Jesus wants His church to be pure and holy. So says the Apostle Paul when he taught the Christians at Ephesus that the Lord desires His church to have “no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless (Eph. 5:27). Most Bible believing churches would agree that this is what Jesus wants, and this is what the church should look like. However, there is often no meaningful action in this matter of dealing with sinning believers, which points to a noticeable disconnect between theology and practice. Sinning believers just keep on sinning without much, if any, intervention by the church except in extreme cases, usually in the realm of immorality. It is rare, and getting rarer, to hear of churches engaging in “church discipline”. Perhaps this is because the church just does not want to appear unloving and judgmental; much less, losing members and money to the some other church that is located nearby.
Churches might say that they do pray about such bad behaviors among their members and attenders. But they fail to realize that there is more to the matter than praying about it. The Head of the church has put in place the approach and the steps that need to be taken to deal with sinful saints.
In recent decades, in the American church, the idea of church discipline has almost disappeared from the spiritual landscape. But this is not how the church has viewed its’s responsibility on this matter over the centuries. A word of instruction comes from the Belgic Confession of 1561. In Article 29, which dealt with the characteristics of the true church, it states:
The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in the punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.1
Since purity is important to the Lord Jesus, then it follows that it should be important to the church as well. The third “mark” of the true church given in the Belgic Confession reveals how important it was to the church at one point in time. Its’ important place needs to be recovered if the church has any hope of being a spiritually healthy, dynamic body.
Church discipline is not a “witch hunt”. It is not a misuse of authority by some vengeful church leaders. It is not a cult-like device to keep members intimidated and in fear. It is not a demonstration of unloving legalism. It is none of these. But the church must understand what it is; how it is to be used; and the attitudes and processes that are involved. We begin by defining the terms involved. Good theology is based on good exegesis and good definition.
The words in the New Testament that speak of “discipline” carry the ideas of “learning”, “training” or “saving the mind.”2 Essentially, when we speak of “discipline” we are speaking of being trained. Many churches have discipleship programs and what they are essentially doing is training individuals in the Word of God and the Christian life. Discipline is a positive matter and it should be constantly going on in the local church as the truths and principles of the Word of God are brought to bear on the life of the individual believer. As we hear the Word, we often make needed adjustments in our thinking, our attitudes and our behavior. For example, we listen to a sermon on prayer and conclude that we need to upgrade our prayer lives. And so, we take some steps to improve our praying. We have been “disciplined” (trained) by the Word. When this is going on we are being disciplined in a positive sense and are growing stronger in our Christian lives.
However, this chapter is not about that. Rather, it is about the issue of corrective discipline. Corrective church discipline focuses on the matter of sin and failure that has not been dealt with but needs to be dealt with. And, as we shall observe, it is something that all believers are to be involved with, though it is primarily a ministry responsibility of those in the place of official leadership in the local church. There are some key New Testament passages where this vital teaching is dealt with; namely, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; Matthew 18:15-17; Galatians 6:1; Titus 3:10-11; and 1 Timothy 5:19-21. There are, of course, additional verses which add to our understanding of corrective discipline.
The following is a suggested working definition for corrective church discipline.
Corrective church discipline is a process of dealing with a believer whose sins have a clear, harmful effect (or clearly will have) upon the entire congregation; by attempting to bring that believer back into a lifestyle that conforms to the standards of righteous living as set forth in the New Testament Scriptures.
This definition emphasizes several things.
(1) IT IS A PROCESS. Corrective disciple does not take place in an evening of activity. There are certain steps, requiring some time, that need to take place.
(2) IT IS FOR BELIEVERS. The unbeliever is not the focus of this discipline. They are not in the “family” and are not the subject of discipline in the NT, as Hebrews 12 teaches. It should be noted that any believer in a local church, whether they are on the membership roll or not, would be subject to corrective discipline. The point is that even non-members who are clearly identified with that local church are capable of harming the reputation of that church. Most people, whether inside or outside of the church, have no idea if a person is an actual member or not. If they regularly attend and, by so doing, are seen as part of that local church, then they are representing that church though perhaps not officially as a member.
(3) IT IS FOR HARMFUL SINS. All sins are harmful but not all have a clear, detrimental effect on the entire local church body. For example, prayerlessness would be a sin, but it is not the kind that requires the involvement of church leaders in disciplinary action. Some sins clearly do damage to the whole church, which is why some specifics are given in various texts of scripture.
(4) IT IS TO BRING A BELIEVER BACK. The main purpose, aside from church purity, is that of restoration. Bringing the believer back into a wonderful fellowship with the Lord, and with the brothers and sisters, is a main reason why the church is to be engaged in church discipline.
