Church Discipline: What and When

Church Discipline: What and When

The Bible teaches that, in certain uncommon situations, a church must remove an individual from its membership. First Corinthians 5 says,

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. 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. 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. 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.

Christians must mingle with sinners in the world, to shine the light of the gospel. But sinners inside the family of God must be confronted.

Now, every Christian struggles to mature in Christ (1 John 1:8-2:1), and the church should be humble and understanding and supportive in such situations (Galatians 6:1-2, James 5:19-20). The church is a loving family, not a circular firing squad!

But if a brother refuses to budge from behavior that clearly condemns his soul, it is not loving to ignore it or smile at it, any more than it would be loving to watch and laugh as a blind man stumbled toward a bonfire. He must be “removed from your midst” (v. 2).

Scripture reveals four situations in which the church should initiate discipline.

Unrepentant sin. The man in 1 Corinthians 5 was involved in gross and unrepentant sexual immorality. Christians must discern right from wrong, and “judge” a brother when he has abandoned himself to wrong.

Beware, for it would create a harsh, judgmental, negative environment to disfellowship people for sins that are questionable, minor, or being worked on. All sin is serious and dangerous, but this sin had reached an extreme. Remember the loving patience of our Lord (Luke 7:36-50, 18:9-14, 19:10, etc).

Undisciplined living. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15,

Keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life … if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either… Some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command … to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread… 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.

God expects able-bodied Christians to support their families; not to live “in idleness” (ESV).

Dangerous false teaching. Paul warned the elders of people from within who “draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). Jesus calls them “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15). False teaching must not be given a chance to take root. Thus, the Apostle John says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [that Jesus came in the flesh], do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 9-11).

Factious behavior. Titus 3:10 says, “reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.” Factious behavior is related to false teaching. It is one’s efforts to win converts to his own doctrine, causing division and strife in the church. Paul says to “turn away from” such men, who “cause dissentions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned” (Romans 16:17-18).

Turning away from a Christian seems like a drastic step, but in these four perilous situations, God has commanded it. This bulletin covered the what and when. The next two will cover the why and how.                                  —John Guzzetta