August 18, 2017

Church Discipline

Norman Pyle

“Havoc may … result from the mishandling of disciplinary matters.”

faith-for-the-familyDiscipline is a hushed-up word in today’s churches and a neglected practice. The permissive attitude of the world toward sin has even infiltrated Christian homes. The result? Inside and outside the church, men do “that which is right in their own eyes,” or — in today’s language — they “do their own thing.”

The members of a local New Testament church often refer to themselves as “the church family.” Now, the more self-discipline there is in a home, church, or society, the less need there will be to enforce institutional discipline. But as confusion and disaster may result from lack of discipline in a home, so tragedy may come to a church which has no discipline. Havoc may also result from the mishandling of disciplinary matters, or from improper attitudes by those in authority to administer chastening. Therefore, we need to consider the proper handling of church discipline and the occasions for its use.

To be Biblical, discipline requires proper objectives and proper attitudes. Dr. Paul R. Jackson offers an excellent outline for the administration of church discipline in The Doctrine and Administration of the Church (Regular Baptist Press; Des Plaines, Illinois).

The Why of Discipline

Knowing the Scriptural objectives of discipline can help a church understand why this sometimes distasteful task must be carried out. We may not understand the disciplinary measures required in God’s Word; nevertheless, God expects obedience to His commands. What, then, are the scriptural objectives?

1. The first objective of discipline is to remove the defilement of sin. “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9). In 1 Corinthians 5:7, we are told to “purge out therefore the old leaven.” The Corinthian church was to expel a man before his malice and wickedness should further infect the whole body of believers (verses 8- 13), and prevent God’s blessing. In Joshua 7, we see God’s attitude toward sin in general and toward Achan’s sin in particular — a whole group suffering the consequences of unjudged sin.

2. The second objective is to exert a restraining influence on sin in others. In 1 Timothy 5:20, Paul admonishes, “them that sin rebuke before all,” so others may fear. If, after patience and prayer, sin continues ignored and unjudged, others become self-indulgent, and weaker Christians may be led into sin. Certainly one of the reasons for observing Biblical discipline is to restrain the depraved tendencies in all of us.

3. The third objective is, hopefully, to restore an erring brother. Galatians 6:1 commands us to restore such, and reminds us that we someday may need such restoration ourselves. As Dr. Jackson’s book points out, “We do not punish our children to get even with them, but to correct them. So ought the church to judge sin, with the humble, earnest prayer that God will grant repentance and restore the soul to His fellowship and to ours.”

The How of Discipline

We must remember that no matter how Biblical its objectives, discipline administered in the wrong spirit is ineffective and undesirable.

First, “restore such an one in the spirit of meekness”; spirituality, humility, and meekness are to characterize those who deal with a fallen brother (Galatians 6:1). Never undertake hypocritically to deal with another’s sin until you have first dealt with your own; “then shalt thou see clearly [to help thy brother”] (cf. Matthew 7:5). In helping others, we need to remember our own frailty (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Second, take a firm, uncompromising stand against sin. God is holy; He cannot tolerate sin; neither should the Christian! Jesus sternly rebuked sin when He drove the money-changers from the temple (John 2:12-17). Paul commands that carnal teachers be rebuked before all, that they may be sound in the faith, and that others may fear (Titus 1:13; 1 Timothy 5:20).

Third, love the brethren who are in sin (2 Thessalonians 3:15). Jesus dealt with the backslidden Peter, restored him in love, and put him back in the ministry (John 21:15-17), and what a power he became!

Fourth, forgive those who repent and confess their sins (Luke 17:3-4). Paul warned the Corinthians that harboring an unforgiving spirit would give Satan the advantage over them (2 Corinthians 2:7-11). If we do not forgive, neither may we expect to be forgiven (Matthew 6:12).

The When of Discipline

Even having the right attitude, we need to know when to practice church discipline. Scriptural “church” discipline begins on a one-to-one basis. Almost all personal disagreements between fellow church members could be settled quickly if handled in God’s way. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus said that if a man comes to worship and remembers that he has offended someone, he should immediately go and seek reconciliation, and then return and offer his gift. He also taught that if a member has been offended by someone else, he is to go to the brother alone and seek to get the matter straightened out (Matthew 18:15-17); if this fails, he is to go again, this time taking one or two with him to act as witnesses, or perhaps mediators. If this, too, fails, the offense becomes a matter for the church to handle; and if reconciliation and repentance do not take place, the offender is to be denied fellowship.

It is important to realize, however, that any time we have a disagreement with another that breaks our fellowship it is our responsibility to go to the other and clear it up. (Dr. Jay Adams says that reconciliation between two Christians should take place on the road between their homes, as each one hurries to the other to make things right.) We are never to wait for the other to make the first move; it is always our move.

Some people think that their responsibility in solving personal disagreements extends to rallying to the cause of another offended person. But the psalmist warns against taking up a reproach against a neighbor (Psalm 15;3). We are not to go to the defense of another in a disagreement that is not our affair. In other words, “Keep your nose out of other people’s business!” We have no right to take another’s offense; we never have all the facts, and God does not appoint us judges of others (Matthew 7:1-5), so in the area of personal disagreements, Christians should practice these simple teachings of Scripture:

1. If I am offended, I will seek reconciliation.

2. If I have offended, I will seek forgiveness.

3. If another is offended (by a third party), I will avoid being a busybody, and keep out of it.

Church Discipline

Personal disagreements become a matter for church discipline only after ether methods have been followed in God’s way, but to no avail (Matthew 18:17). A local church is autonomous and can make whatever regulations it likes for accepting or rejecting members; however, the New Testament indicates only three reasons for refusing fellowship in a church: the unrepentant practice of immorality (1 Corinthians 5), persistent doctrinal heresy (1 Timothy 1:19-20; Titus 3:10), and persistent divisiveness and refusal to reconcile with another (Matthew 18:17).