THE BASIS FOR CHURCH DISCIPLINE
As noted already, it is the expressed wish of the Church’s Head that it be holy and blameless. The basic reason for corrective church discipline is the holiness of God (cf. 1 Peter 1:16). We are to be holy because our Heavenly Father is holy. Corrective church discipline is a way to help a sinning believer flee sin and pursue righteousness. It has been put in place to assist the church and the individual believer in achieving that God-given goal.
Another reason for a church to function in this area is that God has commanded it to be done (cf. 1 Cor. 5:11-13). The church is to engage in this activity because God has commanded it to do so. The church bears the responsibility of responding properly to this command. The church, not the Holy Spirit, is issued the command to discipline.
THOSE INVOLVED IN CHURCH DISCIPLINE
The question for the local church then becomes just who in the church is responsible for corrective church discipline.
(1) ALL BELIEVERS. In one sense, all believers are to be involved since it is the responsibility of all to encourage one another in righteous living (cf. Heb. 3:12-13; 10:23-25). These verses in Hebrews lay the responsibility at the door of all believers. When we become aware of behaviors in another believer that are detrimental to them and also to the church, then we are to become involved. Yes, we are our brother’s keeper. Because the Body of Christ is to function in interdependency, it is critical that believers minister to one another and that includes the realm of correcting those who are living sinfully. One great challenge to all this is that believers need to know what is happening in the lives of fellow believers. But today, the local church is often really a regional church, and believers more often than not, do not live in close contact with each other from Monday through Saturday. They really do not know one another well and greeting fellow saints in the Sunday morning service does not reveal anything about how the other believer is doing life. But, in spite of this, the Apostle James reminds believers that this is an important area of ministry, and ends his letter with an exhortation to “turn back” such a sinning brother or sister (James 5:19-20).
(2) MATURE CHURCH LEADERS. Ultimately discipline becomes the responsibility of those holding the positions of leadership in the church. They must deal with sin within the ranks of the local church. These are the ones who have been given authority by virtue of the biblical office that they occupy. As any good parent will confirm, one must have recognized authority in order to exercise corrective discipline. And, the New Testament reminds us that one of the purposes of authority is to deal with sinful behavior (2 Cor. 10:8-11; 13:1-3). In the New Testament, this is seen especially as the task of those who have a high level of spiritual maturity and are responsible for the health and well-being of the church (cf. Gal. 6:1; Acts 20:28-30). These mature leaders are tasked with dealing with sinning believers whose lives need their wise care.
Corrective discipline resembles how we approach physical injuries. Any person can clean a scrape or cut that a child gets; put antibiotic ointment on it along with a bandage. It does not take great medical knowledge or the skills of a surgeon to deal with minor cuts and scrapes. And so it is that all believers can deal with many spiritual injuries of believers, the scrapes and bruises of life. But if there is a deep knife wound, or serious injuries incurred in an automobile accident, most recognize their lack of medical skills and get the injured person to competent medical professionals. In a similar way, serious and often complex spiritual failures need the attention of those who are spiritually mature and can skillfully handle and apply the truths of God’s Word to those situations (note Galatians 6:1). Ultimately it is the leaders, who occupy the office of elder that are responsible for keeping the church pure.
THE PURPOSES OF CORRECTIVE CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Several texts of the New Testament give some specific reasons for engaging in corrective church discipline. While this would not be a complete listing, these probably are the main reasons why a church needs to engage in corrective church discipline. Four are highlighted in these New Testament scriptures.
(1) TO PURIFY THE CHURCH. As previously noted, the purity and beauty of Jesus’ Bride is of paramount importance.
(2) TO RESTORE THE SINNING BELIEVER. Restoration, not punishment, is one of the great reasons for church discipline.
(3) TO ACT AS A DETERRENT TO SIN IN THE CHURCH. When believers in sin are dealt with, it causes others to think carefully and to evaluate their own living. As the Apostle Paul reminded the believers at Corinth: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (1 Cor. 5:6). Sins spread easily and quickly and having corrective discipline as a part of church life helps put a lid on that simmering pot.
