In every institution ordained by God, discipline plays a fundamental role: in the home (Eph. 6:4), the nation (Rom. 13:1-4), and the church (2 Thess. 3:6). These institutions are no stronger than their enforcement of God’s laws, and someday parents, governing officials, and church leaders will be held accountable for how they have fulfilled their responsibilities toward the souls entrusted to their care (cf. Heb. 13:17).
Discipline is both instructive and corrective. In NT Greek the word “discipline” is paideia, meaning “education, training up, nurture ... instruction, discipline ... correction, chastisement” (H. K. Moulton, Analytical Greek Lexicon 298). Fathers are to raise their children in the paideia and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4), scripture is profitable for paideia in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), and the various forms of paideia from the Lord should not be despised (Heb. 12:5-11).
Admittedly the disciplining of wayward church members is not a pleasant task, and ignorance of the biblical process has led to it being abused and neglected. Two major problems have plagued the Lord’s church concerning the administration of church discipline: (1) non-use, and (2) misuse. The church at Corinth, for example, went from practicing no discipline at all (1 Cor. 5:1-2) to being too severe when action was eventually taken (2 Cor. 2:5-7). Neither extreme is acceptable and both require a change of direction toward the middle ground of truth (2 Cor. 7:8-12; cf. Rev. 2:14-16).
Church discipline is first of all positive and preventative. All Christians must be exposed to sound and consistent teaching (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:41-42; 11:23; 14:21-22; 15:32), which includes the sometimes unpopular tasks of warning, exhorting, and correcting (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 4:2). But when a biblically-educated member of the church is overtaken in a trespass and begins to walk disorderly (Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:6), further disciplinary measures are to be taken.
Those who are not walking disorderly should be seeking to restore the erring member with love, gentleness, patience and humility (Eph. 4:15; Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-25). A harsh, angry, or unkind approach has the potential of driving the struggling brother further away from the church (cf. Prov. 15:1, 18; Col. 4:6), and self-examination will help maintain the right focus (Gal. 5:17, 26; 6:1; 1 Cor. 10:12; 2 Cor. 13:5; 1 Tim. 4:16). But the wayward member must be made aware of his spiritual condition, clearly warned, and admonished to turn back to a faithful walk with the Lord (1 Thess. 5:14; Jas. 5:19-20; Tit. 3:10). While individual admonishing is helpful, it has a greater impact when done by a plurality of concerned brethren, and more is required than the testimony of just one person to confirm the sinful behavior and possible impenitent attitude of the transgressor (cf. Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19).
If the wayward member refuses to heed the admonitions of concerned brethren, the matter is to be brought before the whole congregation (Matt. 18:17; 1 Tim. 5:20). Since the Lord gives sinners time to repent (Rev. 2:21; 2 Pet. 3:9), action should not be taken too quickly. But neither should it be withheld indefinitely, otherwise its impact will be greatly diminished. Although no specific time-frame is set forth in scripture, there seems to be a precedent for three admonitions prior to stronger measures being taken. A divisive man is to be rejected after the first and second admonitions (Titus 3:10), i.e. the third admonition is when the dismissal takes place. In Matt. 18:15-17 it was only after the erring brother was (1) individually contacted, (2) approached with one or two more witnesses, then (3) admonished by the church that he was to be considered “like the heathen and the tax collector.” Those needing discipline in Thessalonica were (1) warned by Paul and his coworkers in person (2 Thess. 3:10), (2) admonished again in the first epistle (1 Thess. 4:11), and then (3) admonished again in the second epistle (2 Thess. 3:11-12) before the brethren were to withdraw from them (2 Thess. 3:6, 14). When disciplinary action against the immoral brother was called for in 1 Cor. 5, remember that Paul had already (1) personally taught in Corinth (Acts 18:11), (2) wrote a letter dealing with immorality (1 Cor. 5:9), and then (3) wrote again with further exhortations (1 Cor. 5:1-5) before stronger measures were taken.
After sufficient admonitions have been given yet repentance is still not exhibited, the whole church is to “withdraw from” (2 Thess. 3:6), “not associate with” (1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:14), “turn away from” (Rom. 16:17; Titus 3:10) the errant brother. The reason for this can be viewed from the following fourfold perspective.
1. God: Since discipline is a biblical command (2 Thess. 3:6), it serves as a test for whether or not Christians are “obedient in all things” (2 Cor. 2:9). Even though it can sometimes be an unpleasant exercise, when faithfully observed the Lord’s “commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
2. The offender: Church discipline is an expression of loving concern for the erring member (cf. Heb. 12:5-11), intended to produce recognition of the sin, shame, and godly sorrow leading to repentance, restoration, and salvation (2 Thess. 3:14; 1 Cor. 5:5; James 5:19-20).
3. The congregation: Disciplinary action is necessary in order to keep the church pure. If sin is ignored or allowed to persist unchallenged, it has the potential of spreading like yeast through a lump of dough (1 Cor. 5:6-8; 15:33; Gal. 5:9), leading to the spiritual disintegration of the whole body (cf. 2 Pet. 2:13-22; Rev. 2:20). When faithfully administered, however, it serves as a warning to others that disorderly conduct will not be tolerated (1 Tim. 5:20).
4. The outside community: The church is to have a positive influence on the world, bringing glory to God (Matt. 5:13-16; Phil. 2:14-15; 1 Pet. 2:12). But if sinful behavior is permitted to abide in her midst, not only is this influence marred or destroyed, ill repute is brought upon the name of the Lord and his church (Rom. 2:24; 1 Tim. 6:1; 2 Pet. 2:2).
Contrary to what some might think, this termination of affiliation is not the final step in the disciplinary process. After the Thessalonica church was instructed to not keep company with an errant member, they were told: “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15). At least two things can be gleaned from this statement. First of all, disciplinary action, although firm and uncompromising, is not intended to be hateful, malicious, or cruel. Secondly, the withdrawal of association does not mean giving up on this brother, and further attempts are to be made to bring him back to faithfulness. The admonishing continues until repentance is forthcoming.
Finally, when church discipline has fulfilled its intended purpose and the sinner penitently returns to the Lord, the next steps are forgiveness, acceptance, comfort, and reaffirmation of love (2 Cor. 2:6-11; Luke 15:11-32). Since the goal has always been restoration (Gal. 6:1; James 5:19-20), there is no place for resentment, grudges, or selfish pride (Col. 3:12-14; 1 Cor. 13:4-7). “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
This article (plus others to follow) is an attempt to identify and clarify the NT pattern of church discipline. Such an endeavor, however, is not without its limitations, and caution should be exercised when seeking to ascertain and implement these procedures. The various biblical texts which deal with this subject are sometimes addressing different circumstances, and this fact should be considered before blanket applications are made to situations which may not be parallel. In a family setting, for instance, the form and degree of discipline are determined by such variables as age, level of knowledge, accountability, attitude, pattern of behavior, and the nature of the offense. May the Lord grant us wisdom as we seek to “warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, [and] be patient with all” (1 Thess. 5:14).
--Kevin L. Moore
Related Posts: Don't Even Eat With, Biblical Reasons for Withdrawing, Must Discipline be Unanimous?, Inter congregational Responsibilities, When a Family Member is Disciplined
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