What is Church Discipline?
The apostle Paul taught Christians to practice church discipline. “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:4,5). The incident at Corinth involved that of fornication (vv. 1-2), but the principle of withdrawal was not limited to this sin (v. 11), nor were these instructions limited to Corinth. Other churches that faced other forms of rebellion were told to do the same thing (2 Thess. 3:14). Church discipline is a commandment God expects all faithful Christians to perform.
What is involved?
First, there must be an effort to persuade the sinner to repent (Matt. 18:17). This will remain the intent of the entire withdrawal process. However, if there is no repentance, the faithful saints are to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:6). God wants us to “put away from yourselves that evil person” (v. 13). This involves a public statement before the congregation that condemns the behavior of the erring and no longer recognizes him as a member of that congregation. The church then severs all ties with that person spiritually and socially—“not even to eat with such a person” (v. 11). The withdrawn person may still attend worship services if he chooses, as may any other sinner, but he may not take part in membership duties (teach class, lead in worship, etc.) or be treated as if everything is okay. There is to be a stark difference in the church’s relationship with him (or her) so as to indicate a loss of fellowship.
Why is this practiced?
1. To produce shame. We are to “note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14). God has already judged that person for refusing to keep His will and is no longer in fellowship with him (1 John 2:3-5). By withdrawing from that person, the church is using its relationship with the erring to demonstrate the loss of fellowship with God. This stand is not to be made in bitterness, resentment, or the spirit of revenge. “Do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15). Nevertheless, it is a judgment that must be made as long as he refuses to repent (1 Cor. 5:12, 13).
2. To protect the church. We are to deliver erring Christians to Satan because “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Other Christians may be influenced to also rebel in sin if the erring Christian is not rebuked. Thus, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). When we compromise for one member living in sin, we will eventually compromise for other sins in other members. Sin is a cancer that will spread throughout the entire body if it is not quickly removed (2 Tim. 2:16-18). The only way to protect the church’s health and integrity, as well as its influence in the community, it is to discipline members who do not repent of sin.
What if they leave?
There are some who try to avoid withdrawal by removing their membership from a local church before action is taken. They convince themselves that if they can avoid an official act of withdrawal, they can still be considered righteous. There are several things wrong with this reasoning.
They are still without God. It matters little what “action” has been taken against them because God is not in fellowship with them as long as they reject His will (2 Tim. 4:3-4). The Lord’s response is the same for all sinners: “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). The “unmarked” erring Christians may successfully avoid judgment from a local church, but they won’t avoid judgment from God. The fact is the “‘Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity’” (2 Tim. 2:19).
They still must be marked. How will the world know that we do not condone the sinful rebellion of the erring if we do not mark them? How will other members know to avoid similar sins if no formal statement is made to oppose the erring? The only biblical remedy for ungodly Christians is to “note” these brethren and “avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). We acknowledged them publicly when they obeyed the gospel or placed membership (Acts 9:26), so it is only proper that we rebuke them publicly when that relationship has changed.
They still must be avoided. Protecting the integrity of the church is not the only reason for discipline. Another purpose is to bring the sinner to repentance. Paul wrote, “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14). We do not keep company with them so they might be ashamed of their sin. Thus, we no longer hang out together like we used to (shopping, cookouts, fishing, parties, etc.) because of their rebellion against God. We still love and encourage them to persuade them to return to the Lord, but things are not like they were when they were faithful to the Lord.
Why such a strong stand?
God takes a strong stand against sin because of its destructive influence. Erring Christians can convince other Christians to also rebel against God. Therefore, “from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts” (2 Tim. 3:5-6). No one is immune to rebelling against God. The strongest of Christians are capable of leaving their first love if they are closely associated with compromise and ungodliness. Thus, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding… Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil” (Pro. 3:5, 7).
What if they repent?
If the erring Christian humbles himself and repents of his sin, he is to feel genuine love and acceptance from his brethren. When the Corinthians withdrew from their erring brother and it led to his repentance, they were told, “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore, I urge you to reaffirm your love to him” (2 Cori. 2:6-8). God WANTS us to show mercy and forgiveness!
I am the first to admit that no discipline is pleasant at first, but painful. Nevertheless, “It yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). May God grant us the wisdom to stand where He stands in opposition to sin. If He loves the erring enough to command a public withdrawal against them, we must love them (and God) enough to administer it. It is a test of our faith. This was Paul’s conclusion when the Corinthians withdrew from the erring, “For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things” (2 Cor. 2:9). Those who want to fully mature in Christ will practice church discipline.