Church discipline is a subject that’s not often talked about in mainstream American Christianity. It is clearly written and expressed in the bible and practiced throughout church history, however we seem to have lost sight of this vitally important doctrine. Church discipline is meant to be applied as a redemptive practice in local church bodies in order to protect the purity of church from sin and heresy, as well as restore Christians that have fallen in sin. It’s redemptive because the goal of church discipline is repentance and restoration of the sinful brother or sister – not to publicly put them on display for their sins. What is Church Discipline? In short, church discipline is the practice of confronting a brother or sister in a local church who is found to be in sin, for the purpose of restoring him or her to repentance. If the brother or sister refuses to repent, then the process of church discipline continues until he or she either repents, or is removed from the church.
The bible gives at least 3 categories of circumstances in which church discipline must occur: where there is open sin, false teaching, or divisiveness.
Discipline for Open Sin
First, it’s important to realize that the bible is wrought throughout both the Old and New Testament with godly wisdom for God’s people to separate themselves from the wicked.
“Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.”
Second, God does call us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who intentionally surrounded Himself with sinners, because “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”, and who came to call “sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). The point is that as God’s children our relationship with sinners is such that we surrounded ourselves with them for the sake of mission, but separate ourselves from them in regards to their sin. We are not to extend the hand of fellowship to them as our brothers and sisters until they make a decision to turn and follow Jesus. Paul even noted that the apostles didn’t extend “the right hand of fellowship” to him until “they recognized the grace given to [him]” (Galatians 2:9).
With that being said, the church is God’s assembly made up of people who have chosen to turn from their sin and get on mission to call sinners to repentance. When members of a church start displaying signs of turning back to a lifestyle of sin, then they are to be disciplined. Regarding open sin in the church, Paul explained to Timothy that “those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (1 Timothy 5:20). We see a practical example of this in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth:
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present.”
1 Corinthians 5:1-3
This flies in the face of those who take Matthew 7:1 out of context – “Do not judge, or you too will be judged”. If you keep reading Matthew 7, Jesus explains what He meant. He asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” His point was that you shouldn’t make hypocritical judgments on other people when you have unchecked sin that you haven’t even dealt with in your own life. He continued by saying that you should “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” In other words, “before you judge the sin in your brother’s life, first deal with the sin in your life… then you will see clearly how to help restore your brother out of his sin”.
We not only shouldjudge sin in the church – we must. When it comes to open sin in the church, discipline is not a suggestion, but a mandate.
“But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’”
1 Corinthians 5:11-13
Discipline for False Teaching
Maintaining purity in the church is not limited only to expelling outward expressions of sin, but it also includes expelling the impurity of false teachings. Paul told Timothy to watch his life anddoctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16). What a church teaches is as equally important as how a church lives. The Apostle Paul had no problem calling out certain people by name who abandoned the purity of the gospel:
“Holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
1 Timothy 1:19-20
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron…
…If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.”
1 Timothy 4:1-6
“Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.”
2 John 1:9-11
In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, he expresses his concern for the church in Corinth because they were putting up with false teachings. Just as the serpent twisted God’s word in the Garden of Eden, false teachers come into the church and twist the truth about Jesus, the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.
“But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.”
2 Corinthians 11:3-4
We are to expose false teaching for what it is, and not allow it to linger in the church. Paul charged Timothy to “stay there in Ephesus so that [he would] command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1 Timothy 1:3). One of the reasons Paul (under the direction of the Holy Spirit) established elders in the church was so that they would maintain the purity of the message as it had been taught.
“He (an elder or overseer) must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth.”
The New Testament is clear that we are called to discern between truth and error – exposing and separating ourselves from error, while holding firm to the truth. If those who teach error find their way into the church, then they are to be exposed and expelled from the assembly.
Discipline for Divisiveness
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
1 Corinthians 1:10
God’s heart for His church is that we would be united in the essentials of the faith, and not divide over peripheral issues. A division over denominational distinctions is not God’s desire for us. In the midst of differences, conflicts and hardships, God expects us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). God refers to His people as His flock (John 10:12). In Jeremiah 23:2, we get a glimpse of how God feels when someone comes in to scatter His flock:
“’Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,’ declares the Lord.”
