Practicing Church Discipline

Empty pews

Church discipline is often not a pleasant topic to discuss and is even more difficult to practice. Because of this, some congregations hardly discuss it at all. Then when a situation arises that requires it, they are either unsure how to proceed or they ignore it altogether and hope the problem simply goes away.

However, while church discipline is often difficult and painful to practice, there are times when it is absolutely necessary. Furthermore, the Scriptures show us that when it is done for the right reason and in the right way, it is actually for the good of the congregation and of the one from whom the church withdrew fellowship.

In this article, we are going to consider several passages in the New Testament that talk about this topic; but we will use Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5 as the outline for our study.

When This Is Necessary

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst” (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

Paul wrote this because there was one in Corinth who was living in sin. His immoral relationship with his father’s wife was publicly known and would have been shocking even to those outside of the church. This was more than one who stumbled in sin; it was firmly entrenched in his life and he refused to repent.

Despite this man’s sin, the brethren in Corinth tolerated it and continued to accept him into fellowship. Paul explained that their tolerance and acceptance was not an act of love, but of arrogance. Those like the brethren in Corinth may boast about how “tolerant” they are that they are willing to accept everyone – even one in such a sin. Yet rather than commending them, the apostle rebuked them for having “become arrogant” by refusing to deal with this problem of sin in their midst.

The New Testament describes several reasons why it can be necessary to practice church discipline:*

  1. One has sinned publicly and refuses to repent (1 Corinthians 5:1-5)
  2. One is causing division (Romans 16:17-18; Titus 3:10)
  3. One has sinned against another and refuses to repent (Matthew 18:15-17)
  4. One refuses to follow apostolic instruction (2 Thessalonians 3:6)
  5. One is a false teacher (2 John 9-11)

The Benefit for the One Being Disciplined

For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5).

First of all, it is important to note that this was an act by the whole church. Paul said they were to do this “when you are assembled” (v. 4), demonstrating a unified act in response to the situation. They would do this in order to “deliver such a one to Satan” In other words, he chose sin so the brethren publicly acknowledged his choice. In his commentary, Lenski explained it this way: “By his crime and impenitence the man placed himself into Satan’s power. […] After this verdict has been rendered, he and all the Corinthians know the fact that the man is under Satan and not under Christ.”

However, exercising discipline is not just about “kicking someone out of the church.” The hope was to save him (v. 5). Paul explained in his letter to the brethren in Thessalonica that this would be done so that “he will be put to shame” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Shame can help produce repentance and it evidently did in this case (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:6-8). This also includes admonishment as the brethren are to “admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:14) in hopes of turning him back from sin (James 5:19-20).

The Benefit for the Church Practicing the Discipline

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

As Paul explained at the beginning of this chapter, it is not commendable to refuse to practice discipline when it is necessary. So he said, “Your boasting is not good” (v. 6). He went on to explain that refusing to practice church discipline when it is necessary will be harmful to the congregation.

The apostle explained that the influence of sin that is not dealt with will work like leaven (v. 6). As leaven spreads through a lump of dough, the influence of sin will spread through a congregation. If one sin is tolerated, others will be as well – either the same transgression or others. Sin, by its very nature, is progressive. Paul described this elsewhere: “But evil men and imposters will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). By dealing with sin appropriately, we can help deter others from sinning. Paul made this point in his letter to Timothy in which he discussed how to deal with elders who had sinned and refused to repent: “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:20).

As Christians who are members together of a local congregation, we commune together (“celebrate the feast”) and must do so in “sincerity and truth” (v. 8). In other words, we are sincerely trying to do what is right, following the standard of God’s word. Therefore, anything that is hindering us from doing this or is actively influencing us to do something different must be removed. In this case, that means practicing church discipline against one who is an influence for sin within the congregation.

How This Is Practiced

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

We already noticed that this was to be a unified action by the congregation (v. 4). This requires some type of announcement so that everyone knows what is being done and why it is necessary.

Church discipline is sometimes called “withdrawing fellowship” because that is what we do. Fellowship means joint participation. Therefore, church discipline means stopping such participation with the one being disciplined. This can mean the following:

  1. We no longer engage in regular social activities with him – Paul said we are “not even to eat with such a one” (v. 11). These types of gatherings are ones that ought to be occurring on a regular basis among Christians (cf. Acts 2:46). Not only is this good and encouraging for brethren, it can also make the practice of church discipline more effective when these activities are cut off from someone.
  2. We no longer utilize him in the work of the church – In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul described the church as a body in which “each individual part” contributed to the function of the body (Ephesians 4:16). When we “remove the wicked man from among [ourselves]” (v. 13), we are no longer using him in whatever capacity he was serving previously, relieving him of whatever responsibilities in the work of the church that he was fulfilling prior to the discipline.
  3. We no longer support him in his teaching efforts – This primarily has to do with those who are publicly proclaiming the word and may be financially supported by the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:14; 2 Corinthians 11:8). This support is a way for us to “be fellow workers with the truth” (3 John 8). However, John warned that if one “does not abide in the teaching of Christ,” then we must not “receive him” or else we “[participate] in his evil deeds” (2 John 9-11). A congregation cannot continue to support one who is teaching things that are contrary to the word of God.

However, we need to be careful that we do not practice this in the wrong way. Church discipline is NOT practiced by cutting off all contact with the individual. After all, we are hoping for his repentance and we can help him do this by “[admonishing] him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15). We are also not to refuse to welcome this individual into the assembly of the church. Paul explained that the assembly is a place in which one could be convicted of his sin and humble himself because of it (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). If one needs to repent, the assembly of the local church ought to be one of the best places he could be.

Conclusion

Church discipline is not pleasant – no discipline is (cf. Hebrews 12:11). However, when it is necessary, it is crucial that we practice it and do so in the right way. This is to keep the church pure and to help save the one in sin. Ultimately, that is our goal in all that we do – to faithfully obey the Lord so that He will save us.

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* For more on the reasons for practicing church discipline, see the article, Mark and Avoid.


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