Corrective Church Discipline

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sheep_1237558cOne of the most important and difficult tasks a pastor must undertake is leading his congregation to understand and obey what the Bible says about church discipline. The widespread neglect of the practice can cause even faithful Christians to be fearful of the idea. When biblical texts that give instruction on the subject are introduced it is not uncommon to hear responses that border on panic. “This will split the church.” “So then only perfect people can be members?” “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” “I’ve been a Christian for ___ (20, 30, 40, etc.) years and have never heard of this, so why are you bringing it up now?”

Such fears can only be overcome by leading people to trust the Lord and His Word. The authority and sufficiency of Scripture are foundational not only to restoring the practice of church discipline but to every matter of faith and work in the Christian life. On that foundation the specific texts on the nature of the church and the steps of discipline must  be simply and plainly taught.

To introduce church discipline I would begin with the classic passage on the subject found in Matthew 18:15-20. Any church that obeys Jesus’ words will find that most sin in the church will be effectively dealt with in private as brothers and sisters give and receive correction as they help each other follow Christ together. Repentance and forgiveness will characterize relationships—which is exactly the way life together in the body of Christ is supposed to work.

When such private efforts fail and the offender continues in sin without repentance, the matter must be told to the church. Only if he refuses to heed the admonitions of the church is he to be removed from membership, not as an act of punishment but as an expression of love for his soul and with the hope and prayer that he will come to his senses and be restored through repentance.

Other passages (such as 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Titus 3:10, Romans 16:17-18, 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15, etc.) must also be taught in the context of how redeemed sinners live together in repentance and forgiveness. Addressing such issues might well be uncomfortable, especially when doing so exposes areas of neglect in the life of the church. But God’s Word is good for us and following His commandments bring spiritual joy and life.

The real difficulty in church discipline, however, is not so much in knowing what to do or even how to do it. The hardest part of church discipline is in the actual administering of it. It is painful. There is no easy way to confront a brother in his sin. If he persists, there is no easy way to take one or two others with you to confront him again. If he still refuses to repent, there is no easy way to tell it to the church, and if he refuses to hear “even” the church, it is absolutely excruciating to remove him from membership–to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5).

Coming to terms with the fact that there simply is no easy way to carry out these steps has been one of the most sobering yet helpful lessons that I have learned as a pastor. When leading a church to take the final step of discipline certain questions always lurk in the shadows, “Isn’t there another way? Is there anything more that we can do to avoid this?” They are provoked, I think, out of a proper desire to avoid taking the most serious step a church can take in dealing with a person’s soul. By reconciling myself to the fact that doing what Christ commands in such a case is unavoidably painful, and by teaching the church to view it that way, we are encouraged not to shrink back from our duty but to take up this cross with a view to God’s glory and the welfare of the wayward member.

In his kindness, I have had the privilege of seeing the fruit of church discipline born out not only in the restoration of brothers and sisters who have submitted to it but also in the strengthening of the church in the fear of the Lord and in the conversion of unbelievers. I fully identify with the following words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne as he describes his own pastoral grappling with the exercise of church discipline.

When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great and almost only work was to pray and preach. I saw your souls to be so precious, and the time so short, that I devoted all my time, and care, and strength, to labour in word and doctrine. When cases of discipline were brought before me and the elders, I regarded them with something like abhorrence. It was a duty I shrank from; and I may truly say it nearly drove me from the work of the ministry among you altogether. But it pleased God, who teaches his servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke in upon my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline. I now feel very deeply persuaded that both are of God—that two keys are committed to us by Christ, the one the key of doctrine, by means of which we unlock the treasures of the Bible, the other the key of discipline, by which we open or shut the way to the sealing ordinances of the faith. Both are Christ’s gift, and neither is to be resigned without sin.

 

 

 

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17 Responses to “Corrective Church Discipline”

  1. Dan johnson

    Brother, I am presently in a church that has some individuals that have caused trouble within the church for many years. I have only been here less than a year. I have spoken with individuals in the way that the Bible tells us to do but they will not repent and get hearts right. They continue to create division. Please pray.

