Discipline In The Church

Discipline In The Church

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas. He is also visiting Professor of New Testament at Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:15-20


It is exceedingly rare to find a subject upon which the entire evangelical community agrees, outside of the basic facts of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Within that community of believers there are those who are premillenarians and there are amillenarians. In policy there are congregationalists, episcopalians, presbyterians, and others.

There are non-charismatics and charismatics. There are intellectually-minded believers who love Biblical doctrine, and there are emotionally stirred believers who love “devotional” truth. There are Calvinists and, sad to say! Arminians. And this is not to mention that we frequently disagree over such questions as civil disobedience, capital punishment, divorce, abortion, evolution, and other ethical matters.

There is one thing, however, upon which almost all of us agree. It is that the church today stands in desperate need of spiritual growth. The standards of life found in too many of our churches are not distinguished by Biblical holiness. Say what one will about the Puritans, they had yearnings for holy living that mark them out as a different breed from their spiritual descendants. “I have had a deep conviction for many years,” the godly Bishop Ryle wrote some time ago, “that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country.”1 The bishop wrote about Great Britain, but the same condition surely prevails here.

Bishop Ryle traced the lack of holiness to politics, controversy, party-spirit, and worldliness, and these are important conditions of the present spiritual malaise. I would like to suggest another problem, the problem of the neglect of church discipline. We have lived through a half-century of racing apostasy in many of the large religious bodies that profess the faith of Christ. The apostasy has been able to proceed at such a rapid pace largely because the believers, when the ugly departures from the faith first raised their heads like serpents in gardens of Eden, did nothing about it. Failing to exercise Biblical discipline, they have had to learn by sad experience the truth of the apostolic admonition, “A little leaven leaveneth the WHOLE lump” (Gal. 5:9). There is hardly a major denomination in the country that is not a living illustrations of this. And the unfortunate experience has been repeated in countless individual local churches. If discipline had been exercised at the first signs of departure from the faith, the purity of the body might have been continued.

And this is all the more remarkable in the light of the great emphasis that the Scriptures place upon church discipline. In addition to the present passage, there are important contributions to the subject in Romans sixteen, 1 Corinthians five, 2 Corinthians two, Galatians six, 1 Thessalonians five, 2 Thessalonians three, 1 Timothy five, Titus one and three, Hebrews thirteen, 2 John, 3 John, and others. The very volume of Biblical instruction on the point is itself a strong and vivid warning to the church of the importance of discipline. It is, therefore, with a solemn sense of the gravity of the topic that we turn to Matthew eighteen, verses fifteen through twenty, which contains the initial teaching of the New Testament on the subject.

The Procedure of the Offended

The private rebuke (18:15) . The Lord has just warned the world not to offend one of the little ones who believe in Him, promising to such as do a judgment far worse than physical death (cf. v. 6). He has further admonished them not to “despise” one of them, for they are the objects of angelic care, of the Good Shepherd’s seeking and saving love, and of the Father’s determinate will that they not perish (cf. vv. 10-14).

But, is it not possible that the one who offends one of the little ones is a believer? Why yes, of course. In that case, then, great care must be taken not to treat them as reprobates. The believers have responsibilities of discipline toward erring brothers. That seems to be the connection between the preceding section and this new one. Here is the way we are to respond when wronged by a fellow believer.

The first step in response to a trespass against a believer is the private conference between the two parties involved. As the Germans put it, the discussion is to take place uter vier Augen (lit., under four eyes)! This is excellent advice, for it is so easy for the offended to sin by gossip and to fall by rejoicing over a brother’s misfortune. As Paul puts it, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye who are SPIRITUAL restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, CONSIDERING THYSELF, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Thus, the rebuke is to be private. And the subject of it is the believer’s sin, not our suffering by virtue of it.

It should be private, too, because it will be more likely at this stage to win the brother over. That would seem to be the point of the remainder of the verse (cf. Jas. 5:20).

The plural rebuke (18:16). If the private rebuke does not produce repentance, the Lord instructs the offended one, “take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” The order is based upon the principle set forth in Deuteronomy 19:15, a passage referred to several times in the New Testament.

