In the next few posts, I’d like to address the issue of so-called, Church Discipline. There are varying views on what level of discipline a church should engage in and we see this all throughout history. Differing religious sects have had quite a stronghold over their people and in that, they have set their own means for separating people from the group when those people behave in a way that the ‘leaders’ deem inexcusable. Church discipline also covers all of the various “crimes against the church body” and what their sentence thereof should be. Again, you’ll find varying degrees of severity throughout history.
The American Colonists had quite a bit of church discipline in their societies. It wasn’t uncommon for whippings and public shamings to happen as a sentence for drunkenness, fornication, swearing for example.(1) This mindset hasn’t necessarily dissolved over time, but the way in which it is carried out has certainly changes. For the most part (if not across the board), there are no whippings, etc. that get carried out. What about public shamings? Well, this is certainly still common place except instead of being put in the stocks to have rotten crops tossed at your face-meat, folks now hurl insults your direction via social media. If there is a natural constant, it is regardless of culture and technology, people are always people.
Even though this is the idea of church discipline that we see in history, should what we see in history determine what God’s desires are for discipline in the life of the believer (whether individual/personal discipline one imposes upon one’s self, or, corporate discipline imposed upon an individual or subset of the corporate body). This can be a subject that is difficult for some because they have been the target of church discipline and perhaps experienced a righteous decision carried out unrighteously. Others may have experienced unrighteous decisions or any point along the spectrum. How should believers view this concept?
This will be a few posts in length. I’d like in this post to simply make some observations based on the record of scripture. We’ll highlight various verses that often are cited as it relates to church discipline and maybe a few others that are less common but seem to touch on the topic. I want to attempt to address this issue holistically and not hone in on 2 or 3 verses and have those speak for the whole Bible. In subsequent posts, I want to go back and look at these verses and establish the POSITIVE aspects of discipline and the NEGATIVE aspects of discipline. (Negative, not from the standpoint that discipline is bad, but how there are negative things in our lives that may trigger a need for discipline). These negative things might involve false teaching, sowing discord, blatant reproach, etc. Recognizing where discipline is necessary is part of the story, the other part is how to engage in it.
Let’s highlight some passages/verses where the idea of church discipline is often supported by. Probably the most familiar set of verses as it would relate to how to deal with a fellow brother/sister in Christ who has sinned against you is found in Matthew 18:
Matthew 18:15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 18:16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 18:17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
It would appear that there is a proper order for restoration/reconciliation and the last stop on this train is with the church at large. What is this all about?
Titus 3:9 But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. 3:10 A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; 3:11 Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.
Here is the famous heretic passage. What is a heretic? How is the church to deal with heretics?
1Corinthians 5:5 To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
1Corinthians 5:11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.
Here it seems the apostle Paul is convinced of separating yourself from believers who sin but even to turn them over to Satan. Is it seriously that harsh? Wouldn’t we all be in solitude if that were the case? Perhaps there is more here than a surface reading suggests.
Galatians 6:1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
Instead of separation, we find the admonition to restore those who are overtaken in a fault. How do we square Galatians 6:1 with 1Corinthians 5:11?
2Thessalonians 3:14 And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. 3:15 Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
Apparently blatantly disregarding the words of Paul is worthy of being shunned? What’s this about?
James 5:19 Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; 5:20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
Here we have another instance where restoration is celebrated.
2Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.
Now we’re back to keeping away from a brother who isn’t walking (living) right. This is a lot to keep up with!
Romans 16:17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
More avoiding believers except this time isn’t about “living right” but about having the “right doctrine.”
1Timothy 5:20 Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.
Now it’s getting juicy – rebuke a sinner before the crowd so the crowd can fear sinning in the same manner.
There are plenty of other examples and verses we could post, but I think you get the idea. We’ve got our work cut out for us. How is this thing called discipline supposed to operate? Why do we seem to have contradictory statements (believers to restore/believers to rebuke/believers to avoid)? As we progress in this study, we’ll look at the verses listed above and attempt to understand this from a holistic perspective. The motive here is not to find ways to get out of discipline but it is likewise also to make sure that the discipline enacted bears the same motives as Christ Himself. This should give us good insight for how we are to view ourselves, our fellow brothers/sisters and the church as a whole. Is the church to be running people out of town? Is a believer to castigate a fellow believer? How does judging/not judging play into this? We have issues of sin and doctrine that seem to be the favorites for discipline to be enacted – but how so? So many questions arise with this topic. It may be difficult to cover everything deeply, but that just means you’ll have some things to dive into for yourself!
Hebrews 12:11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.
Our story continues…