper fellowship. Church discipline is necessary to preserve both the unity and the witness of the church.”

Were you aware that the Bible prescribes such actions?

Have you ever been involved in a case of church discipline (either as someone under discipline or as a church member administering it)?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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28 Comments »

  1. “Being a church member is a serious matter; being a Christian is even more so.”

    Bingo. Now a days being a “Christian” means next to nothing! We make it sound like it means everything, but what is it to us, really? We attend a church on Sunday and pray before meals! The problem is that from one church to the next what does it even matter, there’s no exclusivity, no sense of, “Hey, this is serious stuff.” Get kicked out of one church and walk across the street to the next where they will welcome you, and your sin, with open arms! No judgement here, brother! Just love! Maybe if people started to treat wearing the name “Christian” with some sort of responsibility that would change, but churches don’t make it a point of making that a point!

    In all my 42 years I have never heard of any of the churches I have been involved in administering discipline toward another member. It has been something I have only read about, once, on someone else’s site!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. On paper it sounds nice. You rebuke someone and God brings them to their senses. The difficulty is when you encounter someone who fights you through all 3 phases (one on one, small group, whole congregation) but claims ya’ll are crazy. I would love to see this course of action carried out, but I think most of the time ‘the church’ at large is uncomfortable confronting sin, so bad behavior is swept under the rug. Or you just jump to kicking someone out. Great conversation to have!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think this attitude of “fighting” comes from two places:

      1. Our natural inclination to fight back when our sin is exposed. Embarrassment, shame and, often times, a haughty attitude can cause even strong Christians to fight back when called out. It probably helps a lot if the church is very clear in defining what sin is.

      2. The church needs to make it readily apparent that, as a member, it has the ability to discipline you! While a member you are representative of that church, and your bad behavior gives the congregation a bad name. In order to preserve its good name, and so as not to blaspheme the name of God, the church has been given biblical authority to discipline its members, but modern churches don’t make that readily apparent. I don’t know if they did in older days, but I think in modern times it would come as a bit of a shock to the average church-goer that the church would be “sticking its nose into my business”. If the church made it more apparent that they WILL take this step if you are living a sinful lifestyle then its members might not get so mad. Then its more of a “I knew what was going to happen and I brought it on myself” kind of attitude rather than a “how dare you!”.

      Just my 2 cents.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Point 1 is spot on, when sin is exposed the flesh snaps into a protective stance of the sin that is trusted.

        Point 2 – You are right, some how it needs to be clear that discipleship is what you sign up for as a church member.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have seen this done technically right, but morally wrong. IF church discipline does not humble, break and cause great pain, brokeness and tears to the ONES involved in correcting the issue, then it is not done effectively. Church discipline is hard, for the truly anyone who corrects, rebukes, instructs, chastens others must be so broken over the issue themselves that their alabaster boxes burst before God and man.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I don’t know much but I beg you to Listen To Dr. Chcuck Missler. PLEASE! 24 is the first set of studies.
    You can find him now on youtube, he is the best of teacher and answers many many Qs by Teaching word by word the Bible in all the Books He teaches. God Bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really can’t imagine much disciplining going on in today’s churches. More concerned with not rocking the boat, not being judgmental (even though the need for judgment is obvious), looking the other way, keep collecting offerings from the offenders, etc. The bride’s gown is soiled, sullied, muddied, shredded and torn to ribbons, a rag….Yeshua will be so disappointed over her.

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  6. I guess the question I would raise is what is a “member”? when one becomes a Christian, one becomes a “member” of the Body of Christ and no other requirements should be necessary. There are only passing inferences to having a “roll” of people but there is not a direct reference in the NT of some sort of “official” membership that is required for “benefits” from a Body of believers. To restrict “rights” (whatever they are) to only those with a piece of paper is not Biblical and I would say is even anti-Biblical. All believers are a part of the Body and function as such, regardless of status. Either they are helpful members or unhelpful members, they are still a part. It would be like saying that a liver needs to get certified before it can gaint nutrients from the rest of the body and function to do what it was designed to do, after it has been inserted into the body.
    Having a piece of paper that says I have gone through the motions to become a member, even if I agree on paper that I will be in subject to the leadership for discipline, means nothing when push comes to shove. If one is found deep in sin and is confronted with it, it is unlikely, because of their sinful state of rebellion against God, that they will just go, “oh, my, I am so sorry. I will quit my sin today. Don’t shun me or kick me out of the church and take away my membership.”
    I totally agree that this procedure is necessary but for whom? How about a person that isn’t a card carrying member but is prominent in the church. Does this apply to them?
    Anyway, the culture of the church today is such that this won’t work. It should, it is God commanded and inspired, but not under the current state of affairs. Which leaves the church looking a lot like the world.

