The Church Part 4: Church Discipline

Purpose/Motivation

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

How?

  1. Examine yourself for wrongdoing and a judgmental spirit confessed openly (Matt. 7:1-5).
  2. 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).
  3. Progressively starting with 1 on 1 (Mat 18:15).
  4. With the goal of restoration as we saw above (2 Cor. 2:7-8, 7:8-11).
  5. With a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1)
  6. With forgiveness available (Matt. 18:21-35)

Priests, Bishops, Elders, Pastors, Popes, Archbishops, Elders… Congregation?

It seems like there are as many church titles as their are churches but you may be surprised to hear that in the Bible their are only two offices given to the church, elders (also called pastors) and deacons.  You may be even more surprised to hear that God has made the individual members of the church responsible for what goes on in the church, not simply the leaders.  So with all the different churches with their own branded form of leadership and decision making, what is the biblical patter of church government? The first issue with church government what are the biblical church offices.

Pastor/Elder

The terms elder, overseer, and bishop are used interchangeably in the New Testament (NT) to refer to the same office in the church (See Acts 20:17-38 and 1 Peter 5:2-5).  These terms refer to the same office of Pastor emphasizing different aspects of it.  Churches in the scriptures always have a plurality of elders who oversaw the church in many aspects. The qualifications for this office are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.

Deacons

Next there are deacons who are the church servants.  These individuals did not take part in the official leading of the church like the elders but were in charge of taking care of the physical needs of the congregation (Acts 6:1-6, 1 Tim. 3:8-13).  Many churches have deacons who serve as leaders in the church and this is simply not biblical and unhealthy.

What about Apostles?

Apostles were existent in the early church though this office fell out of use after the eyewitnesses of Jesus all passed away as this was one of the requirements to be an apostle (Acts 1:21-22).  This office was part of the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20) laid in the first century, not intended to continue to the present day.  Even thought there are no more apostles living, a faithful NT church is still led by the apostles through their writings now gathered into the NT.

Who Makes Decisions?

The NT pattern seems to suggest it was the responsibility of the church members to install and remove church leaders (Acts 6:3, Acts 15:22, 1 Cor. 5:4). This fits into the congregationalist form of church government which makes the congregation the final court of appeals when it comes to the decision making of the church.  This reality is seen most clearly in the fact that the congregation is always responsible when there is false teaching in the church (Gal. 1:3), immorality in the church (1 Cor. 5), or the need to excommunicate a member of the church (Matt. 18:15-20 esp. v. 17).  These things are never merely left up to the leaders of the church.  The elders (pastors) of the church are never charged with these things or rebuked for failing to do these things, the congratulation itself was called to do them.  In this form of government, the elders lead the church and present things to the church but the church votes as the final court of appeals.  This means the the elders (pastors) lead and teach the church, the deacons take care of physical needs, and the congregation moves forward with decision making under the guidance and leadership of the elders.

Episcopalian Alternative

Contrary to this form of structure there is the Episcopalian form of government which includes Archbishops, bishops, and priests who preside over the congregations in that order of authority.  This form is built off of presumed church tradition rather than the scriptures as these offices as they are used never appear in the Bible.

Presbyterian Alternative

Then you have the Presbyterian form of Church Government which includes a teaching elder and lay elders that form a session in each congregation and some of these elders are part of a regional presbytery and some of these are part of a general assembly which presides over the local churches.  This form of government is argued largely based on the example of the Jerusalem counsel that is formed in Acts 11:1-18 which was made up of the churches “throughout Judea” (v.1).  This group came to a conclusion that was accepted by the churches through Judea and beyond.  This form of government also is meant to bring visible unity to the global church, stability and protect against false teaching though this is not always effective (look at the PCUSA for example). A big problem with this view, though more biblical than the Episcopalian view, is that the local church in the NT is given responsibility to make decisions under the authority of Christ.   Each local church was autonomous and was responsible to Christ, not to a body of higher leadership.  My opinion, based on what I see in the Bible, is that denominations are good for cooperation, not for control or governing. You can find a more in-depth explanation of this position from a Presbyterian pastor here.

Woman Pastors

The final issues when it comes to church government relates to women in pastoral ministry.  According to the scriptures, the teaching and leading role in the church is reserved for men, not because they are superior in value but rather because God made men and women different in roles both in the home and in the church (1 Tim. 2:11-14, 1 Cor. 14:33-3 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, Eph. 5:25-33).   This practice is rooted in creation as is made clear in 1 Timothy 2:11-14, not in culture or preference. As the text says

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (1 Ti 2:11–14)

Notice the reason that Paul gives here. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve”. This makes clear that Gender roles are not a result of the fall but are rooted in the goodness of God’s creation and in the wisdom of God in creating Man in Woman as equal is worth but different in function.  Furthermore, Paul points to the fall as another basis for gender roles as he says “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”.  This is by no means saying that the woman was gullible and the man was not.  Paul is pointing out that the serpent did not go to the man and try to deceive him.  Rather the serpent usurps God’s good creation order and goes to the woman who is the helper (Gen. 2:20), instead of the man who was called to protect and lead.

I hope this article go your mind thinking about the way God intends his churches to be ordered.  We should be thankful for God’s clarity on this issues and be zealous about patiently bringing purity to the church in this area.

If you are interested in reading more about this issue, check out this book of Church Government that I recommend.  Also check out these books below: