Monday, June 16, 2008

Discipline in the Local Church

by Bruce Mills

Many years ago, I wrote a small booklet for our church which outlined the elders’ perspective on the administration of church discipline within our congregation. In this post, I would like to reproduce some of that document, while removing the situation-specific references to my church. Hopefully, this will give readers a better understanding of what the Scriptures teach regarding this important topic.


Early church documents identi­fy three cha­racteris­tics by which the true church of God may be known. These marks are the preac­hing of true doc­trine, the adminis­tra­tion of the sacra­ments, and the exer­cise of church disci­pline. Many churches today are in­volved in carry­ing out the first two of these important fea­tures, but neglect the third. The lea­der­ship of a New Testament church which is commit­ted to obey the Scrip­tures and to fulfill its responsibility to shepherd the flock of God in accordance with sound doc­trine will carry out church discipline. This means that the elders of the church will view their responsibility to the flock to include not only the teaching of the Word of God and the administration of the ordi­nances of our Lord, but also fulfilling their obliga­tion to reprove, rebuke, and exhort the members of the body of Christ to obey and follow His Word (2 Tim. 4:2, Titus 2:15).

Because it is essential that believers who are identified with the local church under­stand their role and responsibili­ties to one another and to the church leadership, I would like to explain the doctrinal position and prac­tice of church discipline within the local church.

The Need for Church Discipline

The purpose of church disci­pline is to affect a return to a biblical standard of conduct and doctrine in a member who sins (Matt. 18:15; 2 Cor. 2:5-8; Gal. 6:1), to maintain purity in the lo­cal church (1 Cor. 5:6-7), and to serve as a deter­rent to sin (1 Tim. 5:2­0). Discipline within the lo­cal church is a biblical im­perative, as command­ed by Jesus in Matt. 18:15-17 and by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 5:1-13. A church that ne­glects to lovingly con­front and cor­rect its members is not being kind, forgiv­ing, or gracious. Such a church is really hinder­ing the Lo­rd’s work and the advance of the gospel. The church without discipline is a church without purity (Eph. 5:25-27) and is in seri­ous dan­ger of losing its spiritu­al effec­tiveness. The leader­ship of local evangelical churches which are committed to the principle of obeying Scripture and seeking to maintain a be a pure and effective church until our Lord’s return will exercise church disci­pline within the body in a loving, gentle, and caring fashion for the purpose of restoring sinning bre­thren to fellowship with the Lord and with other believers.

The Steps of Discipline

Church discipline is generally to follow an established set of four steps as out­lined by Jesus in Matt. 18:15-17. Howev­er, in certain situations, these steps may be reduced in number as taught by Paul in 1 Cor. 5:3-5 and Titus 3:10.

Step One. The first step of discipline is a private one-on-one corrective summons. Jesus sta­ted, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private” (Matt. 18:15). This means that whenev­er one believer sins against another, the believer who has been sinned against must first go to the sin­ning bro­ther and deal with the matter pri­vately. The purpose behind the reproof at this point is to point out the sin, to set the matter right, and to affect the repen­tance of the offender toward God and the offend­ed believer. There is nothing in Scrip­ture which indicates that the church lead­ership is to be involved in the matter at this point. The first step involves only the two parties to the sin: the of­fender and the offended.

However, it should be understood that Je­sus did not mean that when a believer ob­serves sin in the life of another believ­er, that just because the sin is not against him per­son­ally, there is no obliga­tion to con­front the sinner. That, too, is taught in this passage. Believers are accountable for one another (Phil. 2:4) and are to demonstrate their love for the spiritual growth and development of their fellow believers by confronting them about their sin.

The attitude which characterizes this step, and every other step of discipline, is one of gentleness (Gal. 6:1) along with a firm commit­ment to the standards of God’s Word.

Step Two. The second step of church dis­cipline is a group corrective summons. Jesus said that if the private one-on-one corrective summons failed to gain the re­pentance and restora­tion of the sinning believer, then “Take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (Matt. 18:16). Again, the sin­ning believer is given another opportunity to turn from his sinful behavior.

The presence of these one or two witnesses is to serve two purposes: (1) they are first counselors who seek to reunite the two estranged parties, and (2) if the sin­ner refuses to repent and be restored, they serve as witnesses for the church leader­ship to the call for restoration and repentance, and the subse­quent refusal. There is no requirement that these indi­viduals be actual witnesses to the sin of the believer being confronted, but rather they are witnesses to what transpired in the group corrective summons.

