Suppose a member of your local church is living in a state of sexual immorality, or a teacher of one of the Bible study groups is insisting on promoting some kind of heresy in the class—and all this is common knowledge on the part of the members. What should the church do? Should the church say, “Well, we don’t want to offend anyone and drive people away; surely it can’t be right for us to mind the business of our members and become involved in judging their moral actions”? Or should the local church assume responsibility for maintaining a disciplined membership?
A careful study of Scripture indicates that the church not only has the obligation to proclaim the Word of God, but it also has the responsibility of restricting membership to those whose lives indicate that they are earnestly seeking to obey the Word. The Bible speaks much about the duty of the church to maintain discipline within the Body. Jesus said to His disciples, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18)—and that instruction was given in the setting of excommunicating those who refuse “to hear the church.” In the Book of Revelation, our Lord commended the church at Ephesus because the congregation there did not tolerate in its midst those who were sinful and apostate: “I know thy works . . . and how thou canst not bear them which are evil, and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles and are not” (Revelation 2:2). In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul speaks about the discipline of one who has been immoral, and says, “Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Corinthians 5:13). It is our responsibility to keep the house of God clean.
The neglect of church discipline is not a virtue; it is a vice. A church which fails to discipline its members is committing an act of disobedience, not an act of compassion. Some think it is an act of compassion and of love not to confront a sinning member, but just to let things go. But remember that real agape love is a love that is faithful enough not to give license to sin, nor to let people build false hopes of salvation just because they are members of a church. Thus, in this study, we want to notice the types of discipline, the grounds for discipline, and the dangers of discipline.
1. The Types of Discipline
There are basically three types of discipline—preventative, formative, and corrective. Preventative discipline is the kind of discipline that takes place before a person becomes a member of the church. The early church did not allow just anyone to become a member of the fellowship. He had to give evidence of penitence and of willing obedience to Christ before he was received. When a person sought membership in the church, his family life was examined to see that he was living in moral purity; his daily occupation was checked out to see that it was acceptable (he was not allowed to keep on working at certain jobs). William Barclay says there was a long list of trades and activities which had to be abandoned before a person was even accepted as a candidate for baptism. (A person was not accepted as a member of the church if he was an actor, a military commander, a sculptor who made heathen idols, a magician, etc.) The church maintained strict standards that applied upon entering the fellowship—and this was a kind of preventative discipline. Not every “Tom, Dick, and Harry” could easily and quickly get into the church.
Formative discipline speaks of the aspect of discipline which means “to train” or “to instruct.” The church is a school where Christians are to be taught in a systematic way the “all things” which our Lord commanded us. The early church baptized members soon after their decision to accept Christ, but systematic teaching was an essential part in receiving new members. After baptism, the new convert had to undergo a three-year instruction period. It is interesting to note that the New Testament ranks “teachers” along with “apostles” and “prophets” (Ephesians 4:11; Acts 13:1; 1 Corinthians 12:28). The teacher of God’s Word was a valuable person in the early church, and surely churches today should provide many opportunities for carefully teaching its members. The church should be a training center which helps to mold and build up an understanding of basic Bible doctrines. We need in-depth instruction classes (not shallow discussion periods) to nurture God’s people. That is part of formative discipline.
Corrective discipline speaks of the kind of discipline directed toward an individual member who openly commits a specific offense. In the early church, those who practiced adultery, and astrology, and used drugs, and those who obtained an abortion—were punished quickly—but attempts were made to do it fairly. The elders cautioned and pleaded and admonished—but if there was no penitence on the part of the offending member—he was excommunicated from the fellowship by the congregation. (1 Corinthians 5:4-5, and the plural “you” in 5:12 indicates that the disciplinary action should be decided by the assembled congregation, and not by an individual). Most of what is stated in the paragraphs which follow is related to this kind of corrective discipline.
2. The Grounds For Discipline
Discipline is not to be administered for every infraction or every transgression. None of us can see into the heart of another, and therefore there are certain realms in which it is impossible to discern between the wheat and the tares. But in cases where open and commonly known sin is practiced, the church must take disciplinary action. God alone can judge the inner man. What is inwardly evil, God will judge; what is outwardly evil, the church should judge (1 Corinthians 5:12). And then, God says, concerning the man who was living immorally with his stepmother: “Therefore, put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Corinthians 5:13). Since not every transgression can be disciplined, we want to look at what some grounds for discipline are.
