Church discipline is one of the least practiced commands of Christ in the church today. As a general rule, many churches have abandoned the practice either for fear of being sued, or because they don’t want to offend others. However, this was a command instituted by Christ. The churches that still practice the discipline of erring believers face ridicule from those who are loath to practice such a thing.
What precisely is church discipline? What scriptures command such a practice? Why should we as believers in the twenty-first century practice such a doctrine?
First, we start from the premise that all Scripture is sufficient for doctrine. Any point of Scripture given by our Lord is good for teaching and doctrinal matters(2 Timothy 3:16). So based upon this point, we now delve into Scripture to see what precisely is said about church discipline.
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
In this portion of Scripture, Christ gives his disciples the outline for church discipline. In this particular matter, these are the steps to be taken when one brother sins against another. Let us now put forth a hypothetical scenario where we can demonstrate how these steps are to be implemented.
Let us suppose for a moment, that John Smith, a believer at First Baptist is sinned against by Jack Doe who also attends First Baptist. Jack Doe has sold John Smith a device which is defective, and he knew it was defective when he sold the item. So Bro Doe has cheated Bro Smith out of money. Bro Smith’s first responsibility is to go to Bro Doe in private and seek reconciliation between the two. It is Bro Doe’s responsibility to make the matter right. Now, if Bro Doe refuses to make the matter right, Bro Smith is supposed to return again, this time with witnesses. Preferably, he should choose men who are of good standing in the church, perhaps deacons or one of the pastoral staff. There should be at least one witness with him when he approaches Bro Doe the second time. Bro Smith should not choose a witness who is close to himself, but a neutral and Godly party who will seek the truth in the matter. If Bro Doe refuses to hear the witnesses brought with Bro Smith, then the matter should then be taken up in front of the church. And if Bro Doe refuses to hear the church, he should be put out of fellowship with other believers.
These steps are designed to give the offending party every chance at repentance and restoration. When the party that causes the offense refuses to hear the church, he is put out of fellowship for a season in order to bring about his repentance. We are never to approach someone regarding church discipline with a “holier-than-thou” attitude. We are to approach them in meekness and humility, and with much prayer before God that He will cause such a one to repent.
Now, let’s look at the first step. The first step is to approach the erring brother one on one. How often could such matters be resolved if only the one to whom offense was committed or thought to have been committed had gone to the offender and sought restoration? There are many times when the perceived offense is only that, perceived, and not real. So by seeking restoration with the offending party, the offended may discover that the offense was only something imagined, or something unintended.
In the Old Testament, we find this principle in another verse. Lev 19:17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him. If we fail to approach our brother about the sin committed against us, is there not a tendency in our hearts to hold a grudge against them? In many cases, the one who holds the grudge is the only one affected, for the offender does not know they have done anything wrong. And in other cases, when one holds a grudge against someone, there is a tendency to gossip about the person they are angry with. And in this case, they become the sinner and the one in need of repentance.
Now, suppose that the offending party continues in their sin, and claims they have done no wrong even when confronted by those whom they have wronged. In this case, the one offended must go and gather witnesses to help resolve the matter. A good rule of thumb to go by is to never pick one’s own friends to be the witnesses. Friends tend to defend each other and will take such an offense and make it their own. It is better to find and choose neutral parties to behave as witnesses for such a matter. These parties should be persons in the church who are of good report, and who are willing to pray for both parties involved.
The offended one and the witnesses then approach the offender and rebuke his sin. The offender will hopefully listen to the witnesses and hear their pleas for repentance. If he hears them, the matter should be dropped. However, if he again refuses to listen, these witnesses will be able to report of his conduct when the matter is brought before the church.
So now step three must take place. The offender has thus far refused to hear either the offended party or the witnesses. His sin and pride have clouded his judgement, and he sees himself as being above any error in this case. Now the matter must be brought before the church. This should be done at a church meeting where only church members are permitted. Perhaps at a business meeting after services where the visitors are asked to leave so that church business may be discussed. The pastor should likely act as the moderator, and should make the situation known to the church. The offended party and the witnesses should be brought forth and should describe the steps taken in seeking repentance from the party who has caused the offense. The offender is then given an opportunity to explain his actions and to repent. If he again expresses no repentance, but insists on continuing in sin, he should then be put out of regular fellowship until he has repented. It should be stressed to the congregation that they should pray for this person, that he will see the error of his sin and will repent and seek forgiveness for his actions. This should always be done in a spirit of love, and never out of spite else it is sin.
Now that we have covered the steps taken when a brother sins against another brother, we move on to another portion of Scripture that deals with church discipline. This next portion is along the same issue, but deals with the matter of lawsuits among believers.
Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church. I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? Nay, ye do wrong, and defraud, and that your brethren.
In the above passage, Paul condemns the Corinthians for taking one another to the law. Why does he do so? Well, for the first part of the matter, they are opening the body of Christ to ridicule from the world. We are not to seek justice among the unsaved. We are to seek justice for offenses done to us within the church. The church is to be the courtroom for believers. Paul tells them that it would be better for them to allow themselves to be defrauded by fellow believers than to take one another to law. The church is to be the place where such matters are settled in cases where a believer is wronged by another believer. The world is not to be judge between believers.
