In Search of Church Discipline

One if the missing ingredients of modern Christian life is that of church discipline. We have all but lost the New Testament understanding of discipline in the churches. I suspect this is part of a much larger problem. Church discipline makes sense only in a context of clear notion of sin, of right and wrong, of a strong view of biblical authority, of a willingness to put scriptural injunctions ahead of trendy social theories. To the extent that these larger issues have been abandoned or weakened, the practice of church discipline has taken a dive.

The loss of church discipline can be seen when one asks a few questions: When is the last time you can recall someone in your church being disciplined? When was the last time you heard of someone being expelled from the church for major doctrinal error or behavioral misconduct? As another indication, I recently visited a large evangelical bookstore. I could not find one book on church discipline, nor could I even find one chapter on the subject in books about the church.

In contrast, the New Testament community of believers was well versed in the theology and practice of church discipline. A number of cases are recorded in Scripture, and extensive teaching on the subject is found throughout the New Testament. Perhaps one of the major passages is Matt. 18:15-17: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

This passage is pretty straightforward and does not need comment, except to note how seldom one sees it being put into practice today. Yet we see it being put into practice quite often in the New Testament. One of the more radical examples of course is found in Acts 5:1-10 concerning Ananias and Sapphira. There God brought the ultimate judgment for their sin. While we may not see this in evidence today, Paul does teach that in principle it is still applicable. For example, read what he says in 1 Cor. 5:3-5: “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”

And in 1 Tim. 1:20 Paul speaks of Hymenaeus and Alexander, “whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme”. In both cases the actual judgment (physical death, sickness, etc.) is not clearly spelled out, yet Paul has obviously gone to some strong measures. We get a clearer understanding in 1 Cor. 11:29-31 where Paul says that those who do not come to the Lord’s supper circumspectly and reverently may suffer physical consequences: “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [died]. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.”

Concerning those who refuse to repent and turn from wrong behaviour or doctrine, exclusion or dissociation from fellowship is enjoined as the Scriptural response. In 1 Cor. 5:9-13 Paul writes: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people–not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’”

The issue of church discipline is really part of the overall view we have of holiness and what it means to be set apart for God’s service. In other words, ordinary everyday Christian living means becoming more like Christ (Ro. 8:29), becoming more sensitive to the Holy Spirit in the conviction of sin. Repentance, confession of sin, and seeking after righteousness are part and parcel of the Christian walk. Church discipline is merely extending into Church life what is already taking place – or should be taking place – in our individual lives. And the general rule of thumb here is private sins need to be confessed in private, while public sins deserve public treatment.

The key to the return of discipline in the church is the return of a call to holiness and repentance. Until the biblical teaching on such issues as sin, hell and judgment are recovered in our churches, we will continue to experience the missing ingredient of church discipline. And as long as that is the case, our churches will continue to have less and less impact on a needy and broken world.

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