Chapter 12: Church Discipline: Obligation and Scope

Discipline should appeal strongly to the intellect; it is a call to sound judgment, a teaching of the mind to think soberly in order that Christian character be strengthened. Discipline is divine training that produces mental and moral health.

In the study of this subject it is necessary that we first interpret the terms we use, then examine the purpose of discipline, its different aspects, and finally its actual benefits.

The Meaning

The English word discipline primarily means to instruct, to teach, to tutor. In a secondary sense, it means that which is taught, the subject; for example, Greek is a good discipline. Any branch of knowledge may be called a discipline. In a tertiary way, it means also to impose punishment.

It is necessary for clarity of thought to constantly bear in mind the true biblical significance, a call to soundness of mind.

There are two important and relative words in He- brews 12:6, “chasteneth” and “scourgeth.” The first is akin to our English word “discipline,” and means to train and to tutor. The word “scourgeth” is much more intense and means to whip or flog. In the school of God, if we do not learn by tutoring, then we must learn the hard way, by flogging, and that is grievous both to us and to our heavenly Father.

The Purpose

The Lord has several purposes before Him in regard to this matter. Discipline must not always be considered as punishment; it may be that, but it may be otherwise. Let us consider four possible purposes of biblical discipline.

Instructive (I Tim. 1:20): In the case of Hymenaeus and Alexander, they were delivered unto Satan that they might learn not to blaspheme. Their heresy in all probability was in connection with the resurrection (II Tim. 2:17). Two solemn points are obvious in these two men, and failure in these resulted in corrective discipline. First, they rejected sound doctrine. Second, the adverbial conjunction at the beginning of chapter two suggests that they also had been negligent in regard to prayer. Paul writes, “I exhort therefore (because of what has happened to these two men) that prayers be made.”

The Word of God and prayer are preservatives in the Christian life, from both sin and chastisement.

The language of Paul here relative to the delivering unto Satan is the same that he uses of the incestuous man of I Corinthians 5, and there it seems synonymous with “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (I Cor. 5:13). Excommunication from the church places a guilty person in Satan’s domain, the world of which he is the god.

Preventative (II Cor. 12:1-7): The case of the Apostle Paul in this passage illustrates God’s care and protection toward His child. “Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given unto me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me.”

The Lord can use even the cruelty of Satan to accomplish His own purposes. God was not the source of “the thorn in the flesh,” but under His sovereign will He permitted it. Satan’s evil intent under divine control became a benefit in the life of the Apostle Paul.

Restorative (II Cor. 2:4-11): The case of the immoral man of I Corinthians 5 is a case in point for restorative discipline. He was excommunicated for his sin, but when truly repentant was restored to the fellowship of God’s people. It should be noted that the discipline against this erring brother was carried out in the name of the Lord Jesus, and that he was forgiven in the person of Christ. These facts prove that discipline must be executed by the authority of Christ and in complete accord with His character, and so must restoration.

Punitive (Acts 5:1-11): Ananias and his wife Sapphira died under the hand of God; certain in Corinth also suffered under the punitive measures of divine discipline (I Cor. 11:30).

In the case of the Corinthians there seems to have been two categories: First, “Many are weak and sickly.” This refers to physical illness, and probably implies the possibility of restoration from spiritual declension and recovery to health. Second, “And many sleep.” Here is divine discipline in its extreme form. The spiritual state of some in Corinth had deteriorated beyond recovery so the Lord removed them. He put His children to sleep, but prematurely, under His chastening hand.

The Aspects

Four different aspects of discipline are taught in the New Testament. If these are understood, it will be clear that there is a progressive application of discipline where there is a continuance in sin.

Self-discipline: Self-control is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23), and is to become a feature of Christian character (II Pet. 1:6). The word “temperance” used in these references would be better rendered “self-control.” The will, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, is to control our thoughts and our acts particularly toward others.

Self-control is illustrated for us in the practices of the athlete (I Cor. 9:25); but, of course, the Lord Jesus is the perfect example in this as in all other qualities. “When He was reviled, He reviled not again; … but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously” (I Pet. 2:23).

Individual discipline: By this is meant a discipline imposed upon another by the individual, and is in contrast to that imposed by a congregation. There are two passages which treat this subject, Matthew 18:15-18. II Thessalonians 3:6 and 14.

The wilful erring brother of Matthew 18 is to be treated as a Gentile and a publican, as a stranger and one disliked with whom there is no fellowship or service. It is difficult to accept these words as implying excommunication, especially when they are in the singular persons, “him” and “thee.”

This may be the Lord’s way of dealing with a maladjusted personality. There are brethren in Christ who do not understand their own limitations and who refuse to admit any incapabilities; they can do no wrong; at least, so they think. Where reproof is ignored and reconciliation refused, it is better to be a stranger at a distance than to live in constant conflict. If avoiding the clash of personalities produces peace, then let us have peace.

The disorderly brother mentioned in II Thessalonians is a brother out of rank (a military term is used here by Paul). He is doing things in his own way and marring the order and precision of the saints. In advocating individual discipline upon this erring brother, Paul does so in the name of the Lord Jesus, that is, by the authority of the Lord Jesus. Excommunication, church discipline, is executed in the name of the Lord. Here the command to discipline a brother by avoiding him, is given by the same authority. Any act of discipline upon another is grievous and should be employed only after admonition has failed, and then, in complete accord with the will of the Lord.

It is possible that the Apostle Paul had this aspect of discipline in mind in his austere attitude toward John Mark (Acts 15:38-41); if so, afterward it brought forth the peaceable fruits of righteousness (Col. 4:10. II Tim. 4:11).

