We have understood the need for church discipline in the life of a healthy church. We have understood that we all have a part to play in the spiritual health of our church. We now need to understand the steps we need to take in order to make sure church discipline is happening in a way that is helpful.
How Do We Practice Church Discipline In The Schemes? Click To TweetMatthew 18 assumes that most church discipline will start in a one to one situation. Some sins, as we know from 1 Cor. 5, are public and have to be dealt with publicly. Paul does the same thing in Phil. 4:2-3 when he asks Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled. Sometimes we still have to bring a sin to the church even if the person is privately repentant (if somebody gets pregnant out of wedlock for example). That may not be to discipline the person but to inform the church that the leadership are aware and are acting in conformity to the Bible’s teachings. In that case gossip is squashed and the church is reminded of its responsibility to care for people involved in sin.
Mature Christians should get involved in serious cases quickly. If we feel unable to handle a situation then take it to a mature believer, not our best friend for gossip! Some situations are remarkably complex and we need wisdom to deal with them. It doesn’t have to be an elder but it should not be a new believer.
How quickly should we proceed with church discipline?
How long should we wait before we speak to another person about a situation that concerns us? That is a hard one. Matthew 18 seems to talk about a process whereas 1 Cor. 5 call for immediate action. Titus 3:10 calls for something else. The key is repentance. But, how long should we wait before we decide somebody is unrepentant? It may be straight away. It may take months. It may take years. People come to us from different backgrounds, with different levels of Bible knowledge and with different spiritual battles and life pressures. We cannot read minds and the best we can go on is spiritual fruit. How far are people willing to go to let go of their sins? Sometimes the seriousness of the sin is a deciding factor. Should we treat a serial adulterer differently than somebody battling drugs? Public scandal will come into effect here. So we must balance the sin with the attitude of the sinner. This process takes time.
If in doubt, show grace. Mt. 18:16 is clear that all charges against another must have witnesses. We cannot discipline on a hunch. People are innocent until proven guilty. We must be careful when somebody brings a complaint to us that people are not being singled out due to suspect motives. This happens a lot. We always question and we never accuse. James 1:19. Discipline must be done in a spirit of humility, gentleness and patience, looking to ourselves lest we too be tempted (Gal. 6:1-2; 2 Tim. 2:24-25). Discipline must be done without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality (1 Tim. 5:21).
In serious cases we will always bring the matter before the congregation. That’s part of what it means to be a member at NCC. That’s what is meant in Mt. 18:17 when we are told to tell it to the church. After that step we are told to remove the individual(s). That helps us to discuss how we should act toward people as members should they be excommunicated. Some may be serious offenders: abuse etc and so people must be warned. All will be treated as unbelievers and the church should be aware of that.
How should we act toward church members who have been excommunicated?
1 Cor. 5:9-11; 2 Th. 3:6, 14-15; 2 Tim. 3:5; Titus 3:10; 2 Jn. 10. The nature of relationships should change. It is not a casual thing that has happened. It is serious. The soul of the person involved is in jeopardy and our responsibility is to call them back to repentance. Remember, part of church discipline is to warn the rest of the flock against falling not sin themselves. 1 Tim. 5:20.
Finally, discipline in the name of our Lord always includes a readiness to forgive. The many or majority who discipline must also be ready and eager to forgive, comfort, and reaffirm their love to the sinning person. 2 Cor. 2:6-8.
In church discipline we must exercise extreme care. Scripture, not our opinions or dislikes, must be the guide for what is sin. Further, we must not become hyper-critical or “speck inspectors.”
So, in what cases should we bring about church discipline?
2 Thess. 3:6-15; Mt. 18:15-17; Rom. 16:17-18; Titus 3:9-11 give us some examples for specific cases.
- General Causes: Disorderly conduct, conduct clearly out of line with the prescribed commands of Scripture and which negatively impacts the testimony and unity of the church.
- Difficulties between members (Matt. 18:15-17).
- Divisive or factious people causing divisions in the church (Rom. 16:17-18; Titus 3:9-11).
- We also have immoral conduct; sins of the type mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5 such as incest, immorality, covetousness, idolatry, abusive speech, drunkenness, swindling, or idle busybodies who refuse to work and run around spreading dissension. (1 Cor. 5:1, 11; 2 Thess. 3:10-15).
- False teaching; erroneous teaching and views which concern the fundamentals of the faith and not lesser differences of interpretation (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; also implied in Rev. 2:14-16; Phil. 3:2-3, 15-19; Rom. 16:17-18).
The key concerns that guide us in this are: (a) the holy character of God, (b) the testimony of the flock, (c) the effect upon the unity and purity of the flock, and (d) the edification and restoration of the individual.
Procedures for Church Discipline
If you see the offence or you have accurate knowledge of the sin(s), please note these cautions:
- Be sure it is an offence which calls for discipline and not merely one of our pet peeves. Again, the Word must be our criterion. Remember how we too have sinned in the past and heed the warnings of Galatians 6:1.
- Bring the matter before the Lord in prayer before the confrontation takes place (1 Sam. 8:6).
- If in doubt, seek the advice of a mature Christian and not your best mate.
- Don’t procrastinate. The longer the delay, the more difficult the condition can become. Remember the consequences listed above.
- Don’t gossip until you have talked to the sinning believer privately. We must guard and protect the person and the flock from rumours and a slanderous tongue (Prov. 6:19b; 10:19; 11:13; 18:8, 21; 20:19).
First, seek private correction and/or reconciliation with the offender (Matt. 18:15). In Matthew 18:15 many manuscripts have “and if your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private.” If you come to me and say, “I think so and so is up to no good,” then you should know that I will challenge you to challenge the person directly. It remains your responsibility to challenge your brother/sister. I am not the church’s police chief.
Please note these guidelines:
(1) Begin by expressing your genuine appreciation for the person and their good qualities to show you are genuinely concerned about their welfare. Then and only then bring up the matter which is of concern.
(2) In some situations the sin is apparent and there is no question, but we must allow for the possibility that we have misjudged or have wrong information. We must listen to the other person’s side of the story and seek the facts in the interest of truth and fairness.
(3) If the person fails to respond, warn them that, according to the instructions of Scripture (Matt. 18:16), you will have to get others as witnesses and return with them to deal with the problem.
If the first step fails, take witnesses to strengthen the effect of the discipline, preferably spiritual leaders, so that if it has to be brought before the whole church it can be firmly proven and established (Matt. 18:16-17; 1 Tim. 5:19). The aid of church leadership should be sought if the problem involves an offence that is against the whole body or if it is a threat to the unity of the body.
These initial contacts, private and with witnesses, provide opportunity for loving admonition, correction, and forgiveness. On the other hand, if these first steps do not produce results, it constitutes a warning that further action will be taken and provides occasion for serious rebuke (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Titus 2:15; 3:10).
If the second step fails, seek reconciliation and restoration through the whole body. If further action is necessary, it is to be taken before the whole church (2 Thess. 3:14-15; Matt. 18:17; 1 Tim. 5:20). If this doesn’t work, the local body of believers is to exercise excommunication: removal from church membership, loss of voting privileges, and continuation of the loss of intimate fellowship. This must be approved of and done by the entire congregation (2 Cor. 2:6).
Next time we get to the issue of how we restore a repentant sinner back into the congregation.