The subject of church discipline is a difficult but important one. Many things must be understood regarding church discipline if we are going to faithfully carry out the task that Jesus has given to His Church.
Is church discipline culturally acceptable? Many people may say that church discipline is not acceptable now; however, that is not the question. There are many things that are not acceptable to our cultural but that does not make them right or wrong. The cross is not acceptable, it is foolishness! Yet we must never deny it. The question is rather: “Is it biblical?”
So, is church discipline biblical?
Yes. Although, if you search for “church discipline” in your Bible it won’t return any results. But the teaching is there. It is found in both Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5.
Church Discipline in Matthew 18
In Matthew 18, we see the fourfold process of church discipline. It has been said that this passage is “severely practical as well as ruthlessly idealistic,” and so it is. So, this process, though used in formal church discipline, has practical insight for more common issues within the church as well.
If there is unrepentant sin, we are to first go to the offending party one on one and try to work things out on that level (Matt. 18:15-16). If we have not resolved the problem at that point, second, we are to go with one or two others (v. 16). Third, we see if the person does not listen, we are to tell it to the church (v. 17a) but if he or she is still impenitent then, fourth, he or she is to be treated like those outside of the church, i.e. excluded from communion (v. 17b). The next couple of verses talk about the authority that God has entrusted to the church, His representatives on earth.
Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 5
Paul is adamant that he does not want the “so-called brother” to have community with the church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5, 11, 13). Perhaps the three other steps of the church discipline process happened or perhaps they did not for whatever reason, that we cannot tell, but we do know that there certainly are times when it is appropriate to exclude people from church fellowship. The case in Corinth was clearly one of those times. Thus we see that the passage is not necessarilyprescriptive, unlike the principals laid down in Matthew 18, but descriptive. That is, Paul is writing a letter to tell the Corinthians what to do in that context at that time.
Putting Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 Together
I conclude from the two passages briefly looked at that pastor/shepherds and the church as a whole are to use biblical loving wisdom in each church discipline case. There is in fact no “cookie cutter mold” for each case but simply overarching principals to be applied to each different situation.
For instance, there are many passages that seem to reference church discipline besides Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 but some of them look quite different (Acts 8:17-24; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 5:11; Titus 3:10; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; 2 Jn. 9-10). Many of Paul’s letters deal with discipline and correction yet they look very different depending on the situation. Paul was always pastoral and wise in the way that he handled each situation (cf. Rom. 15:1; 1 Cor. 13:4-7; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Tim. 4:2).
Look, for example, at 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15: “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter… have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” Paul says, “Have nothing to do with him” yet “warn him as a brother.” It is unclear what exactly this looked like in practice but it seems to me that it is a different approach to that in 1 Corinthians 5.
What I conclude then, is that church discipline is an important and clear teaching from Scripture. It, however, is not always as clear exactly how it should look in the local body in each specific case. So after we boil down all we have seen in these passages what are some overarching principals to keep in mind? (1) Keep the matter as private as you can. (2) Church discipline is done as an act of love to keep the individual from damning sin. (3) Church discipline should always be done with gentleness and love though that is not to say without boldly calling the erring person to repentance. (4) If unrepentance continues the person must be removed from the church. (5) Church discipline is ultimately done for the glory of God. We desire that Jesus’ bride be pure and holy (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-27).
I believe we see from the collective passages that reference church discipline, that there is no exact formal that most always be followed. There are, however, principals laid down and a clear call to practice church discipline whatever each individual case might entail. Thus, in evaluating church discipline cases we do not simply have a list of sins, some warranting discipline and others not. Rather, we look at the witness that the person has before a lost world. We ask, Are they defacing the name of Jesus?
Jonathan Leeman talks about “A Gospel Framework for Understanding Discipline.” I think he gives a very helpful approach. The Church, as God’s representatives on earth, have been given the “keys to the kingdom.” The local church and the leaders within that church have been given the serious task of administering baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These things give credibility to the genuineness of one’s faith. In the same token, church discipline is the church removing that affirmation. It is the church formally denouncing the person’s faith. Thus, as Jonathan Leeman rightly says, church discipline is “driven by a single question: does the church still believe an erring member is really a Christian, such that it’s willing to continue declaring so publicly?”
The Manner and Motivation of Church Discipline
How should we approach church discipline? We must do so with much gentleness and humility (1 Thess. 2:6-7; 2 Cor. 10:1; Col. 3:12-14; 2 Tim. 2:24-25; Phil. 4:5). We must remember that we too are sinners, we are not above the very same sin they are being disciplined for. That is why Paul says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” And then he says, “Keep watch on yourself.” Why Paul? (we ask), “Lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). We, you and I, are not above sin, any sin, and we should not act as if we are. As Paul says elsewhere, let the person that thinks they stand take heed lest they fall (1 Cor. 10:12).
