Class IX: Church Discipline
A central theme running through this course has been the tension between God’s grand purpose for the church and our own sin. God intends the church to be the manifestation of his glory on earth, and yet we are sinful, selfish people. Therefore, much of what we’ve discussed has focused on how we can live together in God-glorifying love and unity.
There will be times, however, when members of the church will sin and refuse to repent. Those are perilous times for church unity. On the one hand, we might choose to ignore sin, which threatens the purity of Christ’s church. Or we might act harshly in self-righteous anger, which destroys the unity to which we have been called. Neither of these are godly responses. So how should we react to unrepentant sin in the church?
Fortunately, the Bible has given us wisdom on this issue, and this brings us to the topic of “church discipline”—a biblical response to unrepentant sin. Contrary to what most people might think, discipline is an inherently positive thing. It is commanded in Scripture, and it is for our good.
The Heart of Church Discipline
The model for discipline in the church is the discipline our heavenly Father exercises with his children. The book of Hebrews tells us, “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb. 12:6). Furthermore, the purpose of discipline is righteousness. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
At its heart, then, church discipline is one way believers in Christ care for each other; it’s speaking the truth in love. It’s also how we protect the church from serious, unrepentant sin which dishonors Jesus Christ.
I. TWO KINDS OF DISCIPLINE
There are two kinds of discipline that take place in the church—formative and corrective.
“Formative discipline” is administered far more frequently. In fact, it happens all the time to every church member. This is simply the process of bringing people to maturity in Christ through positive instruction and teaching—through formation. When the Word is preached and we are convicted, or when Christians encourage each other, that is formative discipline. (See for example Ephesians 4:11-12; Hebrews 10:24-25; and Colossians 3:16.) This kind of discipline is crucial because God uses it to prevent the sin that might require corrective discipline. The more the church is shaped by formative discipline, the less it will need corrective discipline.
“Corrective discipline” is the specific admonishment or correction of a particular member for sin.
Sometimes corrective discipline is informal, as when one member says to another, “Hey, Tom, I think you’re wrong there.” Occasionally, it is formal, as when the entire congregation acts together by saying something like, “Mary, we know that you claim to be a Christian, but we must now treat you like a non-Christian because you won’t stop lying.”
In his book The Deliberate Church, Mark Dever and Paul Alexander describe the relationship between these two types of discipline like this: “If we were to compare discipline in the body of Christ to discipline in a physical body, then formative discipline would be like eating right and exercising, whereas corrective discipline would be like surgery.”
II. THE BENEFITS OF CORRECTIVE DISCIPLINE
Today we’ll concentrate on the second of these kinds of discipline—corrective discipline. What are the benefits of corrective discipline? There are several.
- First, corrective discipline is for the good of the person disciplined. Some people object to the idea of discipline on the grounds that it is somehow unloving. But the truth is that discipline warns a person of the danger of sin and calls him to repentance.
- Second, corrective discipline is good for other Christians. As the church speaks and acts against sin, the whole congregation sees the serious nature of sin and its consequences.
- Third, corrective discipline is good for the church as a whole. Church discipline keeps the local body pure by protecting it from moral decay. Furthermore, it addresses sin that would otherwise lead to strife and conflict in the church.
- Fourth, corrective discipline is good for the corporate witness of the church and, therefore, non-Christians. It powerfully protects our corporate witness in evangelism, because people notice when there is a whole community of believers whose lives are different from the world. It helps to produce a community of changed people, a community that gives hope to non-Christians that people really can change.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, corrective discipline is for the glory of God. Christians are called to be conspicuously holy, not for our own reputation but for God’s. Our lives are the store-front display of God’s character in the world, and we want Christ to shine in the eyes of the world. One important part of that is the responsibility to address sin in the church that would bring dishonor to his great name.
When church discipline is necessary, how should we exercise it? Furthermore, how can we do it in a way that will both protect Christ’s reputation and promote unity? The Bible gives us guidance on the appropriate use of discipline in various situations.
III. WHAT IF SOMEONE SINS PERSONALLY AGAINST YOU?
First, what should you do if someone sins against you? How should you react? Do you give them a piece of your mind, and then refuse to talk to them? Do you say nothing and hold a grudge for years? No. Neither of those are options according to Scripture.
