Church discipline. It sounds so Pharisaic and un-Christian. The images conjured by this topic include ecclesiastical sanction, excommunication and condemnation. This common perception is reflected in a comment made at a church meeting where church discipline was being applied. Someone said, "This seems like such a harsh way of dealing with our brother's sin."
What is church discipline?
The concept of church discipline must be traced back to the biblical principle of Christian accountability. Early in his career as an evangelist, a "serious man" sought out John Wesley and told him, "Sir, you wish to serve God and got to heaven? Remember that you cannot serve Him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them; the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion."
John Wesley followed this advice for the next sixty years, always avoiding "solitary religion." Wesley organized his Methodist movement around small groups that would meet together weekly for mutual care, support and accountability. He called these groups "bands" and drew up rules for group meetings designed to help Christians obey the command, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed." (James 5:16).
What John Wesley emphasized in Methodism is what the New Testament calls koinonia, a "sharing in common" (Acts 2:42). Biblical koinonia, a word usually translated "fellowship," is much more than punch and cookies after church. Biblical fellowship involves watching over one another in love, advising, exhorting, admonishing and praying for one another.
Church discipline, I believe, is simply the practice of biblical koinonia. We may define Church discipline as the application of Christian accountability in relationship to a brother or sister struggling with sin.¹
Church discipline doesn't begin with excommunication. It begins with a Christ-like attitude of love and concern that says to fellow believers, "I care enough to ask about your spiritual life. If you are struggling, I want to help you find victory over personal sin. I won't stand by and simply let you self-destruct."
What is the purpose of church discipline?
In church discipline, principles of Christian accountability are applied for the purpose of awakening believers to their sin and assisting them in returning to a spiritually healthy condition. This purpose is reflected in Paul's words to the Galatians, "Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
The key to God's purpose in church discipline is found in the word translated "restore" (katartizo). In classical Greek the word had a wide variety of meanings that can be gathered under two major headings: (1) "to adjust, to put in order, to restore," (2) "to equip or fully furnish someone or something for a given purpose."² Katartizo basically means "to restore to its former condition."
The word is used in Matthew 4:21 and Mark 1:19 with reference to the "mending" of torn or tangled fishing nets. In Luke 6:40 katartizo is used in the sense of being "trained" for ministry. The word is used in secular Greek of outfitting a ship for a voyage and a soldier for battle. In medical texts katartizo is used with reference to setting a fractured bone.
A proper understanding of katartizo has significant implications for the practice of church discipline. First, the purpose is not to destroy but to "mend" and "repair" someone who has been injured or damaged on life's spiritual battlefield. Second, restoration involves spiritually equipping the wounded brother or sister with biblical principles and accountable relationships so that further injury and damage may be avoided. Third, restoration is not simply the expression of forgiveness, as important as that is. Rather, restoration is a process of restoring a fallen believer to his or her former condition.
What are the steps for discipline?
In a survey of 439 pastors, 50% acknowledged situations in their ministry where church discipline would have been appropriate but no action was taken. One of the major hindrances was simply ignorance of the proper procedures.³
In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus outlines four basic steps involved in the practice of Christian accountability. It should be emphasized that Jesus provided His church with basic guidelines not detailed blueprints. While the basic guidelines must be followed, the church has been given the Holy Spirit's enablement to apply the guidelines to individual cases and situations (cf. Matthew 18:18-20).
1. Private Reproof
Jesus declared, "And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother" (Matthew 18:15). In his sermon "Reproof, a Christian Duty," Charles Finney remarked, "If you see your neighbor sin, and you pass by and neglect to reprove him it is just as cruel as if you should see his house on fire and pass by and not warn him of it."4
Reproof is a Christian duty. But it must be in private. Any discussion of the sin must be with the offender, not behind his or her back. Many "pious" gossips spread tales of sin in the form of "prayer requests." It is easy to gossip. It takes courage to confront.
The word "reprove" (elegcho) is a strong word that means "to bring to light, expose, convict, or convince someone of something."5 The same word is used by Jesus to describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of unbelievers (John 16:8). Here, "reprove" means to show someone their fault. The most biblical and loving thing one can do for a sinning saint is to apply the principles of Christian accountability, confronting him or her with the truth of their sin and saying, "I'm here to help."
In some situations, there is little or no doubt that sin has occurred. But what if sin is only suspected? Caring confrontation need not require an accusation. Explain what you have observed and why you are concerned. Then ask, "Am I understanding this situation correctly? Is there a sin that you are struggling with? I’m here to help.”
The last clause of Matthew 18:15 reveals the potential results of caring confrontation: "If he listens to you, you have won your brother." The word "listens" is often used in a sense that goes beyond the idea of merely hearing with the hear. It may take the stronger nuance, "to agree, follow, heed or obey" (cf. John 5:25, 9:27, Acts 28:28). The word "listens" indicates a response of repentance--a change of attitude toward sin followed by a corresponding change of action (cf. Luke 17:3). Repentance means that the sin is forgiven, and the issue is settled.
2. Private Conference
Jesus apparently anticipated that there would be times when a Christian brother or sister would be unwilling to listen to a private rebuke. And so He provided the church with a second step in helping to turn a Christian from sin and restore him to usefulness. "But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed" (Matthew 18:16).
Jesus drew upon the Old Testament requirement that a person may not be convicted of a crime on the basis of a single witness (Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15). The participation of several witnesses would ensure that the testimony was truthful and without prejudice.
