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brethren church sin study

Church Discipline: What Does the Bible Say About It?

Audio version of the article minus the questions at the end or the bibliography.

Hey, remember when I wrote that mad long article about the local church? I casually mentioned that the right church holds to scripturally correcting its members. I never really explained what I meant by that, so people had questions. Questions like “what does it mean that a church corrects its members?” Or “what does church discipline look like?” Or how does church discipline work? And, does church discipline work at all? I even got “who is allowed to carry out church discipline and why?” Good questions all but, I’ll take a step back to work through the rationale with another crazy long article. Audio to come soon.

Table of Contents

What is Church Discipline?

The fact is that most people don’t know what discipline, much less biblical or church discipline, means.

weight lifting as an example of discipline
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Discipline is the hard work that trains people through a process of modeling, restriction, or sometimes by punishment. For example, a bodybuilder can discipline himself by emulating Olympic weightlifters (his models), restricting his ability to eat carbohydrates, and by proceeding to punish his muscles with lifting really heavy stuff. Likewise, a mom can discipline baby Petra by saying “thank you” when Petra gives her toys, restricting Petra’s ability to leave when someone gives her something and correcting Petra when she isn’t thankful.

It’s slow, laborious, time-sucking work that isn’t done off-the-cuff. Sometimes, people find they have to repeat the process all over again at different points of life. Maya might have been quite the gymnast when she was younger, but now, at 68, after having had a heart attack, she might need different discipline. She doesn’t just jump into a floor routine as if she’s 15!

Biblical discipline aims at training God’s children as consistent followers of Jesus in their way of thinking, acting, living, feeling, and being. If a person confesses to following Jesus, that life is set into a pattern of growing as a forever follower. No, that person doesn’t ever get to the point. That person grows.

Remember, the church isn’t a building or a group of authorized experts. The church is an assembly of God’s people. Biblical church discipline is the mandate and process by which believers, who have committed to one another under God and his word, to allow themselves to be formed by the joint contributions of everyone within the assembly as they individually and corporately grow up into the full stature of Christ the head. In other words: all the locally gathered Christians committed to growing together as copiers of Christ in the way they think, act, live, feel, and are.

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Ephesians 4:15-16

What Biblical Church Discipline is Not

Church discipline is not circumventing the law. God has given the government the power to judge wrongdoers. Yes, some states wield that power inappropriately, but in general, God has given the state the right to judge in criminal matters. If there is a suspicion that something illegal is happening—a husband beating his wife, someone molesting a child, a son abusing his grand-parent—the assembly has no authority to handle these issues on their own. Christians should let the police handle criminal matters.

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

Romans 13:4

Church discipline is not a matter of personal opinion. Church discipline isn’t beating someone up for holding a different opinion. Popular opinion doesn’t trigger discipline in the local church. It’s tough being a New York Knicks fan. Not everyone is a Knicks fan. It’s also hard to be a woman that doesn’t enjoy decorating a home. Both exist. If a church decides to discipline women because they don’t decorate or men who are Knicks fans, they have left the boundaries of actual church discipline.

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.

Romans 14:1

Church discipline is not only punishment. Discipline doesn’t only happen when someone does something wrong. That doesn’t even pan out in regular life much less church life. If a parent loves a child, the parent trains the child—and that means discipline. Hebrews is helpul here.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!

Hebrews 12:7-9
a mother consoles a toddler as part of discipline
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Vegetables are good for children, so the parent eats vegetables, restricts junk food, and corrects the child when they throw the veggies to the ground. But, if the child eats the vegetables without ever having needed correction, the smart parent praises the child and gives them more veggies. Mind you, the kid might not like that they’re not getting junk food, but the loving parent is properly training the child.

If a parent doesn’t love a child, there is no form of training. This lack of training is seen in a couple of ways: (1) no behavior to copy, no restrictions that aim towards a higher goal, and no correction when wrong is done or (2) no consistent behavior to copy, random restrictions, and random correction

Discipline, therefore, is not reserved for when God’s children do wrong. It is the training that happens throughout the Christian’s life and is a mark of being loved by God our father.

If Discipline Isn’t Always Punishment, Is it Easy?

Discipline doesn’t feel good. We’re cool with watching someone act in a praiseworthy way. We see someone and we know that what they’re doing is worthy to be praised, but we don’t act to copy it. Saying “wow, that person is great” we then go merrily on our way. We do this because we know that the process of acting like that great person is going to take tough work and lots of painful hours.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12:11

Restrictions and punishment hurts. This is why toddlers cry when you take away the piece of glass they found in the playground. They wanted it and it was theirs—you are restricting their access from it robs them of something they couldn’t verbalize except with tears. It is often why teenagers storm out of the room with a slammed door and a sharp “I hate you, forever!” They’re still living in a place where they have restrictions, but they can verbalize their pain (to some extent anyway!)

What is the Church’s Authority for Discipline?

Church discipline is never a matter of opinion but is always grounded in the word of God. That means that the source and power for any discipline comes from what the Bible says.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God a may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16
a disciplined woman praying with her open bible
Image by Tep Ro from Pixabay

It’s God’s word that brings the correction, not our perspectives or our feelings. God’s word brings what is to be learned, not our personal learnings over time. It is God’s word that tells us what is wrong, not our personal anger at some perceived wrong. It is God’s word that trains up a believer in God’s goodness and perfection, not anything else. In all of this, it is only God’s word that is enough to completely equip a believer for every good work.

