This is the second part of a series of posts on the difficult topic of church discipline. It is based largely on the work of Jonathan Leeman and his book, Church Discipline. How The Church Protects The Name Of Jesus.
The local church has the authority to declare to the nations who belongs to Jesus and is a citizen of heaven and who is not. The church cannot make Christians but we can declare whom Christians are. Once a right confession has been made we baptise people and invite them to the Lord’s Table. In other words, we are not just a building or a voluntary organisation. The church is God’s people on earth. We are representing the kingdom of heaven on earth. That means we have more authority than any other power on the earth. That is what is going on in Niddrie Community Church. At Niddrie we get to represent the King here in our patch of earth.
That means we, as individual Christians, don’t get to say whether our conversion is genuine or not. The local church gets to say that. To come a member of a local church is to say, therefore, that you are a bona fide Jesus follower. The Christian then submits to that local body. But, what does that mean exactly? Certainly, it means more than just doing what the elders say. It means submitting to one another, to caring for one another, to watching out for one another and to sharing life together. We see this clearly in Acts 2:44-45. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. They submitted to the church and lived together. That’s how the church should work.
The question remains: Is church discipline really necessary? Isn’t it just a little bit over the top and heavy handed?
The problem with church discipline is that it is like washing the dishes. We may agree that dirty plates need washing but we just don’t like to be the one who has to do it. Here’s the problem. We are all sinners and we all know it. So, we all feel just a little uncomfortable parading someone else’s sin before the church. And so we should. That is correct. In fact most church discipline should stop at a one on one conversation with between believers. Sin confronted, sin confessed and forgiveness given. Reconciliation restores the issue and we move on. Church discipline in that issue is one fallen brother/sister helping another fallen brother/sister get back on the path to Christian discipleship when they have strayed. Church discipline at its most fundamental level is helping one another when we stray into sin.
6 Reasons Churches Should Practice Church Discipline
- Church discipline is biblical.
- Church discipline is an implication of the gospel.
- Church discipline promotes the health of the church.
- Church discipline clarifies and shows off the church’s witness before the nations.
- Church discipline warns sinners of an even greater judgment to come.
- Most importantly, church discipline protects the name and reputation of Jesus Christ on earth.
4 Ways Church Discipline Demonstrates Love
- Church discipline shows love for the individual, that he or she might be warned and brought to repentance.
- Church discipline shows love for the church, that weaker sheep might be protected.
- Church discipline shows love for the watching world, that it might see Christ’s transforming power.
- Church discipline shows love for Christ, that churches might uphold his holy name and obey him.
5 Purposes of Church Discipline from 1 Corinthians 5
- Discipline aims to expose. Sin, like cancer, loves to hide. Discipline exposes the cancer so that it might be cut out quickly (see 1 Cor. 5:2)
- Discipline aims to warn. A church does not enact God’s retribution through discipline. Rather, it stages a small play that pictures the great judgment to come (v. 5). Discipline is a compassionate warning.
- Discipline aims to save. Churches pursue discipline when they see a member taking the path toward death, and none of their pleading and arm-waving causes the person to turn around. It’s the device of last resort for bringing an individual to repentance (v. 5).
- Discipline aims to protect. Just as cancer spreads from one cell to another, so sin quickly spreads from one person to another (v. 6, 7). Leaven is a small piece of bread dough kept back from a batch when baking. It was allowed to ferment so that it could be used for the next batch and help the bread to rise. Basically the process of fermenting is the process of rotting. It was a dangerous process and could go wrong. If it rotted too much it could spoil the next batch. The church needed to get rid of the spiritual leaven infecting their church. Not just the man but their own sinful pride and arrogance. That’s what he is saying in v7. The pride and arrogance of the church was as much a sin as the sexual sin of the man. We all know the saying that one rotten apple can infect the entire barrel. It is true for the church. We must be quick to condemn sin and challenge it because it pollutes the body. 1 Cor. 15:33: Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” The church is the new lump that needs to go forward in purity. If we don’t weed our garden then what happens? Sooner or later the weeds will overrun it. It will be a mess. You have been made new by Jesus so make sure that you get rid of everything that would taint and spoil you as a church. We must not tolerate sin among one another. We must not tolerate spiritual pride and arrogance.
- Discipline aims to present a good witness for Jesus. Church discipline, strange to say, is actually good for non-Christians, because it helps to preserve the attractive distinctiveness of God’s people (see v. 1). Churches, remember, should be salt and light. “But if the salt loses its saltiness . . . ,” Jesus said, “It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matt. 5:13, NIV).
What’s the ultimate purpose of church discipline? Spiritual restoration and salvation. The point of the punishment is to try and bring the man to his senses. When the man is handed over he comes to himself and is saved. The prodigal who came to himself in the pigsty. Gangrene is an aggressive disease that has to be treated aggressively and decisively. Spiritual sin has got to be treated the same way.
So, should we be challenging one another every time we fall into sin?
Yes. When we see a gap between a person’s confession of Christ and their behaviour we must challenge that, firstly, in private. Here’s the first misconception about church discipline. That it is always about ‘big’ issues and done in public. That is not true. Most issues wouldn’t become ‘big’ and end up at the elders feet if we practiced Matthew 18 more regularly. Most of us just settle for superficial friendships where we don’t challenge unrepentant sin in one another’s lives. We do it because we lack courage or we lack the conviction. When someone is gossiping, for instance, and we know that it is wrong, instead of calling them on it we let it slide by or we add fuel to the fire.
