“Do you not judge those who are within the church?” (1 Cor. 5:12)
The honest answer to this question by most churches today would have to be, “No, we don’t.” There has been a wholesale decline in clear action by local churches in judging or disciplining the conduct of its members. The temper of the times is against it. Family discipline has also declined. Permissiveness reigns. Society wants tougher measures taken against people it defines as criminals, but it is very tolerant of immorality, drunkenness, lying, and greed, all of which are criminal in the eyes of God.
Scandals have plagued the church among highly visible leaders, to the detriment of the church’s testimony. Misconduct and unholy living is prevalent among the members also. In Biblical times these same issues also were a problem. First Corinthians 5 records the Apostle Paul’s criticism of the church for failing to discipline an immoral member. He said that a believer should not so much as eat with anyone named a brother who is a fornicator or covetous or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner (1 Cor. 5:11).
Discipline is not by any means restricted to the idea of public correction or punishment. The essential idea is that of training in character or practice, or developing by instruction and counsel, or correcting where necessary. The word
discipline comes from the same root word as disciple: meaning one who follows and imitates. It has two aspects: (1) Instruction in behavior and (2) action to change unacceptable behavior or to encourage a personal adjustment. One cannot think of raising children properly without discipline. How can one develop skill in music, sports, or even the use of time without it? How then could a church shepherd, train, and lead the people properly without discipline?
The pattern for this is found in God’s own example when He tells His children, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him. For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:5,6). God’s discipline is a mark of His love. He chastens His people for their profit, to bring them to righteous living (Heb. 12:10,11). He has the right and the need to do this. The results of chastening depend upon the response and cooperation of those who receive it.
How does this apply to the church? Some might say, “It may be fine for God
to discipline, but why does the church have this right?” The answer is that it has the right because God delegates that right to the Church as His representative on earth. The Lord said in Matthew 18:17,18, “Tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer. Truly I say unto you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in Heaven.” This means that God will recognize Scriptural action by the church as binding in authority in His sight. To be lawfully disciplined by the church is to be disciplined by God. Therefore, any such action is a solemn thing. If the church fails to exercise discipline and neglects holiness in the sight of God, it will forfeit the blessing of God. Read Joshua 7, the story of Achan, in this regard, as well as 1 Corinthians 11:30,31.
Degrees Of Discipline In The Church
One cannot effectively discipline anyone who is not a member of the community, in this case the assembly. It is not the will of God for any believer to fail to be a part of some local fellowship. If the person is a part of the fellowship, he or she is subject to those regulations which are consistent with the Word of God. This is one reason for keeping the Word in the center of any discussion about misbehavior. The issue should always be what God commands in His Word. This will make it more difficult for people to claim that they ought to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29), which is a verse often used completely out of context.
The levels of discipline, increasing in severity, are as follows:
1. Discuss (Matt. 18:15-17). Of course we ought to begin in a conciliatory and calm way to discuss issues with anyone. Impulsive and poorly planned encounters, without much prayer, are more likely to produce sparks than understanding. The goal is always to achieve peace and righteousness, not prolonged contention and ill will. That is why this passage prescribes meeting first alone with a person, then with another person taken along, before ever bringing the issue before a larger company.
2. Exhort (Tit. 1:9-11). When people are insubordinate or troublesome they have to be confronted. Deal with them personally using the Word of God. Such people need to be convicted of their wrong doing by the Scriptures.
3. Warn (2 Tim. 2:14; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:11,12). This is very close to exhortation. It is intended to curtail problems such as prolonged interpersonal arguments, unruly or disorderly conduct, and even including personal laziness.
4. Rebuke, especially public rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20; Tit. 1:13). If people, even elders, continue in sin without repentance, they must be stopped. Disgraceful conduct cannot be tolerated in the church. If it continues, despite all efforts, then it must be confronted with a public statement. Do not needlessly publicize a matter when a person has fully repented and is cooperating with the elders.
Avoid (2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Cor. 5:11; Rom. 16:17; Tit. 3:10). The purpose of shunning is to help another person see that he or she is out of fellowship with God, and therefore out of fellowship with His people. There is a tendency for friends to sympathize with a wrongdoer in order to show love. This certainly is not in agreement with God’s attitude in hiding His face from the unrepentant, sinning believer. It is better to show love by firmly isolating someone from the comfort of fellowship than to appear to side with them against those applying the necessary action. The objects of such strict action are people that are presumptuously disobedient, argumentative, troublemakers, and creators of division in the church. Shunning is very close to expulsion.
6. Excommunicate or expel from the church (1 Cor. 5:13). This may have the effect of delivering them over to the dominion of Satan (1 Tim. 1:20; 1 Cor. 5:5). This is the church’s most extreme action of discipline. The man or woman who faces excommunication ought to fear. The question of taking this final step should only be decided after exhausting all other remedies, and after much prayer has been made by the elders on behalf of the rebellious believer.
Shepherds must be careful to establish the truth of any charges against a believer. By the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established (2 Cor. 13:1). We must be sure of the facts by either personal observation or verified testimony. Mere suspicion is not enough. We must also be sure that the facts fit the Scripture we use in administering discipline.
Manner Of Discipline In The Church
How we administer discipline is just as important as the discipline itself. Harsh, impulsive, abrupt actions or words can wound. If discipline is done rightly, there is less cause for criticism. It may not always be justified in view of the facts, but it is still sad to hear the words, “It was not done in love.” It has been said that the
goal of all discipline, including that of God, is restoration. Indeed, He has been called the God of recovery. That has been a source of comfort to millions. If this is our object too, then we ought to act in a manner best suited to produce recovery.