    Reply
      • Nalini Harrold

        How do you deal with those who question the reformist view against taking the bible literally word for word? Would you consider the need to evict them from your church if you can’t make them recant their faith in a literal biblical point of view?

        Reply
  2. Gord Schutz

    Thank you Tom for this. I understand the need for church discipline as evidenced in the scripture. However, my question is “what kind of sin is worthy of discipline?” Some sin is more of the spirit than of the flesh. Sexual immorality is obvious but attitudes and dispositions toward leadership for example are harder to discern whether it is worthy of discipline. Any thoughts here?

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      Gord, the only reason a church should discipline any member is for recalcitrance—ie. unwillingness to repent of sin. Attitudinal sins are difficult to discern and deal with, but when they manifest themselves in divisiveness and the guilty party refuses to repent, then they also can lead to formal discipline. The important point is an unwillingness to repent. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  3. Unfortunately, first as a disciplining leader, the question that must be undertaken is the question of the character of the person doing the “disciplining.” On more than one occasion, have I seen a “pastor/leader” seek to correct a missive, while failing to question their own character and motives. The failure ot this type of questioning leads to the downfall and misappropriation of abuse within the church. Far too often do “leaders” perform discipline and fail to complete an examination of not only their own motives and character, but also the motives and character of the person who is pointing the finger, and the person to whom the finger is pointed.

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      Dr. J, as I see it, motives belong to God and He alone is competent to judge them. Further, leaders don’t discipline in the sense about which I wrote. Churches do. Blessings.

      Reply
  4. A. Amos Love

    Tom

    You write..
    “To introduce “church discipline”
    I would begin with the classic passage on the subject
    found in Matthew 18:15-20.”

    “Only if he refuses to heed the admonitions of the church
    is he to be removed from membership…”
    ———-

    Many today say, Mat 18:15-20, is a standard verse calling for “church discipline.”
    Giving “a local church” the authority to remove someone from “church membership.”

    Here are some reasons challenging this tradition…
    Of Mat 18:15-20, being about “church discipline.”
    ———-

    1 – These 4 terms, a local church, church membership, church discipline…
    “…to be removed from membership…”
    Are NOT mentioned in ALL of Mat 18.
    ———-

    2 – When MY Brother, who sins against ME…
    Refuses to listen to ME. And I do NOT gain MY Brother…
    Refuses to listen to the one or two witnesses.
    And also, “refuses to heed the admonitions of the church…”
    And, I do NOT gain MY Brother.

    The responsibility is still left up to ME, the Brother sinned against…
    How “I” treat MY Brother, as “a Gentile and a tax collector.”

    NOT the “church.” NOT the “church leaders.”

    Mat 18:17 ESV …let him be to *you* (ME) (The Brother sinned against.)
    as a Gentile and a tax collector.

    Reply
  5. A. Amos Love

    Tom

    Here is another reason challenging this tradition…
    Of Mat 18:15-20, being about “church discipline.”
    ———-

    3 – When Mat 18:17, says…
    …let him be to **you** (ME) as a Gentile and a tax collector.

    Isn’t Jesus to be the example? For His Disciples?
    How did Jesus treat *the Gentiles and tax collectors?*

    Seems Jesus, and His Disciples, hung out with, ate with, the *tax collectors.*
    But, it was the Religious Leaders, the Pharisees, who did NOT approve. Yes?
    And Jesus told these Religious Leaders who complained…
    “ Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”

    Mat 9:10-11 ESV
    And as Jesus reclined at table in the house,
    behold, many **tax collectors and sinners** came and
    were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.
    And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples,
    “Why does your teacher eat with *tax collectors* and sinners?”

    But when Jesus heard the Religious Leaders questioning him…
    Jesus said to them in…

    Mat 9:13 ESV
    Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.
    For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

    Hmmm? Maybe, WE, His Sheep, His Disciples, His Ekklesia, His sons…
    Are to be like Jesus, reclining and eating with *tax collectors* and sinners?
    And showing Mercy?

