Scripture offers ample evidence to conclude that discipline is valuable for the life of both the congregation and its individual members. Particularly, Jesus and Paul stress that fact. In his writings Paul offers instructions on the discipline of members in a local church as well as that of ministers of the gospel.
THE DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS
The Problem at Corinth
A foundational passage on the discipline of members in the local church appears in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. The problem in the church had grown to most serious proportions. It involved the practice of fornication by one of the members of the church at Corinth. The apostle exclaimed, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife” (1 Cor. 5:1).
The problem also entailed pride on the part of a congregation whose people falsely concluded that the operation of the gifts of the Spirit in its services indicated that the Lord was pleased with everything in the life of the church. Paul wrote, “And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?” (1 Cor. 5:2). He declared further, “Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” (1 Cor. 5:6). Spiritual pride left them void of taking action to discipline the sinning member.
Paul’s hint that they should have mourned over the matter indicates a need for some soul-searching on the part of the congregation. In addition to weeping over the sins of one of its members, Adams reasons, “The mourning should also cause the church to search its own conscience to see whether part of the fault for the problem may lay at its own feet. Did it fail to discipline properly at earlier stages? Was there lack of care all along? Was the instruction of the church adequate?” (Jay E. Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline [Grand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1986], p. 88).
Further, the problem included disobedience on the part of the church at Corinth. Paul had instructed the congregation previously to take action, but by rationalization they disobeyed. In his letter he declared, “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people − not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world” (1 Cor. 5:9-10).
Believers at Corinth rationalized their responsibilities away and eased their conscience thereby without doing anything about the problem in the church. They seemed to reason, “Since we meet sinners on the street and in the market place daily, in order to never associate with them we would have to leave this planet!” In chiding them while making his instructions crystal clear, Paul wrote, “But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swin¬dler. With such a man do not even eat” (1 Cor. 5:11).
The Solution to the Problem
Paul offered a proposed solution to the problem. He reminded the membership that Jesus long since provided the vehicle for church disciple. They had His authority and must act “in the Name of the Lord Jesus,” as Paul charged them. He instructed, “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Laney says, “Biblically, therefore, to take action ‘in the name of’ someone is to act on his behalf and on his authority. The expression ‘Stop in the name of the law!’ means, ‘Stop on the basis of my appeal to the authority of the law’” (J. Carl Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline [Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1985], p. 77).
Interestingly, the apostle does not instruct the church at Corinth to follow all of the steps in the disciplinary process as taught by Jesus. The reason centers on differences between the situation at Corinth and the one with which Jesus began His lesson on discipline. The Master’s illustration concerned a problem between two persons. Thus it was possible for the matter to be settled privately. The case of the sinning member of the church at Corinth was so public that even outsiders knew about it. Focusing on the adultery between him and his father's wife, Adams observes, “It was a matter of notoriety since they were living together; it was not a matter between two individuals, but a matter between the man and the church” (p. 33). Thus Paul begins discipline at stage four, telling the church to “put him out of the midst.” He does not go through the previous steps of discipline at all.
The Responsibilities of Church Leadership: In his proposed solution Paul recognized his responsibilities in the matter and declared he had already discharged them. He said, “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present” (1 Cor. 5:3).
Congregational Duties: It remained, then, for the congregation to do its part. The body must dismiss the sinning member from fellowship in a formal, closed business meeting. Paul told them that the action must take place “when you are assembled” (1 Cor. 5:4). The church attorney Hammar advises that nonmembers be prohibited from attending such sessions (Richard R. Hammar, Pastor, Church and Law, 2nd ed. [Matthews, NC: Christian Ministry Resources, 1991], p. 373). This obviously required a process of “judging” the accused offender who was a member of the congregation. The apostle made clear he did not expect them to discipline sinners on the street. He explained, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Cor. 5:12, 13).
The specific action that Paul called for was the removal of the offender's name from the membership list of the church. He declared that they must act and “put out of your fellowship the man who did this” (1 Cor. 5:2).
This does not mean the erring one is forbidden to attend the worship services of the congregation any more. They are always open to sinners. Rather, as Adams notes, “What Paul means is that he is removed from the care and discipline of the church; he is no longer to be considered a member of the organized church” (p. 83). He continues, “Unless he is acting divisively he should be allowed to hear the preaching of the Word and should be witnessed to by the members, treating him like any unbeliever who enters” (p. 83).