When a brother fails to discipline himself and control his behaviour, he exposes himself to the individual discipline of others who withdraw from him and refuse him their companionship.

Divine discipline: This might be called direct discipline. In one respect, we are always under the training of our heavenly Father. “If ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (Heb. 12:8). Notwithstanding, when one refuses to impose self-discipline or does not heed the discipline of individual Christians, he may experience the direct discipline of the Lord, for He scourgeth every son whom He receiveth (Heb. 12:6).

There are two examples of this aspect of discipline from which we may learn spiritual lessons; they probably represent two stages of this phase of our subject. The Lord said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you (hath obtained you all by asking), that he might sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not, and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

The Lord actually gave Peter into the hands of Satan to teach him a lesson in humility, but in telling him, the Lord predicted a recovery and future usefulness.

The other example is that of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11, and that of the Corinthians in I Corinthians 11:30. There was no recovery for them; they were removed from the scene of testimony and taken prematurely to Heaven.

Church discipline: There are two forms of church dis- cipline, the internal and the external. Let us consider both.

/. The internal: There are three words which might indicate the extent of this phase of church control: “rebuke,” “admonish,” and “reprove.”

1. “Rebuke”: This word means to chide with or to set a weight upon; literally it means to put a person under pressure because of his misconduct. Those that sin are to be rebuked before all that others may fear (I Tim. 5:20). While, according to the immediate context, this may apply more directly to elders who fall, elsewhere it has a more comprehensive coverage. It is applied to vain talkers (Titus 1:10-14), to purloining servants (Titus 2:9-15), and has a place in general ministry.

2. “Admonish”: To admonish is to remind one of his former good behaviour and urge an adjustment in doctrine and practice to conform to those standards that have been forsaken. The disorderly brother is to be admonished (II Thess. 3:15). The heretic is to be admonished at least twice before finally being rejected (Titus 3:10). To reject in this sense means to deprecate, to avoid.

3. “Reprove”: This word means to convince a person of his error. John the Baptist reproved Herod over his illicit relations with Herodias. He actually silenced Herod on this matter, and that is why Herod feared and respected John.

It has been suggested that this is what Paul meant when he wrote to Titus about deceivers, especially from the circumcision, “Whose mouth must be stopped” (Titus 1:11). There is no better way of closing a man’s mouth than by quietly and firmly showing him how incorrect his talk is. He may outwardly resent this but knows it is right.

//. The external: It has been scripturally affirmed that basically there are two sins for which Christians may be excommunicated from the church, moral evil and doctrinal error. The two passages which respectively cover these are I Corinthians 5:1-13 and I Timothy 1:18-20. These two sins have been called leprosy of the feet and leprosy of the head. Inasmuch as the place of the leper, until the day of his cleansing, was outside the encampment of Israel, even so, the place of the moral leper is outside the fellowship of the saints. It is only through repentance and forgiveness that he is restored to the Lord and the confidence of the Lord’s people (II Cor. 2:4-11).

The Benefits

There are many benefits for the one upon whom the discipline is imposed. Thereby he may be arrested from dishonouring the Lord, from harming his own reputation, from distorting his personality. Through discipline, he may be brought back into fellowship with the Lord, and restored in spiritual vigour and testimony.

There are also benefits for those who know about the act of discipline. Biblical discipline results in several blessings.

Reverence: The act of extreme discipline upon Ananias and Sapphira resulted in a reverential fear of God among both saved and unsaved. We read, “Great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things” (Acts 5:11). Holy reverence was stimulated by this act of solemn and direct divine intervention.

Cleansing: The words of the Apostle Paul to the saints at Corinth certainly imply this: “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump” (I Cor. 5:6-7). The excommunication of the impure man cleansed the church of corruption.

Fear: Discipline is a strong deterrent against sin. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (I Tim. 5:20). This may imply being afraid of sin or being afraid of the penalty of sin. It matters little which, public discipline is a deterrent against evil among saints.

Forgiveness: Although the Christian is in himself the example of full forgiveness, he needs to be constantly taught that he is to forgive even as Christ forgave him (Col. 3:13). Of the incestuous person mentioned in I Corinthians 5 and II Corinthians 2, Paul wrote, “Ye ought rather to forgive him” (II Cor. 2:7).

Renewal: The word of our Lord, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee thou hast gained thy brother” (Matt. 18:15). To gain a brother is not to triumph over him, but rather to win him back to all that is involved in Christian fellowship and friendship.

Fruitfulness: What is said of direct divine discipline, undoubtedly is true in every respect where it is accepted as from the Lord. “Afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb. 12:11). One must experience godly exercise in order to derive real benefit from any aspect of discipline.

May each one learn from the Word of God how he ought to behave himself in the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth!

At the close of a worship meeting one Lord’s Day morning, an elder ministered on the standard of morals among Christians. After his short address, with broken voice, he told the congregation of the fall of his own daughter and her fiance. The young couple were disciplined and married. For over six months that elder took no public part in the church. Eventually, the young couple were restored to fellowship. Some months later when the congregation was giving gifts to another couple about to be married, they duplicated the gifts and on the same occasion showed their full forgiveness by remembering the first couple as well.

Tests on This Chapter

1. What does the English word discipline mean?

2. Define the word scourge.

3. Name at least three purposes of discipline.

4. Give an example of preventative discipline.

5. Give an example of corrective discipline.

6. What is meant by individual discipline?

7. What is meant by individual discipline?

8. What form may internal discipline take?

9. Name two aspects of church discipline.

10. What sins require excommunication from the church?

11. What are some of the benefits of discipline?