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Church Discipline

Church Discipline

By Wayne Grudem

The Purpose of Church Discipline

Restoration and Reconciliation of the Believer Who Is Going Astray:

Sin hinders fellowship among believers and with God. In order for reconciliation to occur, the sin must be dealt with. Therefore, the primary purpose of church discipline is to pursue the twofold goal of restoration(of the offender to right behavior) and reconciliation (between believers, and with God).Just as wise parents discipline their children (Prov. 13:24: “He who loves [his son] is diligent to discipline him”), and just as God our Father disciplines those whom he loves (Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19), so the church in its discipline is acting in love to bring back a brother or sister who has gone astray, reestablishing that person in right fellowship and rescuing him or her from destructive patterns of life. In Matthew 18:15, the hope is that discipline will stop at the first step, when someone goes alone: “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” The phrase “you have gained your brother” implies that those carrying out discipline should keep the goal of personal reconciliation among Christians always in mind. Paul reminds us that we are to “restore” the sinning brother or sister “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1), and James encourages us to “bring back a sinner from the error of his way” (James 5:20).

In fact, if church members were actively involved in giving private words of gentle admonition and in praying for one another when the first clear evidence of sinful conduct is seen, very little formal church discipline would have to be carried out, because the process would begin and end with a conversation between two people that never becomes known to anyone else.

Even when the final step of “excommunication” (that is, putting someone out of the fellowship or “communion” of the church) is taken, it is still with the hope that repentance will result. Paul delivered Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan “that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20), and the man living in incest at Corinth was to be delivered to Satan “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5).

If Christians who must take steps of church discipline will continue to remember this first purpose—the reconciliation of believers who are going astray with each other and with God, and their restoration to right patterns of life—then it will be much easier to continue to act in genuine love for the parties involved, and feelings of anger or desires for revenge on the part of those who have been hurt, which often lie near the surface, will much more easily be avoided.

To Keep the Sin from Spreading to Others:

Although the primary goal of church discipline is restoration and reconciliation for the erring believer, in this present age reconciliation and restoration will not always come about. But whether restoration comes about or not, the church is told to carry out discipline because two other purposes are served as well.

One other purpose is that the sin will be kept from spreading to others. The author of
Hebrews tells Christians to see to it that “no “root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled” (Heb. 12:15). This means that if conflict between persons is not resolved quickly, the effects may spread to many others—something that sadly seems to be true in many cases of church division.

Paul also says, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” and tells the Corinthians to put out of the church a man living in incest (1 Cor. 5:2, 6–7), lest his sin affect the whole church. If that man were not disciplined, the effects of the sin would spread to many others who were aware of it and saw that the church paid little attention to it. This would cause many to think that perhaps that sin was not as bad as they had thought, and others might be tempted to commit similar or related kinds of sin. Moreover, if discipline against one specific offense is not carried out, then it will be much more difficult for the church to carry out discipline if a similar kind of sin is committed by someone else in the future.

Paul also told Timothy that elders who persist in sin are to be rebuked in the presence of all, “so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20)—that is, so that many others would realize that the sin will not be tolerated but will receive discipline both from the church and from God himself. In fact, Paul rebuked Peter publicly, in order that others would not follow Peter’s bad example of separating himself and eating only with Jewish believers (Gal. 2:11).

To Protect the Purity of the Church and the Honor of Christ:

A third purpose of church discipline is that the purity of the church is to be protected, so that Christ will not be dishonored. Of course, no believer in this age has a completely pure heart, and we all have remaining sin in our lives. But when a church member continues to sin in a way that is outwardly evident to others, especially to unbelievers, this clearly brings dishonor to Christ. It is similar to the situation of Jews who disobeyed God’s law and led unbelievers to scoff and blaspheme God’s name (Rom. 2:24: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”).