This word doesn’t hover above believers or sit silently waiting in our quiet time piercing our everyday lives. No, rather, as the Scriptures teach, it is the word proclaimed that affects this change in believers. To quote:

…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:11

Church discipline is always grounded in the proclaimed ministry of the word of God because that’s where we find that God has promised to work. That word is what must be continued to be preached, not new methods of application or means of addressing correction. As Paul tells Timothy:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.

2 Timothy 4:2

All authority to discipline comes from the word of God.

Why Is Church Discipline Important?

Church discipline is important because Christians know God takes sin seriously. If the individuals and the gathered church body is to grow up to the full stature of the head who is Christ Jesus in all aspects of life and godliness, then they are trained and disciplined in the way they should go. In so doing the church reflects the seriousness of sin by proclaiming in their actions that God truly judges sin in the world (John 16:7) and also the church if not addressed as in 1 Corinthians 11.

For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

1 Corinthians 11:29-32

Church discipline is important because Christians know that sin is a corruptive agent (1 Corinthians 5:6-7). It is not to say that everyone in the assembly will sin in the same way. When sin is not addressed, it multiplies and spreads in other ways. Maybe with in-fighting or gossip or anger and division and lies. Its fruit look different than the sourcing sin but it is all still sin.  A couple of passages like James 4:1 and Galatians 5:15 speak to the corruptive behavior.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?

James 4:1

Church discipline is also important because it reflects to the world that love seeks the complete good of another. Christians are known by their love (John 13:35) not because they say, “I love you” or “good morning!” to one another, but rather, they have no problem getting on their knees and washing the dirt off the feet of their fellow believers! It’s not attractive to see someone’s ugly dirty feet and another humbled down washing those unkept things, but it is compelling. Of course, that’s a metaphor for Christians being involved in each other’s lives sharpening one another. Euodia and Syntyche might have serious issues with one another, but if they wound up finally agreeing with one another, imagine the message the world would have seen (Phil 4:2-3)!

Church discipline is important because it maintains the church’s moral testimony within the world as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). In so doing, the assembly tells the church and the world that God’s perspective of sin truly impacts lives. When Jesus shows up again, the nations are going to acknowledge that God was in the right. Christians will be accused of stupidity or doing bad things but at the end unbelievers will have to acknowledge that Christians were living appropriately. To do that, Christians should be living appropriately right now.

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:12

Is Church Discipline in the Bible?

Absolutely church discipline is in the Bible. Below I’ll deal with the process found in other passages, but I want to highlight a specific case of discipline listed in 1 Corinthians 5.

The Corinthian church has a problem with an ongoing immorality where a man is in an active relationship with either his stepmother (likely) or his actual mother (1 Cor 5:1). The Corinthians fail to address the problem and worse, became proud in bearing with this wrongdoing. Paul assumes that they should have dealt with this.

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 5:2

Their actions reflected that they didn’t have an issue with the sin, they didn’t offer any restriction that the sin was wrong, and they didn’t correct the wrongdoing by removing the person from among themselves.

Paul then notes that as the gathered assembly, they have a responsibility to discipline the person that has done wrong for all of their sakes.

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 5:4–5

The Corinthian church is supposed to judge in these sorts of matters.

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.

1 Corinthians 5:11

The method of doing this applies to matters of morality and in minor civil matters—not criminal issues. Paul highlights the fact that Christians were taking other Christians to what amounted to small claims court.

So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church?

1 Corinthians 6:4

In this area, Paul says that it is better to be robbed by the fellow Christian than to bring these civil lawsuits against their brothers or sisters.

Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?

1 Corinthians 6:7

The answer is neither to sue or to stop being an assembly, but rather, to handle the situation amongst themselves. This handling was to look among themselves for wise members who could decide on these issues.

I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren…

1 Corinthians 6:5

In one of his earliest writings, Paul tells a very young local assembly (he only spent a few weeks with them) that they’re to discipline members who don’t listen to godly instruction.

If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

2 Thessalonians 3:14–15

The Scriptures expects weighing, judging, deciding, and correcting behavior within the local assembly. Church discipline is thoroughly Biblical.

How Does the Church Discipline Its Members?

Discipline in the local assembly is primarily informal and grounded in the interactive life of the gathering believers. Church discipline looks differently at different points. The church sits under the preached word. The assembly hears the implications of God’s word. The gathered confesses her shortcomings to God. That’s all discipline. On an individual basis, within the patterned web of relationships, the individuals lean on one another and call each other to grow. This happens organically and also constitutes discipline.

A woman and a teen conversing as an example of organic and informal church discipline
Image by Mircea Iancu from Pixabay

Plenty of passages support this fact. The assembly is to encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thes 5:11), exhorting each other daily (Hebrews 3:13), provoking one another unto good works (Hebrews 10:24-25), encouraging self-control (Titus 2:6), partnering with one another (Phil 1:4-7), living in peace with one another (2 Cor 13:11), speaking to one another in psalms and hymns (Eph 5:19), and only saying those things that encourage growth in humility, honesty, and patience forgiving one another (Eph 4:29-32). This is purely a smattering of passages since the Scriptures are choc-full of this sort of commands.

1 Corinthians 13 speaks to the approach, the thinking, the expectation, and the means of actively loving one another and seeking the betterment of the other (as in Phil 2:4). This love is actively patient, speaks kindly, never jealous, never boasting, never proud, never dishonoring another, never seeking after its own, consistently long-suffering, protecting others, trusting what others say, always hopeful, always persevering and never delighting in evil. This fully orbed approach is constantly about the other members.

We’re not trying to cause pain for the sake of causing hurt. We say hard things for the other person’s benefit.

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.

Proverbs 27:6

With all of that said, Jesus Christ in Matthew 18:15-19 explicitly states the process for dealing with wrongdoing within the community of God’s people. Jesus shows us how church discipline goes from informal to formal escalation.

ONE: If your brother or sister sins… (Matthew 18:15)

Christians should be close enough to know what’s going on. It’s because Christians understand the horrid catastrophe of sin.

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  

Galatians 6:1-2

It is important to also note that the nature of this sin isn’t criminal nor is it publicly catastrophic.

TWO: Go and show him his fault in private

A matter that doesn’t involve criminal activity should always start with a private conversation. It’s a hard conversation. No one likes these sorts of tough discussions. The sinning Christian needs this tough conversation. The reasons might vary. It could be that they don’t know they have sinned. Or they know and are stubborn. Perhaps they didn’t even know what they did was a sin. In all cases, the loving believer is to take it up with the individual.

This can happen at any point but should rightly be brought to remembrance when a Christian is about to worship the Lord (Matt 5:23). What’s interesting is that Matt 5:23 brings into memory that the worshipper has likely done the wrong and that their brother has something against them. In this situation, the worshipping believer is likely examining himself according to the principle in 1 Corinthians 11:28. The worshipper then stops his worship, leaves the sacrifice at the altar, and goes and reconciles with the person he has offended (Matt 5:24) before ever worshipping the Lord.

Individuals should quickly and privately deal with personal issues. Individuals shouldn’t go off talking about it in the community. Gossip is tremendously evil (Prov 6:16-19) and a mark of unrighteousness (Rom 1:29-30). And it is also clear that the Lord desires this level of discipline to handle things because he notes that if the sinning brother listens, then the one who pointed out the sin has won a brother (Matt 18:15)

Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.

Luke 17:3

Jesus doesn’t specify how a person broaches this issue. Other texts show us that first there’s a personal warning: any of us can be guilty of sin (Gal 6:1). This is quickly followed by self-examination: am I removing a speck from an eye while I have a beam in my own? (Matt 7:3-5). Then there needs to be a clear goal: this isn’t about showing that I’m right or getting something off my chest, rather I am trying to win this brother back to the Lord (Luke 22:32).

There are several ways to address this matter. Sometimes it’s a matter of weeping and speaking how you should talk to your mom or dad, brother or sister (1 Tim 5:1-2), sometimes it’s a matter of begging (Phil 4:2), sometimes it’s a matter of directly rebuking (Titus 1:13; 2:15 but remember Proverbs 15:1 a gentle answer is usually the better approach)

THREE: If he does not listen to you (Matt 18:16)

Notice that formal escalation is not based on the fact that the person has sinned. Neither is forgiveness based on the fact that the sinning brother may or may not fall again. If they listen and respond, then forgive.

It’s why Jesus proceeds to tell the story of the unforgiving servant. Peter asks how many times he should forgive a brother. Jesus’s response is not that you count to four-hundred-ninety infractions, but rather, there is no limit to how many times you forgive. The greatly forgiven servant refuses to forgive another person’s small amount! In that context, the master rebukes the unforgiving servant.

Then the master summoned him and declared, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave all your debt because you begged me. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?’

Matthew 18:32

It doesn’t matter how many times a brother sins against you. Again, if they listen and respond, then forgive. Peter had to learn that hard lesson.

Some sins are so severe that Paul would limit the number of times the infraction can occur.  These are so serious that there are two warnings to stop and then rejection at the third infraction.

Reject a factious man after a first and second warning…

Titus 3:10

In either case, escalation happens when the sinning brother does not listen. This doesn’t mean there is now an opportunity to not-forgive, but rather, that it speaks of a potentially catastrophic hardening within the sinning brother.

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

James 5:19–20

Sin can shipwreck a person’s faith and utterly destroy them. You’re trying to win a person back from catastrophe and unto repentance—not your good graces!

FOUR: Take one or two more with you

People, left on our own, like to start at step three or the final step. We like to whisper, gather people on our side, and then condemn as a community—it happens in high school, the workplace, the media, and all over the internet. But Jesus grounds our behavior at the private level (the private conversation up above) and now a second private conversation with a small group.

Jesus’ wisdom is outstanding. He doesn’t open the circle to a broad group, but rather, one or two more with this brother. Maybe this can be a mature brother or sister or an elder, but the group is small. The reason is that you’re banking on wisdom, you’re sending a message of the severity of the situation, and you need a witness—a hallmark of Deuteronomy 19:15.

The matter of witnesses is especially essential when the unrepentant is one of the elders.

Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.

1 Timothy 5:19

Notice that 1 Timothy 5:19 isn’t saying you can’t approach an elder who is doing wrong. Paul is telling Timothy that when he receives a charge against the elders there in Ephesus, he had better receive that charge with a few more witnesses than one silent detractor.

