The reader will observe this to be an unusually long article for the Gospel Gleaner. However, we are not without reasons for publishing such a lengthy treatise for our relatively small paper. The subject of church discipline is as biblical as the subject of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, elders, deacons, and ministers. Yet for many congregations of the Lord’s church, this subject goes without teaching, without understanding, and therefore, without practicing. To be sure, there are many misgivings about the subject and practice of church discipline. It is not uncommon to hear someone speak of it as “cruel” or “un-Christian.” However, this is not at all the way the Bible describes the process. In fact, Jesus said that it ought to be done with the intention of gaining your brother.
Another person may question the church’s right to discipline a brother for his sins when, in truth, “We all sin.” Such statements truly serve to illustrate our need as ministers to teach our congregations the difference between a brother who sins and repents; and an erring brother who continues to live in willful, rebellious sin and is a constant source of complaint and reproach upon the church. Still, such a candid expression possibly reveals an even greater concern, which is that of rampant worldliness in the church. For many congregations it would be hard to discipline one guilty party without also having to discipline many others who are committing similar or worse sins. Of course this is the consequence of failing to teach and practice discipline according to the New Testament for a prolonged period of time. Sin does not seek to co-exist in congregations; it seeks to take over.
Others are hesitant to practice church discipline believing, “We will do more harm than good.” While such a sentiment could be expressed about anything that is deemed controversial, in most cases, the persons who are upset by church discipline are upset because they are in greater sympathy with the guilty party than with the teachings of Scripture. Do we value the soul of the erring brother if we allow him to continue in his sin without attempting to save him? Is his soul worth the risk of offending others? What greater harm can occur than losing the soul of our erring brother?
It is commonly charged that church discipline is contrary to brotherly love. This allegation is also the consequence of our failing to teach and to understand the Scriptures on this matter. When Paul called for the discipline of the erring brother in Corinth, it was not because he lacked love for this brother, but so “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Which is the truer manifestation of brotherly love: to turn a blind eye to a brother’s sin and do nothing to save him from eternal destruction; or to teach, admonish, and discipline (if necessary) in order that he might repent of his sins and be saved ultimately in heaven?
Discipline is also often avoided because it is a most unpleasant experience for everyone involved. It is embarrassing to the guilty person(s) for certain; but it can also be extremely difficult for any family members involved. The faithfulness of the church’s leadership is tested in such cases possibly more than at any other time. Moreover, the sympathy and devotion of the congregation is tested. Will they show greater devotion to Christ through their devotion to their elders and the biblical decision they are being forced to make, or will their devotion be given to the erring one?
While church discipline is a most unpleasant and trying experience, we must again ask ourselves if this one soul is worth the effort. How much does this one soul mean to Jesus? Did He not die for this soul as well? The only way to settle such anxiety and answer our questions and fears is to look to the Bible, study what God has revealed pertaining to the matter, and yield to His will with a faithful determination to do what is commanded.
THE LORD’S TEACHING
The subject of church discipline did not originate with man, but was introduced by the Savior Himself. Jesus knew that Christians would sin and that they would sin against each other from time to time. Knowing our nature better than we know ourselves, Jesus gave provisions to the church so that such matters could be settled. He did not then, nor does He now, intend for a congregation of His people to be stifled by internal conflict. Thus, we read:
“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” (Matthew 18:15-17).
The process is clear: (1) go to the brother in error; (2) in the case that he did not repent when admonished, take witnesses the second time; (3) if the erring brother is still unwilling to repent, and after every word can be established by witnesses, take it before the church; (4) if he is still unwilling to repent before the church, withdraw fellowship from him.
Everything is to be done in the light and above board. We should also note that while the Lord is dealing with a personal matter between two brethren, these rules apply in public matters as well. You will remember that Aquila and Priscilla approached Apollos personally over a public matter. Paul also did the same with Peter.
A point must be made, however practical it may seem, that the matter must be a matter of such severity as to warrant these extreme actions. Only if the sin is of such a nature that it requires admonishing at the risk of the person’s losing his soul, should we begin the process towards discipline. If we must go, hopefully, the erring brother will see his error with a spirit of Christ-like humility, and he will repent of his sin and ask for forgiveness. But, such is not the obstinate nature of sin, and a person’s heart can be “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” Knowing this to be true, as the Master knows the hearts of men, our Lord offers further provisions for such cases.
To prevent false witnessing in Israel, the Law stated, “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15).