Individual Actions: Individual action must follow that of the congregation with corresponding personal behavior toward the dismissed one. They must no longer extend full Christian fellowship to the person who has been “turned out of the church” (1 Cor. 5:11). To continue in a normal relationship suggests that the offender did nothing to break fellowship. Such confirms him in his sin rather than reproving him for it.
Paul's instructions to withdraw from a sinning brother even to the extent of not eating with him does not support the teaching of “shunning” as in some religious groups, such as among the Amish and Jehovah’s Witnesses. To them the apostle forbids absolutely any social intercourse. They teach that even in the family one's wife and children must refuse any association with an errant husband and father. However, Paul specifically instructs not to count such an one as an enemy (2 Thess. 3:15). Rather, believers must warn him as a brother.
The apostle's point, then, is that individual conduct must be in keeping with congregational action. Paul instructed that they not even eat with the dis-fellowshipped one (1 Cor. 5:11). He may have pictured a member at a table of food with one who had been dis-fellowshipped offering him unhealthy sympathy. Perhaps the member declared he felt the disciplined one had been treated unfairly by the church. He may have even speculated that the only difference between the offender and others is that he was caught in his sin and they had not been. Showing such an attitude would negate all the efforts of the body to shock the dismissed one into seeing the need of changing his ways.
The Purpose of Church Discipline
The Welfare of the Body of Believers: In all disciplinary procedures, of course, purpose must remain the prominent thing. The leaders and members of the congregation at Corinth must act for the sake of the church. The apostle explained, “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast−as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7-8). Failure to remove sin would result in its spread throughout the body.
Paul reminded the Corinthians that Christian worship must not be polluted by participants who practice sin. Like the Passover of old, it must be free of “leaven.” Accordingly, Pethrus reasons, “First and foremost, church discipline tends to preserve the church in its calling to be a separated people, for the church is to constitute a separated company, separated from the world, from uncleanness and sin. That is the very object of the church” (Lewi Pethrus, Christian Church Discipline [Chicago: Philadelphia Book Concern, 1945], p. 20).
The Spiritual Well-being of the Offending Member: The church at Corinth must act also with the good of the erring one in mind. Paul demanded that they “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). Though he and all involved may experience “death” in the process, hopefully the discipline will result in the fallen one’s finding eternal life in the end. Certainly, if he is ever to have the hope of heaven he must put to death the works of the flesh The disciplined one at Corinth must cease committing fornication. The apostle certainly does not hold the false view of some that the body may sin and yet the soul is considered by God as guiltless.
Paul himself practiced what he required of the Corinthians in the matter of church discipline. He mentioned one occasion when he did so in writing to Timothy. He spoke of the necessity of “holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:19-20). By rejecting wholesome teaching and failing to live godly lives, the two false teachers had already gone over to the camp of the enemy. Thus the apostle’s formal action in dismissing them from fellowship simply declared to them and the world that they belonged among Satan’s followers.
Concerning this Pethrus writes:
He has been delivered to the power of evil, to which he has surrendered himself. He is the servant of sin and feels that he belongs to it. Sin, the world and Satan may take care of him. He belongs to them. This is what it means to be separated from the church of God. Instead of having his home in the church, that person now belongs to the world and is wholly outside of the church. An honest backslider will feel this (pp. 83, 84).
He concludes with, “At length he will say, ‘I need God's forgiveness; I need the church's forgiveness,’ and then return” (pp. 83, 84).
Paul rounded out his basic teaching to the Corinthians on church discipline in his instructions to others. He told Titus that discipline must include appropriate action toward factious persons in the church. The apostle instructed, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is selfcondemned” (Titus 3:10, 11).
Church leaders should warn the divisive person once or twice. If this does not result in a cessation of troublesome activities within the body, the offending one must be rejected, refused full fellowship from that point on. Failure to act is foolish. It is not a matter of his learning that his divisive activity is wrong. He stands convicted by his own conscience already. Thus further efforts to help the person to see the error of his ways, hoping he will surely change some day, are worthless. To delay action results in allowing the congregation to be divided.
Paul told the church at Thessalonica that discipline must include appropriate action toward even the selfishly lazy members in the church (2 Thess. 3:6-15). Selfish free-loading stood opposed to the very nature of Christianity. Jesus was the most unselfish Person of history. He selflessly gave Himself for others. Any lazy believer who refused to work and lived off of others walked “disorderly.” The aim of the church through discipline was to shock him, “in order that he may feel ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14), to the extent he would alter his behavior.
