Several weeks ago my wife, Kristen, wrote a blog about discovering a healthy church. If you’ve read it, you may have noticed that she did not write about discovering a perfect church but, rather, a healthy church. In this age, there is no such thing as a perfect church because churches are full of sinners, and the indwelling sin in all of us is real and powerful. Because of this, it is necessary, as Kristen noted, for healthy churches to practice biblical church discipline. The concept of healthy church discipline is foreign to many people today, as some have no clue what church discipline is, others are only familiar with the abuses of church discipline, and still others associate church discipline with cults.
For me, church discipline was a foreign concept until one of my seminary professors simply opened up the Scriptures and exposed me to Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5. Both of these passages include teachings on unrepentant sin and instructions to cut off a person from the life of the church who continues in persistent unrepentant sin. Having grown up in churches that did not practice church discipline, I was amazed when I discovered these eye-opening passages in Scripture, so I asked my pastor about these texts and about his thoughts on the practice of church discipline. “I don’t want to enforce church discipline, do you?” he asked. While I appreciated his honesty, his answer left me perplexed. No, I didn’t want to enforce church discipline, but just because I didn’t want to do it didn’t mean that I shouldn’t. His answer did not and could not satisfy what I saw as our church’s seemingly willful rejection of plain commands found in Scripture. The Bible explicitly tells believers that we are to go to our brother who is in sin and call him to repentance (Matthew 18:15); if he does not repent we are to take others with us as a witness to our brother’s unrepentance (Matthew 18:16); if he still does not repent we are to tell it to the church (Matthew 18:17a); and if he refuses to repent even still, the church is to treat him as an outsider (Matthew 18:17b) or, as 1 Corinthians puts it in more severe language, we are to hand him “over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
While I still believe my former pastor is in error in this regard, I have come to have more sympathy upon him as I’ve learned over the years that church discipline is not something for one man to carry out by himself. It is a difficult task. The church culture must be one that cultivates meaningful membership, or church discipline will be next to impossible to enforce. In fact, church discipline can only be properly enforced if the entire church body is working together for the building up of the saints.
I realize some who are reading this may be convinced that church discipline is not necessary anymore since believers are no longer under the law, as they were in the Old Testament, but are now under grace. If that is your stance on the issue, I want to encourage you to continue searching the Scriptures, and you’ll find that discipline is a constant in Scripture, even for those who are under grace. For example, Paul calls the Corinthian church, a church that is no longer bound by the law but under grace, to “expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13). This is one example that bears witness to church discipline in the new covenant, and while there is more biblical testimony for this practice, an examination of church history will also prove that church discipline has been a common practice for centuries. Yes, there have been and still are many abuses of church discipline, but just because something has been used wrongly does not render it null and void. Take an automobile for instance: There are many people who drive recklessly, potentially turning a car into a weapon, but that does not cancel out the good of the car. And the same rule applies to church discipline.
When done biblically, the goal of church discipline is not punishment and embarrassment, but repentance and restoration “so that [your brother’s] spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5). Gently, humbly, and lovingly calling a brother to repentance shows that you care for his soul, and “if he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). When church discipline is done correctly, there is no need to be fearful of showing transparency because: 1) Those who have confessed and repented of sin are not brought under church discipline, and 2) If someone is in unrepentant sin, it is a danger for his/her soul to remain there. The most loving thing a brother or sister can do at that point is to call that person to repentance. While church discipline may sound nasty and mean to some, it is so very beautiful to see a sinner return to a life of repentance and faith.
In the words of a 16th century theologian: “Wherefore, brethren, understand correctly, no one is excommunicated or expelled by us from the communion of the brethren but those who have already separated and expelled themselves from Christ’s communion either by false doctrine or by improper conduct. For we do not want to expel any, but rather to receive; not to amputate, but rather to heal; not to discard, but rather to win back; not to grieve, but rather to comfort; not to condemn, but rather to save. Whoever turns from evil, whether it be false doctrine or vain life, and conforms to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unto which he was baptized, such a one shall not and may not be expelled or excommunicated by the brethren forever.”
If you are a member of a church that practices church discipline, praise God, for discipline is truly the loving thing to do as it follows the commands of Christ and seeks after the well-being of yourself and your brothers and sisters in Christ. If your church does not practice church discipline, pray, have honest biblical discussion, talk with your pastor about passages such as Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, and, finally, be patient with your church. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and healthy, biblical church discipline will not be implemented in a week. It takes time.
As for me, I am grateful for God’s means of grace, as seen in His institution of church discipline, for it serves the saints to grow in holiness, and apart from holiness, no one will see God (Hebrews 12:14).
If you’d like to learn more about church discipline, I recommend reading Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus by Jonathan Leeman from the 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series.
 Klaassen, Walter. Anabaptism in Outline, p. 219. This quote is from Menno Simons, whose words here are helpful, but whose theological positions I do not wish to endorse, most importantly, his view on the nature of Jesus Christ.
2 thoughts on “Guarding One Another: What is Biblical Church Discipline?”
Very well written. If only we would strive to practice discipline as you described and make every effort not to be “holier than thou”. We must always guard against taking the splinter out of someone else’s eye while disregarding the large thorn in our own eye.