The first aspect of biblical church discipline that we need to address is one of motive. The Bible does not simply call the church to practice restorative church discipline. The Bible calls us to do it in a certain way: With the motive of restoration and purity.
Motive 1: Restoration & Reconciliation (Love).
Consider the following texts:
Galatians 6:1 1Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
James 5:20 20let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
1 Timothy 1:20 20among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
1 Corinthians 5:5 5you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
The goal of the church as a whole must never be anger, revenge, or punishment. The primary goal of restorative church discipline in the Bible is one of restoration. There are two aspect of this restoration. Restoration of the believer to the church and to God himself.
- Reconciliation between the believer and the church. When sin is present, there also most likely some amount of conflict. This is because when we sin, we sin agains God but also, secondarily we sin against others. Furthermore, when the church is walking in purity, a christian who is walking in sin will not fit right within a Biblical church. This leads to a certain level of distance that can only be fixed through repentance and restoration.
- Reconciliation between the believer and the God. When someone is in a pattern of sin, they are not walking in the spirit and are suffering the loss of joy in God. The loving thing to do for this person is to seek to restore him in his walk with the Lord. He needs to see Jesus as satisfying and his sin and damaging. Church discipline is trying to lead a dehydrated man from drinking mud to drinking refreshing the water of life in the presence of God.
Motive 2: Purity (Protection)
We must realize as a church that Sin spreads. Consider the following passages:
Hebrews 12:15 15See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
1 Corinthians 5:2 2And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
1 Corinthians 5:6–7 6Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
1 Timothy 5:20 20As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Galatians 2:11 11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
Sin causes impurity which tarnishes witness of the church. One of the reasons why the church has a bad reputation for being unloving and being full of conflict is because church discipline is not practiced. Unrepentant sin is ignored and unbelievers cause divisions and the world sees them as believers- because the church seems to communicate that by “welcoming” them. Welcoming people who live in sin with no desire to turn from it and run after Jesus to become part of the church is an American invention, not a biblical practice. This is the death of the church.
This idea that unbelievers come to the church to hear about Jesus comes partly from a misunderstanding of the difference between the Old Covenant and the New. In the Old Covenant, the people of God had a huge beautiful temple and a beautiful land. God’s intention is that people would came to them (Think of the Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10). But in the new covenant, we are not called to build big beautiful building and wait for people to come to us. We are called to “GO and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 18). We are called to lead people to the cleansing blood of Jesus and then be part of our community called the church. When someone in the community are not following Jesus, this must be addressed through Church Discipline for the sake of church purity. God wants to make the Church pure (Eph. 5:27) and we are called to be part of this glorious project by practicing church discipline. It is a serious thing to neglect this practice that God has been very clear on (Rev. 2:20)
When is it Necessary
This list is not exhaustive, but is simply the main examples we find in the Bible. The big factor in this though is consistency and repentance. Never does the Bible call for church discipline when there is repentance for an offense. In each instance there seems to be a pattern of habitual sin with an false understanding that sin is ok.
1. A matter of unrepentant sin that cannot be solved privately.
Matthew 18:15–17 15“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
2. Someone Continually Causing Division
Romans 16:17–18 17I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
Titus 3:10 10As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him,
Jude 19 19It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.
3. Continual & Unrepentant Incest
1 Corinthians 5:1 1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.
4. Continual & Unrepentant Sexual immorality, Greek, idolatry, veiling, drunkenness, swindling
1 Corinthians 5:11 11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
5. Refusing to work
2 Thessalonians 3:6–10 6Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
6. Rejecting Scriptures clear teaching
2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 14If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
7. Continual blasphemy and not holding to the faith and a good conscience.
1 Timothy 1:19–20 19holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
8. Teaching False doctrine.
2 John 10–11 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
Romans 16:17 17I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
- Examine yourself for wrongdoing and a judgmental spirit confessed openly (Matt. 7:1-5).
