Chapter 14 -- Discipline

As children of God we have to do with the Father of spirits, who trains us in His wisdom and grace. This Hebrews 12 describes. As part of the Church of God we are subject to the chastening of the Lord if, having done what is wrong, we fail to judge ourselves about it. Of this 1 Cor. 11:30-32 treats. In addition to this, the Word teaches us how we should behave towards those who, reckoned amongst God’s saints, are not walking as becomes such; and how, under certain conditions specified in the New Testament, the discipline of the house of God must be maintained, and exercised by the assembly. Indifference to the walk of saints we should seek to be watchful against. Indifference to the maintaining the purity of God’s house we should zealously avoid. And whilst Heb. 12 and 1 Cor. 11 show us how the Father, and the Lord, may deal with each of us as saints, other scriptures, to which we will presently turn, teach us how we should deal individually with, and how the assembly should act towards, those whose walk and conversation call for notice and discountenance.

Very solemn, then, is the subject on which we are entering. By it we are reminded of the holiness of the place—the house of God—of which all Christians form part. By it, too, we are constrained to remember what we all are by nature, who form part of God’s habitation in the Spirit; and if called to act towards any walking wrongly, to express disapproval of their ways, it surely becomes us, when doing it, to remember that the same evil nature is in us which has been manifesting itself in them. A spirit of self-judgment —considering ourselves (Gal. 6:1)—will befit us in such circumstances.

Now there are different ways of dealing with offending Christians. Under certain circumstances their brethren are to withdraw from them. Or the assembly may have to take the matter up and rebuke them. Or it may be called upon to resort to the severest measure, and put out the wicked person. Hence at the outset we can see, that excommunication is not the only means of discipline sanctioned by the Word. In truth, it is the last step that can be resorted to, and indicates that nothing else can be done with the offender.

At Thessalonica an evil habit had already manifested itself of what the apostle called walking disorderly— brethren working not at all, yet seeking temporal support from others in the assembly. Against such a habit the apostle writes very strongly, charging the saints to discountenance it, charging those guilty of it to discontinue it: We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which they1 received of us.” (2 Thess. 3:6.) Such were his words to the saints. “Now them that are such [i.e. disorderly] we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.” (v. 12.) Such were his words to the offenders. Both parties were to see that the question was a serious one; and as they owned Jesus as Lord, they were to obey the injunction given by His apostle. Eating the bread of others in idleness was no part of Christian teaching; nay, the contrary was enjoined. Exhortations to be liberal and brotherly to those really in need abound in the Word (Gal. 6:6; Eph. 4:28; 1 John 3:17; 3 John 8); but eating the bread of others in idleness the Word distinctly forbids. To eat their own bread was to be the aim and desire of such as had been doing the contrary—learning of the apostle, who could labour night and day at his trade, that he should not burden the saints. From all offenders after this sort Christians were to withdraw; and should there be one who did not obey the apostolic injunction communicated in writing, they were to note him, and not’ to keep company with him, that he might be ashamed. (v. 14.)

Again, writing to the Romans (16:17), he tells them to mark those that caused divisions and offences, or stumbling-blocks, contrary to the doctrine they had learned; and to avoid them. Divisions (dicostasivai) might arise amongst the saints—they were of the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:20)—but such as caused them were to be marked and turned from, the doctrine the saints had learned being the measure or standard by which they were to judge of and discern such. To avoid them (ejkklivnw) is the apostolic injunction; the same word used by Peter when exhorting us to eschew evil—ejkklinavtw. (1 Peter 3:11.) Now in neither of these cases does the apostle Paul direct the saints to resort to the severe measure of excommunication. Withdrawing from them is not putting them out. Their place at the table they would still have, but the saints were to mark their disapproval of such ways by withdrawing in ordinary Christian intercourse from them, in the hope, as in the case of the disorderly walker, that such might be ashamed, and learning the evil of their course, forsake it.