Jesus addresses this question in Matthew 18:15-17:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Jesus specifically describes at least three steps that Christians are to follow in this situation: First, go and talk with the brother who has sinned against you. Second, if your brother will not listen, take one or two other people with you and talk to him again. Third, if he still refuses to listen, tell it to the church, which can finally expel him if he refuses to repent.
Step One: Go and Show Your Brother His Fault
Let’s think about the first step in more detail. In most cases, talking to the offender will resolve the dispute without the need for anyone else to become involved. In fact, that’s what we ought to hope for—to win our brother over. Given that, we should spend some time preparing our own hearts and minds before confronting someone like this.
Preparing Our Hearts
Ken Sande in his book, The Peacemaker, offers some suggestions on how to do that:
- First, pray for the person you are planning to confront. Pray that God would grow that person spiritually, and that he would desire to know more of God. This will soften your own heart toward that person in preparation for your talk.
- Second, make sure you have just cause to go to the offender. Our minds can be very deceptive. Therefore, pray and think carefully about whether you have a biblical basis to go to this brother or sister. Moreover, prayerfully consider whether you have some fault in this dispute that may require you to seek forgiveness from this person. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:5, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
- Third, examine your own heart. Make sure your motives are proper and that you are not going to the offender out of anger, revenge, pride, or some other sinful attitude (Romans 12:19). Instead, be sure your goal is reconciliation—for the good of both your brother and yourself, and for God’s glory. Is this more about getting something off your chest, or is this more about serving them and helping them out of their sin?
- Fourth, don’t talk to others about your brother’s sin simply to make yourself feel better, or to gain a sympathetic ear. It may be fine to talk about the situation with another person if you need wisdom about how to approach the offending person, or if you are uncertain whether an offense really has been committed. But using a conversation as an outlet for anger is gossip. It undermines unity and is a violation of Matthew 18. In fact, even when you need counsel from another person, you can almost always get advice from them without mentioning the name of the offender.
- Fifth, when you confront the offender, remember to act and speak in a spirit of gentleness, humility, and love. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).
Before we move on to the second step in the process described in Matthew 18, we should make two further points.
Confront For Every Offense?
First, you may be asking yourself, “Does this mean I have to go to my brother for every little offense?” Certainly not. Proverbs tells us that to overlook an offense is a glorious thing, demonstrating patience and forbearance (Prov. 19:11). And Peter tells us that love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
You should go to your brother or sister only when the offense has created an unreconciled state between the two of you, or when it presents a danger to the offender. Do you carry the offense from day to day? Is it difficult to forgive the person? Is the sin, no matter how great or small, endangering this person’s ability to reflect Christ to the surrounding world? Is it a sign of larger struggles, or could it lead there? If the answer to any of those questions is “Yes,” then you probably need to confront your brother or sisters with the sin.
Reconciliation is Your Responsibility, Whether You’ve Sinned or Not
Second, while Matthew 18 requires the wronged person to seek reconciliation with the offender, Matthew 5:23-24 requires the offender to seek reconciliation.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother.
So important are good relationships between Christians that Jesus tells the offender even to interrupt an act of worship to seek reconciliation. What a marvelous picture these two passages present together! When there is conflict between two Christian brothers, both are obligated to initiate reconciliation. They are to rush to each other for reconciliation!
Step Two: Take One or Two Others Along
If the offending person will not listen, then Jesus instructs us to take one or two other people to talk to him. This serves two purposes. First, the offender may be more likely to listen to a third party than to the person who has been sinned against. Second, the additional people also serve as witnesses of the meeting in case the discipline process advances to the next step.
If you ever find yourself at this stage as one who has been wronged, keep a couple of things in mind.
- First, consider how objective the sin is. Are you confronting your brother for something that is finally a matter of opinion or perspective? For example, are you confronting them because you think they are spending too much money, or because you think they are prideful? Those may be legitimate concerns, but they are not really matters that could ever be proven before the church. If you’ve spoken with the person about a concern like this and they have disagreed with you, it’s probably best to drop the matter and pray for the convicting and restoring work of the Holy Spirit. The process of church discipline is for matters which are concrete and easily proven.
- Second, make sure the people you bring along are trustworthy, discreet, impartial, and have good judgment. The offender will be more likely to listen to a person like that.