By charging that two or three witnesses should be called into such cases as this, our Lord is helping to prevent false witnessing from occurring, while also allowing unbiased persons to judge the dispute between their brethren. The apostle Paul also had this principle in mind in the matter of lawsuits (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). It would seem most reasonable to believe that the most qualified witnesses to call in such disputes would be the elders of the congregation involved.
If the erring brother remains unwilling to repent, and his sin and impenitence can be established by two or three witnesses, then the matter is to be taken before the church. The church is not to be kept in the dark when such things escalate and can affect the whole of the congregation. And to be perfectly honest, many of the church’s members are probably already aware by this point in the controversy. Here is an opportunity to clear the air, and for everyone to be informed as to the reality of the events, rather than to gossip as is usually the case in such matters.
The matter is to be taken before the church with a view to the erring brother repenting of his sins. Unfortunately, once a heart has become so hardened, it is entirely possible that even the pleadings of people whom this person has known for a lifetime will not penetrate his conscience. What other alternative does the church have but to “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” – the two classes of people the Jews strictly avoided?
It would be disobedient to Christ’s word and superfluous to carry out such a public ordeal to end only with the church choosing to look the other way. If this was not to be the course of action from the beginning, why even go through the process? Nothing has changed. The brother is still in error. His sins remain. His heart is still hardened. What good has been done? As we can see, the Savior’s teaching is leading to this point of church discipline. It is the only eventual course of action the church can take when a brother or sister chooses to live in willful, rebellious sin.
The passage we have been studying is not the only time Jesus addressed the need for church discipline. In His letter to the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7), Jesus commended the church for not bearing with those who were evil, saying, “You have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars.”
However, with the church at Pergamos, Jesus found them to be guilty, and told them to repent, and to do so quickly. Observe:
“…because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate” (Revelation 2:14-15).
Thyatira also allowed “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20). Those holding to this doctrine were told to repent or face the Lord’s punishment. Thus, we see that Jesus was pleased when a congregation put away wicked and false teachers; and conversely, He was sorely displeased and threatened punishment when congregations allowed the false doctrines and teachers to continue.
THE APOSTLES’ TEACHING
The apostle Paul had more to say on this subject than did the rest of the apostles; and since he wrote more of the New Testament than the others, this should not seem strange to us. Paul is very clear when he writes:
“But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
The withdrawal included keeping no company with him, so that he might be ashamed (v.14). But, such a withdrawal did not come without a warning (1 Thessalonians 5:14), and it was to be done while admonishing the erring “as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
Paul expressed this teaching in other passages as well. He urged his brethren at Rome, by writing:
“…note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17-18).
To Titus, the great apostle wrote: “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).
To his beloved son in the faith, Timothy, the same instruction concerning false teachers was given:
“If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself” (1 Timothy 6:3-5).
Concerning the one who would preach “another gospel,” Paul taught the churches of Christ in Galatia, “let him be accursed.” Paul warned about false teachers and teaching, and his instruction was to withdraw from them. Clearly the doctrinal purity of the church was more important to Paul than the ego of the preacher! The beloved apostle also practiced what he preached, delivering “Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20).
Another instance of church discipline within the writings of Paul needs to be studied. This is the matter which occurred in Corinth between a son and his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5). In this passage, Paul teaches the church to withdraw fellowship from a brother because of immorality. In this case it is sexual immorality; but Paul also notes other sins such as covetousness, idolatry, a reviler (someone who uses abusive language), drunkenness, and extortion. It is a significant passage of scripture because it clearly states for us the reasons why an erring brother should be disciplined. You will observe that the reasons are purely spiritual.
It is a case of a brother who valued a carnal relationship above all of his spiritual relationships. Here was a church that was not saddened by this egregious relationship, but was “puffed up” and arrogant about it. Perhaps they did not believe they would be held accountable for allowing this sin to continue in their fellowship. Paul told them “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”
Such souls who are rebellious toward the will of God will inevitably influence others to be rebellious. Peter speaks of this type of person when he writes about:
“…false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber” (2 Peter 2:1-3).
Jude recognized such an element among the churches he worked to establish.
“For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
“These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves” (Jude 12).
“These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit” (Jude 19).
The time had long since passed in Corinth “that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2). And yet, nothing had been done. Therefore, Paul instructed them:
“…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” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).
The motivation was purely spiritual and in the best interest of the sinning brother and the congregation as a whole. As long as this brother persisted in this sin, he would not be pleasing to God. As long as the church was being influenced by his wickedness, they would not be pleasing to God. The brother had to repent of his sin, and the church had to repent of their idleness in this matter. Paul concludes by saying “Therefore put away from yourselves the evil person” (v.12).