Step Three. After the sinning believer has been dealt with both privately and by the small group, if no repentance and res­toration takes place, then Jesus said, “Tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17). The purpose in bringing the mat­ter before the local assembly is so that it may do its part in bring­ing the sinning brother to repentance. The full details of the sin will not be explained, but only such commentary as may be neces­sary to inform the church family of the general nature of the matter.

When such an an­nouncement is made, other believers have a responsibility to pray for the sin­ner, to avoid a critical or pride­ful spir­it, and to call the sinner to re­pentance. Paul instructs the church in 1 Cor. 5:11 and 2 Thess. 3:14 that believ­ers are to avoid any planned social fel­lowship which would in­dicate accep­tance of the sinning broth­er, such as eating meals to­gether. Rather, the church’s obliga­tion is to use every opportu­nity to bring to the sinner’s attention the need to re­pent of the sin and be restored to fellow­ship.

The sin­ning believer is forbidden to shar­e ­in the Lord’s Table within the fel­low­ship of the church and may not participate in any ministry of the church. However, he is not pro­hib­ited from attend­ing church services hoping that the min­istry of the Word will serve to bring about repen­tance and res­toration.

Step Four. If the sinning believer still does not turn from his sin after a period of corrective summons by the entire church, then he is to be excluded from the church. Jesus’ instruction on this matter states, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). At this point, the individual who refuses to repent at every step of the process is an individual whose heart is hard toward God and His people. He is to be put out of the church, thereby removing him from the protection that Christ provides to His church, and turned over to the realm of Satan (1 Cor. 5:5). Thus, he is no longer to be considered as a believer, but is to be treated exactly as one would treat an unbeliever. This means that, while making no final judgment about his actual heart condition, the church is to treat him as if he were an unbeliever. He gives no evidence of being a believer since he re­fuses to heed the authority of Christ ves­ted in the leaders of His church. Therefore, the other believers within the church are to seek to evangelize this individual whenever an opportu­nity occurs.

Thus, like any other unbeliever, this per­son would be permitted to attend the church services with the hope that the ministry of the Word and the work of the Holy Spir­it will bring about the ef­fect of repen­tance from sin and a profes­sion of Christ as Lord and Savior.

Repentance and Restoration

As previously stated, the purpose of church discipline is to affect the repen­tance from sin and restoration to fellow­ship of the sinning believer. At any step along the process, if repen­tance and res­toration to fellowship takes place, the rest of the body of Christ is to receive the penitent believer back into full fel­lowship within the church. This process involves forgive­ness, assistance, and love (2 Cor. 2:7-8).

At any time in which there is public sin which is or will be known throughout the church and the sinner has repented, he should appear before the elders and explain to them about his repentance and his de­sire for forgiveness and restoration. If such oc­curs and there is indication of the gen­uineness of such repentance, the elders should then inform the individual of his restora­tion. The pastor or another elder should announce this to the church family with the exhortation that all are to re­ceive the person back into the full fel­lowship of the church, reaffirm their love for him, and treat him in the same manner as any other broth­er in Christ.

Every believer within the church should also be ex­horted that persistence in failing to for­give a repentant believer is to place oneself in danger of church discipline.

What Sins May Result In Discipline?

Scripture presents four major categories of sin that call for church discipline. These perimeters embrace both the spirit (flexibility) and law (rigidity) essential for the purity of the church. They cover all Christian behavior, both public and private, dealing with sin as it relates to Christian love, unity, standards, and truth.

The categories are:

1. Private and personal offenses that violate Christian love (Gal. 5:19-21).

2. Divisiveness and factions that destroy Christian unity (Rom. 16:­17, 1 Cor. 5:11, 3 John 9-10).

3. Moral and ethical deviations that break Christian standards (Eph. 5:11, 2 Thess. 3:6).

4. Teaching false doctrine (Titus 1:9-11, 3:10; 1 Tim. 1:19-20, 6:3-5; 2 John 7-11).


Fear of disunity, conflict, and criticism has caused many Chris­tians, chur­ches, and church leaders to avoid con­fronting Chris­tians who are in sin. But a care­ful study of the New Testament indicates that such loving confronta­tion is a Chris­tian duty. Church discipline is God’s loving plan for restoring believers to fellowship with Himself and with the body of Christ. Christ desires that the church be “holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). Car­ing church discipline may be the means God will use in these days to purify the church so that Christ’s bride will have “no spot or wrinkle” at His coming.

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