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What Does the Bible Say About Church Discipline?

Examine the Biblical Pattern for Church Discipline

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The Bible teaches the correct way to deal with sin in the church. In fact, Paul gives us a succinct picture of church discipline in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15: "Take note of those who refuse to obey what we say in this letter. Stay away from them so they will be ashamed. Don't think of them as enemies, but warn them as you would a brother or sister." (NLT)

What is Church Discipline?

Church discipline is the biblical process of confrontation and correction carried out by individual Christians, church leaders, or the entire church body when a member of Christ's body is involved in a matter of open sin. Some Christian denominations use the term excommunication instead of church discipline to refer to the formal removal of a person from church membership. The Amish call this practice shunning.

When is Church Discipline Necessary?

Church discipline is meant specifically for believers involved in overt sin. Scripture gives particular emphasis to Christians engaged in matters of sexual immorality, those creating discord or strife between members of the body of Christ, those spreading false teachings, and believers in outspoken rebellion to the spiritual authorities appointed by God in the church.

Why is Church Discipline Necessary?

God desires his people to be pure. He calls us to live holy lives, set apart for his glory. 1 Peter 1:16 restates Leviticus 11:44: "Be holy, because I am holy." (NIV) If we ignore blatant sinfulness within the body of Christ, then we fail to honor the Lord's call to be holy and live for his glory.

We know from Hebrews 12:6 that the Lord disciplines his children: "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." In 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, we see that he passes this responsibility on to the church family: "It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, 'You must remove the evil person from among you.' " (NLT)

Another vital reason for church discipline is to maintain the testimony of the church to the world. Unbelievers are watching our lives. We are to be a light in a dark world, a city set on a hill. If the church looks no different than the world, then it loses its witness.

While church discipline is never easy or desirable—what parent enjoys disciplining a child?—it is necessary for the church to fulfill its God-intended purpose on this earth.

What is the Purpose of Church Discipline?

The goal of church discipline is not to punish a failing brother or sister in Christ. On the contrary, the purpose is to bring the person to a point of godly sorrow and repentance, so that he or she turns away from sin and experiences a fully restored relationship with God and other believers. Individually, the intent is healing and restoration, but corporately the purpose is to build up, or edify and strengthen the entire body of Christ.

The Practical Pattern of Church Discipline

Matthew 18:15-17 clearly and specifically sets forth the practical steps for confronting and correcting a wayward believer.
  1. First, one believer (usually the offended person) will meet individually with the other believer to point out the offense. If the brother or sister listens and confesses, the matter is resolved.
  2. Second, if the one-on-one meeting is unsuccessful, the offended person will attempt to meet with the believer again, taking with him one or two other members of the church. This allows the confrontation of sin and resulting correction to be confirmed by two or three witnesses.
  3. Third, if the person still refuses to listen and change his behavior, the matter is to be taken before the entire congregation. The whole church body will publicly confront the believer and encourage him to repent.
  4. Lastly, if all attempts to discipline the believer fail to bring change and repentance, the person will be removed from the fellowship of the church.
Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 5:5 that this final step in church discipline is a way of handing the unrepentant brother "over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord." (NIV) So, in extreme cases, it is sometimes necessary for God to use the devil to work in a sinner's life to bring him to repentance.

The Correct Attitude in Church Discipline

Galatians 6:1 describes the correct attitude of believers when exercising church discipline: "Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself." (NLT)

Gentleness, humility, and love will guide the attitude of those who wish to restore a fallen brother or sister. Spiritual maturity and submission to the Holy Spirit's leading are needed, too.

Church discipline should never be entered into lightly or for minor offenses. It is a very serious matter calling for extreme care, godly character, and a true desire to see a sinner restored and the purity of the church maintained.

When the process of church discipline brings about the desired result—repentance—then the church must extend love, comfort, forgiveness and restoration to the individual (2 Corinthians 2:5-8).

More Bible References to Church Discipline

Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-8; 2 Thessalonians 3:3-7; Titus 3:10; Hebrews 12:11; 13:17; James 5:19-20.
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