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  7. In 1976 my wife and I moved to Boulder, CO, and attended a house church for several years. Then out of the blue a couple leaders of the church came to me and asked me to leave the church. They did not tell me why and I still have not been able to figure out what I had done wrong. My wife thought it might have been I was gaining too much influence in the church. Whatever it was, I was hurt at the time but now I think it was for the best as it gave me a chance to move on to other things.
    Since churches are places for the sanctification of sinners it seems there needs to be a certain level of tolerance for dysfunction. And I think we need to remember there is difference between “being sinned against” and “offended,” or at least there should be.
    The goal of church discipline should be to restore someone who is headed to the flames without getting burnt ourselves.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. What about that one part in the Bible where this woman was dragged in front of Jesus and accused of committing adultery and they wanted to execute her by lobbing rocks at her. Her partner in crime was suspiciously absent. And Jesus doodles in the dirt for a minute and the he was like, “Ok that’s cool, whoever never screwed up gets to throw the first rock.”

    Or what about that other part where he talked about the speck in your neighbor’s eye vs. the log in your own, and which one was your business?

    What is a sin, anyway? Are we talking Ten Commandments? Social taboos? Heretical opinions?

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    • The bible tells us what sin is, so that’s not difficult. The ten commandments are pretty basic and simple to follow. If a Christian takes issue with them it says more about who they are than anything else.

      Jesus showed mercy to the woman they brought him, but he would have been right in letting them stone her, it was the penalty for her crime. The fact that the man was missing could be due to him already being dead. They were caught IN THE ACT, and I could certainly see the man being punished quickly. The woman would have been subject to the same punishment were it not for the opportunity to use her as bait to lure Jesus into contradicting the law. That Jesus showed mercy was taking their bait and throwing it back in their faces.

      We are called to check the log in our own eyes before pointing out the speck in our neighbors so that we are not hypocritical in our calling other believers out on sin, but we are told to call out other believers! Jesus’s instructions were for us to take stock of ourselves BEFORE we judge another so we aren’t called as hypocrites, but we are called to judge. I believe Paul told us not to worry about judging those outside the faith because their judgement comes from God, but we are called to judge the sinful lifestyles of other believers because they are representatives of God and His household. OUR household! Big difference compared to most churches/Christians belief that we are not to point out the sin in a brothers or sisters life simply because we are imperfect.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My point was that the Bible is full of contradictory directives and not at all straightforward. To say that Jesus would have been right to condone the woman caught in adultery…well, maybe he would have been within the law, but then he wouldn’t have been Jesus, he would have been just another bloodthirsty finger-pointer. I DO think that the behavior of people in positions of leadership with the church should be

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  9. (Oops, posted too soon)…monitored. Otherwise you can have really harmful situations like the sex abuse scandal that has hurt the Catholic Church. I once had a priest that said churches should be like hospitals for the soul. I like that better than them being a country club for rule-followers.

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    • What on earth are you talking about. Jesus = God. God is the one who gave the law dictating that the penalty for adultery was death. If Jesus hadn’t shown mercy it would have been justice, not bloodthirsty. A judge who sentences a man to die for his crimes is not blood thirsty, but it is up to the judge to determine if mercy is warranted. And the bible is not “full of contradictory directives” except to those who read it piecemeal and lack understanding. To the unbeliever it is as foolishness. So, my question to you is, are you a believer? If not then any further discussion is a waste of time! If so then it sounds like you may need to spend a bit more time understanding how the word does not deliver “contradictory directives”. For your own sake and for the sake of others.

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      • This is actual dialog.

        You made the claim that if Jesus didn’t show mercy then he would just be a blood thirsty finger-pointer, and wouldn’t be Jesus. I informed you that Jesus is God and God is the one who prescribed the penalty for adultery, so he would still be Jesus. Since death was the actual penalty for the law, we call that “justice” not blood thirst.