Galatians 6:1 sets the tone for this section, in which it is stated, “Brethren, if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself lest you too be tempted.” We note that there is a requirement of spirituality needed for the work of restoring an erring brother. Discipline with the spirit of gentleness or meekness in the approach. We must remember that but for the grace of God there might I be. Any discipline will be more acceptable if given with this humbling thought.
Partiality or unfairness, which treats people with the same problem in a different way, is not acceptable. Even children are extremely sensitive to unfairness. The Lord Jesus was thoroughly impartial in all his dealings. Whether rich or poor, influential or not,
all people should be treated in an equitable way. James 2:1,9 applies this principle to someone fawning over a wealthy person who may come to the assembly. No partiality is acceptable in disciplinary matters. The families of the prominent should be treated no differently from other church families when discipline is administered.
Patience, firmness, steadfastness, and a constructive approach are important in dealing with misbehavior. This does not imply weakness. One must remember both the goodness and the severity of God (Rom. 11:22). To confront, rebuke, and even expel is tough action. That is why it is avoided by most leaders. They would prefer to allow errors, and leave it to the Lord to discipline others. The great phrase, “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) conveys the two things necessary. Being gentle, patient, and not quarrelsome is commended (2 Tim. 2:24). Forbearance and forgiveness is set forth in Colossians 3:13. If this is our manner, the results will more likely be favorable. Such attitudes melt, rather than harden the hearts of offenders.
Subjects Of Discipline In The Church
Everyone in the church must remember that we are all subject to the discipline and training of God. We are part of a family, not individualists. Because we are, or ought to be, a close-knit family, we must care enough about each other to correct the kind of behavior that is harmful. When people are in need, some believers seem to have little trouble in asking for help. When they behave in a questionable way, they are more likely to reject efforts to correct their path. The wise and discerning leader seeks out those who stray. The shepherds must seek the wandering sheep … if they truly care about the flock.
Who should be a part of this local fellowship that is under both the Great Shepherd and His undershepherds? In the general world of Christianity, virtually any vague profession of faith in Jesus is accepted as adequate. Often people are admitted without having to give a clear testimony of their salvation. The desire for members, and therefore contributors, is so great that a mere desire to join the church is accepted. A higher standard would be to make sure that only those people who belong to Christ will be a part of the local assembly. The church can only properly discipline those who are explicitly in fellowship. Therefore, discipline in the church begins by determining who is committed to the Lord, the church, and its leadership.
The Biblical requirement is to receive all whom Christ has received (Rom. 15:7). How can we know whom Christ has received? Do they confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead (Rom. 10:9)? Do they appear to be His true followers, not just people mouthing certain familiar words? Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom (Matt. 7:21). Have they obeyed the Lord in believer’s baptism, as He commanded (Matt. 28:19)? Remember that the section in 1 John 3:4-10 ends with this statement, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: any one who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” A person’s life should make this obvious. Then we ought to be able to discern who is a believer and who is not.
Elements of essential doctrine that true believers have historically held, whatever their religious affiliation, should be accepted by those in fellowship. These doctrines include the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, the inspiration and authority of the Word of God, the reality of heaven and hell, and salvation by grace without works, through the finished work of the Lord Jesus on the Cross.
What else should be expected? True fellowship with God depends on walking in the light. If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Fellowship with other believers is also conditional on walk. When a person is under the discipline of God or when he does not walk in the truth or the light, he should not be received into fellowship until the matter is resolved. We ought to assist in restoring a wayward believer as much as we can. However, allowing shallow repentance or a light handling of serious questions invites sinful repetition in the future.
Conclusion And Application
Discipline carried out in a godly manner by a local church has a refining or purifying effect. When we grieve the Holy Spirit by neglecting discipline, we hinder open lines of communication with God. The Lord of the Church should not need to come to the assembly and call for repentance as He does in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. The Lord calls us to a high standard of holiness by holding us accountable for lives that will not be a discredit to Him or His Church. Discipline benefits the saints individually, who are the subjects of disciplinary action, by bringing them back to a walk that pleases God.
The Judgment Seat of Christ is the ultimate place of accountability for life and service for all believers (2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Cor. 3:12-15). Even though our sins have been paid for and washed away in the blood of Christ, it does not mean that we can avoid having our life and service evaluated. Judgment begins at the house of God, we are told in 1 Peter 4:17. God denounced the spiritual leaders in both the Old and New Testaments for being lax in the exercise of discipline among His people. He repeatedly judged the unfaithfulness and sin of even ordinary people who professed faith in Him. If we are to be a healthy body of believers it is critical that we exercise discipline in the church.
Lesson 10 The Discipline Of The Church
1. Define discipline (as you understand it from the lesson notes) as it applies to the church.
2. What happened in the church in Corinth, according to 1 Corinthians 5, that caused Paul’s rebuke?
3. What is God’s motivation and goal in disciplining His children (Heb. 12:6,10)?
4. Who should be received into fellowship (Rom. 15:7; 14:1)?
5. Who should not be received into fellowship (2 John 9,10; Gal. 5:19-21)? When should we refuse to fellowship with another believer (1 Cor. 5:11; Rom. 16:17; Tit. 3:10,11)?
6. How can the church avoid chastening from God or the withholding of His blessings (1 Cor. 11:31; 5:12,13; Rev. 2:5,14-16; 3:15,16,19)?
7. What do you learn from the story of Achan in Joshua chapter 7?
8. Various degrees of discipline are indicated in the verses below. Complete the chart under the two headings.
a. 1 Thess. 5:14a
b. 2 Thess. 3:10-14
c. 1 Tim. 5:20
d. 1 Cor. 5:11,13
9. Opinion: Can you remember any church disciplinary action of which you were personally aware? What was your reaction to it?
10. Do you have any unanswered questions on this lesson?