This is important in that sometimes some pastors or elders try to make themselves above the reach of his fellow brothers and sisters for correction, exhortation, admonishment, or rebuke. Scripture never makes such an allowance. The first step is almost always a one-to-one private meeting. In some cases (like an offended member of the opposite sex, a teen, or a child) it might be wise to approach with another (a spouse, a parent).

FIVE: If he refuses to listen to them… (Matt 18:17)

Note there is nothing in this passage that specifies time between escalation. There is nothing that says that this must be done quickly.  James 1:19 is clear about the importance of listening and slowness in anger.

We must always approach the unrepentant brother utilizing 1 Corinthians 13 love. This is a love that is long-suffering, believing the best, not assuming the worst, and seeking their best. We seek them as a lost sheep and never treat them like a sacrificial lamb. Matthew 18:12-14 highlights how happy this rescue would be—but even then, the process of trying to show the unrepentant brother or sister their sin does eventually end.

SIX: Tell it to the church…

After all else fails, the matter might now be escalated to the church. In all of this, we must remember to balance the love of the church and the pain caused by the individual. We have to ask why the servants in Jesus’ parable weren’t allowed to uproot the weeds (Matt 13:29). He explains that the angels will gather the weeds at the end but in the short term they grow with viable plants (Matt 13:40-42). Some wrongs require discipline, but not all discipline should go to the extent of trying to fix every issue especially if it injures the church. Calvin is super helpful here:

Another special requisite to moderation of discipline is, as Augustine discourses against the Donatists, that private individuals must not, when they see vices less carefully corrected by the Council of Elders, immediately separate themselves from the Church; nor must pastors themselves, when unable to reform all things which need correction to the extent which they could wish, cast up their ministry, or by unwonted severity throw the whole Church into confusion…..But he wishes to temper the mode of correction, so as to give soundness to the body rather than cause destruction. And, accordingly, he thus concludes: “Wherefore, we must on no account neglect the injunction of the apostle, to separate from the wicked, when it can be done without the risk of violating peace, because he did not wish it to be done otherwise (1 Cor. 5:13); we must also endeavor, by bearing with each other, to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2).

Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion

With that warning, the church now takes over to address the issue. There is nothing specified on how the erring brother is to hear the charge but apparently the church has enough of the facts to act by calling the erring brother or sister to repent.

the church discipline of gathering together to speak in hymns evidenced in a church in new york.
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Maybe the assembly empowers the elders to go to the erring brother with the official proclamation. Perhaps the assembly writes a letter. Maybe the assembly summons the erring brother. In all cases, this is the assembly calling the brother to repent and—if in the cases of 1 Corinthians 5 where the assembly joined in the wrong-doing—encouraging a godly sorrow that leads to repentance.

I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.

2 Corinthians 7:9–10

The point here is that this isn’t a small group deciding this. It is the known members of the church operating as the one with the authority to weigh in this matter. It’s why Jesus says in Matthew 18:19-20 the fact that Jesus is in the midst of the gathered people of God.

SEVEN: If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or Tax Collector (Matt 18:18)

If the church has followed all the steps, they then have to turn out the erring brother. This means that there is a change in the relationship. The assembly treats the individual as an unbeliever. That doesn’t mean that the church members don’t speak to him, but they lovingly preach the Gospel in the hope that he turns away from his sin and towards the living God. 

Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. 

Romans 16:17

The church’s charge is to public so that everyone sees the seriousness and danger behind all sin.

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

The unrepentant are outside of God’s house, living under the purview of the prince of darkness, and are awaiting the fearful expectation of God’s judgment (1 Cor 5:13) in the hope that they will repent and be saved.

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 5:5

In so doing, the church is now to, in some sense, keep away from this brother or sister.

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.

2 Thessalonians 3:6

There are a few caveats that are important to mention here that the text doesn’t touch on.

First, the person must be a professing Christian. Jesus assumes the relationship as a brother, but we also know there is no way to know who is or isn’t truly a Christian. All we have is their confession, profession, and actions.  Trying to discipline a person to grow in Christ while they have never confessed to being a Christian, or worse openly profess not being one, is a waste of time and a joke if the church is corporately condemning them. The church shouldn’t expect non-believers to act as believers!

Second, the Church is associated with the professing Christian. A person won’t listen to some random group of believers who have no bearing on their life. The person should have committed to that local gathering, and in so doing, that local gathering has committed themselves to sharpen one another.

Third, someone of authority is the one who finally brings the charge to the entire church. Someone who is in the know of the situation brings enough of the matter before the whole assembly so that the church can make an informed decision. This person has to be someone that the church can trust and would rely on to be privy to this sort of information. This person is formally accountable and thus involved. Hebrews 13:17 tells us that the assembly is to submit to the authority of the elders because they have to keep watch and give an account. In Matthew 18, Jesus doesn’t specify how the church hears the matter. Based on the requirements for elders, their ministry in the word, and the fact that they are accountable, it is a safe assumption that they are the ones who have this responsibility.

Fourth, there is no limitation on the breadth of the congregation. The text doesn’t define the church. Is it mature believers? Are they part of the church registry? Perhaps all believers over a certain age? What if the issue affects a large number of assemblies that know the person? Doesn’t that necessitate a gathering of multiple local churches? The councils of the early church, especially in Acts 15, are an excellent example of that last bit. My point is that this step requires wisdom.

