Some believers react with the most negative feeling when the subject of discipline arises.
Carl Laney writes, "People have come to associate church discipline with heresy hunts, witch burnings, intolerance, and oppressions. Church discipline, to most people, does not seem consistent with our individualistic society." They tend to view any disciplinary procedure as being contrary to the biblical emphasis on love among believers.
Ample evidence appears in Scripture, however, to show that discipline is valuable for the life of both the congregation and its individual members.
Particularly, Jesus and Paul stress that fact. The Savior not only instructs His followers to practice discipline among themselves, but also provides specific steps to take in the process. In his writings Paul offers instructions on the discipline of members in a local church as well as ministers of the Gospel.
Those who frown on practicing discipline in the church often point to Jesus' words of warning against judging others (Matthew 7:1-5). Jesus certainly meant that no believer should go about condemning and censoring everyone about every imperfection. Jesus did not, however, address His words to the judge who sits on the bench nor to church officers who have responsibility to discipline members of the congregation. As Laney observes, "Jesus did not condemn all judgment. He did warn against a self-righteous, hypocritical attitude in judging others. To be discriminating is necessary; to be hypercritical is wrong."
Other passages of Scripture command believers to judge.
Paul told the members of the church at Corinth that they must set up court in the church to settle disputes between believers (1 Corinthians 6:1-5). Clearly, judging is at the heart of such activity. The apostle even called for the Corinthians to practice judging in worship services. He wrote, "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge" (1 Corinthians 14:29). Anthony Palma explains how it is that, in Matthew 7:1, Jesus taught believers not to "judge" (Greek krino), or be habitually censorious in relating to one another. Yet, at the same time, Paul instructed them that they must "judge" (Greek diakrino, from the same root as krino), or evaluate critical matters in the church (1 Corinthians 14:29).
Many who resist efforts of a church to discipline its members quickly quote Gamaliel in support of their "non-judgmental" position. He was a member of the court at one of the trials of the apostles. Luke records his appeal to the jury: "And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it--lest you even be found to fight against God" (Acts 5:38-39).
While all believers thank the Lord that his advice prevailed and the apostles were spared further punishment, Gamaliel can hardly be the source for instruction on church discipline. In the first place, he was not even a believer, much less a teacher in the church. In addition, his logic does not always prove to be true. Many Christian-related cults exist in today's world. Some have been around for a century or more. Rather than dying out, several are among the fastest growing religious groups in the world. Their continued existence certainly does not prove that they are of God.
Opponents of disciplinary activity in the church also frequently refer to a parable Jesus told about a farmer whose enemy secretly sowed weeds in his field of wheat. When his servants discovered the weeds, they came to ask him if they should pull them out. Matthew records: "But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them but gather the wheat into my barn" ' " (Matthew 13:29-30). Those opponents of church discipline say the parable teaches the church to leave discipline to the Lord at the Last Judgment.
This parable, however, is not a lesson on church discipline. Jesus gave instructions on that later, in Matthew 18:15-18. The main theme of the parable is the certainty of judgment on hypocrites in the Kingdom. The focus is on their being cast into the fire of hell in the end. Both hypocrites and members of cults may escape punishment in this life, but God's judgment is certain to come upon them at the last day.
Opponents of church discipline may unconsciously resist it because of a mistaken notion that its intent is to hurt offenders by punishing them for their sins. Rather, scriptural discipline has the noble goal of helping those who stumble along the road to heaven. Laney observes, "The church that neglects to lovingly confront and correct its members is not being kind, generous, or gracious. Such a church is really hindering the Lord's work and the advance of Christ's kingdom. The church without discipline is a church without purity, power, and progress." With the purpose in view of forwarding the work of God in the lives of believers, the New Testament is certainly clear in its teaching that the local church must discipline its members.
The Holy Spirit took the initiative in the first case of discipline in the church at Jerusalem. The discipline resulted in the death of the offenders, Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-5). It was the Spirit himself who revealed to Peter that the two were guilty of hypocrisy. Although it came through the mouth of the apostle, it was the Spirit Who decreed death on the two for lying to God and the church.
No doubt the severity of the punishment was intended to say to all local churches of all times that the Lord does not want His people to tolerate sin among their members. The act of discipline led by the Spirit worked to that end in the church at Jerusalem. Luke notes, "So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things. . . .Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly" (Acts 5:11, 13). Those who took repentance lightly ceased joining their ranks. Laney says, "A person of shaky intentions is less likely to associate with a church if he knows his conduct may be subject to congregational discipline" Those who turned to God with their whole heart, however, began identifying in large numbers with the church at Jerusalem. Luke records, "And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women" (Acts 5:14).
Commenting on the question of discipline in the church, Lewi Pethrus writes, "There are those who believe that if we exercise strict church discipline, people will become frightened and never dare come near the church. Those who think so are a very low class of people, for folks with just an ordinary understanding of what is right surely think instead: There is a church that wants to keep itself pure before God, and that is where I want to be."
Of course, the Spirit did not continue to intervene directly in every local church in the practice of discipline, as He had in Acts 5. Rather, discipline has become the responsibility of the church itself. Congregational leaders must initiate action to assure that open sin in the lives of church members is not tolerated. Scripture gives ample instruction on the subject. Jesus, Himself, taught extensively on the matter.