“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. “
When the church is united in the same way Jesus is united to the Father, it displays a beautiful picture to the world of the true unity and reconciliation God offers. Not only does division bring potential harm to God’s sheep, it also hinders the world from seeing Jesus rightly through us. In the church, we are told that leaders should “warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them” (Titus 3:9-10). Paul said “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (Romans 16:17). In other words, do everything to stay unified with your brothers and sisters. If anyone seems to be bringing division in the church, confront them. If they refuse multiple times to stop their divisive behavior, then they need to be cut off.
Church Discipline is Redemptive
In all of these cases (open sin, false teaching and divisiveness) it is protecting the purity and unity of the church as a whole, rather than the feelings of a brother or sister as an individual. If an individual is willing to compromise the purity or unity of the church at large, then they need to be lovingly dealt with until they repent or are removed. Again, the purpose of church discipline is not only to protect the purity and unity of the church, it is also meant to be a redemptive practice for the person being disciplined. Going back to the example of the immoral brother in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul states the purpose for kicking the unrepentant brother out of the church when he said “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5). He didn’t say “hand him over to Satan because he is a good for nothing sinner”… he said “hand him over to Satan SO THAT his spirit may be saved!”
One would understandably ask, “How in the world does handing someone to Satan help to save his spirit?” You would think that kicking a sinner out of the fellowship would be the worst thing you could do because now on top of them living in sin, they’re not going to hear the Word of God being preached anymore. They’re potentially not going to be around positive influences as much anymore. They’re not going to be around the presence of God in corporate worship. That’s a good question, and I believe the bible provides an answer. However, before looking at the answer as to how kicking someone out of the church could be helpful for their restoration, it’s important to realize that even if God didn’t provide an answer it doesn’t therefore mean that we aren’t obligated to obey the clear directives to exercise church discipline. If God simply said “kick them out because I said so” then that should be enough to obey.
With that being said, there is not a blatant verse that says “this is the reason Church discipline is redemptive”. However there are some evident truths in the bible which when put together they provide a good answer to this question.
Truth 1: when people continue to move in the direction towards sin, God hands them over to their sin (Romans 1:18-24)
Truth 2: sin causes death and destruction (Romans 6:16, James 1:15)
Truth 3: God will remove assurance of salvation for those who bear no fruit (2 Corinthians 13:5)
Truth 4: Godly sorrow leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10)
Conclusion: When a person decides to live in sin, then God will hand them over to their sin and its effects (death and destruction in their life). When sin accomplishes its destructive work in their lives, it leads them to sorrow. The goal is for them to be so broken over their sin and its power in their lives that it would lead them to godly sorrow, which in turn leads to repentance.
When a church member is excommunicated because of their unrepentant hearts, they are not only separated from the fellowship of God’s people, they are separated from the presence of God Himself. The weight of this separation is designed to remove the false sense of peach that the brother or sister has in their sin, and drive them to repentance. If they face no consequences for their actions, then there is no felt need to repent.
The Obstacle of Autonomy
This is one of the problems of having so many autonomous local churches in a single city. If a member facing discipline refuses to repent and is eventually kicked out of the church, and then another church gladly welcomes and accepts them with no knowledge of what happened at their previous church, then there is no felt need on behalf of the sinning brother or sister to repent, as they are “accepted for who they are” at the new church. Someone undergoing the process of church discipline in Church A can simply pack up his stuff and go to Church B down the street with no consequences, and therefore no feeling of heaviness of the burden of their sin is weighing on them.
This is an obstacle we have to work through. I believe one way to work towards overcoming this obstacle is by church leaders networking with other church leaders from different congregations. Despite the various differences in denominations, traditions, and practices, most church leaders have enough in common with one another on the essentials of the gospel to be able to have a dialogue about congregants (or former congregants) that refused to repent when undergoing discipline. This undercuts the idea of autonomy of individual believers, as it does the autonomy of individual local churches. Not only do brothers and sisters hold each other accountable, but larger church bodies can hold each other accountable as well. This obviously doesn’t eliminate the problem, and clearly many church leaders will more than likely not hold everybody to the same standard. However, if church leaders networked together organically (without having an official “City Pastor’s Network Association” or something like that) and befriended one another despite their peripheral differences, then these types of conversations would be more frequent and easier to have.
The Necessity of Belongingness and Accountability
Church discipline assumes accountability and an understanding of belongingness. In other words, it should only be practiced on those members who have been baptized and/or are recognized as members belonging to the local church they are a part of. You wouldn’t practice church discipline on someone who has attended the church a few times but has not expressed any level of commitment to that body.