(a) An irreconcilable spirit toward another Christian.
Matthew 18, beginning at verse 15, deals with offenses between brethren. “Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” And if that does not bring results, take someone along. And if reconciliation still has not come, tell it to the church.
The problem in Matthew 18 is not so much the offense itself, as the irreconcilable spirit sometimes manifested when conflicts arise. My guess is that all of us at some time or other have offended another person in the church. But if someone has been offended—and we are approached about the matter—and refuse to be joined together with the injured brother (using the channels described in Matthew 18)—the church must take action. One who takes an irreconcilable spirit toward another Christian needs to be disciplined by the church.
(b) Offensive, shocking, and immoral conduct.
When a member of the congregation openly commits an immoral act, it disgraces the church, and the church suffers a loss of influence in the community. If the one who sins openly, repents publicly, the church should of course graciously and quickly forgive. But if the erring member (after being tactfully confronted) does not confess his fault—expulsion from the local fellowship is the only alternative.
The man described in 1 Corinthians 5 was clearly living in sin. His immoral conduct was common knowledge. It was not a mere matter of suspicion and gossip. There was abundant evidence that he was living in an illicit arrangement. He refused to repent or to ask for forgiveness. He was recklessly living on in sin. In such cases, the church is duty-bound to take strict action. The instructions in 1 Corinthians 5:5 say in essence: “Cast this man from the fellowship of the church into the realm of Satan, for the destruction of his lower nature, so that perchance his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Discipline was to be carried out, not merely to punish, but to awaken; to bring him to his senses; to make him see the enormity of his offense.
Some stress that the great theme of our Lord is love, and not condemnation. But remember that true love is so faithful to God that it refuses to give license to sin—and thus the need to discipline those who continue in offensive, open, immoral conduct.
(c) A contentious and a defiant spirit.
In Romans 16:17 we are instructed to “Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.” The church is a body where each member is to live in harmony with the others, and if there are divisive brethren and sisters in the midst of a congregation—those who try to divide the church into separate camps—the church must deal with such persons.
In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 we are told to “Withdraw from every brother that walks disorderly,” and in verse 14 of the same chapter, “If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man and have no company with him that he may be ashamed.” The phrase “have no company with”—does not mean that we are to refuse to say “Hello,” or that we should “spit in his eyes”—but Paul is saying, “Don’t mix freely with those who ignore and disobey the Word of God.”
Most of the problems with “a defiant spirit” are related to the local congregation and its standards for membership. There are always some who want to be a member of the congregation but do not want to conform to the expectations for its members.
The local church does have the right to adopt rules which will help its members conform to the principles taught in the Word of God, and each member of that congregation is obligated to obey. For example: The principle that sisters should be veiled as a sign of submission to man and a sign of authority before God is clearly taught in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. But the Scriptures nowhere tell exactly what kind of veiling to wear. Most Brethren sisters through the years have worn a white gauze veiling. Some groups wear strings on the veiling. The Canadian Mennonites expect sisters to wear a black cloth veiling. Some of the Assemblies of Norway and in Germany practice the wearing of a blue bandana type of covering for the sisters. Any of these forms (when consistently practiced) can become a recognized sign of authority (1 Corinthians 11:10). The local congregation may spell out which style will meet its needs best, and each member should promise to conform when received into fellowship.
The Scriptures everywhere teach obedience to the proper authorities. For example, we are to obey God (Ephesians 5:1), to obey church leaders (Hebrews 13:17), to obey parents (Colossians 3:20), and to obey magistrates (Titus 3:1). Some say that the church has no right to set up restrictions and guidelines and requirements for its members, unless the matter is spelled out in clear black and white on the pages of the Scriptures. But listen: If we are to obey church overseers only in things expressly mentioned in the Bible—then by the same reasoning—to obey parents means to obey only in things expressly mentioned in the Bible, and to obey magistrates means to obey only in things that are expressly mentioned in Scripture. In other words, a parent could not tell a child to hang up his clothes, and a magistrate could not command a citizen to stop at a stop sign—because these things are not expressly mentioned in the Bible! Yet all of us agree that parents have authority to make rules for their children (even in things not precisely mentioned in the Bible). And we agree that magistrates have authority to make rules for their citizens (even in things not expressly mentioned in the Bible). Just so, the church has the divine authority to establish regulations which are in keeping with Bible principles—even though they are not expressly mentioned in the Scriptures. It would be strange indeed if every other social group—the family, the nation, etc.—had the right to set up rules and regulations for its own welfare—and only the church could not do so! If dissatisfied members display a divisive, noncooperative, and defiant spirit toward the church (and its expectations for members), these are proper grounds for corrective discipline.