Immorality is clearly dealt with in 1 Corinthians 5. A man who was a member of the Corinthian church was living in an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife. We assume she was his stepmother and probably not a member of the church. This relationship was forbidden by both God (in Leviticus 18:8 and Deuteronomy 22:30) and the Roman government. Although the sin appears to have been a well-known fact among all the members of the church, they were evidently not grieved by it. Here was an obvious scandal in the church which was bringing reproach upon the name of Christ.

Paul insisted that the man be put out of the church. This appears to be the meaning of the expression “to deliver such an one unto Satan” — to turn him into the world where Satan’s power holds sway. They were to “put away from among [themselves] that wicked person” (1 Corinthians 5:5 and 13). The duty of the church to dissociate from such a person is implied; but the end purpose of this harsh discipline was repentance and restoration (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

Where there is plain preaching against sin and wickedness, and those within and without the church know of this stand, a member indulging in unrepentant scandalous conduct often will leave the church. However, where such conduct exists and the person remains in fellowship, the church must act to preserve its testimony and to prevent corruption of the body (verse 6).

Doctrinal heresy does not concern personal differences of opinion about the interpretation of various verses on minor matters. Paul warns Timothy to stay away from anyone who teaches anything that denies Scripture and a Godly way of life (1 Timothy 6:3-5). He named two men who had departed from the Faith and had thus been turned over to Satan (1 Timothy 1:19-20). The reason for removing those from the church who deny the Faith is to prevent others from being damaged by their false teaching (2 Timothy 2:16-18). John warns in his second epistle about receiving those who deny the fundamentals of the Faith, and especially the doctrine relating to Christ (verses 7-11); those who receive such deceivers and infidels are in danger of losing their reward (verse 8). We are not to receive them as friends — that would be helping the enemies of Christ (2 Chronicles 19:2).

Paul warned the Romans of those who would cause divisions and hindrances in the church in violation of the teaching they had received (Romans 16:17). These troublemakers were actually self-serving, while pretending by flattering speech to be the servants of Christ (16:18). I do not believe we are going far afield when we point out that the divisions in Christianity today over doctrinal matters are being created by the “Liberals” and their followers who are offending those who believe the Scriptures. Paul’s admonition is to mark or watch such, and avoid or turn away from them. If your local church or denomination has been captured by such self-serving “Liberals,” you should obey the Scripture by turning away from them and affiliating with a fundamental, Bible-believing group.

The Bible says in Titus 3:10 to reject a heretic after you have warned him twice. The word “heretic” means one who is divisive; usually it is used of doctrinal division, but it may simply be a pompous individual in the church who, like Diotrephes (3 John 9-11), loves to have the preeminence. The local church is under a rule of authority. God expects church members to obey the ruler (pastor, elder, bishop — Acts 20:28) that God has placed over them. Just as wives and children are to be in subjection to their head, the husband and father, so church members are to be subject to their spiritual leaders. The Bible says they are “over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12). “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves” (Hebrews 13:7, 17). In view of this, it is reasonable to say that Paul was warning the Romans to watch and avoid those in a local church who seek to create divisions. Do not listen to their complaints, but refer them to the proper authority. There may be times when “we must obey God rather than men,” but rebellion against constituted authority is generally foolish and destructive. The role of the pastor is not dictatorship, but leadership, and we need to follow the leader.

The Thessalonian church had the problem of disorderly conduct. In order to help them, the Apostle Paul devoted most of 2 Thessalonians to commands and exhortations.

There has been much controversy among Fundamentalists over this portion of Scripture. Chapter three, verse six states: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.” Some theologians say that the verses immediately following (7-12) indicate that the withdrawal was to be from those who were lazy or irresponsible and would not work. However, when tied in with the whole book, and especially verses 2, 14, and 15 of chapter 3, this verse seems to be a command to cease having fellowship with those who persist in being disobedient to Scripture in any area, not simply in occupation. The imperatives “withdraw yourselves” and “have no company with him” are commands for the Christian to avoid developing close friendships with any persistently disobedient brother, lest you be thought to agree with his unscriptural actions. Paul’s command does not seem to indicate any formal church action in dealing with the disobedient person. However, the refusal of close fellowship, plus admonition and counseling (verse 15) to set him straight may bring about his correction and restoration.

This type of action probably fits the situation involving the attitude of Fundamentalists toward those who — though converted — are in compromising denominations and ecumenical alliances. A Christian who is violating Scripture should neither be counted as a close friend and associate (verse 14) nor as an enemy (verse 15), but is to be warned as an erring brother.

Today, Biblical discipline is often neglected or ignored. In fact, the great majority of church members in this country probably do not even know of any cases where disciplinary action was taken by their church. But disciplinary weakness does not have to be the norm for our churches. God has given us the methods to handle problems arising between Christians and within churches. Where the Word is faithfully preached, sins are rebuked and confessed, true Christians are reconciled, and severe disciplinary action is rarely needed.


Norman Pyle, is pastor emeritus of Bible Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, after serving forty-three years as senior pastor.

This article first appeared in Faith for the Family, November/December 1974. It is republished here by permission.


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