If you do not already know, this is a post that helps you the reader to become more acquainted with where I – the author of this site – stand on various topics and theological points. Please, keep reading to see where I stand on today’s topic.
Experience, Scripture, and Admonishment
Church discipline can often be a maligned practice in the church. Sadly, there are those church bodies that have handled it incorrectly in one way or another which has led them to forgo doing what the Scriptures direct us to do.
To be clear, church discipline was never meant to be purely in a negative context. It includes proper disciple-ing of church members in order to grow them up in the Lord. It is a natural course that we not only guide for growth but also discourage behaviors that are contrary to that growth.
With all that said, I do have my own critiques but those points of dispute do not involve what the Scriptures direct us to do but with how people have traditionally treated it, seen it, and continue to use it.
So what Scripture am I referring to? Remember, these posts are meant to show you where I, the author of this site, stand on a given issue. Therefore, I will not be doing an extensive study here but I think it beneficial to address at least some of the material involved so that I may illustrate my position more clearly.
Key Scripture: (Note: I’m not saying this is the only Scripture but it is an important one.)
- 1 Corinthians 5
5 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.
— ESV, copied from biblegateway.com
Obviously, we do not see the term “church discipline” in the text above. Even so, we do have that context. This is a letter written to the Corinthian church and is coming from the Apostle Paul. He is directing the church there in regard to the sexual sin of a known member.
What does he tell them to do?
- Mourn the sin
- Remove the offender from among them
- Put them out of the church as one lost to Satan
- In v. 5 we also see hope here, “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
- This is a disciplining action.
- To draw a distinction between those in the faith and those outside it
- Only those “within” the church and immoral are to be judged and disassociated
- Verse 11 expands this to include any in error considered a “brother” to more than the sexually immoral
- Do not eat with such a fallen individual
There are a few things I derive from these points that stick out to me:
- It should mourn us to see said sibling in Christ do such sins. We should be bothered by it, not callus (as Paul seems to indicate the Corinthians were doing), and be driven to address them.
- They are to be removed as a disciplining action in regards to their erroneous choice but with the hope that it will drive them to repent. They are driven out and henceforth viewed as a lost one of the world.
- We should not attempt to address the sins of those outside the faith with such corrective action. Corrective action is only for those within who then attempt to live in sin without repentance.
- Not associating takes on the character of no fellowship with the offender. This does not mean we never speak with them (as is often the case in ex-communication) but it does mean we end up carrying on with them as fellow siblings. Not to even eat with them, a common fellowship activity in Paul’s time and, arguably, ours, seems to re-emphasize this point.
- When we speak with them after they are put out, we cannot act as if everything is okay
- Dis-fellowship also means the offender is barred from participating in the sacraments.
- All this direction is under the authority of Christ. (v. 4-5)
- We are warned that turning a blind eye to sin will eventually bring the downfall of more in the church, even to the point of the entire assembly. (v.6-8)
Of course, there are other passages to consider and I’ll list some of them here for your perusal. Next, I want to highlight something in particular.
- Matthew 18:15, 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, Hebrews 12:10-13, Galatians 6:1-2, James 5:20, 1 Timothy 5:19-21
The above scriptural example was what was to be done to an unrepentant individual. A church should never go straight to such discipline. We are directed in scripture to make multiple attempts to address them before even getting to the stage of putting them out. Once it becomes necessary to reach such a stage, what we call it can have significant impressions.
While the term church discipline can have its own baggage (largely because of poor or incorrect usage of it), none seem to have as much as the term ex-communication.
Historically and to the present, ex-communication carries with it the idea of complete severance toward the person(s) under discipline–whether this was originally intended or not.
I do not see a “complete severance” in the Scriptures. What I see is the last move to attempt to get the offender to turn away from their sin and I do not see this including actions of refusing to speak with the offender or even denying their presence as I have come to see too often among those who say ex-communication for such a time.
It is a significant time of admonishment. It is a significant time of discipline. It is because we love the erring person that we seek to get them to repent. However, nowhere do I see the command to refuse to talk to them–granted, there are restrictions on our interactions–nor do I see an advisement to deny the person altogether.
- When I say deny them, I mean actions like denying their existence, acting like the offender is dead, etc.
I see ex-communication in this way as unbiblical as it goes too far—specifically going beyond what we are told in Scripture to do. What’s more, how can we continue to be an influence on them if we have to go to the level of denying their existence? We certainly should not act like everything is okay when we do come into contact with them, but we should be ready to plead with them and direct them toward the God-glorifying path that includes repentance.
With this in mind, I do avoid using the word ex-communication when dealing with church discipline. However, I do find redeeming value to the term in that:
- Excommunication is meant to be the stage of discipline in which the individual is cut from the local church membership. This is a level of disfellowshiping that does cause a distancing in what once was closer communications. This can be considered even a natural course as the individual is being treated as not a recognized like-minded believer.
- The individual is now barred from taking part in communion. Thinking of ex-communication in the context of ex-communion rather than no longer speaking to the offender provides a level of redemption to the term in my mind as well.
Note: I do these posts not because I think I’m somehow superior in my views or anything absurd like that but out of a desire to be up-front and honest with my readers as to where I stand. Otherwise, you’d be left to figure things out by reading between the lines and/or guessing.
3 thoughts on “On Church Discipline”
Thank you, pastor, for what appears to be a sound rendering of Scripture on church discipline. Two points for further consideration if you please:
1. Do you see a distinction in Scripture regarding how a local church should approach news that a pastoral staff member is involved in habitual, unconfessed sin such as immorality? In particular, I am interested in how you see the Matt. 18 passage relating to 1 Timothy 5: 17-20.
2. Scripture in 2 Cor. 2 gives us another window into the pastoral heart and soul of the Apostle Paul as he refers to the (missing from Scripture) “sorrowful letter” to the Corinthians and how he is later concerned that they go too far in their discipline of the immoral person who has apparently repented,
Thanks again, and may God bless you and your ministry.
In regards to #1, I see additional points of action to be taken in regards to elders.
Most elders are older so we must not forget 1 Timothy 5:1.
The potential sin involving the elder should still begin much as it does with any other church member (as we see in Matthew 18) but must include a multiplicity of witnesses. Being that it is an elder, the sin will inevitably have to be brought before the congregation after the initial phases regardless of an earlier phase outcome. The church body would thus either simply be informed of what had transpired or be involved in further disciplinary action toward the sinning elder. (Simply because there was a multiplicity of witnesses does not mean the witnesses were correct in their assessment of sin.)
That all being said, every situation must be erring on the side of wisdom. It may be that there is no plurality of elders to go to locally in order to address the sin of another elder. At which point, the witnesses may need to first seek out the council of elders in other like-minded gatherings.
If the elder’s sin is very public (in front of the congregation), responding in kind would prove necessary but we should not forget what’s already been said.
These are tough situations and more public sins will require a quicker escalation to bring before the church.
In regards to #2, it seems clear to me that there is a spirit here of making certain the “punishment fits the crime.” The mention of the erroring one’s sorrow here and subsequent forgiveness by the church members seems to point out that the individual has repented of their sin.
There has been reconcilliation here, I agree.W
Thank you again for your encouraging and thoughtful responses.