Some Examples of Discipline
It will be helpful in our study of church discipline to look at some examples in the New Testament. There are not many such examples. For one thing, we do not have a detailed history of the early church and what examples are given are to reinforce the teaching on this subject. Possibly there was not much need for discipline in those apostolic days when the Christians were often persecuted. Persecution does have a purifying effect.
Ananias and Sapphira
The case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) was exceptional in several ways. Though it affected the church and concerned church members, yet it was carried out by Peter alone. As an apostle, through the Holy Spirit, he had unusual discernment to recognize the insincerity and deception of that couple. Today we are not able to discern motives or intentions, though we may have some suspicions. If the secret was well-hidden, we would more likely have commended such a couple for generous giving! The penalty also was unusually severe. It was an act of God rather than of Peter and so was a warning to all believers throughout the history of the Church. God looks for sincerity and honesty in our giving.
Differences between Brethren
In Matthew 18:15-20 our Lord tells what steps should be taken in regard to differences between brethren. This is an illustration rather than an example of discipline. When a brother feels he has been wronged or sinned against by another, he should first go directly to the offender. If he makes this approach with love and in humility, certainly not in a belligerent manner, he may be able to clear up the misunderstanding, effect a reconciliation and win over his brother. Verse 19 makes it clear that if the two agree and are brought into harmony, then their prayers will be answered. If that fails, the offended one should make a second approach in company with one or two others as witnesses and arbitrators. If these two or three effect a reconciliation, because they gather in the name of Christ, then there will be a realization of the Lord’s presence (v. 20). (Of course, verses 19-20 do have a much wider application but we should not overlook the immediate context). If the offender refuses to listen, then the third step is to take the matter to the local church, no doubt through the elders. If this third step fails, the church must act in discipline. Whatever the first offence may have been, there has now been added to it the sin of obstinacy, if not of rebellion (cf. 1 Samuel 15:23). For this he is to be treated as an unbeliever, that is, he is to be deprived of the privileges of church fellowship. Yet there is also here an implication that some effort should be made to bring him back to repentance.
Hymenaeus and Alexander
Paul refers to two men who had been disciplined (1 Timothy 1:19-20). These men, Hymenaeus and Alexander, had made shipwreck of their faith because they had rejected the promptings of conscience. Careless conduct often leads to doctrinal error. (Note how Paul links “faith” and “conscience” in 1 Timothy 1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3-4). Evidently there was a group of persons involved in some kind of sin. These two men were singled out, either because they were leaders of that faction, or because they went further and blasphemed. Presumably it was one of these two, Hymenaeus, who is mentioned in 2 Timothy 2:16-18. For these verses it would seem they were guilty of “godless and foolish discussions which upset the faith of others.” They also erred in teaching that the resurrection was already past (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12).
Paul wrote that he had delivered them unto Satan. Commentators do not agree on the meaning of this. The same expression is used in 1 Corinthians 5, which we shall consider later. A.G. Nute writes: “It might suggest adversities supernaturally inflicted, or simply excommunication. The phrase would then describe the removal of the, person from the sphere where God rules, to that where Satan has sway.” It is remedial discipline so that these men, through it, might learn not to blaspheme. It certainly does not mean a loss of salvation. Whether or not these men were truly the Lord’s, they had named the name of the Lord, at least as professing believers, and therefore should have turned away from iniquity (2 Timothy 2:19). The experience of Job may throw some light on the meaning of this phrase. Satan complained that God protected Job by putting a hedge around him (Job 1:10). Then God permitted Satan to attack Job within the limitations set by God. Could we say that Job was “delivered unto Satan”? While discipline was not the primary purpose in Job’s trial, yet he did learn more about his wrong ideas of God and about the sinfulness of his own heart.
Another hint as to the meaning of “delivered unto Satan” may be gleaned from our Lord’s words in Luke 22:31, “Satan demanded to have you (plural), that he might sift thee (singular) like wheat.” Satan wanted the bars lowered so that he could attack and tempt the apostles. In the case of Peter it led to his denial of the Lord (vs.34), but in Judas it resulted in betrayal (John 13:27). God used this attack of Satan as a sifting experience so far as Peter was concerned for it removed from him the chaff of self-confidence and boasting.
