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.