Church discipline should only become public when the sin has become so consistent, habitual and public that we are left with no other option than to confront it publicly. It is only then does the church remove the person and deny their statement of faith. They are saying that they are a Christian but we as the church in this place are saying their behaviour denies that claim.
What is the difference between a sinning Christian and a person whose sins indicate they are not a Christian at all?
So, what sins do we expect to see as ‘normal’ in the Christian life? Let’s take a lie. Sometimes they just pop out of us. Maybe it’s embellishing a story or conveniently forgetting some detail of a conversation. You feel convicted the moment it leaves your lips and you confess. But what about if you lie consistently about falsely claiming your child benefit, for example. You’ve made a false claim and you’ve been challenged about it. But you justify it and see no reason to change your behaviour. One is a normal sin and the other would indicate that you are not a Christian or certainly not living as a Christian ought.
One is an ongoing struggle between the old man and the new and the other is just the old man having his cake and eating it. There’s no real problem in your mind and even if there is you don’t feel the need to change. If somebody has been truly born again they cannot settle with their sin. The Holy Spirit just does not allow it. He provokes, He convicts and He does it to such an extent that its impossible to even sleep or have any peace until the matter is sorted out. We are pushed to do the right thing whatever the cost.
So, public church discipline must happen if a church member continues to live in an openly sinful manner without any real sign of repentance and change. There is no evidence of Holy Spirit conviction. They may feel guilty or ashamed that they’ve been rumbled but that is nothing more than worldly sorrow. They feel bad for a bit but it soon wear off. In the event of a continued pattern of consistent disobedience this would cause the church to lose faith in this persons confession of faith. Their life contradicts their profession. This is a very serious spot to be in. At this point we remove their spiritual passport and declare that they are no longer credible representatives of the kingdom of God.
Now, this all looks good on paper. We have all of our biblical principles lined up. Then we hit the mess of real life and the chaos of our fallen world. We must be careful and sensitive to the different pastoral needs and backgrounds of our members. How so? Take the following example.
Two church members are discovered to be taking methadone. One is a cause for celebration and evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in their life. The other is a cause for church discipline. Why?
We have to be careful about our expectations as believers. Some people are new believers. Some are mature. Some have mental health problems. We expect their to be an ongoing battle between the old man and the new man when it comes to ongoing sin in our lives. So, in some cases a lie from a mature Christian is a cause for greater concern than Heroin abuse in a newer believer. Therefore, we cannot have church discipline on the basis of a list of sins from bad to really bad alone. There are a host of other factors to come into play.
It’s why there are steps to church discipline in the Bible. Have they been confronted individually, in front of witnesses, or has it come to the elders and the church? These steps provide checks and balances and ensure fairness to the best of our abilities. We are not perfect. By the time a church discipline issue gets to the congregation in Niddrie it just means that we have exhausted all of the other measures.
So, how do we discern when to step in and challenge a person and when not to?
- How long have they been Christians?
- How much of the Bible do they understand?
- Do they admit sin?
- Do they seem grieved over the sin or merely annoyed that you have brought it up?
- Did they confess the sin or was it uncovered?
- Do they appear teachable?
- Are they open to correction?
- Are they defending or justifying their actions or are they seeing it for what it is?
- Are there background factors that make the sin occurring more likely to happen?
- Were they led into sin by others or have they led others in sin?
Regardless of any context, we must challenge serious sin
1 Cor 5:12-6:5 is clear that we are to judge disputes with one another. Sometimes public sins occur and we have to dispense with the first few steps. A member is arrested is an example. Or, public drunkenness. Or getting someone knocked up out of wedlock. There is not much we can do about it when it happens suddenly and unexpectedly. We have to take quick action as a congregation for the sake of our public witness. However, we must be careful if the sin has been repented of. We cannot excommunicate repentant people for sinning. The criteria for church membership is repentance and faith and not repentance, faith and not committing sins.
We don’t discipline people for sinning at Niddrie Community Church. We discipline them for being habitually and consistently unrepentant.
Leeman says discipline should be enforced when sin is outward, serious and unrepentant. We are not disciplining people for being proud or greedy. We need to see it or hear it. We cannot discipline people for thinking things but if it becomes apparent then we need to deal with it. Love does cover over a multitude of sins but it doesn’t cover over persistent sin. We can’t run around disciplining each other or there will be trouble. If in doubt then you should always ask a mature Christian or one of the elders. If people don’t respond to confrontation and refuse to repent and change then we are on the road to excommunication.
Repentance is the key
Repentance is key to how quickly move through church discipline. Is the person fighting their ongoing sin or are they not? 1 Th. 5:14 comes into play here. Matthew 18:9ff. Repentant people are zealous about moving away from their sin. They are willing to do whatever it takes. End relationships. Hand over their finances. Be publicly accountable. They come to every meeting you set. They turn up and study the Bible. They don’t keep putting things off or making excuses.
Keep things private for as long as possible
Church discipline must be kept as private as possible. It should only go to the church as the last resort. Why? To protect the name of Christ and the individual(s) concerned and any other innocent party (ies). People must always be given the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes people are falsely accused. This happens often in Niddrie. We can’t discipline people without evidence and on a hunch. Lead with questions instead of accusations. Don’t presume to know the deep recesses of the heart. James 1:19. Leaders should lead the process and instruct the congregation. Sin is deceitful and complex. Gal. 6 the spiritual are called to restore them gently. Younger sheep can be easily deceived either into sinning or into accepting sin as not being that bad. We need to teach the sheep about the danger of sin to the wider body.
Part III to follow.