(4) TO KEEP A STRONG TESTIMONY. When a church fails to deal with observable sin in it ranks, then it looks very much like the surrounding culture. When that becomes true, then realistically, the church really has nothing of substance to offer to unbelievers who need to be transformed by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Corrective church discipline is not to be exercised in the case of every sin or deviation from biblical standards. Church discipline is not God’s sole method of making the church sinless. It is likely that the church leaders would probably spend their entire waking moments exercising corrective discipline, if every single sin committed were dealt with. The Scriptures do, however, give guidelines on what constitutes a disciplinary offense. Obviously any sin that is clearly doing damage to the entire church body would need to be dealt with. Some of these are spelled out in the New Testament. This is probably not a complete list and, therefore, it becomes evident that church leaders must be those who can identify with accuracy such harmful sins. The following would be included in a list of such offenses.
(1) DOCTRINAL DEVIATION (Gal. 1:6-8; Acts 20:28-30; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; 2 Peter 2:1-15). Doctrinal error can do great spiritual harm to God’s people, and false teachings are clearly a primary method that Satan employs in attacking the church. All doctrinal differences impact to some degree the life of the congregation, but not all are damaging. For example, whether man is made up of two parts, or three parts, will influence the way certain scriptures are interpreted. But it is not likely that the difference in viewpoint will harm believers. But that is not the case in some doctrinal areas such as the way in which a person obtains eternal life or whether or not Jesus is fully God and fully man.
(2) DIVISIVENESS (2 Thess. 3:11; Titus 3:10-11). People who bring division into the local body of believers must be dealt with as these scriptures indicate. Deviation from biblical standards and biblical behaviors wreak havoc in the church, whether that comes from divisive gossip, self-promotion or insisting that the church is in error because it does not subscribe to that individual’s doctrinal preferences.
(3) UNDISCIPLINED LIVING (2 Thess. 3:6, 11, 14; 1 Thess. 5:14). This does not look at one’s inability to get up in the morning or the tendency to overeat. It is defined as being dramatically out of step with the life principles found in the New Testament. In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul speaks of the “unruly” individual, which is a military term meaning to be “out of step”.3 Here, again, the need for wise, scripturally solid church leaders is highlighted. They might need to determine what is, or is not, undisciplined living.
(4) CONFLICT BETWEEN BELIEVERS (1 Cor. 6:5; Phil. 4:2-3; Matt. 18:15-18). There likely will always be conflict among believers this side of eternity. However, as in the situation in the church at Philippi, believers just did not seem to be able to settle their differences. If these differences begin to impact the life and ministry within the local church, then leaders need to intervene because division within the congregation is very probable.
(5) SINS OF THE FLESH (1 Cor. 5:11). Undoubtedly, this is the most visible area of sin. Paul includes drunkenness in the sins of the flesh, but it is sexual sins that get the spotlight. If churches today do anything in corrective discipline it is in the realm of sexual sin. When sexual sins become known in the church, usually some sort of action is mandated. The damage done to families and individuals, not to mention the example for younger people, pushes a church to act. And so they should. But even today, the culture is impacting the thinking of the church on the matter of what is sexual sin and what is not. For example, the culture no longer sees living together as an unmarried couple as fornication. And the church is rapidly adopting that viewpoint. And so it goes with a number of issues within the category of sexual morality.
(6) SINS OF THE SPIRIT (1 Cor. 5:11). Rarely does one hear of churches dealing with these kinds of sins in the realm of corrective discipline. The sins specifically mentioned by the Apostle Paul are being greedy, idolatrous, verbally abusing others and cheating others.
This list of six areas is not said to be all-inclusive, and so, the door is open to wise, scripturally astute leaders observing and dealing with other matters that are harming their local church.
THE PROCESS OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Discipline is necessary to maintain the purity of the church. But, it must be remembered that the purpose of discipline is restoration and not condemnation. There is a basic process of church discipline that can be discerned by looking at several passages of Scripture. Anywhere in that process when there is true repentance, the action of church discipline stops and the erring believer is restored to immediate fellowship within the church.
It can be said that corrective church discipline officially begins when the leadership of the church become involved. It could be that a number of personal, private attempts to rectify the situation have already occurred by others. It may be that the sinning brother or sister has been exhorted by others to turn from their unscriptural living. In any case and by whatever means, the situation has come to the attention of the church leaders and they now begin the process. Since there is no one scripture where the process of corrective discipline is set forth, there may be some flexibility in approach. But there is enough given in the New Testament to give good direction for the church to take. Given here is a reasonable approach to dealing with the sin of a believer.
(1) PRIVATE, PERSONAL ADMONITION BY A LEADER. To insure the accuracy of the reports and to make sure that the general procedure of Matthew 18:15-18 is carried out, one mature leader (or perhaps two depending on the setting) should go to the sinning believer with the truth of God. It is important that the leader opens the Scriptures (which is his authority) and points out the specific sin as a deviation from God’s inspired standard. Otherwise, it often becomes a matter of opinion and personality. The sinful behavior must be defined biblically. If the individual responds to this admonition and there is repentance, the procedure stops at that point.