EIGHT: Whatever you bind on earth; whatever you loose on earth….

The assembly of God’s people has this binding and letting-loose authority to discipline believers. This is an authority that Jesus already mentions in Matthew 16:16-19. There, Jesus tells Peter that the church has an authority to bind and loose to stand against the opposition of Hell. The church doesn’t have the authority to call something righteousness that God calls sin. The church, under the rule of King Jesus, has authority against Hell’s gates.

The whole, not individuals, receive this authority. The assembly uses this authority in the formal process of discipline. That process culminates in the church’s involvement. It is there that we see the authority of the entire assembly to chastise the unrepentant individual—not the authority of a few elders to do this task.

Likewise, we see the church’s authority to forgive and restore the sorrowfully repenting brother who has been removed from the church.

Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.

2 Corinthians 2:6–8

The church and the individual are connected enough to identify repentance and sorrow.

But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ

2 Corinthians 2:10

The assembly is the one who decides to put out and the assembly is the one who decides to restore. When Paul writes the Corinthians, he tells them that they should be using the authority they have (in 1 Corinthians 5 to judge and in 2 Corinthians 2 to restore) but he never purely proclaims that they are to do this under his apostolic authority. He enables them by reminding them of their already God-given responsibility.

Frankly, restoration might come with qualifications. For example, some error is so catastrophic that even after certain restoration positions within the local assembly might be barred from these individuals. This especially true in criminal matters. When someone steals, there might have to be payback. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the one who has done the wrong has to make restitution. In the letter to Philemon, Paul notes that he’s covering Onesimus’ costs.

If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.

Philemon 9-10

In all of this there is also an honest piece of wisdom. Christ calls Christians in this world to be as innocent as doves but as wise as serpents (Matt 10:16). The church, as part of its binding and loosing ministry, must employ that wisdom. This is why Paul tells the churches to make note of, to watch, for specific individuals (2 Thes. 3:14; Rom. 16:17). It’s not that Christians are maintaining a list of wrongdoing, but they should be aware when they notice concerning behavior or if they have dealt with concerning behavior in the past.

Are There Other Examples of Church Discipline in the Bible?

When we look for examples of church discipline, we’ll find that there are not many listed in Scripture—but what is there is already highly interesting. I already mentioned two above—(1) the matter of a man having his father’s wife and (2) the matter of Christians suing one another. Paul is calling the Corinthian church to discipline its members. In the first case, they’re to already be engaging at the penultimate step of casting a person out of the gathering. In the second case, they should already be deciding between matters that have gone too far and, at the very least, allowing the offense if it means going to court over these personal small claims court issues. But we do see other examples.

In 2 John 10-11, John warns the church about taking in anyone who is teaching against the physical return of Jesus Christ. These people are actively anti-Christs—people who are against Christ himself. Surely some judgment has already occurred, so the assembly knows that they’re doing this. These people should not be using local homes as base of operation from these people.

Jude 22-23 exemplifies the various ways discipline within the church can manifest itself. Doubt can be a sin especially if someone acts against their conscience regarding those doubts (Romans 14:23) but, in most cases, doubt can merely be a matter of personal confusion. Jude encourages mercy towards those who doubt—after all, that’s one of those sins that is addressed by patiently building someone up. With other sins, Jude encourages working so quickly with them that it’s like rescuing them from the fire of hell. Some are to be shown mercy mixed with a form of chastisement which he describes as “hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh”.

1 Timothy 5:19-20 contains an example of an authorized servant of an apostle getting complaints against local leadership within the Ephesian assembly. Paul encourages Timothy not to entertain single-witness accusations. When an accusation against an elder culminates in the formal rebuke, then everyone in the assembly has to see it so that they all take sin seriously.

Acts 15 contains one of the greatest examples of church discipline because it wasn’t a matter between individuals. It was addressing a widely public wrong. Some men from Judea started teaching a specific doctrine in Antioch adding a disclaimer to salvation: God would only save circumcised people. This is a catastrophic doctrine. As a result, it implies God won’t save women. The Lord never established this requirement. 

Paul and Barnabas have a great division and debate with these teachers and the local assembly in Antioch decide to escalate the entire issue to another assembly where the early apostles were meeting at. That assembly sends Paul and Barnabas as well as some of the others from Judea. When the issue was retold within the assembly in Jerusalem, we find that some people believed the same thing, which shows that this teaching had its source within the Jerusalem assembly itself (Acts 15:24). There was a debate, and finally, the church settled on the fact that circumcision was not required but that people, whether Jew or Gentile, are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. The church sent a letter.

In Galatians 2:11 onwards contains another example of a public rebuke when the error is public. Peter hasn’t sinned against Paul, but he has openly sinned by in his actions showing that there is a difference between Jews and Gentiles. Paul addresses this matter in front of everyone by calling Peter to be true to his beliefs.

Lastly, in 1 Timothy 1:19-20, we see an example of Paul using his apostolic authority to hand a couple of blasphemers (Hymenaeus and Alexander) over to Satan but no details as to how or when he did it. All we know is that these guys have shipwrecked their faith.

Obviously, in all of this, we don’t see the informal discipline cases because those things should be happening on an individual, private, regular, and local basis. What we see in Scripture is the overflow and spillover when things have gone beyond the private and into the public sphere where everyone needs to know who is disciplined.