        If your going to make a claim then back it up with something substantial. That’s not a big or difficult request.

        And whether you are a believer or not makes a big difference. If you just believe Jesus was a “good teacher” then, coming from the stance that Jesus was God in the flesh, a conversation with you would prove rather pointless, as we are looking at things from two completely different view points.

        Welcome to actual dialog.

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      • Sorry. To clarify: by “actual dialog” I meant productive conversation. Going to excuse myself now. This has been a good if unpleasant reminder for me of what so many people claim to believe and how they carry those beliefs into the words. Thank you. Peace out.

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  10. According to the saints, our actions are so important that the manner and time of our death is determined by their sum total. In the book The Path of the Master, Dr Julian Johnson writes at length on the implication of the law of action and reaction for death and for life. Paraphrasing part of his discussion on karma, we start with the self –evident fact that everyone has to die some day.

    Whether man or beast, rich or poor, healthy or diseased, nobody escapes death. All have to pass through its gate. The soul that has taken the physical form has to discard it. We all know that we have to quit this world some day, but we do not know when.

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  11. Travis, I’m going to both agree and disagree with you, although my disagreeing is actually just some refining of your thoughts. First, your opening paragraphs in your doctoral assignment are very good! You make it clear that sin is a serious problem in the Body of Christ and, therefore, must be dealt with soberly. I appreciate the collection of verses related to this topic; it’s nice to see them all together.

    “…a good practice would be to include a pastor/elder/overseer in this third-party.” This is good, but I would refine this to say that whoever becomes this third party should be someone that is respected by both offender & offended–someone that both, but especially the offender, is willing to listen to and receive corrective instruction from. This Step 2 “third party”, I believe, should be in the role of not just “witnessing” (observing & becoming knowledgeable about the issue) but should also be involved as a negotiator/mediator. Because, as you’ve correctly stated repeatedly, the goal is to restore the offender, to correct the problem & eradicate the sin.

    “He is to be considered as an unbeliever and a tax collector—an outsider who no longer belongs to the body. This means that the person should be stripped of their membership and removed from the fellowship of the church.” I’m glad you never once used the word “excommunicate.” Unfortunately, many have understood this description of the offender from Jesus’ lips to mean total avoidance of the offender. To be brief here, let me just pass on a question one of my professor’s posed to us as we dealt with this issue: How did Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners/unbelievers? Shouldn’t we do the same? Meanwhile, this statement of yours is also true: “While this seems harsh, and indeed it may be, it is both important and necessary. It speaks to the seriousness of sin in the life of a believer, which harms fellowship with Christ and with other believers.” So be sure to fit your answer to my questions within those parameters. 🙂

    Now, regarding the 1 Cor. 5 passage, you say, “Since this sin may not be against a specific person, the three-step process of Mt 18 does not fully apply” and “the issue goes straight to the church.” I say that the Matt. 18 process fully applies simply because there is going to be a first individual to become aware of the sin. Even if that person is the pastor, he should still first confront privately. You’ve already said that the sin “harms fellowship …with other believers,” so the offender’s sin doesn’t have to be directed specifically at me; it is an indirect offense to me because it will eventually harm the Body of Christ, of which I am a part.. (I’ll have to write my own blog about this–specifically the whole of Matt. 18–at some point to explain more fully.)

    Travis, once again, you’ve done an excellent job in summarizing a large and challenging topic! And all I’m doing is just nitpicking and tweaking, which then ceases to be a summary! I don’t know if you had a time or length limit when you first wrote this, but if you had either one, I know you had to be selective in what you included. So, good job!

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    • Thanks for reading and responding! I did have a 3 page limit, so I couldn’t explain everything in great detail. I agree with you and your professor about the way Jesus treated tax collectors and sinners: as the lost who were in need of forgiveness; as stray sheep in need of a shepherd. They key is that unrepentant sinners not be allowed to function as church members, just as tax collectors would not be allowed to do.

      The situation in 1 Corinthians 5 is a tough one, and I see what you’re saying. For now, I’ll stick to what I said.

      Thanks again for reading and interacting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, our way of relating to the offender changes from one of fellowship (openness to be influenced by each other) to one of evangelism. As for the 1 Cor. 5 situation, I think Paul was able to jump right to Step 3 of the Matt. 18 process because the sin was clearly no secret–everybody in the church as well as people outside knew all about it!

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