Church Discipline

Church discipline has historically been considered essential for the health of the church. However, that view has seemed to change. In the words of Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other."[1] This "moral accountability" that Dr. Mohler speaks about is an essential element of a healthy church. Scripture is very clear that we are to hold each other accountable. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, "I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person." You see, we are to judge those who claim to be Christians, yet are living in serious immorality.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Scripture addresses those in particular who sin against us. However, this is applicable in other situations (e.g. in a congregation). It commands, "...if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector."

As the Church culture has become increasingly worldly and sin has increasingly crept into the Church, unfortunately attention to orthodoxy has decreased and moral relativism has increased. Many church leaders, in their effort to be seeker-friendly and tolerant, have forsaken discipline. They would rather forsake Scriptural mandates than possibly offend their members. Many churches used to regularly discipline and even had "Days of Discipline" when the church would gather "for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16) as Scripture admonishes. The congregation would mend relationships, admonish the backslidden, correct and rebuke those in error... If neccesary, people would be excommunicated if they resisted discipline. Members were considered to be under the authority of the congregation and accountable to each other. Sadly, in these these days, this is considered by most to be legalistic and over-bearing, an example of authoritarian abuse. On the contrary, however, it is essential if we are to have a healthy church. I believe this also needs to happen in our youth groups as sin is rampant in them. Teens are sleeping with each other, experimenting with drugs, addicted to porn, and basically living like every other teen without fear of consequences or discipline. In fact, there is often little structure and discipline in their homes, resulting in much of this behavior. We need to reinstitute Biblical discipline if our churches are going to be healthy. Carl Laney, who wrote Guide to Church Discipline, put it this way, “The church today is suffering from an infection which has been allowed to fester . . . As an infection weakens the body by destroying its defense mechanisms, so the church has been weakened by this ugly sore. The church has lost its power and effectiveness in serving as a vehicle for social, moral, and spiritual change. This illness is due, at least in part, to a neglect of church discipline.”[2]

Yet, discipline is a key tool of our heavenly Father and Scripture strongly supports discipline in every authority structure. As the book of Hebrews warns, “You have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” (Heb. 12:5-7). As the passage continues, the author warns that those who are without discipline “are illegitimate children and not true sons” (v. 8). The purpose of discipline, however, is righteousness. “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” (v. 11). So we see from this passage that God's discipline results in righteousness and peace.

We see discipline in the Bible, not only directly from God, but through the church, the government, our employers and our families. In the Bible, we find many Scriptures that relate to discipline in the church. One glaring example is when Paul adressed the Corinthian church. They were not disciplining members and as a result, were rebuked by Paul. The apostle Paul confronted a case of gross moral failure in the Corinthian congregation that included “immorality of . . . a kind that does not occur even among pagans” (1 Cor. 5:1). In this case, apparent incest was known to the congregation, and yet it had taken no action.

“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?” Paul accused the Corinthian congregation (v. 2). He instructed them to act quickly and boldly to remove this stain from their fellowship. He also warned them, “Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are” (vv. 6-7a).

Paul was outraged that the Corinthian Christians would tolerate this horrible sin. Incest, though not literally unknown in the pagan world, was universally condemned and not tolerated. In this respect the Corinthian church had fallen beneath the moral standards of the pagan world to whom they were to witness. Paul was also exasperated with a congregation he had already warned. Mentioning an earlier letter unavailable to us, Paul scolded the Corinthians, as we read earlier:

"I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person" (! Corinthians 5:9-13).

The moral outrage of a wounded apostle is evident in these pointed verses, which call the Corinthian church to action and the exercise of discipline. They have now fallen into corporate sin by tolerating the presence of such a bold and arrogant sinner in their midst. Their moral testimony is clouded, and their fellowship is impure. Their arrogance has blinded them to the offense they have committed before the Lord. The open sin in their midst is like a cancer that, left unchecked, will spread throughout the entire body.

In the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul offers similar instruction, combining concern for moral purity and doctrinal orthodoxy: “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). Paul instructs the Thessalonians to follow his own example because “We were not idle when we were with you” (2 Thess. 3:7).

HOLINESS

How should the Corinthians have responded to this public sin? Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians of delivering this sinner unto Satan and removing him from fellowship. How is this to be done? To the Galatians Paul wrote that “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). This teaching is clear, indicating that spiritual leaders of the church are to confront a sinning member with a spirit of humility and gentleness, and with the goal of restoration. But what are the precise steps to be taken?

As mentioned earlier, the Lord Himself provided these instructions as He taught His disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15-17).

The Lord instructed His disciples that they should first confront a sinning brother in private. “Show him his fault,” instructed the Lord. If the brother acknowledges the sin and repents, the brother has been won. The fact that the first step is a private confrontation is very important. This limits the injury caused by the sin and avoids a public spectacle, which would tarnish the witness of the church to the Gospel. My wife and I had to do this several times at a Calvary Chapel we both attended with gossip and a staff member on a power trip who checked my tithing and criticized it in a meeting in front of several other people. He wasn't even accurate as I had several different accounts. I also did this one-on-one confrontation with a Pastor who was pushing people to read The Prayer of Jabez, which is full of false teaching. You can read the problems with this book by clicking here. Most of the time this one-on-one works, you show the individual their wrong, and they repent.

In the event the private confrontation does not lead to repentance, restoration, and reconciliation, the next step is to take witnesses. My wife and I have had to do this as well. Jesus cited the Deuteronomic law which required multiple witnesses of a crime for conviction. Yet His purpose here seems larger than the mere establishment of the facts of the case. Jesus seems to intend for the witnesses to be an important presence in the event of the confrontation, thus adding corroborating testimony concerning the confrontation of a sinning brother. The brother cannot claim that he was not confronted with his sin in a brotherly context.