    Mat 18, does NOT say, MY Brother, is “…to be removed from membership…”
    Mat 18, does NOT say, MY Brother, is “…to be Excommunicated.”
    Mat 18, does NOT say, MY Brother gets, *three strikes and you’re out.*

    Reply
  6. A. Amos Love

    Tom

    Haven’t you ever wondered? Why?
    Why do so many stop at verse 20? What about Mat 18:21-22?
    Isn’t this still part of the same conversation?

    This is another reason to challenge the tradition…
    Of Mat 18:15-20, being about “church discipline.”
    Because they leave out Mat 18:21-22. “Forgivening” 70 times 7.

    4 – Isn’t the conversation in Mat 18:21-22, still part of Mat 18:15-20?

    It takes less than 90 seconds to read aloud, Mat 18, verses 15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22.

    Jesus says, in Mat 18:15 ESV…
    “If **your brother sins against you…**

    Peter asks, in Mat 18:21 ESV…
    Peter… “Lord, how often will **my brother sin against me…**

    Isn’t this part of the same conversation?

    In Mat 18:21-22, Peter does have a question for Jesus about Mat 18:15-17. But, Peters question is NOT about what happens when His Brother does NOT Listen after three tries. Peters question is NOT about, “If” His Brother does NOT repent. Peters question is NOT about, How do I treat MY Brother, “as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

    Seems Peter, already knows…
    How one of His Disciples are to treat a Brother as “a Gentile and a tax collector.”
    From watching Jesus, “reclining and eating with *tax collectors* and sinners.”
    And showing Mercy.

    Peters question is about…
    How often can my Brother sin against me
    and I’m still required to “forgive” him? Seven times?

    And Jesus, after teaching about three ways to “gain your brother,” does NOT mention, “church discipline” by “church leaders.” Jesus does NOT mention, **Three Strikes and You’re Out.** “Excommunication.”

    Jesus, tells Peter to keep on “forgiveing,” 70 times 7.

    Mat 18:21-22 KJV
    Peter… Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me,
    and I “forgive” him? till seven times?
    Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee,
    Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”

    Doesn’t it sound like in verse 21, Peter’s question is about what Jesus said in verse 15?

    After reading ALL of Mat 18, to verse 35, again and again, especially verses 15-22, isn’t this Final Outcome of Mat 18, about Jesus, requireing WE, His Sheep, His Disciples, to forgive? Come to Him as little children? And forgive? And go after the one sheep who has gone astray? And forgive? And, Jesus warning WE, His Disciples, in verse 35, saying, “my heavenly Father” is NOT happy, when WE, His Sheep, do NOT “forgive” every one his brother their trespasses. Yes?

    And, Mat 18, is NOT about, “church discipline?” By “church leaders?”

    And, Mat 18, is NOT about excommunicating? My Brother? After three tries?

    Reply
  7. Tom, thanks for this post. It is something that I have been contemplating on throughout the year. Say for instance that an individual is in a leadership position within their church, youth pastor and associate minister (unannounced), and has been engaging in some sexual immoral practices over a long period of time during their leadership tenure. The individual is aware of the need for church discipline but, despite conversations about his behaviors with the lead pastor of the church, has not been asked to sit down to work towards restoration. The individual is seriously considering sitting themselves down but fears the backlash that will likely come from the lead pastor. How would you advise the brother?

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      Bill,

      I would encourage anyone in the situation you describe and thinking the way that this man is thinking to resign and get help.
      Blessings,
      ta

      Reply
  8. anonymous

    I have always been a strong believer in everything you have presented (and still am), but right now I am confronting a very different issue in my own church where I believe church discipline has been handled improperly. Initially, I was very supportive of the elders in addressing the issue, but had some concerns (that initially seemed minor) about how the process was being handled. Initially, I had been present for many of the meetings where the issues were discussed with this member. Over the last six months, I have become increasingly troubled about the “process” in which church discipline is being handled. Significantly so over the last 6 weeks where I believe a member was dis-fellowshipped without biblical grounds. Here’s the situation:

    A church member who was engaged to be married, confessed that the couple had been involved sexually as their engagement ended. The response of the elders was to question the motive of that confession, and communicate that this issue would need to be brought before the church. Many discussions ensued over several months, at which the threat of bringing this before the church was ever present but never executed. Over the course of several months this member became increasingly troubled with the “process” and eventually left town to live with a family member in another town. From my perspective I saw significant failures from both this member and the elders during this period.

