by David Chanski
Church Discipline is a Christian Duty
It has been discovered that a man who had apparently been an upstanding church
member for many years has really been living a double life. He is a drunkard
and has physically abused his wife. Or he is guilty of adultery. Or he is
unjustly divorcing his wife. But what should the church do? Does it have a
right to do anything? Perhaps it would be best if the church just ignored this
thorny problem. Maybe it will just go away.
All too often, that is just how churches handle such grievous dilemmas. Some
ignore sin being carried on right under their noses or simply let such sinners
quietly slink away. Some refuse to deal with sin even when concerned church
members plead that something be done about it. Others reluctantly take steps to
address such matters, but do so only out of absolute necessity after the sin has
developed into a huge, festering, open sore. Thankfully, however, the
Scriptures do not leave us without chart and compass when we enter such troubled
waters as these. The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms how to deal with
gross sin and unrepentant sinners in the camp.
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along
with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to
Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day
of the Lord Jesus. I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with
sexually immoral people. Therefore "put away from yourselves the evil person"
(1 Corinthians 5:4-5, 9, 13).
In this and in several other New Testament passages, Christ tells His church how
to deal with her errant members (see Matthew 18:15-18; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15;
Titus 3:10-11). The question is not whether Christ stuttered when He spoke
these words to His church, but whether the church is willing to acknowledge what
her Lord has said and to follow His commands. May God give us such compassion
for his sheep and such a passion for His glory that we will eagerly run in the
ways of His commandments—even if they take us through painful paths!
Church Discipline is an Act of Love
A faithful church carries out church discipline against one of its sinning and
unrepentant members. In accordance with the teaching of the New Testament, the
church "puts away the wicked person" (1 Corinthians 5:13) and no longer "keeps
company" with him (1 Corinthians 5:9-12). They excommunicate him. What will
the world say in response to such a thing? They will say that Christians have
no compassion; that the church is mean-spirited; that while the church preaches
grace, it does not practice it; that Jesus was forgiving, but His disciples are
not; that the church's standards are unrealistically high and inflexible; and
that the church is the only army in the world that wages war against its own
soldiers. Even many professing Christians will join the chorus.
Must we conclude that such a church is unloving? Well, what is love? True
Christian love is that which seeks the greatest good for its object, even at
personal cost (Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 John 3:16). Love is not determined by the
presence of warm feelings in either the giver or the recipient. It is based on
the principles and precepts of the word of God (Romans 13:8-10). What is the
problem, then? The problem is that the church has been content to replace love
with niceness—gushy, unprincipled sentiment. And niceness is a sad and
deficient substitute for love. Niceness lets people go to hell hugging their
sins. Love urges them to let go of the evil which will damn them. And love
does this even though it knows it will get mud on its face.
True love often hurts—such as biblical discipline of children (Proverbs 13:24);
such as administering bitter medicine to a dying patient; such as performing
radical emergency surgery. These things are all unpleasant (Hebrews 12:11).
But they all are the best thing and the loving thing to do, even though they
hurt. The church in our day desperately needs to read again the Word of God,
which will remind her, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did
their fathers to the false prophets" (Luke 6:26). May Christ restore to His
church a spirit of true love for the glory of His own name and the good of His
One of the reasons many people, even professing Christians, do not favor the
practice of church discipline is their ignorance regarding its purposes and
goals. They are unable to see that a church's faithful chastisement of a
sinning member could be motivated by anything but a primal urge for vengeance.
However, a faithful church will exercise discipline for the explicit purpose of
seeing a soul saved and a brother restored to full fellowship with Christ and
his brethren. Paul wrote, "Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of
the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus"
(1 Corinthians 5:5); and, "forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be
swallowed up with too much sorrow; . . . reaffirm your love to him"
(2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
Note that the Biblical order is 1) the church exercises discipline, 2) the
sinner repents, and 3) the church restores the offender. The proper order is
not 1) the church ignores the sin, 2) the sinner continues in it, and 3)
everyone smiles and pretends that nothing is happening.
When a church exercises discipline in order to bring an erring member to
repentance, it is a true manifestation of Christian love. To allow someone to
wallow in his sin is a far cry from Christlike love. But to use every
Scriptural means to recover him is to imitate the Good Shepherd who spared no
pains in rescuing and restoring the one lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-13).
Such love will be evident in the manner in which a church administers
discipline. The church will be reluctant to believe a negative report about one
of its members. They will not judge a brother guilty until they get the facts.
They will be patient, allowing time for their prayers and entreaties to have
their effect. They will be marked by humility, gentleness, and fear as they
carry out every step (Galatians 6:1; Jude 1:23). They will earnestly long for
the first signs of genuine repentance and be ready to rejoice at the sight of it
(Luke 15:20-24). They will believe Christ's Word, which assures them that the
painful step of separation, if necessary, may be the only hope for the sinner's
recovery (1 Corinthians 5:5; cf. Proverbs 13.24). May God so fill us with His
Spirit that we will all fervently love both Christ and our brethren.
Scriptural Motives for Church Discipline
Church discipline is a distasteful topic. Many people flat out reject its
practice. Others know that the subject is found in the Bible, but deliberately
resist ever thinking about it. If we can admit that there are some cases in
which the Scriptures clearly call for church discipline, then we agree that the
church is sometimes obliged to take this unpleasant measure. But are there any
other reasons or motives for this practice other than mere obedience to Christ's
command? There are in fact many.
The first and greatest motive for carrying out church discipline is that, when
it is Scripturally implemented, it brings glory to God. God is glorified
because the church is carrying out His will in obedience to His commands
(Matthew 18:15-20; Ephesians 3:19-21). God is also glorified when church
discipline enables the body of Christ to achieve the following goals:
1) the purity of the church: as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, toleration
of sin in the camp can lead to the corruption of the whole body;
2) the integrity and effectiveness of the church's testimony: Christians will
always sin; our concern must be that we not give unbelievers grounds to ridicule
the church and ignore the gospel we preach by our yawning or winking at open sin
(1 Corinthians 5:1-2);
3) the sanctification and salvation of God's people: though worldlings cry that
such "severe" measures only embitter people, the Bible emphatically teaches that
God often uses chastisement to save the souls of sinners and to teach and warn
those who observe it (1 Corinthians 5:4-6; Psalm 52:6; Proverbs 21:11; Hebrews
It is the spirit of this age that denounces Christ's wise and faithful ways of
caring for His sheep. The church ought to be wiser and more spiritual than to
join in the world's chorus. Rather, may we be convinced that, as Jonathan
Edwards wrote regarding church discipline, Christ loves "to bless His own
institutions, and to smile upon the means of grace which He hath appointed."