What Warrants Church Discipline?

As above, church discipline consists of the gathered people of God encouraging each other individually and as a whole to grow to the full stature of the head Christ Jesus. Church discipline is then super important to the people of God watching out for one another and more closely emulating Christ in every aspect of life under God’s preached word.

Christ’s model in life and practice found in the word of God grounds church discipline. When looking for sins that require church discipline, it is less about the specific sins (sin-X doesn’t constitute church discipline, but sin-W does) but the fact of known sin hardening a believer.

Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

1 Corinthians 5:5

Also, it is surely not about sins you can’t see (like disciplining someone because we think they have wrong motives when working in the assembly). We can’t judge motives and God explicitly called not to try, but rather, assume the best of our fellow professing believers (Matt 7:1-6; 1 Cor 2:11; 1 Cor 4:5; 13; 1 Tim 5:24). We must address sins that are obvious, biblically outlined, known, and evidenced. Addressed and unrepentant sins that meet all of that criteria must be escalated.

Bible.org provides a helpful list of the types of violations but it’s good to read through them:

  1. Violations of God’s moral commandments
    (1 Cor. 5:10-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-5)
  2. Unresolved relational sins, such as gossip, slander, anger, and abusive speech
    (Matt. 18:15-20; Eph. 4:25-31; Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:8).
  3. Divisiveness in the church
    (Rom. 16:17-18; Titus 3:10; 3 John 9-10).
  4. False teaching on major doctrines
    (Gal. 1:8-9; 1 Tim. 1:20; 6:3-5; 2 John 9-11).
  5. Disorderly conduct and refusal to work
    (2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:8).

Some Christians make a mistake that during seasons of tough discussions that some things get unnecessarily escalated. For example, having a different belief as to the age of the Earth is not a major doctrinal issue but some have turned it into a Gospel issue. I would argue that the false teaching is found in those people who demand a specific view of the age of the Earth as a mark of true belief. I’ve only rarely seen people go as far as the circumcision group with this issue. In the heat of the moment, it’s dangerously possible for people, specifically leaders, to escalate a matter and make it a central issue.

Other Christians, not knowing the commandments of God, might inappropriately escalate any perceived wrongdoing without looking into the matter to see if it is so. This might be surprising to some people but there is no commandment against drinking alcoholic beverages.

There are commandments against being a drunkard and there is wisdom literature that speaks about the danger of strong drink or being an example to others or how to utilize freedoms—but even Timothy was encouraged to drink wine. Here some Christians start speaking about wine being watered down and so forth, but it ignores the point: drinking alcoholic beverages is not in and of itself sinful.

For Christians to try to escalate that matter after speaking to a brother several times because they know that they drink some wine with their steak is not a matter of church discipline but an opportunity for training. But, during the heat of the moment, the brother bringing the charge might not want to listen and for this, it’s still not a matter that warrants church discipline.

In short, we have to be careful about making one size fits all situations or assuming that all situations equate into a sin. We need to adhere to what God said in Scripture.

A teenager who makes a stupid mistake by getting drunk isn’t a drunkard. Her error needs to be addressed, maybe by her parents, but it need not be addressed by the entirety of the assembly.

A person might be attracted to multiple people, but attraction isn’t a sin nor is it something that needs to be addressed by the broader community. Perhaps they know their heart and are struggling with it but refusing to act on their attractions—these people need to be encouraged.

Maybe some young adult mishandled their promoted position. That doesn’t mean that the church should cast them out; maybe the church just needs a wiser training program. Likewise, it doesn’t mean that they are therefore forever banned from opportunities of leadership, but it might mean that the local leaders have to think through how quickly they put people in tough positions and how they should support them.

Are Criminal Activities Subject to Church Discipline?

Above, I’ve noted several times that the church sometimes needs to immediately report to the police. But that isn’t to say that these issues are not a matter of church discipline. It is to say that they don’t go through the usual process of disciplining a member.

Some sins are so catastrophic to another human being that the priority is not the repentance of the person who is sinning but the safety of the person that is suffering. For example, if a woman tells her pastor that her husband is beating her, the pastor’s responsibility is to get the woman to safety. There are resources for this available online so how to do this is outside the scope of the article. The point is that this criminal activity has left the woman in an active and dangerous position. Immediately, the authorities have to get her out of the situation.

Safety First then Discipline

After she is safe, and possibly while he is going through criminal proceedings, the believer might have to be addressed as a brother who has performed a public sin of such a nature that the person must be put out of the church.

Another example would be the confession by a child that their believing father is inappropriately touching them. This child is in clear and present danger! This isn’t a matter for elders to investigate. In many states, clergy (and elders could be defined as clergy) are listed as mandatory reporters. They are required to escalate to the authorities. Christians are also morally obligated to use God’s resources to rescue the weak from the hands of the wicked. Note Psalm 82:3-4.

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the need; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Psalm 82:3-4

The church keeps a connection with the turned-out person whereby they preach the Gospel to him. Years later, possibly after restoration, the nature of the sin could be so bad barring this individual from specific ministries. He might never be eligible to be a youth pastor anymore and has removed his ability to ever be in leadership or oversight. Even though forgiven, the nature of the sin has robbed him of his public testimony and he remains barred from certain roles. That isn’t to say there aren’t other roles he could play but his area of activity has changed.