This is easily managed when churches have a clearly defined membership process. This is basically a formal “define the relationship” procedure where it is clear to the leaders of a local church body who is committed, and who is just checking things out. Church membership is not biblically commanded, but it is biblically assumed. That means that there is not a specific way that is right or wrong in having a church membership process, unless of course it is non-existent.
The Method of Church Discipline
So far, I’ve talked about the necessity of church discipline, the reasons for church discipline, the obstacles of church discipline, and the prerequisites for church discipline… but I haven’t mentioned the process (or method) of church discipline. The bible doesn’t give a clear step-by-step procedure for how a member should be disciplined. We are told that sinners, false teachers, and/or divisive people should be rebuked and/or corrected, and in some cases expelled; but we’re not really given the instruction manual on what to say, how to say it, and when to finally decide “enough is enough”. The closest thing we are given as to a method for church discipline is found in Matthew 18:15-20. Keep in mind, these instructions are not given only to church leaders – these are for everyone. Many times leaders don’t even have to get involved if it is handled correctly.
1) “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you…”
Church discipline is often handled incorrectly when a brother or sister sins and then someone who recognizes the sin in their life immediately goes to other people (usually someone in leadership) to have them deal with it. If we would follow this clear instruction directly from the mouth of Jesus, then many unnecessary conflicts would be avoided. Again, church discipline isn’t instituted to publically ridicule our brothers and sisters – it is meant for their repentance and restoration. If you see someone in sin, don’t ask someone what you should do about it. Have courage enough to go to them directly and confront them, or don’t say anything at all. “If they listen to you, you have won them over.” That’s the goal! To win them over.
2) “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
When you confront someone in their sins, it’s not always received well. Then, and only then, is when you should confront them with one or two other witnesses. It’s important to highlight that word “witnesses”. That means that you shouldn’t have to announce their sin to people who have no clue about what’s going on. Rather, you should look for people who are close to them and who probably already know about the sin in their life.
3) “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church…”
This doesn’t mean to put it in the announcements or the Sunday bulletin – this simply means to bring it up to those who are responsible for the church. This step – essentially – is where you would get leadership involved. If a brother’s sin is serious enough to be confronted, and their hearts are hardened enough to reject the loving confrontation of others, then the problem needs to be escalated to those who have a position of leadership in the local assembly to confront him. At this point, it is in the leaders’ hands as to how the situation will be handled with the unrepentant brother. This includes the leaders confronting him themselves…
4) “… and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
What does this mean? Does this mean put a restraining order on them to make sure they don’t come within 50 feet of the premises? No – this simply means that the right hand of fellowship is removed. They are no longer to be treated as those who are in the fold. When Jesus says to treat them like a pagan or a tax collector, He is saying to treat them as unbelievers. How would you treat unbelievers who came into your church? You would love on them, and pray for them, and engage with them… but for the sake of winning them. You wouldn’t ask them to pray over you. You wouldn’t ask them to join with you in communion. You wouldn’t ask them to serve, or volunteer, or minister alongside you. You would make it clear that they are loved, but if they want to be a part of the church, that there is a commitment to submit to the Lordship of Jesus. If they refuse to live up to that commitment, then they should be made very aware of their disconnection from the body.
So what do you do after you kick someone out of the fellowship?
5) “truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound I heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in My Name, there am I with them.”
I’ve heard several people misquote this by saying “where two or three are gathered in My Name, that’s the church.” Their point being is that you don’t need to be a member of a church, because you can have church if here are two or three Christians in the same room talking about Jesus. These are probably some of the most misapplied scriptures in the bible. When Jesus tells us that “whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven…” and “where two or three are gathered in My Name, there am I with them” He is saying these things in the context of church discipline. The idea is that when discipline gets to the point to where a brother or sister has to be expelled from the body, we need to come together as the church – even if it’s just two or three of us – praying for them to turn from their sin; binding them in Jesus’ Name on earth, that they would be bound in Jesus’ name in heaven. Our hope and goal is that they would repent and be restored, so we are to pray for them, knowing that Jesus is right there with us praying the same prayer we are.
In conclusion, church discipline is not a suggestion, but a clear biblical mandate for the church to practice in order to maintain the purity of the doctrine and lifestyle of the local church. It is a practice that involves every member, not just the leaders, and is meant to be done in love for the purpose of redeeming those who are being disciplined. If the church wants to experience the power of the Holy Spirit working in its midst, then a culture of holiness must be cultivated – such a culture is only developed where there is discipline, guarding against that which is unholy.