- Third, let the offender know what you’re about to do—even before you do it. The very realization that you are following Jesus’ instructions for church discipline may cause that person to think more carefully, have a change of heart, and repent.
- Finally, be careful not to lobby the witness to your side. That may constitute gossip or slander.
Step Three: Tell It to The Church
If the offender still refuses to listen, the matter should be brought before the church, which can terminate his membership if he refuses to repent.
It’s worth noting that Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 are not a maximum standard, but a minimum one. In other words, none of this means that you can’t do more than Jesus commands. You just can’t do less.So for example, Jesus does not mention talking to the elders before taking the matter to the whole church, yet that is typically an appropriate step to take.
Did you notice the pattern in Matthew 18? With each step, more people become involved to bring help. Even in the final step, in which the person is removed from the church and cast upon the world, as it were, the world itself will be used providentially to bring about repentance, if that is God’s will.
IV. WHAT IF YOU SEE ONE CHURCH MEMBER SIN AGAINST ANOTHER?
Matthew 18 gives us guidance about what to do if someone sins against us. But what if you see a brother or sister sin, yet their sin is not against you? Maybe he sinned against another Christian, or maybe his sin is not against any individual at all. Do we have a biblical obligation to talk with that person about their sin?
The answer is yes, but with some qualifications.
Galatians 6:1 tells us: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” And in Luke 17:3 we read, “If your brother sins rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.”
On the other hand, the Bible also warns us not to be busybodies who look for opportunities to point out faults in others. (See 2 Thessalonians 3:11, which warns against being a “busybody,” and 1 Peter 4:15, which condemns “meddlers.”) All of us are sinners, so it would be unproductive to call attention to every single sin we witness. How do we know when it’s appropriate to approach a brother or sister about sin?
This is an area in which there are no hard and fast rules, and it finally depends on the wisdom God gives in each circumstance. But here are some questions that might be helpful.
- First, is the sin bringing public dishonor to God? Are outsiders seeing it, and does the sin affect their perception of Christians in a way that lies about God?
- Second, is the sin hurting others? Is it causing other Christians to be tempted or is it setting a bad example?
- Third, could the sin lead to discord and disunity in the body?
- Or finally, is the sin seriously harming the offender? Is it damaging his relationship with God?
If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, then it probably would be appropriate to talk to the offender about the sin.
V. WHAT IF SOMEONE SINS PUBLICLY AGAINST THE ENTIRE CHURCH?
So far, we’ve been discussing personal sin, where only a very few people know about or are affected by the sin. But what happens when a church member’s sin is open and egregious, so that it becomes a matter of public knowledge in the congregation, or even in the outside community?
We see such a situation in 1 Corinthians 5:1-11, where Paul exhorts the congregation to expel an individual who was committing a serious public offense—having an affair with his father’s wife.
With such public sin, Paul does not advise the church to follow the first two steps of Matthew 18. He simply exhorts them to expel the offender. (See 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, 11, 23; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; and Romans 16:17). In fact, if the church does not take action in these circumstances, the church is remiss.
Paul wanted the church to excommunicate this man for at least two reasons.
- First, it was for his good. Excluding him from the church would make it clear to him that his profession of faith was undermined by his ungodly living.
- Second, if the church did nothing, it would give public approval to serious unrepentant sin, and send the message that Christ himself does not care about sin. Thus Paul exhorts the church to act so that Christ’s reputation would be preserved.
VI. WHAT IF A CHURCH LEADER SINS?
Finally, we should consider what Scripture says about sin among the church’s leaders. The guiding passage for such situations is 1 Timothy 5:19-20:
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Paul’s aim here is to protect elders from spurious attacks and accusations. Before any discipline action against an elder can be brought, there must be two or three witnesses to the sin. The wisdom of this is clear: Church leaders are often engaged in situations that may lead to unfounded accusations against them, so it is good to make sure that they are protected.
With this passage in mind, let’s address two situations: What if you hear rumors of an accusation against an elder? And what if you personally encounter an elder in sin?
If You Hear Rumors of an Elder’s Sin
What if you hear a rumor from someone about an elder being in sin? What is your responsibility? There is one simple rule here: Ensure that you are not party to gossip and slander. Tell the person from whom you heard the rumor to talk to that elder about it, not to you. Actively discourage them from spreading slander about that elder, and instead to address the situation in a biblical manner.
If You Witness an Elder in Sin
What if an elder sins against you personally, or what if you witness an elder sinning? What then? Here are a few guidelines:
First, talk to him about it. Keep in mind, of course, that the situation may not actually be what you think it is. So act humbly, remembering that this person is in the position of elder because the church has found him to be above reproach. Give an elder the benefit of the doubt.
Second, don’t think you have to handle the situation alone. It is fine to approach another individual in the church—or preferably another elder—with your concern. When your intent is to keep the matter quiet and discreet, involving a minimal number of people, you are not violating the intent of 1 Timothy 5:19.
The specific language of the passage is instructive here. What does “Do not admit a charge against an elder” mean? Does it mean that you are forbidden from asking for help from other people, or that they are forbidden from listening to you? No. The word translated “admit a charge” (paradechomai in the Greek) actually means “to accept something as true,” not merely to listen or to consider something. Therefore, we might translate the verse, “Do not accept a charge against an elder as true except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
Thus, if an elder has sinned against you and you need help in the matter, this does not mean that you cannot ask another church member or elder for help—or that they are forbidden from helping. It simply means that the other person should not blindly accept your accusation as true without carefully investigating the matter to establish whether your claim is true or not. If he determines that it is, then he becomes one of the “witnesses” required in 1 Timothy 5:19.
Third, if the church leader will not repent when you confront him, carefully determine if you ought to pursue the matter further. Again, it’s important to decide if your concern is an objective matter, or if it’s a matter of opinion or perspective. If it is the latter, it’s probably best to let the matter drop. But if it is an objective issue—embezzlement, for example, or sexual misconduct—then it is your responsibility before God to continue to follow 1 Timothy 5:19. Speak with others who witnessed the sin, and ask them to confront the elder with you. If necessary, bring the matter to other elders, who will also act as the witnesses called for in 1 Timothy 5:19.
Fourth, for the discipline process to begin, then the person who has been wronged must bring forward one or more individuals who are willing to act as co-accusers with him. People can fulfill the role of the witness in 1 Timothy 5:19 even if they have not been eyewitnesses, so long as they have carefully investigated the matter.
Finally, we must remember that sin committed by an elder is very serious. Paul commands the church to rebuke a sinning elder publicly, which means that some statement of the nature of the offense must be made to the church. Leaders who break trust can be restored only after an appropriately open response—if at all. Clearly, leadership carries a higher burden, because the sins of an elder cause greater injury to the church.
As a church, we are to represent Christ’s holiness and purity. Thus we should be jealous for the reputation of Christ, and this should cause us to embrace the idea of church discipline. Indeed, we should treasure the reputation of Jesus so highly that we would desire to be disciplined for any stain we might inflict on the church by our sin.
A moving example of this kind of passion for God’s reputation is found in an account from 19th century Virginia:
An aged and prominent member of a church was overcome by drink. . . . He reported himself to the church, deplored his sin, expressed his penitence with a flood of tears, but called upon the church to do her duty, and shield herself from the reproach which his misconduct was calculated to bring upon her. The deep distress of this man excited commiseration in every bosom—the whole church was in tears. As soon as their feelings would allow it, a proposition was made to pass over the offense and dismiss the case. Many were the voices immediately lifted in its favor. One tremulous voice alone was heard to oppose it—it was the voice of the offender himself. At length the pastor, who was a man of intelligence as well as of approved piety, arose. Every eye was fixed upon him with intense anxiety. He expressed his regret for the misfortunes of the brother, and the same regrets were felt by all . . . but he concluded with adding, that he concurred with the brother in thinking that the honor of the church required that she should express, in the most decided manner, her disapprobation of the act of which he had unfortunately been guilty, and that the offender should be excluded . . . The church . . . yielded reluctantly to the concurrent views of the pastor and the offender himself. The latter was excluded, but after a month or two was restored. He has never since, within our knowledge, done anything to dishonor the cause of his Savior (Joseph S. Baker, “Church Discipline,” in Polity, ed. Mark Dever, 266).
May we all have such a passion for the reputation of Christ in this local church.