Some thoughts on church discipline

Several years ago as we were rewriting our church bylaws, we re-examined many areas of practice in the local church, our goal being to do everything as close as possible to the Biblical pattern.  One of the things that has been dealt with in a fairly consistent manner is church discipline, usually according to Matthew 18:15-17.  (Just look at most church bylaws.)

I’m not going to write everything that we have in our church documents regarding discipline, however, I do want to assert that the hope and prayer of church discipline is recovery and discipleship for the sinning believer.  I confess that I have not always practiced it in a completely Biblical manner.

The purpose of this post is to bring attention to an area of discipline that is not only overlooked, but would also – if correctly practiced in churches – make the process of discipline far more workable and therefore effective.

To illustrate the problem, here are some questions: Should open adultery by a church member be dealt with according to Matthew 18:15-17?  How is it even workable?  Should a church even come to step 3 where members actually have the potential of voting to retain an unrepentant adulterer?

As I prayed through this conundrum while studying all of the different N.T. passages on church discipline, I realized that there are different categories of offenses and they are dealt with differently in the various passages of Scripture.  Hopefully, the following delineations will help some of you, my fellow pastors, to more effectively deal with offenses in the local church that you pastor.

1.  Personal offenses and unknown sin.

This is the kind of offense that Matthew 18:15-17 addresses.  A long time ago, I unwittingly breached a legal contract with some dear friends in Christ.  They came to me privately and explained my offense to me.  I had not realized what I had done, and my heart was deeply grieved that I had caused them such pain.  We quickly made things right and to this day I have a very high degree of respect for them.  The passages of Scripture that address this kind of scenario are Matthew 18:15-35, Luke 17:3-5, and Galatians 6:1.

2.  Open Sin.

The apostle Paul rebuked the church in Corinth for their handling of open immorality in their midst (1st Corinthians 5), they were even boasting of their tolerance.  I find it interesting that Paul did not mention any kind of “due process.”  He told them that, even though he wasn’t in Corinth, he knew that this person should not be allowed to stay in the church.  It wasn’t even a voting matter in the mind of Paul.  Unfortunately, there were people in Corinth who were proud that this man was a part of their church.  Sadly, the application of many churches “due process” would make it possible – though unlikely – that such a person could be retained in membership.

The follow-up in 2nd Corinthians 2 indicates that the man must have repented of his sin and therefore the church should forgive him and receive him.  This is a very important part of church discipline.  Unfortunately, discipline is often handled so poorly that even if the offender does repent, he no longer wants any part of the church that disciplined him.

The passages of Scripture that deal with open sin are 1st Corinthians 5, 2nd Corinthians 2:6-11, and 2nd Thessalonians 3:6-15.

C.  Doctrinal division or heresy.

Interestingly, doctrinal division or heresy is the offense which is dealt with most severely in the N.T. church; this reflects the demeanor of Christ in the gospels (notice the way He dealt with adulteresses in contrast to the religious hypocrites).  Other than Romans 16:17 and 2nd John 9-11 (which give no specifics on the process), there is a preponderance of Scripture in the pastoral epistles addressed to pastors on dealing with heresy and division.  Dealing with doctrinal division and heresy is primarily the responsibility of the church leadership.  Even the letters to the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira were addressed to the messengers of those churches (Revelation 2).  There, the pastor was to preach this message regarding false teachers to these churches.

The passages of Scripture that deal with doctrinal division or heresy are Acts 20:28-31, Romans 16:17, 1st Timothy 1:18-20; 4:16; 6:1-5; 2nd Timothy 2:23-26; Titus 1:9-16; 3:9-11; 2nd John 1:9-11.

Conclusion.

I haven’t detailed exactly what the process is that we follow in each of these circumstances, though it is clearly outlined in our church documents.  However, I’m convinced that recognizing the distinctions between the different kinds of offenses will make the application of discipline far more workable and effective in the N.T. church.  It is quite liberating to remove a wrongly applied paradigm and consequently, an unwieldy one, from your church practice.