The public rebuke (18:17) . Finally, if there is a refusal to listen, then the matter must be referred to the church. The word “church” must refer in this instance to the local church, since the informing of the invisible, universal church is beyond the capacity of the offended and the witnesses!

The use of the term “church” is the second time we have seen it in the Gospel of Matthew (cf. 16:18). In what sense is the church to be apprised of the matter? In a public meeting? Privately in the presence of the elders alone, as representatives of the church? The Lord does not specify, and we can only reason on the basis of the general teaching of the New Testament. For example, when at the so-called Jerusalem Conference a decision was finally reached over the question of circumcision and salvation, Luke speaks of it in this way, “Then it pleased THE APOSTLES AND ELDERS (note the order), with the WHOLE CHURCH (note the subordinate relationship suggested here), to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas…” (Acts 15:22). It would seem from this that decisions in the local church were reached by the apostles and elders, and that they were made known to the whole church, who identified themselves with the mind of their leaders. In other words, the “authorities,” to use Hendriksen’s word,2 took the lead. In my opinion, our Lord’s words, “tell it unto the church,” mean that the matter is to be referred to the elders for their considerations.

The decision, having being reached, should be made known publicly to the church, in order that there may be unity of action against the of-fender by the whole body. The rebuke here, then, is an official one. The penalty is expulsion from assembly privileges. Expulsion from assembly privileges is not excommunication from membership in the local church. That would be contrary to Biblical teaching, and out of harmony with the doctrine of the security of the believer. It would imply that one may be saved and then lost. No, the expulsion is from the privilege of partaking of the elements at the Lord’s Supper, the visible representation of the unity that exists in the body of Christ.

That the offender should be treated “as an heathen man and a tax collector” does not contradict Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” The latter passage has to do with the first step in discipline, the personal one.

It should be emphasized that the spirit in which the discipline is to be carried out is the spirit of love, with the prayer upon our lips,

“Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
In living echoes of Thy tone.”

The passage in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15 is an important parallel passage, and it must form a part of any complete doctrine of discipline. The “withdraw” of verse six is defined by the two terms of verse fourteen, “note that man” and “have no company with him.” Apparently involved in the first word, “note,” is a public naming of the individual who is being placed under discipline. The second word, “have no company with,” does not mean to ignore the brother, but rather to refuse to have free intercourse with him, which surely includes the Lord’s Supper. It occurs again in 1 Corinthians 5:9, 11, where it is strengthened by further prohibition.3

Finally, the personal appeals, suggested by the words of the apostle in verse fifteen, characterize the continuing attitude of the believers toward the brother under discipline. Restoration is always the aim of discipline, not excommunication from the fellowship (cf. v. 14, “that he may be ashamed”).

The Power of Discipline in the Church

The Godward side (18:18). The opening words of verse eighteen, “verily I say unto you,” indicate that the Lord regards discipline to be a

We come here again to the “binding” and “loosing” of matters upon the earth (cf. 16:19). The terms, as we have noted previously are technical terms used by the Jews for the teaching of the rabbis. To bind was to forbid, and to loose was to permit (cf. 23:4).

The plural “ye” (cf. 18:1), in contrast to the singular of the preceding verses, directs attention to the body of believers in their disciplinary pronouncements. The point of the verse is that the judicial decrees of the church, when carried out in harmony with the directions from the Word of God, have the support of heaven. Hendriksen comments, “Note in verse 18 and again in verse 19 the combination ‘earth… heaven.’ In both cases there is perfect harmony between that which by a conscientious church is done on earth and that which takes place in heaven, the former action preceding the latter.”4

There is a beautiful illustration of the application of this procedure in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5. The case is that of the person guilty of the wicked sin of incest. The Corinthian church had failed to take disciplinary action; in fact, they had continued in their proud condition (cf. vv. 1-2). The Apostle Paul, in view of their failure to exercise discipline, writes that he had in spirit carried out disciplinary action. His words are, “For I verily, as absent in body but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath done this deed” (v. 3). Then, in words reminiscent of the Matthaean passage, he speaks of being gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus (cf. Matt. 18:20), “with the power of the Lord Jesus Christ,” words closely related to the promise of Matthew 18:20, “there am I in the midst of them.” It would appear from a comparison of the two passages that Paul was thinking of the direction of our Lord in Matthew 18 as he in spirit acted out the disciplinary requirements of the Lord. He speaks of gathering in His name and of His presence in power. And he writes as if he thinks that heaven stands behind the action of delivering the offender to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. To sum up, when discipline is necessary, it should be carried out (1) in the name of the Lord, (2) with all assembled together, and (3) the assembly may count on the power of the Lord being present for the effectiveness of the disciplinary judgment.

