Why Church Discipline?   Leave a comment

What is the purpose of Christians in a church body withdrawing fellowship from the sinning church member?

Are we just judgemental and mean? Do we think we are better than them? Is it an act of revenge toward those who have fallen from the faith? Doesn’t it show a haughty or malevolent attitude?

No!

Well, if done right, no! NO! NO!

The Scriptures suggest that church discipline serves both a corrective and a protective function.

First, discipline is designed to save the erring child of God. If I seem to return to the church in Corinth a lot it is because we have one of the best examples of church discipline there. Paul demanded that the Corinthian fornicator be disfellowshipped so that he might be motivated to destroy “the flesh.”

What does that mean? Well, it’s pretty clear that Paul didn’t advocate suicide or stoning, because we know from 2 Corinthians that the sinner repented and Paul said to refellowship him. “Destroying the flesh” didn’t involve death, so it’s can reasonably be assumed it mean setting aside (turning from) his ungodly fleshly passion so that “his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Discipline is designed to “gain” the wayward (Matthew 18:15), to make him “ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14), so that he would seek be restored (Galatians 6:1).

The church at Corinth was reluctant to do this. They apparently were proud of their forgiving attitude and Paul had to be rather harsh with them before they finally did withdraw from the sensuous offender. Their action brought him to repentance, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 2:6.

Discipline is not merely for the welfare of the rebel. It is also for the protection of the church. When Paul admonished the congregation at Corinth to take care of the problem of the immoral brother, he warned: “Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). If you’ve ever baked bread, you’re familiar with the concept, but in our modern age, so few people bake bread that I find this medical example easier for them to grasp. the church as a whole is affected by the sin of the individual because the church is like an organic body that can be affected by disease in a single cell.

Sin in the church is as cancer in the body.

Paul dealt with it in other churches as well. In Romans 16:17, he declared that those who cause divisions and occasions of stumbling “by their smooth and fair speech beguile the hearts of the innocent”. Two false teachers in the early church, Hymenaeus and Alexander, had made reflected badly on the faith, so Paul “delivered [them] unto Satan. ” He disfellowshipped them (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 1 Corinthians 5:5) for the welfare of the brethren. False teaching, if allowed to go unchecked within the body of Christ, can eat like a cancer and cause the faith of some to be overthrown (2 Timothy 2:16-18).

Discipline is also important in preserving the integrity of the church before the eyes of the world. Society has enough bias against us without having the legitimate complaint that we harbor evil within our fellowship. We should never give occasion to the adversary for reviling (1 Timothy 5:14). Had the Catholic church disfellowshipped some priests who were sinning, the churches under that denomination might not have been the center of a firestorm. It is imperative that the conduct of the church be such that “the name of God and the doctrine be not blasphemed” (1 Timothy 6:1), and that the way of truth not be called “evil” (2 Peter 2:2). Note that it wasn’t just Paul who urged church discipline. Peter did as well.

What attitudes or conduct warrants the extreme measure of withdrawing fellowship? The Bible addresses this matter in several ways.

  • A brother who has sinned against another, but who refuses to repent of his transgression, could ultimately be disfellowshipped (Matthew 18:15-17).
  • Those who cause occasions of stumbling and who initiate division are proper subjects for church discipline (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10).
  • Those who are practitioners of such sins as fornication, covetousness, extortion, idolatry, drunkenness, reviling, etc., could certainly be candidates (1 Corinthians 5:9ff).
  • Advocates of soul-threatening doctrines must not be allowed to continue in open fellowship with the church (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:16-18).
  • Those who walk “disorderly” are to be refused association by the faithful (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

Wait!

What is disorderly conduct?

There’s historical evidence to suggest that this may be talking about those who simply grow weary of the Christian life and decide to “resign” from the church. When approached about their neglect, and warned of possible discipline, they raise a voice of protest, claiming: “What am I doing that is wrong? I am not committing adultery; I am not a drunkard. The church cannot withdraw from me.” An appropriate response would be: “Are you faithfully serving God? Do you meet with your brethren to sing, pray, observe the Lord’s supper, etc.? What would be the fate of the family of God if every member were at liberty to do as you have done?” Spiritual neglect is disorderly conduct which may require a response of discipline. Whether that would be a thorough going disfellowshipping may be up for debate, but discipline itself should not be.

A person’s disposition is frequently the determining factor for when, or whether, withdrawal of fellowship is appropriate. Wise church leadership would not hastily disfellowship a sincere Christian who, through weakness, had fallen into a sinful situation. If the offender demonstrates humility and a genuine effort to overcome the problem, patience and forebearance would be indicated. On the other hand, a surly, rebellious attitude would require a swifter and more drastic response.

This is where faithful elders come in. I’m not just talking about pastors, but actual elders in the church who have been involved a long time and exercise some form of social supervision. Every church ought to have a body of wisdom such as this. These elders would need to make it known that if a person wants to identify with the congregation over which they exercise supervision, these Christians will be expected to live rightly, assuming a healthy responsibility in the areas of Christian growth and service. Lack of responsibility for one’s own discipline would require some form of church discipline.

This isn’t done very much any more, which is why we Christians need to discuss it and start structuring our churches to move in this direction. First, congregations would need to develop eldership — which does exist in many churches. In every congregation where qualified elders serve, these men and women (yes, I believe women can be elders and mentors within the congregation) would lead the church in the withdrawal of fellowship from the unfaithful. This shouldn’t be done behind closed doors by some privy council, but as an activity of the entire church. I’ve only seen it done once where a formalized procedure was enacted in the public assembly … and, yes, the sinning Christian repented … eventually.

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