This article is about what is called “church discipline”. God’s sheep sometimes wander into wrong paths, and need to be brought back. Sometimes sheep can be stubborn and rebellious. Sometimes, those who carry the name of Jesus shame him. Sometimes, those who looked like sheep turn out to be goats, or even wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), who do not belong in the flock at all. God has not left his church defenceless against these challenges. This article is about how to care for God’s flock, when one of the church goes the wrong way: how to care for that erring member and for the rest of the people in such situations. When you hear the word “discipline”, what do you think of? Often, people think of “punishment” – painful correction. The words “church discipline” themselves are not in the Bible. If we understand them rightly, though, they do help us to understand a Biblical teaching. This is just like other helpful words not found in the Bible, such as “Trinity”, “Incarnation” and “Second Coming”. By “discipline” we mean more than simply punishment. It is a word that speaks about training and good order. An army on the march needs to have discipline, to stay together and to effectively confront its enemies. It is true that sometimes “discipline” will mean that a soldier needs to be corrected, perhaps painfully – but it is always for his good, and the army’s good (2 Timothy 2:3-4). A sports team needs to be disciplined, with each member playing his part, to have a chance to win the prize. Without good order and self-control from each of the parts, these bodies would be useless. It is the same in the church. The church is a body, and each member is a part. The members need to walk closely together in love and obedience, otherwise the whole body will suffer (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Now we will look at what the Bible teaches about this discipline.
When is church discipline right?
When should church discipline be considered? The Bible is very clear about this. Church discipline is for cases of sin, and sin only (Matthew 18:15). It is for clear cases where a church member is either continually walking in some sin without repentance, or commits a wilful sin that completely undermines their Christian testimony. That is, it is firstly for when a professing believer continues in some wickedness without grieving over it, confessing it and trying to get away from it, or secondly when he commits some wickedness that has been planned and chosen such that their claim to love Jesus can no longer be reasonably believed. The first kind of sin is a sin of habit – something someone keeps falling into, such as stealing, cheating or outbursts of anger not followed by sorrow and repentance. The second kind of sin is an outrageous sin – for example, planning and carrying out a shop robbery, or wooing, chasing, seducing and then committing adultery with another woman. Here, “sin” has to be defined by the Bible. This means that it is defined by God’s law (1 John 3:4). It is not a sin to disagree with the pastor or his policies, for him to decide you are annoying or are in the way of his plans. Sin means breaking the commandments of the God, found in Scripture. It means breaking one of the great principles of supreme love towards God, and love to our neighbour as to ourselves. The Bible also commands that there be true evidence of the sin. The normal standard is that there must be two or three direct witnesses who are willing to testify themselves (Deuteronomy 17:6-7, 19:15, Matthew 18:16, 1 Timothy 5:19). We must not listen to gossip, or find someone guilty simply because they have been accused. It is very sad when the church shows less interest in proper justice than the law courts of the world (1 Corinthians 6:1-2). There is a saying, “there is no smoke without fire”. If that is true, we can also remember that even if we see a fire, we do not know who started it! Jesus was accused of many things – but he was innocent, and his accusers were guilty. Some sins cannot be dealt with through church discipline. Only God can see the heart. We cannot find someone guilty directly of sins in their heart, such as greed, lust or a lack of love. We can only deal with these sins when they result in other sins – such as stealing, indecency or wicked actions. For other sins, there is only one witness, and we can only pray that God himself will deal with the sinner. “Repentance” must also be defined by the Bible. Repentance is more than simply regretting sin or the problems it brings. Repentance means to hate sin, to confess it, to pay back the person sinned against, and to make real efforts to change. So, Christians have to be careful on both sides. On one side, a man should not be condemned for sin without proper evidence. Neither should he be allowed to continued in his sin and the name of Christ continue to be dishonoured, simply because he speaks nice words (Matthew 3:8, 2 Corinthians 7:9-11).