The manward side (18:19). This statement merely emphasizes the human side of the carrying out of discipline. Agreement on earth in harmony with the Word finds support in heaven. The Father assumes responsibility for the effectiveness of the discipline.

The Presence of the Lord the Source of Power

The twentieth verse has often been thought to be a definition of a local church. That is, when two or three are gathered together in the name of the Lord, there is a church, since He is present. But, is this really true? The local church is a congregation of professing believers in Jesus Christ, meeting regularly in one locality under the oversight of elders, with deacons, and gifted men, observing the ordinances and continuing in the apostles’ doctrine.

The twentieth verse, in the light of the context, has to do with church discipline. The Lord is simply emphasizing the fact that, when the church meets to carry out discipline according to the requirements of the Word of God, they may count upon the support of heaven in the judgments that are pronounced.

There may, of course, be some general applications of the verse that are appropriate to informal gatherings of believers for study of the Word of God, for prayer, or for worship, but the principle point has to do with church discipline.

The text certainly represents the proper attitude of the church when they gather on Sundays to meet for ministry and for worship. We do not meet in the name of any human leader or minister of the Word; we meet in the name of the Lord, that is, under His direction and protection and with the impartation of His strength and consolation.

The expression, “there am I in the midst of them,” is a beautiful promise. It suggests that, regardless of our feelings, if we meet in His name, He is there. His presence does not depend upon our attitude, but simply upon whether we meet “in His name.” “The Jews,” Tasker points out, “believed that the Shekinah or divine presence rested upon those who were occupied in the study of the law. Christians are here given the assurance that Christ is present with those who are diligently concerned with understanding His mind and will.”5


First of all, we mention again the relevance of this teaching for the church today. If we are to continue in the faith, discipline must be exercised when departures from the faith, either in doctrine or practice, appear among the saints. It constitutes a warning for the saints also, emphasizing that they must keep close to the Lord, cleaving to Him and His Word, that we may not have need of discipline.

H. A. Ironside has told the story of a man who wanted to hire a coachman. He lived in a mountainous region, and the road to his house ran along a steep precipice. A number of men applied for the position.

To one of them he said, “Tell me, are you adept at handling fractious horses?”

“Yes, I am,” he said.

“Can you drive a six-horse team?” “Yes.”

“How near can you drive to the edge of the cliff without going over?” “I have a steady hand and my eye is pretty true; I can get within a foot of it and not go over.”

“You step outside,” said the man, and he called another and asked him the same questions. He said, “I am an expert at handling horses; I can drive right along the edge and not go over.”

“Step outside,” and he called another and asked the questions.

“If you want a man to drive on the edge of the precipice,” said the last man, “you do not want me. When I drive, I keep as far away from the edge as I can.”

“You are the man I want. I will take you,” said the employer.

Dr. Ironside added, “Christian, be careful of the edge of the precipice.”6 That precipice is both a moral and doctrinal one, we might add. Finally, let us never forget in all our talk about discipline that the aim of discipline is not judgment, but (1) restoration to fellowship (cf. Gal. 6:1; 2 Cor. 2:5-11), (2) the maintenance of the purity of the church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:6-8; Gal. 1:6-9; 3 John 9), and (3) the maintenance of the testimony of the church to the world within (cf. Acts 5:11) and without (cf. 1 Thess. 4:9-12).

May the Lord help us, as individual believers and as an assembly of the Lord, to keep the importance of holiness in thought and life before us constantly.

1 J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Westwood, NJ, n.d.), p. vii.

2 Hendriksen, p. 701.

3 J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on Epistles of St. Paul from Unpublished Commentaries (London, 1904), p. 134.

4 Hendriksen, p. 702.

5 Tasker, p. 177.

6 H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York, 1946), pp. 165-66.