CHURCH DISCIPLINE

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 people.

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 2:5-11).

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."
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