Discipline is sorely neglected in many churches. It is rarely discussed, hardly administered, and even the most public sins among members are ignored or tolerated. This is the result of spiritual indifference. However, congregations that shirk this responsibility will erode spiritually (“a little leaven leavens the whole lump”) and ultimately lose their standing with the Lord.
Just as God did not tolerate sin in the camp of physical Israel (Exodus 32; Numbers 25; Joshua 7), He will not tolerate sin in the camp of spiritual Israel. That is the clear lesson of the first recorded case of church discipline in the New Testament. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead to publicly demonstrate how seriously God views sin in the church (Acts 5:1-11). He expects us to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16).
There are several examples of church discipline in the New Testament. These examples provide us with much information concerning who is to be disciplined, how they are to be disciplined, and when they are to be disciplined. We will look at four of them: The Offender, The Immoral, The Idle, and The Divisive.
(1) The Offender. In Matthew 18, Jesus addressed a situation in which one brother sins against another brother. He set forth a three-step process. Each step is an escalation of member involvement: alone, one or two others, the church.
The first step is for the offended brother to confront the offender privately. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (v. 15). One can easily see the wisdom in a private confrontation. This minimizes the injury caused by the sin and lessens the likelihood of resentment or pride becoming a factor. The purpose of going to your brother is not to run him off, but to win him back. “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
The second step is for the offended brother to bring witnesses. Jesus said, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you” (v. 16). The witnesses are there to confirm the charge and to help plead with the offender. The principle of taking others along is rooted in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 19:15).
The third step is for the offended brother to inform the congregation. Jesus said, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (v. 17). At this point the private sin becomes public, and is intended to increase the pressure on the offender to seek reconciliation. If that does not work, he is to be ostracized. “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Though Jesus received both Gentiles and tax collectors, they were social outcasts. Just as Gentiles and tax collectors were shunned by their peers, the offending brother was to be shunned by his brethren. This is similar to other discipline commands: “avoid them” (Romans 16:17), “not to associate with” (1 Corinthians 5:11), “keep away from” (2 Thessalonians 3:6), “have nothing to do with him” (2 Thessalonians 3:14), “avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:5), “have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10), etc. All social contact was to cease.
This three-step process is dealing with a situation in which one brother sins against another brother. It is not the pattern for dealing with sin that is widespread or well known. Also note that the local church is to carry out its own discipline. There are no outside boards, councils, courts, synods, etc. that do it. Nor is it up to any one man (Diotrephes, 3 John 9-10). As autonomous units, each congregation is fully equipped to do this task.
(2) The Immoral. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul addressed a situation in the church at Corinth involving a sexually immoral member. He was having relations with his father’s wife (stepmother). Such conduct was “not tolerated even among pagans” (v. 1).
To say that they were tolerating behavior that even the pagans would find offensive is quite a charge. The Corinthian people were notoriously wicked. In fact, those who lived in drunkenness and debauchery were said to “live like a Corinthian.” Paul said that even the morally depraved pagans have higher standards than that!
The brethren were rebuked for their haughty attitude and told to expel the immoral member. Paul wrote, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (v. 2). The concept of removal is repeated throughout the chapter: “deliver this man to Satan” (v. 5), “cleanse out the old leaven” (v. 7), “not to associate with” (vv. 9, 11), “not even to eat with such a one” (v. 11), “purge the evil person from among you” (v. 13).
Though in Ephesus at the time, Paul boldly “pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing” (v. 3). The brethren were to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (v. 5). This language is similar to 1 Timothy 1:20, where Hymenaeus and Alexander were “handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” In both cases, the idea is that of being expelled from the domain of Christ (the church) and thrust into the domain of Satan (the world).
This text proves that it is not always wrong to “judge” others. Paul judged the member in Corinth to be in sin and commanded the congregation to act accordingly. Though Jesus condemned hypocritical judging in Matthew 7, He commanded righteous judging in John 7. His apostle did the latter.
The brethren were no longer to “associate” with the immoral member. He was to be shunned. To emphasize the degree of separation required, Paul said that they were “not even to eat with such a one” (v. 11). All social contact was to cease.