The purpose of church discipline
Church discipline is not given for shepherds to satisfy their anger. It is not for leaders to show their power, to defeat their enemies, or to settle personal arguments. Concerning God, church discipline is for his glory, because his name is holy (Leviticus 20:3). It is so that he may be known, adored and feared as a God who has set his face forever against sin. Concerning the church, discipline is needed to keep its purity. The strength of our spiritual life is in our nearness to God (Psalm 127:1-2). God’s people need to be reminded of their calling, and keep themselves from everything that defiles (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 5:13). Concerning the person who has done wrong, discipline is needed to bring them back into the right way. The purpose of church discipline for them is to restore them, not to destroy them (1 Corinthians 5:5, 2 Thessalonians 3:15). The true shepherd corrects his sheep so that they will return to the flock, not to crush them. Like a father corrects his son for his future good as an act of love, so pastors should always act towards their sheep (Hebrews 12:5-10).
How church discipline takes place
Church discipline should take place carefully and with humility, as we are all sinners (Galatians 6:1). Jesus explained the normal steps in Matthew 18:15-20. There are three, and this shows us that we are not to be rushing to try to finish our problems quickly. Each stage should take place with heart-searching, sorrow and prayer. In the first stage, the church should not be involved at all. If someone has been sinned against, they should try to deal with their brother themselves, and lovingly plead with them. If the brother repents, then the matter is now finished: there should be forgiveness and fellowship again, and the offence put behind them just as God remembers our sins no more. If, however, this does not work, then there is a second stage – and again, the church is not involved. The brother who is sinning should be spoken to together with two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:16). A “witness” is someone who has direct personal knowledge of the sin, and will testify about it. Again the aim is to bring the brother to repent, so that forgiveness can be given and fellowship can carry on. It is only if these first two steps do not work, that the matter should come to the church. (The matter could also come to the church directly if it is an open, public sin – for example, someone hits his wife in public, or is caught in a burglary). The church members again try to restore their brother. But this is the final stage. If the brother will not listen (and this includes if he refuses to come to the church meetings which he has been told are dealing with his sin), then the “brother” must no longer be seen as a brother. He becomes an outsider – and not just any kind of outsider, but one who has personally disgraced the name of Jesus Christ, and disturbed his church. The Bible says, “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). The Jews treated Gentiles and tax collectors like “untouchables” – they refused to have any dealings with them; they looked at them as enemies of the people of God who should be avoided. Even in this, though, the aim is not to humiliate or hurt the wrong-doer – it is to show him how serious his actions are, with the loving aim that this terrible treatment, being cut off from the fellowship of God’s people, will lead him to true repentance (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). The hope is that at a future time, he will truly repent and return – and then he must be warmly welcomed again (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). (In the case of the second type of sins we spoke about, the “outrageous” sins, this means that the sinner must prove that they have changed over a reasonable period of time).
We see that church discipline should have one of two outcomes. The wrong-doer either repents and returns to serving the Lord, or they are removed from the church fellowship and treated like an unclean person. Both of these outcomes honour the Lord Jesus. In the first case, the sinner returns to him, confesses his wrong and receives all the grace and mercy which flows to us from Calvary, where Jesus died for even the worst of sinners. In the second case, the holy justice of Jesus is seen, and his deep concern for the purity of his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:22-32, Revelation 21:2, 9). God’s people are purified and kept safe from the leaven which so quickly spreads and ruins the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6-7). Done properly, church discipline is an act of obedience and love which builds the people of God up. Done wrongly, it is a cause of damage and distress. Sometimes, sadly, the wrong-doer will try to escape the results of his sin. If he is a church-member, he may suddenly “disappear” from the fellowship and not be found. If he is a leader, he may abuse his authority to refuse to allow the matter to be considered. In these cases, if there is no other means for the sin to be dealt with, we must simply trust the Lord to deal with his own people – if we have done our part, we can with a good conscience leave the rest to him. Church discipline often causes a lot of pain to the people of God, even when it is done rightly. It is painful to go to the surgeon to have an unhealthy lump removed, even though we finish much healthier. We should watch ourselves very closely, to make sure that we are never the cause of bringing this pain to the church. “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1, ESV). Paul knew that after he had preached the gospel to others, if he was not careful he himself could fall into sin and be thrown away (1 Corinthians 9:27). Surely, each of us must remember: we are all children of Adam, and much better people than us have fallen. “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thessalonians 5:6).