He provided foundational instruction on the subject of church discipline in Matthew 18:15-19. He laid stress on the awesome responsibility associated with discipline. Believers contribute to loosing individuals from their sins through prayer; if they fail to pray, they allow those individuals to remain bound. In the words of the Master, "Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven (Matthew 18:18-19).
In like manner, followers of Jesus bind or loose through sharing the Gospel with people in bondage to sin. So Jesus said to them on another occasion, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:23). If Christians spread the Gospel, it becomes possible for those who believe to be loosed from their sins; not doing so leaves them bound.
Church discipline serves a similar purpose; to practice it contributes to the loosing of an offending member from his sins, but failure to discipline allows him to remain in bondage to the sin (Matthew 18:15-18). Laney says, "The power to ‘bind' and ‘loose' is essentially the authority to administer corrective discipline in the local assembly of believers. The church exercises its authority to ‘loose' when it forgives and restores a repentant sinner to full fellowship." Heaven supports the congregation that seeks to discipline its members biblically. Within this context, then, the Master listed the steps to follow in practicing discipline in a congregation.
The first step in biblical church discipline involves private, personal efforts to correct the error of a fellow-believer's ways.
Jay Adams declares, "The principle followed in Matthew 18:15ff. is that a matter must be kept as narrow as the event itself." Our Lord does not require that a misunderstanding between two persons which is known only to them be made public. When a brother sins, and especially if he sins against another, the offended party must take the initiative toward reconciliation and restoration. Jesus said, "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother" (Matt. 18:15).
Pethrus writes of the importance of this. He says, "It may be that he actually has wronged you, and by your going to him the matter will be settled; and if it was only imagination, the matter also will be clarified. It is important that Satan should not be permitted to burden us with such things which, on numberless occasions, are found to be extremely small and insignificant."
Conversely, the offending one has an equal responsibility to take the initiative. On another occasion Jesus taught, "Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24). Adams comments, "When discord between believers takes place, ideally they ought to meet each other on the way to one another's house to seek reconciliation."
The second step in discipline includes semi-private, official efforts to restore the fallen one.
When step one fails, Jesus said one seeking to minister to an erring brother should take one or two others with him in the second attempt to help. He instructed, "But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established'" (Matthew 18:16). If it is a matter of differences between the two, certainly one would not want to take another who would likely be on his or her side in the dispute; thus, taking a church officer or two to arbitrate in an unbiased manner would be a wise choice.
Presenting similar advice, Adams reasons that "since these persons must offer counsel and possibly will become witnesses if that counsel is spurned, it would be wise, where available, to call on persons who are best able to offer wise counsel and whose words of testimony, if needed, would be respected by the congregation. Elders, deacons, and even pastors would be prime persons to select. He concludes, "If persons highly respected by both of the estranged parties can be found, it would seem good to tap them."
The third step, if necessary, requires congregational action in that the sinning one must be brought before the entire membership, likely in a closed meeting.
According to the Master, "And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:17). Adams says, "I think it goes without saying that to tell it to the church is not to be done by a brother standing up in the middle of a worship service (in which there is a mixture of believers and unbelievers)." Lynn Buzzard and Thomas Brandon advise, "It is appropriate, therefore, for any discussion of issues of discipline to be confined to the members of the church, dismissing nonmembers from the meetings. This may argue for such matters being dealt with outside the Sunday morning worship context when there are often nonmembers in the service"
The public censure involved is intended to shock the erring one into changing his ways. If the offending member refuses to accept the actions of the congregation and continues in his sins, a fourth and final step demands that he be removed from membership. Thereafter he will be treated by the people of the church as any other sinner (Matthew 18:17).
Clearly, then, ample evidence appears in Scripture that discipline is valuable for the life of both the congregation and its individual members.
Jesus stressed that fact in His teaching ministry on earth. The Savior not only instructed His followers to practice discipline among themselves, but He also provided specific steps to take in the process. In sequence, these include private, personal efforts; semi-private, semi-official endeavors; a congregational hearing; and, if necessary, official action in withdrawing full Christian fellowship from the obstinate member.
Selected Bibliography Adams, Jay E. Handbook of Church Discipline. Grand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1986.
Buzzard, Lynn R., and Thomas S. Brandon. Church Discipline and the Courts. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987.
Laney, J. Carl. A Guide to Church Discipline. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985.
Palma, Anthony D. "Judgment . . . Condemnation." Advance, August 1977, 26.
Pethrus, Lewi. Christian Church Discipline. Chicago: Philadelphia Book Concern, 1945.
About the Author
Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as the Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.
In addition to his duties as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in The Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and The Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books, What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure, as well as a commentary on Second Corinthians in The Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter, A Pentecostal Perspective.
Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.
J. Carl Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985), 37.
Anthony D. Palma, "Judgment . . . Condemnation," Advance, August 1977, 26.
Laney, Guide to Church Discipline, 21.
Lewi Pethrus, Christian Church Discipline (Chicago: Philadelphia Book Concern, 1945), 54.
Laney, Guide to Church Discipline, 74.
Jay E. Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline (Grand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1986), 45.
Pethrus, Christian Church Discipline, 72.
Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline, 68.
Lynn R Buzzard, and Thomas S. Brandon, Church Discipline and the Courts (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987), 246.