(2) PRIVATE ADMONITION WITH SEVERAL WITNESSES. If the leader’s efforts fail, then witnesses are to be taken along as another private attempt is made to restore the sinning believer. These witnesses (probably other mature leaders) will be the basis for bringing the case before a larger group if no repentance occurs. Again, appealing from the Scriptures, the leaders are to attempt to get the sinning believer to turn from his wrong behavior. The witnesses can testify, if need be, to the fact that the sinning believer resisted the admonitions and refused to submit to the standard of righteous living found in the Scriptures.
(3) PUBLIC DISCLOSURE TO THE LOCAL CHURCH BODY. At this point, the entire church is informed that the believer being dealt with has refused to turn from his or her sinful behavior. The specifics are given to the church (probably should not be done in the Sunday morning service where many unbelievers and visitors could be present). The purpose is to let the entire church know that this individual is under corrective church discipline. The church body is not to have any fellowship with that believer, avoiding that one as much as possible (cf. 2 Thess. 3:6-11). He is not to be talked to or socialized with. The Apostle Paul indicates that this is to shame him and cause him to experience some consequences to his sinning. If after a short, but reasonable, period of time repentance does not occur then a final step is to be taken.
(4) THE EXCOMMUNICATION FROM THE CHURCH. This is the formal, public removal of the sinning believer from the life of the church. He is no longer to be viewed as a fellow believer, but as one who is an unbeliever (cf. Matt. 18:17). This individual is now out in Satan’s realm after defying the Word of God and the authority of the church leadership. This individual perhaps faces the “destruction of the flesh” by Satan (cf. 1 Tim. 1:20; 1 Cor. 5:5) and is outside the protective custody of the body of Christ. It does appear that this is a significant spiritual event and that there is more to this than simply having a name removed from a membership list.
ATTITUDES IN CORRECTIVE CHURCH DISCIPLINE
There is an ever-present danger of wrong attitudes creeping into the lives of those who are doing the disciplining. Much harm can be done to the church when wrong attitudes are present in the leaders. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that proper attitudes must be maintained (cf. 2 Cor. 2:2-11; 1 Cor. 5:2; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:15). The attitudes needed in church discipline are:
(1) A READINESS TO FORGIVE THE SINNING BELIEVER. The ones doing the discipline must be seeking the well-being of the believer. Sometimes, when the sinning saint refuses to properly respond, animosity can grow in the ones doing the disciplining, and the desire is no longer for restoration but rather to put the sinner in his place.
(2) A GENUINE LOVE FOR THE SINNING BELIEVER. This is something that the Spirit can produce in the heart of leaders, and it needs to be there. The spirit of love is critical in this process giving salve to this painful experience. (Note Hebrews 12:5-6 where God’s love is present as He disciplines His own, setting the pattern for His leaders).
(3) A CONSCIOUS REALIZATION OF ONE’S OWN SINFULNESS. It is easy for the ones doing the disciplining to inwardly feel superior to the one being disciplined. The thought that “it is good that the Lord has a few pure folks, like us, to handle these matters”, is clearly out of line. Leaders need to remind themselves that they too are capable, while in the flesh, of doing those deeds of the flesh listed by the Apostle Paul (Gal. 5:19-21). A haughty spirit will only lead to damaging results.
(4) GRIEF OVER THE SIN OF THE BELIEVER AND OF THE VICTORY WON BY SATAN. When one part of the body is damaged and suffers, the whole body is hurt. That is true in the physical body and it is also true in the spiritual body. A brother or sister in spiritual failure has an effect on all in the congregation whether they realize it or not. Sometimes when a believer “falls”, it almost sounds like the word of the failure is gleefully spread around.
THE MATTER OF REPENTANCE
Whenever repentance occurs the process of corrective church discipline ceases and the circle of knowledge is not widened. The word “repent” basically means to “change ones’ mind” with a view to change in one’s behavior.4 The word reflects that a person has come to an understanding and has changed his mind concerning the issue which results in a change in their behavior. This change is generally manifested by the fact that the person no longer does what they were doing. For example, John the Baptist told the Roman soldiers to bring forth evidences of their repentance. In their case, they took bribes. For John the Baptist, the fact that they no longer were taking bribes was evidence that they had changed their minds about their former manner of life. When a sinning believer “repents” they cease doing whatever it was that they were doing. They have understood the folly of what they were doing and have ceased doing it. This gives church leaders some objective way to determine if the person is truly sorry for their sins. No doubt there is some level of sorrow as they see their deviation from the standards of God’s Word. Tears may or may not accompany this change of mind and heart. In fact, tears are not a good way of determining repentance since a false repentance may have abundant tears and true repentance may have none. John the Baptist apparently did not look to see if the Roman soldiers were weeping or not, but rather was looking for behavioral changes.