(d) One who advocates and teaches heresies.
The Bible says, “If any man preach any other gospel unto you, than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). Later, in the same epistle, God says through the Apostle Paul, concerning those who failed to teach the blood atonement: “I would they were even cut off which trouble you” (Galatians 5:12). Also, God’s word to Titus was, “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject” (Titus 3:10).
Not every teaching that differs from one’s own particular point of view, is heretical, of course. There are a variety of beliefs about the number of dispensations, the use of different translations of the Bible, the need for a local congregation to operate a Christian day school, etc. These are not basic, fundamental teachings which change the essence of the Christian faith. There is a difference between holding a certain point of view about debatable matters, and being fanatically dedicated to teaching error. But when a person is zealously dedicated to teaching error, he must be disfellowshipped from the church.
When Elder John Hamme (from North Carolina), in 1794, was teaching universalism (the belief that all persons in the end will be saved), he was eventually excommunicated from the church. See page 333 of the book, “The Brethren in Colonial America,” by Donald Durnbaugh. If a man is wrong about the basic fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, and is unwilling to be instructed differently, then the wheels of discipline ought to be set in motion.
3. The Dangers of Discipline
Each congregation needs to be a disciplined body. How can a group from any church go out and testify effectively to the redeeming grace of God, and seek to win others to Christ, if there are glaring inconsistencies among the members of the church? Church discipline is necessary. Attempting to keep the church pure and clean is proper. But there are several dangers connected with the practice of discipline.
(a) The danger of going to excesses.
Church discipline has sometimes been abused. In the early history of the state of Virginia, members of some Protestant churches were whipped and put in jail for breaking the church’s rules. In all our exercise of discipline—we must let love abound and patience prevail and tactfulness dominate our actions. Church discipline must be carried out with tender hearts and with weeping eyes—and always administered with the hope that the person disciplined will later see his error, and come back into the fold. The intent of all proper church discipline is that temporal punishment might lead to eternal good. In 2 Corinthians 2:6-9 we have good evidence that the man who was disfellowshipped in 1 Corinthians 5, repented of his sin and was restored back into fellowship.
(b) The danger of no discipline at all.
In many churches, members can openly cheat and lie and commit all kinds of immorality—and nothing is said about it. The secular world is not impressed by a church whose members are no different from the society around them. So long as the church tolerates sin in the midst and fails to keep the body clean, she will never attract the world to Christ. And then too—if we fail to discipline—we do an injustice to the sinning brother or sister. The erring person may become hardened in his sin, and perish eternally—because he thinks that as long as he is a member of the church, he is okay. Thus, the congregation which maintains a firm but fair discipline, is going to be the local church where God is most effectively at work.
Some will say, “The church is trying to force certain things on me.” Such persons need to be reminded that no one is forced into the church in the first place. All of us voluntarily came into the church. We received instructions at the time of baptism. We promised to work with the local congregation. Anyone who says (when discipline is exercised) that the church is trying to force things on him, has acted irresponsibly when he united with the church.
Some people seem to think that church discipline causes nothing but trouble. But that is true only if it is carried out with the wrong attitude. Loving discipline which is tactfully carried out in the church tends to unite the church family; it strengthens the authority of the Word of God; it honors Christ; it challenges the church to new levels of spiritual growth; and it strengthens the testimony of the church to outsiders. Dean Kelley in his book, “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing,” says that many groups have high and admirable standards, but when it comes to enforcing them, they lack the will to do so. He says, “It is not necessary to be cruel or harsh about such enforcement, nor to condemn the offender as abhorrent.” The offender has simply failed to meet the qualifications determined by the local group, and is therefore no longer a member. Kelley concludes, “It is as simple as that; but it must not be glossed over.”
This article has not answered all the questions one can ask about church discipline. There are some tough, thorny cases that don’t seem to fit into any category, and we simply have to pray for special wisdom from God to deal with the situation. It is our hope, however, that the message here has helped to clarify some of the major aspects related to discipline in the church.