Let me take a moment to plead with you: don’t take these issues lightly as if you’re protecting the testimony of a man. Act with deep sorrow but act decisively.

Was the Situation Between Paul and Barnabas a Matter of Personal Hurts and Missed Church Discipline?

The argument goes that Paul and Barnabas had different sensibilities. Paul had an unforgiving heart against John Mark, and possibly even injured pride, for Mark having had left them by going back to Jerusalem in Acts 13:13. Barnabas always thought the best of younger people, especially his own family (Colossians 4:10), and he wanted to give John Mark another chance. They argued and Paul wouldn’t budge so finally they gave up. Due to this falling out, the two Christian brothers went on their way with this issue remaining unresolved. Later on, Paul would learn to rely on Mark again but that took many years.

I believe this is an uncharitable reading of the text and surely a mischaracterization of the brothers involved. What’s worse is if it is an opportunistic reading, it renders a misapplication that justifies Christians never dealing with sin.

friends clasping hands in collaboration
Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

First of all, these two brothers worked with each other for years and truly loved each other.

As such, they could honestly weigh their options for their work. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark (Acts 15:37). Paul noted that when things got tough, Mark left (Acts 15:38). Bible.org suggests that both Paul and Barnabas apparently agreed since afterward, Barnabas takes Mark towards Cyprus (Acts 15:39) which is the last place where Mark was successfully serving the Lord (Acts 13:5).

Second, this disagreement was with one another.

Paul and Barnabas didn’t allow this matter to spill this into a broader group. Paul and Barnabas didn’t escalate this to Antioch or Jerusalem because one was stubborn. It was a tough discussion, and, in the end, they decided that it was better for each to part and focus on their work.  

Third, it doesn’t say that they destroyed the relationship.

The fact that Paul later refers to Mark as useful (2 Ti 4:11) indicates that Paul was still involved in Mark and Barnabas’ lives long after the events of Acts 15.  

Forth, they resolved the matter.

They agreed to part and double the missionary work. Barnabas gets the benefit of further strengthening John Mark; Paul gets the benefit of going into some tough areas with a different, yet commended, brother. That means that there wasn’t a raw animosity against the other but an agreement on how to go forward.

Fifth, none of this was a biblical issue or a matter of personal sin.

Neither of them was right nor wrong. This was strictly a debatable issue that required wisdom and consideration. In fact, according to Romans 14, then both of them were actually right. They stood before the Lord based on their convictions on this non-moral issue. Acting on those convictions, they each went to do a work that wasn’t about themselves but the Lord.

Sixth, God uses situations to aid inspiration.

This isn’t to say that God’s ends justify the means. No rather, this situation resulted in multiple opportunities. Mark joined Barnabas, grew in strength, had opportunities chat with Peter, and got to work on his gospel account. Paul learned a lesson about training faithful men who can teach others also. With this in mind, he would be able to judge who was able to handle the work and equip others.

No, this issue is not a matter of uncorrected sin. Two brothers lovingly decided on an issue based on their convictions and not based on personal hurts.

What About God Disciplining the Church?

When thinking about God doing the act of discipline to the entire local gathered community, we need to have extreme care. Remember, discipline is a process that includes modeling, restrictions, and sometimes punishment. Sometimes, people believe that if a church is going through a tough patch, then it is under the judgment of God and his due anger. There might even be references to being outside of God’s favor. In so doing, they ignore the language of Scripture and assume that tough situations automatically mean God’s wrath—and they begin looking for sins that merit this retribution.

God promises to act during the preaching of His word. His word brings things into being. This is why he doesn’t need to treat the church like ancient Israel. He allowed the prophets to record the events in Israel so that the church could learn from these thought-models.

And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. —1 Corinthians 10:11

Times of leanness might restrict what a church is able to do but that doesn’t mean god is judging in righteous anger. People were taunting the Hebrew Christians, causing them to suffer, but not to the point of killing them. The letter writer tells them that they are being disciplined with suffering because God loves them. That isn’t to say that he’s punishing them but rather training them as children.

Peter (1 Peter 5:9) tells the recipients of his letter that they’re to stand firm, knowing that their brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. Is Peter saying God was punishing these Christians? No. Christians, who are faithful followers of Jesus, should rightly expect to suffer. Suffering shows their legitimacy as God’s children. This is why the apostles rejoiced when the authorities beat them. They realized that God had counted them worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).

It’s during suffering that we see pruning happening in the house of God. The same hot sun that burns the flower with no root is the sun that causes another plant to dig deep into the soil for its nutrients (Matthew 13:4-8) and proceeds to produce abundant fruit. Christ gives Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11) a heads up about tough times consisting of persecution, suffering, and death. The church will likely go away, but he grants a crown of life.

Furthermore, when God judges a church, it is so that he doesn’t condemn the church with the rest of the world (1 Cor 11:32). If the individuals at Corinth had rightly judged themselves (not others), then the Lord would not have had to judge them (1 Cor 11:31). As such, individuals drank judgment onto themselves (1 Cor 11:29). This is why some in the church of Corinth were ill, weak, or dead (1 Cor 11:30)! 

Indeed, we see how God deals with churches that are genuinely failing in Revelation 2 and 3. He doesn’t necessarily cause them to suffer. He doesn’t even necessarily make them endure tight spots.