This is why Paul is shocked that the Corinthians have not disciplined the man who continued in willful sin that was publicly known in the church (1 Cor. 5:1–2: “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?”). He is also greatly distressed to know that “brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers” (1 Cor. 6:6). Rather than allowing such moral blemishes on the character of the church, Peter encourages believers to “be zealous to be found by [Christ] without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14). And our Lord Jesus wants to present to himself a church “without spot or wrinkle...holy and without lemish” (Eph. 5:27), for he is the head of the church, and its character reflects on his reputation. Even angels and demons look at the church and behold the wisdom of God expressed in it (Eph. 3:10); therefore (Eph. 4:1) Paul encourages Christians to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

This is a very serious matter. Since the Lord Jesus is jealous for his own honor, if the church does not exercise proper discipline, he will do it himself, as he did at Corinth, where the Lord’s discipline resulted in sickness and death (1 Cor. 11:27–34), and as he warned he would do both at Pergamum (Rev. 2:14–15) and at Thyatira (Rev. 2:20). In these last two cases the Lord was displeased with the whole church for tolerating outward disobedience and not exercising discipline: “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:20; cf. vv. 14–16).

For What Sins Should Church Discipline Be Exercised?

On the one hand, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15–20 tells us that if a situation involving personal sin against someone else cannot be resolved in a private or small group meeting, then the matter must be brought to the church: 

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
(Matt. 18:15–17)

In this case the matter has progressed from a private and informal situation to a public and much more formal process of discipline by the whole church.

On the other hand, there does not seem to be any explicit limitation specified for the kinds of sin that should be subject to church discipline. The examples of sins subject to church discipline in the New Testament are extremely diverse: divisiveness (Rom. 16:17; Titus 3:10), incest (1 Cor. 5:1), laziness and refusing to work (2 Thess. 3:6–10), disobeying what Paul writes (2 Thess. 3:14–15), blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20), and teaching heretical doctrine (2 John 10–11).

Nonetheless, a definite principle appears to be at work: all sins that were explicitly
disciplined in the New Testament were publicly known or outwardly evident sins, and many of them had continued over a period of time. The fact that the sins were publicly known meant that reproach was being brought on the church, Christ was being dishonored, and there was a real possibility that others would be encouraged to follow the wrongful patterns of life that were being publicly tolerated.

There is always the need, however, for mature judgment in the exercise of church
discipline, because there is lack of complete sanctification in all our lives. Furthermore,
when we realize that someone is already aware of a sin and struggling to overcome it, a word of admonition may in fact do more harm than good.

We should also remember that where there are issues of conduct on which Christians
legitimately disagree; Paul encourages a wide degree of tolerance (Rom. 14:1–23).

How Should Church Discipline Be Carried Out?

Knowledge of the Sin Should Be Kept to the Smallest Group Possible:

This seems to be the purpose in Matthew 18:15–17 behind the gradual progression
from a private meeting, to a meeting with two or three others, to telling the entire
church. The fewer people who know about some sin, the better, because repentance is
easier, fewer people are led astray, and less harm is done to the reputation of the
person, the reputation of the church, and the reputation of Christ.

Disciplinary Measures Should Increase in Strength Until There Is a Solution:

Once again in Matthew 18 Jesus teaches us that we cannot stop simply with a private
conversation if that has not brought satisfactory results. He requires that the wronged
person first go alone, and then take one or two others (Matt. 18:15–16). Moreover, if a
Christian thinks that he or she has wronged someone else (or even if that other person
thinks that he or she has been wronged), Jesus requires that the person who has done
the wrong (or is thought to have done the wrong) go to the person who considers
himself the victim of wrongdoing (Matt. 5:23). This means that whether we have been
wronged or others think they have been wronged, it is always our responsibility to take
the initiative and go to the other person. Jesus does not allow us to wait for the other
person to come to us.

After a private meeting and a small group meeting, Jesus does not specify that the
elders or officers of the church are next to be consulted as a group, but certainly this
intermediate step seems to be appropriate, because Jesus may simply be summarizing
the process without necessarily mentioning every possible step in it. In fact, there are
several examples of small group admonition in the New Testament which are carried
out by elders or other church officers (see 1 Thess. 5:12; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:13; 2:15;
3:10; James 5:19–20). Moreover, the principle of keeping the knowledge of sin to the
smallest group possible would certainly encourage this intermediate step as well.

Finally, if the situation cannot be resolved Jesus says to “tell it to the church” (Matt.
18:17). In this case the church would be assembled to hear the facts of the case and to
come to a decision. Since Jesus allows for the possibility that the person “refuses to
listen even to the church” (v. 17), the church may have to meet once to decide what to
say to the offender, and then meet again to exclude that person from the fellowship of
the church.

When Jesus gives these directions about church discipline, he reminds the church that
his own presence and his own power are behind the decisions made by the church:
“Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:19–20). Jesus promises to be present in church gatherings generally, but specifically here with respect to the church being
gathered for discipline of an offending member. And Paul similarly tells the Corinthians
to discipline the erring member when they are assembled “with the power of our Lord
Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4).

This is not an activity to be taken lightly, but is carried out in the presence of the Lord,
the spiritual component of it actually being carried out by the Lord himself.

If this ever must be done, the whole church will then know that the erring person is no
longer considered a member of the church, and that person would not be allowed to
take Communion, since partaking in the Lord’s Supper is a sign of partaking in the unity of the church (1 Cor. 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”).

There are other passages in the New Testament that speak of avoiding fellowship with
the excommunicated person. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I wrote to you not to associate
with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is
an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:11).
He tells the Thessalonians, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord
Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in
accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). Moreover, he says,
“If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing
to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:14–15). 2 John 10–11 also prohibits greeting or welcoming into the house anyone who is promoting false teaching. These instructions are apparently given to prevent the church from giving to others the impression that it approves of the disobedience of the erring person.

Discipline of Church Leaders:

In one passage Paul gives special directives concerning the discipline of church elders:

Never admit any 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. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without favor, doing nothing from partiality.
(1 Tim. 5:19–21)

Paul here gives a special caution to protect elders from individual attacks: action
regarding wrongdoing in this case should require the evidence of two or three
witnesses. “Those who persist in sin” are to be rebuked “in the presence of all.” This is
because the bad example of wrongful conduct by elders will very likely have a
widespread negative effect on others who see their lives. Then Paul reminds Timothy to
do “nothing from partiality” in this situation, a very helpful warning, since Timothy was
probably a close friend to many of the elders in the church at Ephesus.

Paul’s command to rebuke a sinning elder publicly means that some statement of the
nature of the offense must be made to the church (”rebuke them in the presence of all,” v. 20). On the other hand, not every detail of the sin has to be disclosed to the church. A helpful guideline is that the church should be told enough that (1) they will understand how serious the offense was, (2) they will be able to understand and support the discipline process, and (3) they will not subsequently feel the sin was minimized or covered up if more details somehow leak out later.

Such a public disclosure of the sin of a leader will signal to the congregation that the
leaders of the church will not hide such matters from them in the future. This will
increase the confidence of the church in the integrity of the leadership board. It will also allow the sinning leader to begin the gradual process of rebuilding relationships and trust with the congregation, because he will not have to deal with people who have a hundred different speculations about what his sin was, but with people who know the
specific sin, and can see the genuine repentance and change regarding that area of sin in his life. What about the serious sins of people who are not church leaders? Scripture
gives no command to disclose publicly the sins of people who are ordinary members but not recognized leaders in the church.

Leaders, however, are treated differently because their lives are to be “above reproach”
(1 Tim. 3:2), and their lives should be examples for other Christians to imitate (see 1
Tim. 4:12).

Other Aspects of Church Discipline:

Once discipline has occurred, as soon as there is repentance at any stage of the process, the Christians who have known about the discipline should welcome the repentant person back quickly into the fellowship of the church. Paul says, “You should rather turn to forgive and comfort him or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow....I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Cor. 2:7–8; cf. 7:8–11). Once again, our purpose in church discipline should never be to punish out of a desire for vengeance, but always to restore and heal.

The attitude with which discipline is carried out at any stage is also very important. It
must be done with gentleness and humility, and with a genuine appreciation for our
own weakness and with a fear that we might fall into similar sins. “If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).

It is unwise to set any timetable in advance, telling people how long the discipline
process is expected to last. This is because it is impossible for us to predict how long it
will be until the Holy Spirit brings about deep, genuine repentance and a change in the
condition of the person’s heart that led to the sin in the first place.

Finally, we should notice that immediately following the passage on church discipline in
Matthew 18:15–20, Jesus strongly teaches the need for personal forgiveness of those
who sin against us (Matt. 18:21–35). We are to forgive those who harm us “seventy
times seven” (v. 22), and Jesus tells us that our heavenly Father will punish us severely if we do not forgive our brother from the heart (v. 35). We should see the passage on
church discipline and this passage as complementary, not contradictory. As individuals
we must always forgive in our hearts and not bear grudges. Yet we can certainly forgive
someone in our hearts and still seek church discipline for the good of the person who is
committing a sin, for the good of the church, for the honor of Christ, and because God’s
Word commands it.