We must remember that the goal in church discipline is restoration. We want those living in sin to repent and once again join the fellowship. If they do repent then we, as the church, must cheerfully welcome them back (I think of the prodigal son here). Notice, that after Jesus teaches on church discipline in Matthew’s Gospel he teaches on forgiveness (Matt. 18:21-35).
We may not have an exhaustive how-to-book on church discipline but we are given principals that can and indeed need to be applied in each individual case. We, as the church, are God’s representatives on earth and so we must seek to have His church be holy and filled with true followers of Christ. Therefore, as is warranted by the situation, we must practice the steps outlined in Matthew 18, though of course with appropriate Christian sensitivity.
Church membership is often not the priority it should be. There are a few possible explanations for this: (1) lack of understanding of church membership and its importance, (2) lack of commitment, or (3) a lack of desire to submit to biblical authority. This will only cover the first issue, lack of understanding. I think it can be assumed that if you are a Christian you should be committed (see for example Rom. 12:1) and you should submit to biblical authority (see for example Heb. 13:17).
What is Church Membership?
When a person is born again by the Spirit they instantly become a member of the invisible universal Church body. Church membership is a formal covenant of a believer to a local visible church body for mutual growth and accountability.
Reasons for and Advantages of Church membership
There are several reasons to be connected to a local church body: worshiping together (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19-21), equipping (Col. 1:28; Eph. 4:12-13), exhortation and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13), exercising spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5), sharing the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17-20; Matt. 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24), celebrating baptism (Matt. 28:19), giving (Matt. 23:23; 1 Tim. 6:17-19), encouragement (Heb. 10:24-25), as well as, having faithful leaders to care for and help you (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
There are also several advantages to church membership. Church discipline may not seem like an advantage but it is. It may be the very thing to deliver a soul from hell (1 Cor. 5:5), this is a true and gracious advantage. As a church member you can enter into the life of the church in a unique way such as voting on specific church issues. Church membership is a covenant of commitment one to another. Through church membership you clearly know who your brothers and sisters are and pastors/elders know who exactly they are responsible for. Members have church resources available to them that otherwise would not be. Members also very often have more opportunities to serve in the churches various ministries. Lastly, church membership is biblical.
Church Membership is Biblical
“Biblical? Where is the chapter and verse?” you ask. Well, there is no chapter and verse that states explicitly that you must join a church. Yet, I believe we can see it implicit in the New Testament. In the book of Acts we see that the early churches’ practice was to baptize believers and then add them to the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). In fact, those that were saved and baptized in the early church “devoted themselves” (which could have taken the form of a formal covenant) to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayer (Acts 2:41-42).
There is no explicit text calling believers to belong to a church because it was everywhere assumed and practiced in the early church so there was no need for a formal statement. Also, many of the first churches were smaller house churches so membership or commitment would be more easily recognized (especially under persecution). However, many churches are much larger today so it serves the leadership of the church and the church as a whole to keep track of those who have formally covenanted to church membership.
We see that there was a list of widows that were entitled to financial support (1 Tim. 5:9) and there may also have been a growing list of church members (see for example Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). Churches would also write a letter of commendation (Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1; Col. 4:10; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-2) for believers that were moving to a different area. This leads us to conclude that church roles were likely kept in the early church. However, even if they did not have a formal list they obviously knew who was part of the body and this was very important to them and should be to us as well.
We also see a New Testament mandate for godly qualified leadership. Men who are called to shepherd the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2) by laboring (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17), and watching over souls (Heb. 13:17). Pastors (a synonym of elders and shepherds) will give an account to God of how they shepherded so it is important that they know who their sheep are.
Church membership is implied from church discipline (see Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 3:10-11) and it assumes that the elders of the church will know who the members of the church are. We also see much biblical imagery that points us to church membership. The church is called: body, bride, family, royal priesthood. These things suggest tight connection, even formal covenant. We as the church are to be like an outpost in enemy territory, an embassy amongst a distant land. If you are a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom you should be connected to the local embassy. The church is that embassy, the church represents the Kingdom of God on earth.
Local church membership, though obviously not required for salvation, is vital. It is my prayer that more and more believers would covenant together as the body and bride of Christ to be committed together to be and do what Christ our Lord has called us to do with the short time that we have here to labor for our Lord.
Introductory: Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership
In-depth: Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love