My Thoughts on Church Discipline

The following is my editorial for the May/June, 2021 issue of the Carolina Messenger.

The apostle Peter recognized the great necessity of Christians being “stir(red)…up by way of reminder” (2 Pet. 1:12-13, 15; 3:1-2).  Along these lines, this preacher believes there are a few topics which should be preached and taught from once to several times a year.  Withdrawing of fellowship, commonly known as church discipline, is one of them.  Christians need to be reminded that these commands are in the New Testament, what they mean, and why a loving God would require such responsibilities of his people.

The concept of “church discipline” is far more than the withdrawing of fellowship.  “Discipline” (paideia) as used in the New Testament has to do with training and education (Eph. 6:4), instruction designed to increase virtue (2 Tim. 3:16), and chastisement (Heb. 12:5ff).  Thus, one could say that one is being disciplined in a sense whenever one receives instruction from God’s Word, whether that be from a sermon or Bible class, an article such as this one, or private study.  Balanced Bible study, sermons, and lessons will include both instruction and admonition.

Concerning admonition, discipline also occurs when Christians correct each other (Gal. 6:1; James 5:19-20).  It is worth pointing out that Christians should correct each other when their brother or sister actually sins by disobeying actual commands and principles found in rightly handled Scripture (1 John 3:4; Rom. 4:15; cf. 2 Tim. 2:15).  Discipline in the form of correction is not required and indeed itself goes beyond God’s commands when brethren correct each other because their own personal scruples and idiosyncrasies are not upheld by others (Rom. 14:1-15:2).

Also worthy of note is the fact that God wishes us to correct each other in a certain way.  Christians are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).  Consider Paul’s instruction to Timothy along these lines:  “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.  God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26).  There’s a reason “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).  We must consider the true objective behind our correction.  Is it to truly help the erring Christian escape Satan’s trap, or is it to make ourselves out to be “holier” and win the argument?

Read Jesus’ directive in Matthew 18:15 (cf. Acts 18:26).  It is a tragic commentary on the church that a sizable amount of the brotherhood prefer to talk to anyone other than the one who has sinned.  We talk to the elders, the preacher, our family and friends instead of the one to whom our Lord has commanded us to speak (and usually it’s about our own personal scruples or feelings being violated instead of God’s standards).  I challenge all Christians to not allow this sin to occur any longer!  If someone wants to talk to you about another’s transgressions, establish immediately if they plan to talk to them personally and are coming to you for assistance.  If they aren’t, exhort them to do what Jesus told them to do and then change the subject.  We all need to obey our Lord much better along these lines.

Now read Matthew 18:16.  Remember that patience is needed and that you yourself rarely repent overnight (cf. Matt. 21:28-29), so give the brother appropriate time to repent.  Yet when it’s clear he won’t, go to him again with others.  Sometimes misunderstandings take place.  Sometimes what one thinks has happened actually hasn’t, and it takes unbiased outsiders to show how things truly are.  These witnesses can help determine in the eyes of all whether sin has truly occurred and, if it has, join you in encouraging repentance.

Now read Matthew 18:17.  If the sinning brother still refuses to repent, let the entire church know.  The verse implies that the whole church then would encourage the brother to repent, and when it is clear that he wouldn’t do so, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  In other words, withdraw fellowship from him (cf. Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Tit. 3:10-11; 2 John 9-11).  The last resort.

Notice, however, that Scripture directs that we not regard the one from whom we withdraw “as an enemy.”  Rather, we are to “warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15).  While it is true that we are to “have nothing to do with him” (v. 14) to the point of not even eating with him (1 Cor. 5:11), should we happen to come across him we should look at it as an opportunity to lovingly but firmly encourage him to repent.

There are two reasons God commanded this of us.  First, “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved…” (1 Cor. 5:5), “that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14).  God wants fellowship among Christians to be so intimate, fulfilling, and powerful that the threat or action of depriving one of it would be a powerful motivation towards destroying those fleshly habits and getting them out of one’s life (cf. Mk. 10:29-30; 1 Tim. 5:1-2).  Brethren, is the fellowship you have with your church family like this?  If not, what motivation does the erring brother have to repent should you withdraw from him?

Secondly, to keep the church free from the influence of unrepentant sin.  Because “a little leaven leavens the whole lump,” God wishes us to “cleanse out…the leaven of malice and evil” (1 Cor. 5:6-8).  Never underestimate the power of influence, friends.  If brethren see their fellow Christians’ open sins winked at and “swept under the carpet,” they will be influenced to unrepentantly sin also.

Christians aren’t perfect (1 John 1:8), but we are required to be faithfully, penitently obedient.  When we aren’t, we need each other to help us back to God.

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