Again, Titus is taught how to deal with an heretical man. First he must admonish him; then after a second admonition, if that failed, he was to reject or have done with him—paraitou', the same word as is used in 1 Timothy when enjoining him to turn from profane and old wives’ fables (4:7), and to decline the younger widows (v. 11); for an heretical man does not of necessity mean one who denies the faith, but it is literally one who chooses his creed. Thus Paul, speaking of the Pharisees, to which party he had once belonged, called it the most straitest sect—ai{resi" (lit. heresy)—of our religion. (Acts 26:5.) The sect of the Pharisees was regarded as orthodox in their creed; but Paul uses of them that word which has been engrafted into our tongue, and with which most Englishmen are familiar, heresy. An heretical man, then, need not be one who denies any article of the Christian faith. He is an heretic who allows his mind or will to work in connection with doctrine, thereby producing or countenancing a sect; as we see from 1 Cor. 11:19, where the apostle, writing of sects, uses the word ai{resi". Such a man was to be avoided, if admonition failed to have its due effect upon him. Patience in dealing with him there was to be; but if a second admonition failed to lead him to reject his error, he was to be avoided; for such an one “is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.” (Titus 3:11.)

What care then there was to be on the part of all as to the walk and doctrine of each one! And how could it be otherwise, seeing that they were members of one body? Were they members of a denomination only, such questions might have been left to the leaders of the sect. Had the tie been simply a congregational one, the members might have cast all responsibility on the rulers amongst them; but since they were members of one body, the ways of each one concerned all, and none could afford to be indifferent to such questions, nor to overlook such disorders and sins. Brotherly love too would be shown, not in keeping company with such, but in withdrawing from them; for true love seeks the welfare of its object.

Graver matters, however, might occur, where the tacit though marked disapproval of the saints, manifested by withdrawing from a brother or sister, would not meet the case. For such the Word also provides, and points out that, under certain conditions, the assembly itself must act, either in rebuking or excommunicating.

Rebuking, or convicting (ejlegcw) we read of in 1 Tim. 5:20. This is called for in the case of such as sin, but where excommunication is not enjoined as the only way of dealing with the person. For there are cases where nothing but putting away from amongst Christians will be a sufficient dealing with the offender. There are other cases in which that extreme step is not enjoined. “Them that sin,” writes the apostle, “rebuke [or convict; i.e. demonstrate their guilt] before all, that the rest may fear.”

“Them that sin” (touV" aJmartavnonta"). It does not say, “Them that have sinned,” nor each time they have sinned. We all have sinned. We all do sin. But we are not all, each time we have failed, to be dealt with according to the directions here given to Timothy. A man might be overtaken in a fault as Galatians 6:1 describes. Such an one was to be restored by the spiritual in a spirit of meekness, they considering themselves lest they also be tempted. Rebuking before all would, in such be more than the Word warranted. Them that sin, we are told, are to be thus dealt with. Spiritual judgment may be needed to discern correctly about the case, and attention to the directions of Scripture will throw great light on the right treatment of cases as they come up. But where the assembly, judging the matter before God, sees that the individual who has failed comes under this category, being clearly not one who has been overtaken in a fault, rebuking before all is the injunction of God, that the rest may fear.

What a solemn duty this is which is cast upon the saints, that they who, if unwatchful, may be liable to rebuke themselves, are nevertheless to mark, as the Word directs, their distinct judgment and disapproval of a brother’s ways, and that before all! The shame of a public conviction may tell upon the person; but the special object set before us in 1 Tim. 5:20 is the profit of all, “that the rest also may fear.” With this before us, whilst carrying out the scriptural directions, there will be no disposition to point the finger of scorn at the failing one, but to deepen in our hearts the sense of what we are by nature, and the need of true watchfulness, lest rebuke be righteously meted out to us.

But more severe measures still are set before us; for sin must not be trifled with, and the assembly has not only to deal with offenders, but to clear itself. Hence, if the offence calls for it, excommunication must take place; not simply because a brother has sinned—for who would then be at the table at all?—but because the person has sinned in such a way, that nothing short of it will meet the gravity of the case. What holy ground we are on! We are in the house of God; so we can make no compromise with evil, nor treat it with indifference.

