What does the Bible say about the purpose of church discipline?
First, to save a lost soul. Paul commands the church “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 Cor. 5:3-5). Paul speaks of Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Timothy 1:20, “whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.”
In a sense, two realms exist: the world of Satan, and the church of God (1 John 5:19, Colossians 1:13). Paul intends for the Corinthians to return this sinful man to the world. Political parties and employers might drive people away for selfish, petty reasons. But the church’s desired result is corrective, to teach and to save the brother, when other rebukes have failed. It’s tough love for one in danger of being lost.
Paul expects the ostracized one to suffer the “destruction of the flesh” while in Satan’s realm, and discover the difference between God’s service and Satan’s service (2 Chronicles 12:8). It could be that Paul expects bodily consequences of sin. But it is more likely that “the flesh” here signifies “the fleshly nature.” Paul hopes he will miss his relationship with God and God’s people, that he will realize gaining the satisfaction of the flesh is not worth losing the joys of the spirit, and will be restored.
Evidently, the incident in 1 Corinthians 5 has the happy ending God desires. In Paul’s subsequent letter, it’s probable he mentions the same man: “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 … I urge you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). The church was united in its effort, and the man responded well.
Let us be careful! Too often church leaders write “letters of disfellowship” to people who haven’t come to worship, to clean up the church roll. This may make the leaders feel puffed up (3 John 9-10, John 12:42), but this is not the process Paul describes. Church leaders should have been reaching out from the beginning, making many loving attempts to contact the missing family. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely a church can or should withdraw itself one who has already withdrawn himself from the body of Christ, any more than an employer can fire someone who has already quit.
Second, to guard the purity of the church. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul said, “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” (6-8).
A tiny pinch of yeast permeates a lot of dough. Paul’s point has little to do with the Lord’s Supper; rather, it reminds us that our Passover Lamb Jesus Christ has been sacrificed, providing salvation from spiritual death and freedom from bondage. The church is to avoid the influence of evil. Had this immoral man been allowed to continue his behavior unchallenged, many others soon would act the same way. The church’s reputation in the community would falter. If the church countenances sin, the world doubts the sincerity of its calling, or the relevance of its message (Philippians 2:14–15, Romans 2:24).
Paul emphasizes the church’s commitment to purity even more strongly in 5:13: “remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 13:5 and 17:7, where God demands action against individuals so as not to invite His wrath against the whole nation. The Hebrew Bible says, “you shall purge the evil from your midst.” God can refuse to bless a group of His people, not just because they sin, but because they tolerate sin within the group (Joshua 7:10–13).
How Should the Church Discipline? Removing a member from the church is an extreme step taken only after many other steps. Paul mentions a first and second warning in Titus 3:10. Jesus says that when a brother gets tangled in sin, first one member and then several members must speak to the individual privately, and only then involve others (Matthew 18:15–17).
If it comes to discipline, the whole congregation must be involved. Paul said discipline should be initiated “when you are assembled” (1 Corinthians 5:4). Many congregations prefer to wait until visitors have left, but somehow the body should be present. Discipline must be carried out with the cooperation of the whole congregation (2 Corinthians 2:6). Some may be reluctant to join with the decision, but Paul emphasizes that discipline is not only a corrective measure against the sinner, but a test of the loyalty of the members to God (2 Corinthians 2:9, Matthew 10:37).
Those withdrawn from should not be abandoned altogether. They no longer receive fellowship, not even the warmth of a common meal (1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 John 10). Nevertheless, they are still the concern of every member. The church must continue to proclaim its love for them, their desire to have them back on God’s terms. “Do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
Jesus is a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34). Let the church strive to accept and help sinners while rejecting sin. Let the church learn to seek and save the lost, to leave the ninety-nine in the field to recover the one straying; but at the same time, to obey God and properly “judge those who are within the church” (1 Corinthians 5:12). —John Guzzetta