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This is all at once an unpleasant and neglected subject. It is neglected in the sense that such discipline is either not practiced in a number of churches today, or else when it is, it is done in an incorrect or inconsistent manner. The subject is unpleasant because it deals with, if needed, strong measures to correct a fellow congregation member.


What is church discipline? It is the exercise of increasing degrees of corrective measures upon a church member who is sinning. The practice is not unknown, as it is mentioned in the New Testament in various places. There are several Scriptures we will examine in order to understand what church discipline involves and what it should look like in action.



1. The Blueprint for Church Discipline

Jesus Christ Himself outlines this for us in Matthew 18. Although the New Testament Church did not yet exist at this time, the Lord gave us these guidelines to follow once the Church was born and operating:


Matthew 18:15-20:. Moreover 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. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”


In the scenario described by Jesus, one person sinning against another is involved, but it is also applicable for a person living a sinful lifestyle as a believer, which we will see in the next section. If a fellow believer sins against you, or if you know of such a one in sin, you are to go to that person one on one and settle it. Not by fleshly means, but in love and, if need be, in godly firmness. If the erring congregant continues to sin, the next step is to bring one or two other believers in to speak with that person. The principle of witnesses was established in the Mosaic Law (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6).



Although under the Law this applied to those accused of capital violations, Jesus uses this witness principle in a much broader way as far as the Church is concerned. This way, reliable witnesses could back up the complaint of one individual against another.  After this step, if the offender still does not stop sinning, the next action is to bring it before the Church. This means, at the bare minimum, the church leadership, but can also include the whole congregation. If there is still no repentance, the sinning congregant is to be disfellowshipped and avoided just as a worldly person would be. The binding and loosing here have to do with agreements in the local congregations pertaining whether to permit or not permit certain actions, such as keeping a repentant brother or sister in the congregation or disfellowshipping and excluding one who will not stop sinning.


Such a step as putting a brother or sister in the faith out of a local church body and avoiding that person sounds harsh. Jesus did list this as a last resort, but the idea in exercising such tough love is for the erring person to do some serious self-examination. That person needs to know if he or she is even saved, really, or if they’re saved but backslidden, to recognize the need to return to the Lord and quit living a sinful lifestyle. God can also deal with that person individually, including with loving chastisement. Outside of the local church, the backslider is in Satan’s domain. Being back in such a terrible place can be enough to drive him or her back to the Lord. If the person is repentant, he or she is to be welcomed back into the congregation. Trust takes time to rebuild, so if the believer who is returning held some sort of position of responsibility in the local body, that individual must not be returned to such a position until or unless there has been additional time in which ongoing changed behavior has been demonstrated and, above all else, until or unless the Holy Spirit says it is time for that person to return to their former position. Sometimes this is not possible. For example, if a nursery worker got into trouble for a sex crime, has served time in prison, and has returned to the church in a repentant state, that individual cannot legally be allowed to supervise children in a nursery. This does not mean that his or her fellow believers are being distrustful, it simply means they are legally bound not to let that person go back to being a nursery worker.


Now that we have established the blueprint for church discipline, let’s have a look at what this process is like when it is applied to a sinning believer.



2.  A Biblical Example of Church Discipline in Action


1 Corinthians 5:5, 11-13:  It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus… 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.”



In the passage above we see the apostle Paul addressing the church at Corinth. In the ancient world, the Greek seaport of Corinth was one of the wildest and most sinful places on earth. Christians coming out of such a wanton background could sometimes take a while to leave all vestiges of their old lifestyles behind. Perhaps these believers felt that they were showing the sinner extra love by not excluding him from their company. Whatever the case was behind their actions, Paul identified it with pride (being puffed up) and rebuked them for this. You can see his recommendation was the same as that which Jesus gave in the Matthew 18 passage: Disfellowship the unrepentant sinner. It was for the good of that church as well as the individual under consideration. The Corinthian Christians should have been deeply disturbed at this man’s incestuous activities, a behavior that would have shocked even the base sensibilities of those in their surroundings. Please note that there was no malice in what Paul was instructing them to do. Perhaps this person could be saved if he suffered enough for his behavior or, if he was saved but backslidden, he would repent and not go to the extent of forfeiting his salvation. In order for the church’s discipline to work the separation of themselves from this sinful man had to be dramatic and sustained until or unless repentance took place. Even then, spiritual discernment was necessary because there are those who can do a good job of pretending to be changed. So we can conclude that church discipline, while it has punitive aspects, is primarily restorative in nature. The sinning Corinthian congregant did repent and was accepted back into the local church as we see in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians:



2 Corinthians 2:1-11:. But I determined this within myself, that I would not come again to you in sorrow. For if I make you sorrowful, then who is he who makes me glad but the one who is made sorrowful by me? And I wrote this very thing to you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow over those from whom I ought to have joy, having confidence in you all that my joy is
the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you, with many tears, not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have so abundantly for you. But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent—not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive . For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices.
You can see the theme of love and restoration clearly in this passage. This is not only for the good of the individual being disciplined but also for the good of the church that disciplined him. A church that indulges sin will become complacent and lukewarm. A church that judges sinning members too harshly becomes legalistic and mean-spirited. Neither type of church is Biblical, nor do they win many souls, either. A church that practices church discipline in love, complete with forgiveness and restoration for the repentant person, is what is modeled here in the Word of God.
Just as congregants can fall into sin, so can church leaders. How should these persons be dealt with?



3.  The Disciplining of Sinning Church Leaders


1 Timothy 5:19-21:. Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality.



Here, Paul’s instructions to the young pastor Timothy are also applicable throughout the Church. We see again the principle of having witnesses, as well as the doing of this before all of heaven (remember the binding and loosing). Leaders in the church are held to a stricter judgment by God than others (James 3:1).




Even so, God has the same love for church leaders as He does for everyone else in His body. It is because leaders have the ability to influence many more people than others that they are more accountable to God. Their example, either for good or for bad, can lead numerous others down the same paths. Leaders should set an example in godly lifestyles. When a church leader is accused of sin, just as in the case of a congregant, the accusations should be corroborated by others lest the accused becomes a victim of rumors, gossip, lies, or slander. Whatever degree of correction is applicable, anything from rebuke to disfellowshipping and being put out of the ministry, should be applied without partiality to friends and fellow ministers, and the aim should be to correct and restore the erring leader, not to exact revenge and cause ruin. In some cases full restoration to ministry leadership may not be possible or permitted by God, but the repentant person should always be forgiven and restored to the local church in love.


Church discipline is as vital to the body of Christ and its witness to the world as is the operation of the spiritual gifts and the living of a godly lifestyle. It should be done in the love of God with the aim being corrective and restorative. The spiritual wellbeing of the disciplined individual as well as that of the local church he or she has been a part of is very important. Unloving or excessive discipline is as destructive as discipline that is too lenient or nonexistent. We must be guided by the Word of God and by the Holy Spirit in exercising church discipline, and we must examine ourselves and be sure our own lifestyle is holy, acceptable, and pleasing to God.




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