When it is determined that repentance has occurred then the believer is to be immediately restored to fellowship within the body of Christ. In fact, Paul exhorts those doing the discipline that they need to go out of their way to comfort and encourage the repentant believer (cf. 2 Cor. 2:2-11). It must be noted that IMMEDIATE RESTORATION TO FELLOWSHIP and IMMEDIATE RESTORATION TO MINISTRY are separate issues. The nature and extent of the sin may mean that a restoration to ministry will be delayed. It should be noted that all believers, as members of the body of Christ, are to be functioning within that body in some way. So delay in ministry must never be equated with a denial of ministry. It may be that the sinning believer may not be able (at least for a number of years) to be in a place leadership ministry but is never to be permanently excluded from serving Christ in His church. The church leaders will determine what is best for the church and the individual, as they maturely and biblically evaluated the situation.
Church discipline is an obligation given by the Lord to the church. Even though it is often an unpleasant experience in the life of the church, it is a necessary one. Lawsuits or the unpleasantness of the task must not deter the church from biblical activity in this area.
CHURCH DISCIPLINE AND LAWSUITS
In our present culture, lawsuits have become part of everyday life. The church may be somewhat nervous about publicly censoring an individual lest they end up in a court of law. The reality is that today churches and pastors do face lawsuits; something unheard of a couple of generations ago.
While there is no guarantee that a church will not be sued, there are some steps that can be taken to help keep the lawsuit from being successfully carried out.
(1) MAKE THE CHURCH’S POLICY OF CORRECTIVE DISCIPLINE KNOWN. An individual is less able to claim ignorance if a written policy has been created by the church. It should be included in the church’s constitution, which is to be read by all who apply and/or join the church. It might also be wise to have a separate “position paper” that is available on the information table in the foyer of the church.
(2) BE EVEN HANDED IN APPLYING CORRECTIVE CHURCH DISCIPLINE. The church must never show favoritism in the way it deals with sinful behavior. If a leader, or some other prominent person, is not disciplined for an offense, but another individual is dealt with for that offense, then the secular courts will look with disfavor on such prejudice. (Note 1 Tim. 5:21)
(3) BE CAREFUL ABOUT THE INFORMATION THAT IS GIVEN OUT PUBLICLY. When entering the public stage of church discipline, it is legitimate to reveal the sin as the Bible does. But it would be careless to make cutting or demeaning statements about the sinning brother or sister. It is not wise to give out details beyond the basic sin that the individual is being disciplined for.
(4) REMEMBER THE LIMITS OF LEADERSHIP AUTHORITY. If the sinning believer resigns and leaves the church, they have left the area of leadership authority. In effect, the purity of the church has been maintained by this departure. The departing believer has not been restored to fellowship which is unfortunate. But the leaders are not to pursue the issue or the person once that individual has left their jurisdiction; a jurisdiction which is limited to their own local church.
Another matter does arise at this point. Should the church inform another church, if the word comes that the disciplined believer is now attending a church in the general area? In answering this concern, it is good to ask ourselves if we would like to be informed about such a person who has started attending our church. Most likely we would like to know what we are dealing with since the concern should be for the spiritual health of our church. An unrepentant brother or sister is not going to help the spiritual health of our church. And we probably would like the opportunity to converse with that individual about what took place in their former church. So, it might be wise, and best, to contact their “new” church and simply inform them that so and so was under the discipline of the church, and if the “new” church wants to discuss it then they need to contact us.
When we search the New Testament scriptures we cannot escape the reality that the church is to practice corrective church discipline when it is needed. The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) is included in the Bible to let the church know that Christ takes seriously the matter of sinning saints. Ananias and Sapphira were struck down instantaneously for their lies and deceit with the result that a great reverential awe came on all those who heard about the incident. This story sets a powerful example for what is now to be done through the process of corrective discipline. It would seem that the church ignores this matter to their own harm.
- Philip Schaff, “The Creeds of Christendom”, III. 419. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996)
- Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 608. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957). Abbott-Smith, “Manuel Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p.333. (Edinburg: T & T Clark, 1960).
- A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), 58.
- Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd Ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 510.