Church discipline is limited to erring children of God. It is not for sinners in the world. If that were the case, we “would need to go out of the world” (v. 10). It is for “anyone who bears the name of brother” (v. 11). “Anyone” is all-inclusive. No one is exempt. There are no exceptions for family members or close friends. This is similar to 2 Thessalonians 3:6, where Paul said “any brother.”
It is interesting to note that Paul did not address the immoral member. Rather, he directed his remarks to the congregation. That is because they were acting incorrectly in this matter. By their toleration of his sin, they had fallen into sin themselves.
According to 2 Corinthians 2, the command to discipline the immoral member was a “test” to see if they were “obedient in everything” (v. 9). They passed the test, and the man repented of his sin and was restored. Let that forever silence those who say that church discipline does not work!
1 Corinthians 5, which provides a wealth of information concerning church discipline, can be divided into four parts: need (vv. 1-2), procedure (vv. 3-5), reason (vv. 6-8), and sphere (vv. 9-13).
(3) The Idle. In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul addressed a situation in the church at Thessalonica involving “idle” members. They had stopped working to support themselves and became meddling freeloaders. It is clear that Paul considered such conduct disgraceful. “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (v. 11).
God has always expected man to work. Adam was placed in the garden to “work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), and the Jews were to “work” up to six days each week (Exodus 20:9). In fact, there was a saying among the Jews that “a man who does not teach his son a trade teaches him to steal.” That same work ethic should certainly exist in Christians (Ephesians 4:28; Colossians 3:23). There is no excuse for a child of God, who has the ability and opportunity to work, to be idle.
We are not told exactly why the members had stopped working. It may have been the result of a misunderstanding concerning the Lord’s return. Regardless, Paul had commanded them to work both in person (v. 10) and in a previous letter (1 Thessalonians 4:11; 5:14). He had also set the example by working to support himself while in their city (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8). That is what we call formative discipline.
Since they had not responded favorably to formative discipline, it was now time for corrective discipline. Paul wrote, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (v. 6). To “keep away from” means to not associate with or to shun. The NJKV says “withdraw from.” Rather than supporting an idle member who refused to work, the brethren were to “have nothing to do with him” (v. 14). All social contact was to cease.
The command to “keep away from” is similar to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17) and “not to associate with” (1 Corinthians 5:11) in the previous examples. Association was restricted in order to make the erring member “ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). However, they were not to “regard him as an enemy” (v. 15).
(4) The Divisive. In Titus 3, Paul addressed a situation in which a brother “stirs up division” (v. 10). He is not to be left alone or tolerated. Rather, he is to be warned “once and then twice” to turn from his divisive behavior. If that does not work, Christians are to “have nothing more to do with him.”
Before shunning the offender in Matthew 18, Jesus said that a serious effort was to be made to win him back. The offended brother was to confront him privately, then take one or two others, and then inform the church. We see the same general principle in this text. Withdrawal is not the first step, it is the last step. First, the divisive brother is to be confronted. Then he is to be confronted again. If there is still no repentance, then he is to be shunned.
The ESV says “have nothing more to do with him.” The NJKV says “reject,” the ASV says “refuse,” and the NCV says “avoid.” This command is similar to “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17), “not to associate with” (1 Corinthians 5:11), and “keep away from” (2 Thessalonians 3:6) in the previous examples. All social contact was to cease.
This action is necessary because “such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (v. 11). That underscores the seriousness of the situation. His soul is in peril and therefore drastic action is required (Mark 9:43-48). In Romans 16:17, Paul spoke of “those who cause divisions and create obstacles” with the same end result — “avoid them.”
Love is the motivating force behind discipline. We do it because we love God and want to obey His will, because we love the church and want to maintain its purity, and because we love the sinner and want him to repent. We should never discipline to “get even” with someone or to “pay them back” for past wrongs. Nor is it a personal attack on anyone. We do it to get the brother back, not to get back at the brother!
When love is our motivation, we will seek to “restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1) and never “regard him as an enemy” (2 Thessalonians 3:15). Though social contact must cease, our yearning for his repentance will never cease.
One can easily sense the love in statements like “if he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15), “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5), and “warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
There are additional motivations for discipline. For instance, we do it to deter other members who might commit the same sin and to prove ourselves faithful. However, no motivation is malicious or vindictive.
The many passages devoted to church discipline testify to its importance. Therefore, it is imperative that we know and obey the will of God in this matter. Will we pass the “test” (2 Corinthians 2:9)?