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!