- Understand what the Bible teaches and follow it. Study carefully Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, & Galatians 3 while assuming the best of everyone involved (1 Cor. 13).
- Progressively starting with 1 on 1 (Mat 18:15).
- With the goal of restoration as we saw above (2 Cor. 2:7-8, 7:8-11).
- With a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1)
- With forgiveness available (Matt. 18:21-35)
Why are churches biblically required to exercise restorative discipline in some situations?
1. For the Purity of the Church. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 says “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Paul here is making an illustration using the Passover feast. At this feast, leaven was not to be present but was to be “cast out”. The church, just like the Passover feast, must be free from that which defiles it, in this case it is the unrepentant sinner. When a Church allows those in it’s fold to continue in sin without addressing it, there is shame and defilement.
2. For the Salvation and Restoration of the Unrepentant Sinner. 1 Corinthians 5:5 says, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” It is clear in the text that the reason the sexually immoral person in the church of Corinth is to be “handed over to Satan (referring to the realm outside the church) for the destruction of his flesh (referring to the consequences of no longer being part of the church)”, is so that “his spirit may be saved”. The goal of excluding an individual is for the sake of their eternal salvation so that they can be included in the worship of Jesus when he returns. This reality is clear in every step laid out in Matthew 18:15-18. The goal of each step is that we would “gain our brother” through their repentance.
These two reasons I gave are not the only two but they are the main concerns given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5. Mark Dever, in his book What is a Healthy Church, gives five biblical reasons for practicing discipline. “1. the good of the disciplined individual, 2. other Christians as they see the danger of sin; 3. the health of the church as a whole; 4. the corporate witness of the church and, therefore, non-Christians in the community; 5. and the glory of God.”¹
But let’s now ask why do churches fail to watch over the congregation through Restorative Discipline? Here is Dr. Gregory Wills answer,
“There are powerful trends running counter to all that discipline entails. Our [Southern Baptist] local church ecclesiology [the structure and organization of the Church primarily in the Leadership with biblical Elders and Deacons (Church Servants)] is weak in theory and practice—that is, we can not find a scriptural ecclesiology, so we substitute whatever seems to promote conversion and denominational loyalty. We lack spirituality—we fear humans more than God. We are worldly. We surely have a large percentage of unregenerate church members. We do not trust God to accomplish his will in his way. We refuse to insist upon a scripture teaching that affects anyone other than ourselves. We do not have that confidence in interpretation that is willing to take responsibility for it.”²
I think that Dr. Wills is right on in his assessment. The topic of church discipline is one that historically has been avoided in many churches (including Southern Baptists) yet is essential to the health and perseverance of the church. I am thankfull for the renewed concern by many Southern Baptists pastors and professors made evident by the wealth of books, articles, and blogs that have been published over the last ten years. We must understand clearly what the Bible says on this issue and ensure that we are actively and lovingly holding each other accountable. Speaking of Biblical authority, listen to what Victor Masters, a southern Baptist Editor in the early 1900’s says about Sentimentality getting in the way of obedience. His words are as true today as they were when he wrote them in 1902:
“Sentimentality is an enemy of church discipline. Sentimentality is the love of man divorced from the love of truth. Under the specious guise of broadened sympathies it cloaks a big lot of hypocrisy and moral decay. The church sentimentalist is so kind to his fellow church member that he is willing to ignore the plain instructions of the Book of his faith rather than bring him to account for unchristian conduct. ‘Judge not that ye be not judged,’ he quotes, but he forgets to quote (1 Cor. 5:12, 13) ‘Do not ye judge them that are within, whereas them that are without God judgeth.’”³
May God give us his grace to pursue love and faithfulness in watching over each-other.
Listen to my sermon on Restorative Church Discipline & Accountability preached in February of 2015.
¹Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007. 106. Print.
²Wills, Gregory A. “Southern Baptists and Church Discipline.” (2000). Southern Seminary Publications. Read it here.
³Victor Masters, “Church Discipline,” Baptist Courier, 21 Aug. 1902, 1-2.