The Biblical Pattern of Church Discipline
BIBLICAL CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Scripture clearly teaches that the church is a context of community support, pastoral care, teaching and correction but also admonishment and discipline.
Despite becoming unpopular in many parts of the Christian Church from the 20th century, discipline is a crucial expression not of judgmentalism or legalism but of love.
Scripture makes it clear that God disciplines those he loves (Heb 12:6), a parent is called to discipline their children in love (Prov 13:24), so too, the church leadership is at times called to discipline those who unrepentantly continue in sin for the purpose of helping them turn from destructive attitudes and actions. We are called to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24).
“As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16).
Those who would seek to undermine the Biblical practice of Church discipline will often say "the Church is the only army that shoots their wounded". It can be a fair comment on the misuse of discipline but it is also true that rather than discipline being to 'take down' or destroy the individual, it is to ensure that those unable, unwilling or otherwise unqualified are, to continue the use of military imagery, 'not sent to the front line'. Discipline is not about coming down on mistakes but confronting intentional defiance against the word and will of God. One of the greatest blights on the Church in the late 20th and early 21st century has been the intentional ignorance and covering up of sin within the Church (especially but not solely among ‘clergy’ or leadership itself). No individual is above Godly discipline and accountability.
"And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another." (Rom. 15:14)
Church discipline is about setting our eyes on protecting the sheep as good shepherds, it is about removing unrepentant and dangerous individuals from the body for the protection of the flock and in hope that the individual may repent “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor 5:5b).
Our goal is always grace filled living, however, grace does not excuse unrepentance. Many years ago a man that was in the church I was part of stalked a minor for months, following and engaging in constant sexual approaches and harrassment. Despite police intervention and repetitive requests for him to cease, he continued. This issue was brought before the whole church as he was repetitively unrepentant even after the process outlined in Matthew 18 had been followed. Unfortunately, in the midst of the church meeting, a well-meaning man accused the church of not being ‘grace-filled’. In the moment, this man attempted to protect the perpetrator rather than the victim. I saw in this instance, a false attempt at grace, a grace without repentance, a grace that protected the perpetrator rather than the victim. It made me aware and now distrustful as a young Christian that some people, even well-meaning might ironically make the church community an unsafe place to be. It has been this kind of behaviour from within the church that has seen the high-profile public issues arise.
Good shepherds protect sheep, not wolves (Acts 20:28 – 29). So what is Church Discipline?
Church discipline is the process of correcting sinful behaviours in the life of the community. In the most simple form, it involves correction of sin through private confrontation. At its most serious it involves formal procedure and ultimately removal from the community for its own protection and in hope of repentant restoration for the individual. So Why do we need to discipline or confront sin?
To protect the community (Acts 20:28-30, 1 Cor 5:6 – 8, 1 Tim 1:20, Acts 5:1 – 11, Heb 3:12 - 13)
To restore the individual (1 Cor 5:6, Matt 18:5, Gal 6:1 – 2,
What is the process?
"And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother." (Mat. 18:15)
In the discipleship journey, most issues end at this point, the goal of leading people to Christ-likeness continues, repentance is present, grace is abundant. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
2. Take another
In the event that there is no appropriate repentant attitude and ultimately fruit (Matt 3:8) Jesus continues in Matthew 18 saying… “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.” (Matt 18:16) The goal constantly at every level is to seek restoration through repentance.
3. Take it to the Church (assembly)
Jesus continues in verse 17…
“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:17
Some try to soften this passage but the context is clear. Unrepentant sin means removal from the community. This is also made clear in 1 Corinthians 5:2 when the Corinthian church was allowing sexual sin to continue in their community.
“And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?” 1 Cor 5:2
There is no pride in allowing sin to continue unabated in the community. It is not grace, it is a dangerous practice that facilitates abuse.
The purpose in removing someone from the community is multifaceted. Why? a) To see the ‘destruction of the flesh’ (v5) so that the unrepentant “may be saved on the day of the Lord” (v5b) b) To stop the corruption of the community (v 6 – 8)
When someone is repentant grace abounds, when unrepentance is present and when repetitive ‘false’ repentance seems to be the case, we need look for the ‘fruit of repentance’ (Matt 3:8).
“Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” 1 Cor 5:6 – 8
When we refuse to deal with sin properly and gracefully, we are actually denying who we “really are” (1 Cor 5:7b). What does this look like? Paul the Apostle makes it clear, to remove someone that is unrepentant from community is to remove them from all community.
“But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” 1 Cor 5:11
“…Expel the wicked from among you” (V 13)
From a well-meaning place, people often believe that continuing contact will somehow enable repentance but in actual fact, outside of Paul making it clear we should “…not even eat with such people” (V 11b) such just provides a person with the privilege of Christ’ community whilst living a life that slanders Christ’ name.
Remember, this is not at all aimed at “the people of this world who are immoral” (V 10). It is not our place to “judge those outside the church” (V12) but rather it is aimed at those “who claim to be a brother or sister” (v 11).
What warrants removal from the community?
In 1 Corinthians 5 and elsewhere we see some specific sins mentioned that warrant removal from the community when someone is unrepentant.
1.Sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:11)
2.Greed (1 Cor.5:11). Scholars tend to believe this to indicate apparent excessive materialism and advocating such.
3.Idolatry (1 Cor. 5:11) Idolatry is in this context clear, it is maintaining allegiance to other gods, spirits or practices outside of the Gospel. Though people coming from different backgrounds may struggle in their transitions in terms of habits and culture, it need be clear there is only one name that saves (Acts 4:12).
4.Slander (1 Cor. 5:11) One who undermines through gossip and inappropriate talk. This is often expressed in seditious, ongoing unrepentant gossip. This also ties with divisive people (Titus 3:10 – 11).
5.Drunkard (1 Cor. 5:11) In practice this includes habitual use of other controlling drugs. Struggling with addiction is one thing, giving oneself over to it is another altogether.
6.Swindling (1 Cor. 5:11) Those who cheat in business, in borrowing without repayment, in ‘conmanship’. This is often, in the Church, as in the wider environment expressed in deceptive requests for money.
7.A life marked by laziness (2 Thes 3:6) The Apostle Paul makes it clear that a refusal to work, and a life which ‘sponges’ off others is a dangerous life. This is not about genuine inability but ‘idleness’.
8.Divisive people (Titus 3:10,11, Romans 16:17) People who cause division in the community are to be warned (twice) then removed.
9.False teaching (1 Tim. 1:20) – This is not about difference in minor areas but a denial of the central tenants of faith. Though not exhaustive it is not difficult to consistently extend these areas to other overt and rebellious sin including but not limited to assault; sexual, child, domestic or otherwise. Restoration after full removal
Our desire, at all times, is to see people repent and be restored into proper relationship in the community. This may cause a problem for some in that the community is told in 1 Cor 5:11b to “…not even eat with such people” (V 11b). How then is a person to approach the church again for restoration?
The only consistent path, in light of the leadership’s ultimate responsibility to protect the flock, is that a person need come back with a repentant heart and engage the leadership itself. At times, it may be decided that a person is best moving to another church community (with that community’s leadership approval). ‘Palming off’ problems or dangerous people, allowing people to leave one church and go to another without discipline is not loving, it is to disrespect the local church.
The leaders of the church as shepherds over the flock must make wise and informed decisions as to how this may outwork in practice to ensure the safety and purity of the church (Acts 20:28, 1 Cor 5).
These principles and practices apply to all believers, including leaders within the church (1 Tim 5:19 – 20). Importantly, when something is illegal, not only immoral, it is imperative that the church inform the relevant legal authorities that the government may be honoured and people protected by those with the God given authority to do so (1 Peter 2:13 – 17, Romans 13).
In the Church at times people shy away from Godly, humble and consistent judgement, even with proper process. To do so is to violate God’s will (1 Cor 5:2). Scripture gives us a clear framework that enable us to bring people to restore individuals and protect the church.
By consistently approaching God’s Word and Will, we pray that we may restore gently and humbly. In doing so we seek to carry each other’s burdens, fulfilling the law of Christ.
“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:1 - 2