When then must this severe step be taken? 1 Cor. 5:11-13 gives clear indications: “I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Put away2 from among yourselves the wicked person” (toVn ponhroVn). “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be anew lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our pass-over is sacrificed: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (vv. 6-8.) A reference to Exod. 12:15-19 will help us to understand the allusion. On the first day of the feast they were to put out all leaven from their houses, and throughout the feast no leaven was to be found there. The old leaven was to be put out at the commencement of the feast, and no fresh leaven was to be allowed within their doors whilst it lasted. Now this whole dispensation is to us the feast of unleavened bread; hence no leaven is to be allowed among us in God’s house. If it comes in it must be put out.

Certain kinds then of evil, if manifested, called for the excommunication of the offender. But should this course be restricted only to such as have sinned in the manner specified in 1 Cor. 5:11? Surely not. The last verse will help us in this matter: “Put out from among yourselves the wicked person.” Now a man might be a wicked person who had sinned in other ways than in the specific manner above described. For instance, if a teacher brought not the doctrine of Christ—not confessing Jesus Christ coming in flesh (not of course the mere fact, but the person who is so characterized), such an one was not to be received amongst Christians. Even a woman was to shut her door against him, and not to bid him God-speed; i.e. hail or greet him with the ordinary friendly salutations; for any who did that would be partaker of his evil deeds. (2 John 7-11.) Would such an one have a place at the Lord’s table? John calls such the deceiver. Who would give the right hand of fellowship at the table to one so termed in the word of God? The Lord’s table could be no place for one who brought not the doctrine of Christ.

Again, if one brother had committed a trespass against another, and manifested a hardened spirit, which neither brotherly dealing nor the assembly’s admonition could subdue, he was to be unto the one against whom he had sinned as a heathen man and a publican. (Matt. 18:17.) Now a heathen man no Jew would admit to any ecclesiastical privileges (Acts 21:28, 29); with a publican, or tax-gatherer, no Pharisee or scribe would associate. Hence the offender’s position is clear, and what 1 Cor. 5:13 sets forth would be the only course open for the assembly. From how small a beginning such grave results might flow. The wicked person then would also be such an one as 2 John describes, and such an one too as Matt. 18:17 treats of; and at times it might help an assembly in deciding on a case if they asked themselves the question, “Has the one whose case is before us shown that he is a wicked person?” A Christian may have done wrong, and yet not be a wicked person. So also, if it be a question of rebuking, “Does the person whose case is in question come under the category of one who sins?”

Excommunication then, as the word implies, affects the person’s rights, which as a Christian he has in common with others. By it he is put away from the company of the saints at the table till such time as he repents; and the assembly, judging that he has repented, restores him to his privileges in common with them. What then is to be the character of the carriage of the saints toward such an one? 1 Cor. 5:11 is explicit, and 2 John 10 agrees with it. It is not only that the offender cannot be received at the table, but those who have had social intercourse with him on Christian grounds must abstain from it. Are there not instances where, from ignorance of Scripture rules, and perhaps a mistaken desire to manifest brotherly love towards the guilty one, the discipline of the assembly, so far as it relates to ordinary friendly intercourse, has been entirely set aside, to the detriment of the offender, and to the loss really of all? The action of the assembly becomes thereby enfeebled, and a party feeling is in danger of being encouraged. If saints looked at the question in this light, “Can I have ordinary Christian friendly intercourse with one whose presence at His table my Lord refuses to sanction?” would not the right way of conducting themselves towards such be seen at a glance?

With what power then is the assembly invested? “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt, 18:18.) What care surely should be taken in the exercise of such discipline, lest we do on earth what heaven cannot ratify. How careful was Paul in the exercise of apostolic power, wielding it when necessary (1 Tim. 1:20), but only when necessary. (2 Cor. 13:10.) As careful, yet as firm, should the assembly be in the exercise of Scriptural discipline if called to act against an offending person.

1 Some, as Lackmann and Tregelles, read, “Ye received.” No uncial MS. supports the authorized version.

2 “Therefore” it is generally agreed should be omitted; so also “therefore” and “for us” in verse 7. The omission of “therefore” in verses 7, 13, makes the language more energetic.