Many have concluded from Jesus' remarks that the witnesses must have observed the sin and could thereby strengthen the rebuke. But Gundry points out that Matthew gives no indication that the "one or two" others must have observed the act of sin. The primary purpose of the additional witnesses is to provide a larger circle of accountability and help the offender face the seriousness of the issues.
Bringing a matter of sin to a brother's attention in the presence of witnesses may sound rather threatening or intimidating. Yet the purpose is not to threaten or intimidate the sinner into repentance. The intent is to help the offender appreciate the seriousness of the issues. Bubna acknowledges, "Although moving into the group process is scary, it does improve the attention level."6
3. Public Announcement
The third step in the process of discipline is revealed in Matthew 18:17, "And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." Up to this point in the process, the application of Christian accountability has taken place in private. But an unresponsive saint requires stronger, public action.
Notice that Jesus did not say, "Tell it to the bishop, synod, or church board." He said, "Tell it to the church." The "church" refers here to the local body of believers gathered in assembly. Believers are members of one body (1 Corinthians 12:14-20) and have a biblical responsibility to "care for one another" (1 Corinthians 12:25).
The purpose of bringing a matter of personal sin before the congregation is not to embarrass, humiliate or punish the struggling brother or sister. The purpose is to increase the circle of accountability and encourage the congregation to recognize its part in bringing the brother or sister to repentance. The thrust of any disclosure of sin in the meeting of the church must be that "God hates sin but loves sinners." Christians involved at any stage in the process of church discipline must reflect this divine perspective.
In progressing through the stages of church discipline, ample time for repentance and change must be allowed at every step. The duration between the various stages of church discipline would depend on the responsiveness of the offender. Too much time may suggest a lenient attitude. Too little time may suggest a punitive rather than a redemptive approach. Direction by the Spirit of God (cf. Matthew 18:18-20) is essential for such decisions.
4. Public Exclusion
When the church leaders and members have made every effort to bring the sinner to repentance without results, the Bible calls for them to disassociate the offender from the church fellowship. Jesus said, "And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer" (Matthew 18:17).
According to the religious opinion of Jesus' day, Gentiles were considered as "outsiders" with regard to the divine blessings promised Israel (cf. Ephesians 2:11-12). Tax-gatherers like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2-10) collected revenue for the Roman government. Such Jews were regarded as traitors, serving Rome at the expense of their countrymen. They were regarded as apostates and outcasts from Jewish religious life.
Jesus was simply saying that unrepentant sinners should be regarded as those outside the circle of God's people. They should no longer be allowed to share in the activities and privileges of being a part of the church fellowship. The unrepentant are cut off from church membership, fellowship and communion.
It is so essential to realize that even at this step, the purpose of church discipline is not to punish the sinner. That is God's business. Rather, it is designed to show the unrepentant that their sinful actions contradict their Christian profession (Titus 1:16), and thus they can no longer be regarded as a brother or sister in Christ. This step, like the previous three, must be motivated by love and exercise in such a way as to encourage the possibility of genuine repentance and restoration. Excommunication means that you treat the person as a nonbeliever because he or she is not living as a true follower of Jesus. Excommunication doesn't mean shunning the person or acting unkindly. It means you treat the person as you would any other unsaved individual. You reach out for the purpose of witness, but don't fellowship with the person as you would a member of the body of Christ.
What if it works?
What if this process of making a Christian accountable actually results in repentance and life change? How should the church family respond? Often the tendency is to keep the repentant offender at a distance. Full restoration to joyful fellowship with God's people is denied. This was a problem the church at Corinth struggled with. After dis-fellowshipping the brother who was sexually involved with his stepmother (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), the offender repented.
About eight months passed between the writing of First Corinthians and Second Corinthians. During that time no efforts had been made to restore the repentant brother to full fellowship with the church family. Paul instructs the Corinthian believers that as they shared in the disciplinary process, they must now share in the follow-up.
In 2 Corinthians 2:7-8 Paul highlights the believers' responsibility to a repentant sinner in the words "forgive," "comfort," and "reaffirm . . . love." To neglect follow-up when a sinner has repented is a serious breach of Paul's instructions and the principle of love. An unwillingness to forgive may also create a situation that Satan can use to his advantage (2 Corinthians 2:11) by creating bitterness, discord and dissension in the church.
To help assure spiritual healing and restoration in the life of a repentant brother or sister, the offender should be (1) told of the church's forgiveness, (2) encouraged in his or her Christian life and growth, (3) shown tangible evidence of agape love.
Church discipline is simply a process of making Christians accountable to the body of Christ for their actions. This is God's loving plan for restoring believers to fellowship with Himself and with the body of Christ. Church discipline applied biblically is one means of practicing koinonia, sharing deeply in the spiritual lives of each other.
Church discipline doesn't start with excommunication. It starts with love, caring and concern. It is time believers recognize that Christianity is not a "solitary religion." Biblical Christianity says, "We are members of spiritual family, and I care for you."
¹See J. Carl Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1985), p. 14.
²William Barclay, New Testament Words (London: SCM Press, 1964), pp. 168-69.
³Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline, pp. 140-150.
4Charles G. Finney, Lectures to Professing Christians (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1878), p. 61.
5A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 4th rev. ed., s.v. elegcho, p. 248.
6Donald L. Bubna, "Redemptive Love: The Key to Church Discipline," Leadership Journal 2 (Summer 1981), p. 81.