Another well known passage in regards to church discipline is 1 Corinthians 5. Let us look at the passage and see what instructions are given here.
It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now 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 a 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. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.
In the above case, the church at Corinth had a serious problem. They had a member who was living in open immorality. As Paul put it, this was an immorality that not even the unsaved participated. This man had taken his father’s wife(probably his step-mother), and was fornicating with her. This was a well known fact in the church at Corinth, but rather than rebuke this person, they were “puffed up.” What does this mean that they were “puffed up” about such a matter? Well, the Scripture doesn’t explicitly say, but it is possible that the Corinthians thought that in their Christian liberty there was no need to discipline this member for such an action. The Apostle tells them that they ought to have “mourned” this matter and should have put this member out of fellowship.
Now, notice that Paul tells them to immediately put such a person away. By the time Paul had heard of this problem, it had become very well known, and was likely known by those outside the church as well as those within. This was a major problem, and it was obvious that the person was unrepentant. So Paul immediately told them to put this person out. They had progressed well past the steps outlined in Matthew.
In a case in the local church where there is immorality present, there is normally not a need for immediate censure. There is usually time to take the prescribed steps in church discipline. So we need not take Paul’s command to the Corinthians as how we proceed with the first sign of immorality in our churches.
However, one point we should look at here is found in the later verses of the chapter.
But now 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 a 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. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.
Notice that Paul commands believers that we are to separate from those who live in open, flagrant immorality. We are not to fellowship with them. Why are we not to fellowship with them? Shouldn’t we want to fellowship with them in order to bring them back into the fold of God? What is Paul’s reasoning here? Let’s look at some other verses that explain this from the same chapter.
Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
As is often done in Scripture, sin is again likened to leaven. Just as a little bit of leaven can leaven an entire lump of dough, a little sin in the church can infect the rest of the church and mushroom so that the entire church is diseased. It is the duty of the church to maintain purity, and to ensure that those in sin are rebuked and brought to repentance, and if necessary, put out of fellowship for a season until they repent.
But I determined this with myself, that I would not come again to you in heaviness. For if I make you sorry, who is he then that maketh me glad, but the same which is made sorry by me? And I wrote this same unto you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy is the joy of you all. For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you. But if any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all. Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him. For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things.
In this portion of Scripture, Paul writes once again concerning the young man who had been disfellowshipped in 1Corinthians 5. By this time, he had repented and was seeking to be put back into fellowship. But at this time, the church at Corinth was not allowing him back into fellowship. So Paul wrote again to tell them that this person should be let back into fellowship that he would not be overcome with sorrow. He was to be allowed back into fellowship and forgiven by all. This is the ultimate goal of church discipline, to see one brought to repentance and likewise forgiven by those whom they have offended. Church discipline that does not have repentance and restoration as it’s goal is not church discipline, but man-made retribution.
And now to perhaps the last portion of Scripture covering church discipline. In this matter, we look at how to discipline church leaders who have fallen.
Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.
Here, the Apostle Paul writes that when it comes to church leaders, we are not to receive an accusation unless there are at least two witnesses. Now, before we go any farther, let us clarify one thing immediately. If we have an accusation of child molestation, the police should immediately be notified before any other step of church discipline is enacted. Child molestation is a matter that must be taken seriously, especially in this day and age. The police must be notified in order to protect the church from claims that the church attempted to cover the matter up. When a church fails to notify the proper authorities about such a matter in a timely matter, to those without it appears that the church has something to hide. So let us especially be careful in such matters that we exercise wisdom. The authorities have greater resources to look into such accusations than the church does.
Now, back to the text at hand. Unless there are two witnesses to the wrongdoing or sin of the leader, the accusation is not to be taken as fact. Now this does not necessarily mean that there must be two witnesses to the exact same instance of wrongdoing. Suppose that two women come to the senior pastor independently of each other and tell the pastor that the assistant pastor has made sexual advances towards them. In this case, we have two witnesses to two separate incidents, but this would be sufficient to meet the burden of proof given by Scripture. Suppose however, that we have one person come to the deacon board and claim that they saw the pastor take money out of the offering plate after the church service. In this instance, there is no reason to believe this single individual is telling the truth.
When a church leader sins, this is a very grievous matter. It is not to be taken lightly according to Scripture. So Scripture tells us to rebuke church leaders who sin before the congregation, that others may learn to fear. Now, when a pastor falls into immorality, they ought not be raised again to the position of pastor even after repentance. Nor if he steals from the church. When a church leader sins so that church discipline must be exercised, this is a grievous matter that affects the entire body. Depending on the nature of the sin, there can be leeway to restoration of the leader. However, for actions such as immorality or stealing from the church, it is best not to bring such a one back to a position of leadership.
Church discipline is still commanded of God, and an expected part of congregational life. As we have seen illustrated from Scripture, the steps of church discipline are there to clarify the matter, give the offender and offended a chance to reconcile, give the offended a chance to repent, and to protect the church body from sin. As it is commanded by Christ, let us not take the matter of Church discipline lightly, but treat it with the seriousness and gravity that is due unto such a weighty matter.
This is a sound and serious article and needs to be put into some Church magazine where it can be read by a great number of persons. You have outlined serious issues not dogmatically but with true understanding of how Church discipline should be treated. Thanks for sharing.