In his third epistle, the Apostle John mentioned a man who needed to be disciplined. In the unknown church to which John referred there was a man named Diotrephes. This church leader was evidently a domineering man who liked to put himself first, one who “affects primacy” over the church. He refused to recognize the authority of John as an apostle and spoke evil against him. He asserted such power in that church that other elders seemed powerless to deal with him. John wrote that if he went there, he would bring up this man’s deeds. We are not told the outcome, but we may presume that John’s presence and authority did enable the elders to deal with that man.
No doubt the outstanding example of discipline is what we find in 1 Corinthians 5. When Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth he was greatly perturbed by what he heard had happened there. He was specially shocked that a case of gross immorality was being tolerated. In those days the city of Corinth was notorious for vice and immorality (6:11). Yet in the church there was a case of immorality at which the heathen people would have raised their eyebrows. One of the members was living with “his father’s wife.” Apparently this referred to the stepmother and possibly the father may have been dead or divorced. Such an incestuous relationship was forbidden under the law (Leviticus 18:8) and certainly called for firm discipline in the church.
Paul strongly criticized the church for being puffed up with pride, for being arrogant when they should have been mourning over such a situation in their midst. The guilty man’s conduct was inexcusable, but he might have been restrained had there been a more spiritual attitude in the church. Let it be emphasized here that when such sins occur it is not the time for self-righteous condemnation of the offender. Rather we ought to grieve over our own failure. Believers do not suddenly fall into such depths of sin. There must have been a gradual departure from the Lord first. Those who are spiritual ought to have detected those first signs of weakness so as to help a weak brother. If the Christians in Corinth had not been so occupied with their party rivalries, their petty jealousy, strife and pride, they would have been more ready to help one another and to pray for one another. They should have mourned, not only over the erring brother, but also over their own laxity and carnality.
Paul reminded them that their boasting was not good (vs.6) for they had nothing of which to boast. The leaven of malice and evil needed to be removed (vs.8). They needed to deal with their own carnal ways which like leaven were having a permeating effect on the whole church. Not only did they need to discipline the guilty man, they needed some purging in their own lives.
A threefold authority was invoked for disciplining that guilty member. First, the apostle Paul, the one who started the work in Corinth, had already made his decision on the basis of the information he had received. Second, the church was to gather together with regard to this matter. While the elders would no doubt have to verify the facts and make their decision, the discipline was imposed by the assembled church, acting as if the Apostle were physically present. Third, the authority of the Apostle and of the local church was reinforced by the authority of Christ. He is the Head of the Church and they decided and acted in His name and under His power (vs. 4; Matthew 18:18).
We have previously considered the meaning of “deliver this man to Satan,” but note this added word, “For the destruction of the flesh.” Two interpretations of this may be suggested. “Flesh” seems to be used here in contrast to “spirit” so could refer to bodily suffering or even physical death (cf. 11:30). The body was the vessel or ‘instrument used in this sin (cf. 6:18). Or, “flesh” could mean the carnal nature, meaning that the man would learn through this discipline not to yield to fleshly lusts such as immorality. It could not mean, of course, the eradication of the sinful nature. Nor would it mean the loss of salvation for the man’s spirit would be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (cf. 3:15). This discipline also involved excommunication, for the guilty man to be “removed from among you” (vs.2); they were to drive out the wicked person from among them (vs.13). Furthermore they were not to eat with such a person (vs. 11). Thus he would be debarred from partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and possibly from normal social occasions. They were not to associate with anyone who “called himself a brother” who was living in such sin. There is a hint here that there was perhaps some doubt as to the reality or sincerity of that man’s profession of faith.
In a previous letter, which is not of the New Testament, Paul had warned the Corinthians about associating with immoral people. Here he clarifies his meaning. In the normal course of life, in business or in government, we may be compelled by circumstances to mingle with and perhaps eat with some unsaved people of dubious morals. This cannot always be avoided and we are not called upon to judge such unbelievers, much as we may disapprove of their conduct. However, with those who are believers or who claim to be, things should be different. Disciplinary action must be taken by the church against those who are practising open sins before others. Besides the immoral, Paul mentions such as covetous or greedy, idolaters, railers or revilers, drunkards and extortioners or robbers. These would not be cases of a single lapse into such sins when a child of God might be suddenly overtaken by some temptation, and then immediately afterwards be filled with remorse. A brother who before his conversion had been addicted to liquor might through weakness yield to temptation. If he showed real contrition, he should not be disciplined for that one failure. However, if he continued that way, it would call for discipline. For such open sins bring reproach upon the name of Christ and upon the testimony of the local church.