Church discipline

There certainly exist potential problems associated with correct church discipline. How would you deal with them?

Sin the root number one problem of the human race, whether in its regenerate or unregenerate state. In the congregation of the saints, where God commands discipline (in distinction to the world of unbelievers, cf. 1 Corinthians 5:12-13), many problems therefore still arise. Sin complicates matters: God's face is hid from us, and our mutual relationships become tense, artificial and strained, many times even broken.

I will mention some potential problems within the church context, suggesting how they may be tackled:

1. A natural problem arises when a sinning member in the church happens to have close friends or even relatives in the same congregation. He would probably attempt to win them over to his side, and elicit their sympathy. The elders should sensitively and carefully approach all concerned and explain that their corrective measures are meant for the sinning member's good, to restore him and bring him to repentance. They should make it obvious that their only desire is the well-being of the whole body, and are not in any sense vindictive or partial.

2. Another problem may be illustrated from my own experience. I had to warn an elderly lady in church about her unruliness and lack of respect for duly constituted authority. In age I am far younger than she is: the Scripture tells me to treat such as mothers, but still I could not overlook her continuing unruly behavior and speech. Though I deliberately and prayerfully attempted to deal with her on a personal level, the result was her leaving the church and joining another Baptist church. Paul ordered Timothy to let no one despise him because of his youth; he still was meant to teach with authority. All this, of course, is to be dealt with in love - though we must not forget that love is oftentimes tough. Love is not sentimentality.

3. Another problem is the pragmatic consideration that if proper church discipline is exercised, what often happens is that the church would diminish to just a handful of people. It will also cause divisions, and we would rather stay put than trouble the waters.

I would treat this problem by pointing out that proper Bible preaching also would cause divisions and cause people to leave (Luke 12:51-53). But the fact is that obedience to Christ is more important than our artificial unity or our own pragmatism, reared as it is on compromise. Biblical discipline, carried out as it ought, might cause divisions, but these will be kept to a minimum.

4. The outcry against discipline in the modern church is, "We are not supposed to judge another." Such an assertion can only be made by people who have an inadequate knowledge of Scripture concerning the matter. The fact of the matter is that if guilt is clearly established (as is always essential), then the person has judged himself. As long as he refuses to repent he continues to pronounce himself guilty. And the church does not determine his judgment, it only pronounces the judgment of Christ, on the basis of His own explicit Word.

5. Another problem is the misconception that discipline is unloving. Actually it is the very opposite, for if anything is harmful and indeed fatal to man, it is his sin. To continue to merely talk with a person who has made his intention to continue in sin clear, is a failure to act biblically. "For this is love that we do his commandments." "Lack of church discipline is to be seen for what it really is - not a loving concern as is hypocritically claimed, but an indifference to the honor of Christ and the welfare of the flock" (G.I.Williamson).

Objections against church discipline.

1. "The implementation of discipline will cause division in the church."

Christ has commanded the exercise of loving discipline (Matthew 18; etc.) both for moral and for doctrinal offenses. His word is determinative for the church; the church is not to walk according to pragmatic considerations. Should division result (assuming that the disciplinary steps are taken in a spiritual manner) then that division is not carnal. The church would have been obedient, and Christ's blessing would be upon it.

2. "To discipline someone is to judge someone, we would be guilty of disobeying the Lord's teaching."

It is not judging; rather it is the recognition that the sinning member has proved himself unworthy of fellowship with the saints; he has judged himself. And as long as he continues unrepentant, the church should make him all the more aware of his help him in the way of restoration. If the church is silent she is automatically complacent; indirectly she is approving sin. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for failing to judge (1 Corinthians 5:1,2), and the Lord himself rebukes the local church (Revelation 2:20).

Let us make it clear that there is a world of difference between the right act of judging (1 Corinthians 5:3,4) and the wrong act of judging (Matthew 7:1-5).

3. "As we are all sinners, how can we judge and condemn another?"

Admittedly every person, converted or unconverted, is a sinner. But there's a difference between a repentant sinner, contrite in heart and humble in spirit, and a sinner that virtually brags of his sin and does not combat it, mortifying it daily.

So all those who persist in open sin without repentance, remorse, or desire to change, would be subject for discipline, whoever they may be.