    About two months later, this member began communicating again with the elders of the church and again acknowledged the sin. Upon returning, this member was told that they could not return to fellowship within the church. Over the last two months this member has submitted to every request the elders have made, but is still being excluded from fellowship. In my opinion their process of restoral seems to mirror more closely the Catholic idea of “penance” than it does a biblical view of church discipline, and I am deeply concerned.

    Over the last month and a half, I have written the two elders who were directly involved twice and recently the whole elder board expressing my concerns about the process that has taken place. In the last month and half, I have received only one response i.e. a single email that said “be patient.” None of the concerns that I have raised have been acknowledged or addressed.

    My concerns are as follows:

    1. A member who had initiated confession of sin (that was before this confession unexposed) and had expressed repentance was then threatened with having the issue brought before the church after making that confession.

    2. This member has now been dis-fellowshipped without ever bringing anything before the church, and has been given no clear path to resolving the issue, or clear date when they can return.

    3. The elders appear to feel no accountability to anyone for the choices they are making, choices that appear to me to be very unbiblical.

    How would you handle a situation like this?

    Reply
    • Tom Ascol

      The situation sounds very sad. I can’t really answer your question, however, because there are certainly more variables involved than what can be described here. I am a convinced congregationalist and in our approach to such matters the elders would be kept in check by the church and it would be the church who administers the discipline, not the elders alone.
      Blessings,
      ta

      Reply
  9. Lamar Carnes

    Tom, I ask a question which may be simplistic to many and yet, it is rather clouded when I come to terms with it as I speak to others about the issue many times. The question is; when we speak of confession and repentance, does that connote not only admitting the sinful activity but turning totally away from the sin recognizing it was disobedience first toward God and then in some fashion affecting our fellow believers. I say that because many are in the body of Christ who have confessed, and then had a change of mind concerning the sin against God and His word, but yet they are fully engaged in a struggle relating to habitual sin. As I have noted the Puritans in their writings and even in their prayers, they indicate all we do is touched in some form and way with sin! Much is habitual because we just live a life many times of continual unbelief in some sense, or just not doing what we should do about many things we are commanded to do regarding one gathering, prayer, witnessing, etc.! Are those things not sinful and are they not habitual most of the time, and if so, how is that to be regarded in relation to the doctrine of repentance? I hear many Pastors speaking of how things are messy in the local Church and we are all imperfect and struggling with many sins, etc., during our santification process. In other words it sounds like not many are getting victory over the flesh daily and are constantly messy in their life which should produce holiness. Is this sound theology or are we missing something surrounding all of this? I find that justification by faith alone, in Christ alone for the glory of God alone, brings about forgiveness and the imputation of not only a freedom from the wrath to come by Christ paying for our sins totally and having that imputed to our account, but also, his active work of holy liiving out the word of God perfectly which is also transferred to us for we are now IN CHRIST and looked at 24/7 as sons of God, children of God, forgiven and not under His wrath. Yet, in the fallen nature of the flesh, we have and do see much sinful activity of all sorts and types; we tend to major on the biggies we think, such as stealing, fraud, adultery, fornication, divorce, hate, etc., and yet there are hidden multitudes of sinfulness acts and deeds which are not even recognized and some that are! So, we are to repent and confess daily our known and unknown sins. My final thought is how does that work out more clearly in an expression for teaching to our fellow brethren in the body of Christ, so they have some spiritual sense about the realities of things and not fall into the trap of guilt, fear and thoughts of being lost due to so many failures, etc.? John in his epistles tells us “we cannot sin because Christ seeds dwells in us” but yet he says if we say we have no sin we lie and the truth is not in us. Those need more clarity of thought in our lessons and preaching to the flock. They produce much confusion because I do not think they are exposited clearly to the breathe in most Churches. Any thoughts on all of this would appreciated or direction to articles or some books which would help in this matter. Thanks so much! – Lamar

    Reply

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