If the brother does not listen even in the presence of one or two witnesses, this becomes a matter for the congregation. “Tell it to the church,” instructed Jesus, and the church is to judge the matter before the Lord and render a judgment that is binding upon the sinner. This step is extremely serious, and the congregation now bears a corporate responsibility. The church must render its judgment based upon the principles of God’s Word and the facts of the case. Again, the goal is the restoration of a sinning brother or sister — not a public spectacle. I have never once seen this happen in a church. Neither my wife or I have done this, although we could have in the first case - In Calvary Chapel where my tithing information was attempted to be used against me in front of a group of people (which potentially even has legal ramifications) and when my wife and I brought this and other information against this individual to a Pastor, he said he heard an "opposite" story and that he was his "closest and most trusted." We could have brought this before the Sr. Pastor but sometimes it's just better to move on. However, it's essential to hear that from God, not your flesh. In this case I sensed God wanted me to let it be and move on, although my wife was willing to take several issues to the Sr. Pastor. In the situation at the next church, it was a different type of situation. The issue was not something to bring before the congregation regarding someone in the church, it was an issue with the founder and Sr. Pastor of the church that got a bruised ego. I have learned a lot from these experiences and God has used these experiences for His glory and to help others. My wife and I have spoken to a lot of people who have left these two churches (Oasis Church and Calvary Chapel) for different authoritarian issues, including the tithe issue my friend and I had. Several people have raised concerns over the teachings at Oasis Church, the watered-down message, and the lack of altar calls, but they chose to just leave rather than confront. I simply emailed the Sr. Pastor directly and didn't confront otherwise, but it didn't matter - Authoritarian and disciplinary abuse followed and we were forced to step down from serving.

Sadly, the step of congregational confrontation may not avail. If it does not, the only recourse is separation from the sinning brother. “Treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” instructed the Lord, indicating that the separation is to be real and public. The congregation is not to consider the former brother as a part of the church. This drastic and extreme act is to follow when a brother or sister will not submit to the discipline of the church. We should note that the church should still bear witness to this man, but not as brother to brother, until and unless repentance and restoration are evident.

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul chastised them severely: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

When Christians sin, their sin is to be confronted by the church in accordance with the pattern revealed in Scripture. The goal is the restoration of a sister or a brother, not the creation of a public spectacle. The greatest moral danger to the church is the toleration of sin, public or private. Conversely, one of the greatest blessings to the church is the gift of biblical church discipline—the ministry of the keys.

DOCTRINE

On this matter the Bible is clear: “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 him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2 John 9-11). The apostle Paul instructed the Galatians that “if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8-9).

The letters of 2 Peter and Jude explicitly warn of the dangers presented to the church in the form of false prophets and heretics. Jude alerts the church that “certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (v. 4). Similarly, Peter warns, “There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them— bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Pet. 2:1).

The church must separate itself from these heresies—and from the heretics! The permissive posture of the church in this century has allowed the most heinous heresies to grow unchecked—and heretics to be celebrated. Francis Schaeffer was among the most eloquent modern prophets who decried this doctrinal cowardice. Schaeffer emphatically denied that a church could be a true Christian fellowship and allow false doctrine. As he stated, “One cannot explain the explosive dynamite, the dunamis, of the early church apart from the fact that they practiced two things simultaneously: orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world can see. By the grace of God, therefore, the church must be known simultaneously for its purity of doctrine and the reality of its community.” [3]

For more on this topic, please refer to my writing on False Teachings.

UNITY

The integrity of the church is also dependent upon the true unity of its fellowship. Indeed, one of the most repeated warnings found in the New Testament is the admonition against toleration of schismatics. The unity of the church is one of its most visible distinctives — and most precious gifts.

The warnings about this are severe: “I urge you, brothers, 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. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Rom. 16:17-18). Writing to Titus, Paul instructed that the church should “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).

A breach in the unity of the church is a scandal in the body of Christ. The church is consistently exhorted to practice and preserve a true unity in true doctrine and biblical piety. This unity is not the false unity of a lowest-common-denominator Christianity, the “Gospel Lite” preached and taught in so many modern churches, but rather is found in the healthy and growing maturity of the congregation as it increases in grace and in its knowledge of the Word of God

The ongoing function of church discipline is to be a part of individual self-examination and congregational reflection. The importance of maintaining integrity in personal relationships was made clear by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount as He instructed the disciples that anger against a brother is a deadly sin. Reconciliation is a mandate, not a hypothetical goal. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24).

Similarly, Paul warned against participating in the Lord’s Supper amidst divisions. The Supper itself is a memorial of the broken body and shed blood of the Savior and must not be desecrated by the presence of divisions or controversies within the congregation, or by unconfessed sin on the part of individual believers. “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 11:26-29).

The “discipline of the Table” is thus one of the most important disciplinary functions of the congregation. The Lord’s Supper is not to be served indiscriminately, but only to those baptized believers who are under the discipline of the church and in good standing with their congregation.

We are all under the authority of others and likewise should be regularly disciplined. However, our society has focussed on rights and moral relativism such that people feel no one should impose anything on them. People want to be able to do anything they want and feel no one has the place to say different. This rebellion is not what Scripture teaches.

John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential church manual of the nineteenth century, noted: “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”[4]

Much of this is taken from Chapter 8 in The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis, John H. Armstrong, General Editor. [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998].


FOOTNOTES:

1. The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis, John H. Armstrong, General Editor. [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998].
2. J. Carl Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985), pg. 12.
3. Francis A. Schaeffer, “The Church Before the Watching World,” in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1970), pg. 144.
4. J. L. Dagg, A Treatise on Church Order (Charleston, SC: The Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858), pg. 274.


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