The church does not condemn anybody. In discipline she only pronounces Christís disapproval and judgment upon those who bring this censure upon themselves by persisting in open sin without repentance. For a Christian does not practice sin.

4. "Church discipline seems to be so unloving, especially excommunication. Is it not better to work with the offender, to counsel him and try to lead him gradually out of his sin?"

Many reject discipline in the name of love. But which kind of love? It is ironic that this rejection is often justified by eloquence over love. When John wrote that we should "love one another," he also wrote: "And this is love, that we walk after his commandments" (2 John 5,6). When properly carried out discipline is a profound display of Christian love. For the Spirit-filled Christian dares not ignore the use of the various forms of discipline wherever they are applicable. Love necessarily challenges sin, for sin is fatal to the soul. A surgeon is not unloving when he operates; his act of removing the cancerous member is praiseworthy. No loving parent watches his wayward child, moving towards disaster, without protest.

If we look for God's blessing in our churches, it is essential that we conduct ourselves according to his directives. He tells us how to conduct ourselves in the house of God (1 Timothy 3:15). And for this purpose the Scripture is profitable for reproof and rebuke.

Indeed there should be nouthesia, individual attention to give counsel where needed, but in the case of a person who is progressively becoming fossilized in sin, action should be taken (Galatians 6:1ff). We are not advocating rashness, but on the other hand passivity is not the answer either.

5. "Does not the phrase "against you" (Matthew 18:15) limit disciplinary action to the one or ones who have been sinned against?"

Christ speaks thus not without reason, for it is the sinned against member that usually takes (or should take) the initiative.

Every sin, if persisted in unashamedly, is a sin first of all against Christ and then against his church, as well as against any specific person involved. Therefore, more is at stake than the feelings of the one currently sinned against (cf. Psalms 51:4).

Then what about the case of a Christian sinning against an unbeliever, for instance, defrauding him repeatedly in business? The unbeliever cannot implement Christ's command of discipline. And nobody in the church is being "hurt." If the church comes to know about this, does she not take action? So if we are to limit the phrase "against you" to merely the one sinned against, in such cases nothing can be done. What a shame this would bring upon the name of Christ!

Comparing Matthew 18:15 with other scriptures we find that in no other text is the right to exercise discipline limited to offended persons. Is the offended one mentioned in Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 5, or 2 Thessalonians 3:14?

6. "Why proceed with public censure if the offending member decides to withdraw membership from the local church?"

All the more should the church proceed with censure, seeing that a man should not be allowed to lessen the judgment against himself for his course of sin by committing another sin (leaving the church without proper cause and becoming a schismatic). Besides, a quiet withdrawal can only be seen as sweeping sin under the carpet. The issue is not solved.

Again, failure to administer proper discipline is a tacit admission that there is no spiritual power or authority in the act, but simply a breaking of outward ties.

It is also seeking peace through compromise rather than obedience. This kind of peace is cheap and unbiblical.

7. "How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?"

The keys of the kingdom of heaven are the preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline. Thus, by their exercise, the kingdom is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers (John 21:23; Matthew 18:15-18).

When, according to the command of Christ, those who, under the name of Christians, maintain doctrines or practices inconsistent therewith, and will not, after having been brotherly admonished, renounce their errors and wicked course of life, are complained of to the church, disciplinary steps should be taken against them, for their own good, the health of the church, and the honor of Christ. Excommunication is the gravest step possible; before this, all due attempts should be taken: for example, admonition, rebuke, even taken two or three others with you as witnesses. Those who remain adamant in their sin are to be considered as publicans (that is, unbelievers) until they reform their lives (repent). This is borne out by such texts as Matthew 18:15; 1 Corionthians 5:12; Matthew 18:15-18; Romans 12:7-10; 1 Corinthians 12:28; 1 Timothy 5:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:14; 2 Corinthians 2:6-11.

In having the kingdom of heaven shut against unbelievers, this does not imply that excommunicated members cannot attend the worship services. It rather means that they are not considered as brothers in Christ. They are not to be treated as enemies. The purpose is their restoration, not their continual alienation. When and if the sinning member repents, then the church is obliged and even has the privilege to welcome him back to the fellowship of saints (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). Thus the kingdom is open for him again.

When the church acts obediently in these matters, keeping itself (relatively) pure, the blessings of heaven will be upon it, as Christ promised (Matthew 18).