Christian Living,  Church,  New Testament

Church Discipline: The Forgotten Pillar

picture of pillars symbolizing church discipline

Little known to most people, the 1561 Belgic Confession gives three marks by which the true church is known: (1) preaching the pure gospel, (2) observing the sacraments (i.e., baptism and communion), and (3) practicing church discipline. Throughout church history, church discipline has been an integral component of God-fearing churches.

However, a recent survey of pastors revealed that 55% of churches have never formally disciplined a member. Another 21% stated that, although the church had practiced church discipline, it was three or more years ago. Clearly, church discipline has fallen on hard times and is hardly viewed as a pillar of the church.

There are a variety of reasons churches do not practice church discipline. One reason, sadly, is ignorance. In order to alleviate the ignorance, my goal in this post is to provide a simple template for following church discipline as taught in Matthew 18:15–17.

Church Discipline Step 1: Confront the Sinner in Private (Matt 18:15)

This is the most basic (and most important) part of the church discipline process, and this should be happening in every church, every day! The private confrontation of another believer is an act of love which reveals concern about the damage sin can do in a fellow believer’s life. It is important that this confrontation take place in private so as to avoid gossip and unwarranted shame. Believers should attempt to mitigate the effects of sin, not exasperate them (cf. Prov 10:12; 1 Pet 4:8).

Matthew 18:15 does qualify the sin as “against you,” though many of the earliest manuscripts do not include these words, making it more generic. If the phrase “against you” is original, the example here targets a personal situation where the sin directly affects another believer. Regardless, Scripture is clear that believers have an unequivocal obligation to address general sins in the lives of their fellow believers (cf. Lev 19:17; Gal 6:1).

The whole point of church discipline is summed up in the phrase, “you have gained your brother.” The goal is not to feel better, to get back at someone, or to make them pay. The goal is to save a soul from disaster (cf. James 5:19-20).

Church Discipline Step 2: Confront the Sinner with Witnesses (Matt 18:16)

In the church discipline process, many times the first step resolves the issue. However, for those times when an obstinate believer refuses to accept the rebuke of a fellow believer, Jesus commands additional witnesses to get involved.

The most pertinent question is whether or not these witnesses need to have observed the original sin. Although the OT background of this principle may lead to that conclusion, that is not necessarily the case. There are many private sins which could be observable by only one individual (e.g., adultery), and the process of church discipline would still need to be carried out. I think it makes more sense to view the witnesses as establishing the validity of the charge during the second-step confrontation. Then they would be able to effectively give testimony to the entire church if necessary. Or, perhaps they would be able to wisely determine the innocence of the accused.

Church Discipline Step 2a: Involve the Elders

This is not mentioned in the text of Matthew 18:15-17, but given the shepherding authority of the elder (cf. Heb 13:7, 17), it is wise to involve the elders of the church. They would naturally either be involved in the second step, or else immediately after as part of the process of bringing the situation before the church.

Church Discipline Step 3: Bring it Before the Church (Matt 18:17a)

The third step in church discipline is to inform the whole church so that they can lovingly confront the sinning believer and encourage his or her repentance. Again, the goal is not to punish the sinner. The point is to save the brother from the certain destruction which comes from a sinful lifestyle.

Church Discipline Step 4: Remove the Individual from the Church (Matt 18:17b)

Assuming the sinning individual does not repent from his sin, after having been given these multiple opportunities for repentance, the sinner is to be removed from the fellowship of the church. For many people this is why church discipline is a difficult issue.

Removing someone from the church may not seem loving, but according to Paul it is a necessary protection for other believers. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor 5:6). The church is called to be holy (1 Pet 1:16). A little unrepentant sin in the congregation is a perverting influence that will corrupt and do irreparable damage.

The full instruction in Matthew 18:17 is that this individual is to be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, fellowship is to be broken off. You can interact with them on a superficial level, but there must be an acknowledgement that they do not have any right to the deep fellowship among Christians. It is a big deal! Paul describes it as delivering one over for the “destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:5).

Although this fourth step seems drastic, it is a necessary act. It demonstrates the severity of sin, both to the sinner as well as the observing congregation. Holiness is costly, and sin corrupts ubiquitously.

It should be noted that if an individual who is under the fourth step of church discipline repents and desires fellowship with the church, then they are to be lovingly embraced into the family (cf. 2 Cor 2:6-11).

Church Discipline Exceptions

Examining the breadth of instruction to the church in Scripture, there appear to be a couple exceptions to the steps laid out in Matthew 18:15-17. First, if the sin is a public matter and well known, then the church discipline process needs to move forward immediately without private confrontation (cf. 1 Cor 5:1-7). Similarly, if someone in the church is divisive, they are to be warned twice, and then removed from the assembly (Titus 3:10-11). These seem to be exceptions to the norm because of the nature of those situations. But normally, a private confrontation is the first step in church discipline.

Concluding Thoughts

In many churches, the practice of church discipline is neglected or ignored. Even if church discipline is affirmed as biblical, it is often viewed as an extreme option. Some pastors would rather ask someone to leave the church rather than to confront them over sin!

We need to remember that one of the major purposes of church discipline is the purity of the church. It is a process by which the sinning individual has an opportunity to repent. And, importantly, it is also an opportunity for the church to see the cost of sin and to fear God. Although it is sometimes messy, church discipline is an essential command given to the church by Christ.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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