The Approach to Church Discipline in Galatia
Paul focused entirely on attitude in discipline in his letter to the Galatians. All disciplinary action must be performed in a spirit of gentleness. As the Apostle said, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Humility on the part of those responsible for discipline is most necessary. They must feel fully the pain of the disciplined one as they bear the burden of his failure with him (Gal. 6:2). The attitude, spirit, motive, and demeanor of disciplinary officers must be Christ-like. They must never act in a mean-spirited, caustic, or over-lording manner.
When a church follows the teachings of the Bible in discipline, it shows the greatest possible love toward the fallen one. Failure to discipline suggests the sinning member is still acceptable with the congregation and with God. On the contrary, surely the brethren disapprove and hate the sinful actions of an erring one. Then Moses taught they must rebuke him (Lev. 19:17-18). Rather than hold hateful feelings within, bold actions to stop the offensive behavior is the way to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Then, how do some conclude that if a church loves it will not discipline? Leviticus shows that the opposite is true. The congregation which sees one of its members drifting spiritually and does nothing shows a lack of true love for him. Oh, the members may whisper to each other their notice of his growing coldness, his increasing absence from church, or his tendency to return to his old life style. Yet no one says anything to the erring one about it. He gradually leaves the church. Reporting several findings from a survey of current American practices of church discipline, Laney declares, “Saints in need of confrontation and correction are frequently allowed to slip away from the flock with little or no attempt made to retrieve them” (p. 130). Some time later the Board may place his name on the list of inactive members, but he never knows anyone did anything. Thus he may wonder if anyone really cared about his backsliding.
Pethrus declares discipline discloses the most tender love. He writes that “true, genuine love is always severe. God’s love is severe. How He disciplines His People! How hard He strikes them at times! But who would dare to say that there was no love back of it all?” (p. 88).
THE DISCIPLINE OF MINISTERS
The New Testament also covers the subject of the discipline of ministers in the church. Paul addressed the matter in writing Titus. Among other things, the apostle assigned him the task of dealing with unruly preachers on the island of Crete. The apostle said that preachers who err doctrinally must be reprimanded sharply (Titus 1:13). Titus must deny them access to the pulpits in the churches on the island and thus “silence” them (Titus 1:11). They were ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach for the sake of dishonest gain.
The apostle also instructed Timothy as to procedure in disciplining ministers. First, Timothy must carefully determine their guilt or innocence on any charge only on the testimony of at least two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). Laney observes, “In addition to strengthening the rebuke, the context seems to suggest that Paul is concerned that the elder not be subjected to slander or personal attack. The requirement of testimony from witnesses would serve as a precautionary measure against unjust and unverified accusations” (p. 62). Those found guilty of sin should be publicly censored (1 Tim. 5:20). This would serve as a deterrent for others who are tempted to sin.
Like Paul, John taught individual members of churches to dis-fellowship erring preachers (2 John 1:10, 11). False teachers should not be entertained in their homes with free room and board in their travels; to do so was to give them moral and temporal support. To support them is to share the guilt as to damage done in their ministry. Even to extend Christian fellowship to them is to share the blame for their destructive ministry; this includes exchanging greetings with them which leaves the impression believers consider their lives and ministries acceptable.
It is clear, then, that in his writings Paul offers instructions on the discipline of members in a local church as well as that of ministers of the gospel. Concerning the duty to discipline church members, specifically, a prevailing problem in the Church at Corinth warranted such action. Both the leadership and the membership shared in the responsibility of solving the problem. Behind the action must be the noble motive of guarding the welfare of the church as well as looking out for the spiritual well-being of the offending member. Attitudes of humility and love most prevail in it all. Paul also offered churches instructions on the discipline of ministers. His discussions provide necessary guidance on church discipline in the twenty-first as well as the first century.
Adams, Jay E. Handbook of Church Discipline. Grand Rapids: Ministry Resources Library, 1986.
Hammar, Richard R. Pastor, Church and Law. 2nd ed. Matthews, NC: Christian Ministry Resources, 1991.
Laney, J. Carl. A Guide to Church Discipline. Minneapo¬lis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1985.
Pethrus, Lewi. Christian Church Discipline. Chicago: Philadelphia Book Concern, 1945.