The church did withdraw from this man, and we read about the results of their faithful action in 2 Corinthians. Paul makes it clear that his instruction pertaining to this man was given “out of much affliction and anguish of heart” and “with many tears” (2 Corinthians 2:4).
Secondly, Paul says he did so “that you might know the love which I have so abundantly for you.” Certainly this helps to dispel the notion that brotherly love is absent in such cases.
The church did as Paul commanded and the erring brother repented. Upon his repentance, it was time “to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow.” The church should do this immediately, “lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices” (v.11).
Paul also urged the Galatians, writing, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1-2). When an erring brother seeks forgiveness, it is time to recognize his godly sorrow (2 Corinthians 7:10) and restore him with a spirit of meekness.
While James does not deal with the specific issue of church discipline, he does address most clearly the subject of sin in the church. James does not tell us to ignore our sins or the sins of a brother, but to repent of the sin (James 4:4-10), confess the sin and pray for the sinner (James 5:16).
James thus gives us God’s law of pardon for erring Christians. The result is that a sinner has been turned from the error of his way, and a soul has been saved from death (James 5:19-20).
Moreover, friendship with the world will make one an enemy of God (James 4:4). One can choose to stand with God and be judged by the world, or he can stand with the world and be judged by God. But know this: God will not fellowship such ones who choose the world over Him; and the church cannot extend fellowship to anyone who is not in fellowship with God. Our role is to teach, urge, and attempt to convert the wayward brother. In so doing, we will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
The beloved apostle John also dealt with the issue of discipline and withdrawing from false teachers. Note:
“Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 9-11).
The issue again is that of false teachers, their false doctrines, and how the church should respond to them. The church is as guilty as is the false teacher for teaching error, if they choose to support him in his error. We are as guilty as the sins and sinners we condone and support. John did not want to “lose those things we worked for” (2 John 8) and he understood that doctrines contrary to the gospel could destroy everything which had been done up to that time. The message is clear: do not bid Godspeed to anyone attempting to destroy God’s church.
The apostle John also addressed another matter of discipline, this time with the brother named Diotrophes (3 John 9-11). Here is an example of church discipline which needed to be practiced on someone who was divisive in the church because of his sinful personality. With Diotrophes we find a man who loved “to have the preeminence” and would not receive any brother who might be considered his equal. Moreover, he would put them out of the church (v.11).
John responds to his maliciousness by writing, “Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words” (v.10). He further warns, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God” (v.11).
Diotrophes serves as an example of what not to do in church discipline. He was putting brethren out of the church without scriptural cause, and solely because of his sinful attitude. While Diotrophes may not have been teaching another gospel, or living an immoral life, his personality was divisive; and for that reason, his deeds would be brought to light. He was a divisive man, and undoubtedly would have been rejected had he not repented after being admonished by John (cf. Tutus 3:10).
We hope that this study has helped us to see that the Lord and His apostles were in unanimous agreement as to the subject of church discipline. We began with a study of Jesus’ words on what could be matters of personal conflict between brethren. We have observed three reasons for the local church to withdraw fellowship from an erring brother; namely: (1) refusing to repent of teaching false doctrine which would divide the church; (2) refusing to repent of immorality which would corrupt the purity of the church; (3) and in the case of Diotrophes, divisive egotism which would destroy fellowship and unity among brethren.
Perhaps we should also conclude by asking this question: how can we enjoy fellowship in eternity if we cannot enjoy fellowship now? As a congregation, we do no service to our brethren living in error if we choose to ignore their error and refuse to honor God’s word in this matter. Neither do we serve the reputation of the church in the community. Neither do we serve the forthcoming generations who must be taught right from wrong clearly and earnestly. We must decide for their sakes as well as our own if we are to set an example of faithfulness or an example of compromise.
Knowing the nature of sin and worldliness, and the way it overcomes a person and a congregation, let us choose to respond to our sins biblically – with repentance, confession, and prayer. If we are called upon to exercise church discipline, may we be found faithful in this charge also!
Let us learn to obey all the teachings of our Lord, not merely those with which we might agree. If we are only obeying when we agree with Jesus, or when His teachings seem acceptable to us, we truly are not obeying Him at all. We must observe all things He has commanded (Matthew 28:20). And, we have no right to claim Him as our Lord if we fail to do what He has said (Luke 6:46). We are servants of whom we obey (Romans 6:16).