Ephesus is pretty strong in a lot of good ways, but they’re in danger of losing their position as a church. All the power and teaching and growth, but none of the love and reach. Pergamum had a ton of faith, but the Lord is about to make war with the specific people who hold to a particular doctrine (Rev 2:16). Thyatira has works, faith, love, and service with patience, but they tolerate false teaching and encourage practicing sexual immorality. Here, Christ is planning to punish Jezebel and her children and then tells the rest of the church to hold fast. Sardis could be stronger, but Jesus is about to “come against them”—whatever that means. Lastly, Christ is about to spit luke-warm Laodicea out of his mouth. Even so, suffering isn’t mentioned. Just apathetic expulsion as having anything to do with him.

All of this comes with a warning: Christians should not be quick to decide if a specific local church is under God’s righteous judgment just because of rough events, even if those events are anti-Christian. God calls Christians to be faithful. Sit under the preached word. Diversely and unitedly grow to the full stature of the head in truth and godliness. Take the cup and the loaf. Love. God doesn’t call Christians to suffer for a political party. Or to bear with the scruples of those who are perverting the Gospel with those self-scruples. Or to embrace division. Or to embrace impurity. We need to be careful of applying the lessons of the nation of Israel to an assembly, no matter what size or situation.

Questions Regarding Discipline in the Local Church?

Does an action have to be explicitly condemned by Scripture?

No. Some actions are a modern variation of a broader category of wrongful behavior—like corporate embezzlement is surely stealing. Scripture doesn’t condemn gambling. In fact, the early disciples even cast lots to make decisions (Acts 1). Yet, there are warnings about the love of money (Hebrews 13:5 or 1 Tim 6:10), being greedy, or idle. As a habitual complex pattern that is taking priority in the person’s life, a loving brother or sister might try to help the Christian locked into this pattern of behavior with a call to serve one master (Matt 6:24).

Who is the church that judges an issue?

There is no explicit command as to who the church is. As above, this group might comprise multiple local assemblies. In some assemblies, a confessional statement defines who are the members of the assembly. It might be wise to come up with a list in advance of the group of believers that should participate. It would be crazy if every person that has ever shown up at your building counts as a member. Similarly, you might have underage members in your local assembly. It would be unwise to have them weigh in on sensitive issues simply because they say they have trusted Jesus.

I don’t believe any Christian has a right to tell me what to do.

No Christian is telling you what to do. As a Christian, you are part of Christ’s body under the authority of Christ. Fellow Christians in that body are an aid to grow to the full stature of Christ the head. As a Christian, you don’t have the right to decide that you’re not part of the body.

Shouldn’t the church forgive and forget?

Yes and no. Look above at the keys of the church. Forgive, surely, but take note.

If we do this, isn’t it more likely people won’t come back?

Children don’t like any form of discipline, but the faithful parent trains the child with modeling, rules, and punishment as needed. The child knows he’s loved because the parent cares enough to be concerned. This is what is so sad about Laodicea. God spews them out and leaves them to wallow in a state of rejected apathy.

At the same time, God is a god of order and to there’s a right and wrong time to do things. The Lord wouldn’t break a bruised reed (Isaiah 42:3; Matt 12:19-21), but he would act at the right time. He is the one who goes after the lost sheep but might also let the prodigal child wander. At other times he rebukes his own in front of others (Matt 16:23) so that all would learn the seriousness of the situation.

We’re not called to decide that God’s solution isn’t kind enough. We’re called to be wise and faithful.

References for Further Reading

  • Carson, D. A. (1984). Matthew. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, p. 403). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
  • Chang, G. (2018, January 9). A Step-by-Step Primer for Church Discipline. 9Marks Blog. https://www.9marks.org/article/a-step-by-step-primer-for-church-discipline/
  • Ciampa, R. E., & Rosner, B. S. (2010). The First Letter to the Corinthians (p. 197). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  • Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Discipline. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 631). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  • Garland, D. E. (2008). 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.
  • Jacobs, H. E. (1915). Chastening, Chastisement. In J. Orr, J. L. Nuelsen, E. Y. Mullins, & M. O. Evans (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Vol. 1–5, p. 598). Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company.
  • Kimble, J. (2018, January 9). A Historical Survey of Church Discipline. 9Marks Blog. https://www.9marks.org/article/a-historical-survey-of-church-discipline/
  • Mare, W. H. (1976). 1 Corinthians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians (Vol. 10, p. 216). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
  • Mohler, A. (2005, July 12). A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity. Albert Mohler Blog. https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity
  • Morris, L. (1981). Hebrews. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 137). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
  • Robertson, M. S. (2014). Discipline. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  • Schmidt, T. E. (1996). Discipline. In Evangelical dictionary of biblical theology (electronic ed., p. 177). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
  • Thiselton, A. C. (2000). The First Epistle to the Corinthians: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 382). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
  • Torrey, R. A. (2001). The new topical text book: A scriptural text book for the use of ministers, teachers, and all Christian workers. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Bible Software.
  • Heidelberg Confession on Discipline: http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com/en/topics/discipline.html
  • Westminster Confession on Censures: https://www.reformation21.org/confession/2013/08/chapter-303-4.php
  • 1689 Baptist Confession On the Church: https://www.arbca.com/1689-chapter26
  • Calvin on Discipline in the Institutes: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.vi.xiii.html
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