Church Discipline (Part 1)

Cecil Willis
Akron, Ohio

Perhaps the most neglected subject in the New Testament pertaining to Christian duty, either so far as teaching or practice is concerned is that of church discipline. God has a plan for the salvation of the alien sinner, and He also has a plan for the salvation of the erring brother. We stress Hi s will concerning the alien, and often ignore His will concerning the erring brother.

However, it is inconsistent to insist upon following the law of admission into the church found in Acts 2, and then disregards the law of exclusion from church fellowship found in Corinthians and Thessalonians.

The Necessity of Discipline

Where there is no penalty for violation attached to a law, there is neither respect for the law, nor for the lawgiver. Much of the juvenile delinquency rampant today is caused by parental delinquency, because no discipline was practiced upon the child in the home (Prov. 13: 24; Eph. 6: 1-4). Every schoolteacher recognizes the essentiality of discipline in the classroom. Society sees the necessity of discipline in that it provides laws, as well as trials and punishments for violators (Rom. 13: 1-4).

God has never tolerated trifling with His laws. He is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), but such would result if one could disregard with impunity the divinely imposed laws. Hence, God told Adam and Eve that they would "die" if they disobeyed (Gen. 2:17). He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly that destroyed every wicked person (Gen. 6: 1-7). Nadab and Abihu suffered death as a consequence of their presumptuous rebellion (Lev. 10.)

Similarly, there must be discipline in the church; else there will be neither respect for God or for His laws.

The Scriptures Commanding It

Here let me merely list some of the passages that pertain to congregational action toward the erring, and to our individual obligation to attempt to restore them. Please read these passages from your Bible: Matt. 18:17-15; Lk. 17:3; Rom. 16:17-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 5:12-14; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Jas. 5:19,20. We shall have occasion to allude to these passages several times in the pages that follow. But at least read this passage now: "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 they received of us" (2 Thess 3:6). This passage is as explicit as Acts 2:38. It is clear that these passages demand that we take disciplinary action toward the "disorderly." We must obey or rebel!

The Definition of Discipline

"Discipline" is a rather broad word. In fact, it implies much more than we ordinarily think to be included in it. If more people understood what discipline is, more would recognize the necessity of practicing it.

Webster says the word "discipline" means:

"1. The treatment suited to a disciple or a learner; education; development of the faculties by instruction and exercise; training. 2. Training to act in accordance with established rules; accustoming to systematic and regular action; drill. 3. Subjection to rule; submissiveness to order and control; state of discipline. 4. Severe training, corrective of faults; instruction by means of misfortune, suffering, punishment, etc. 5. Correction, chastisement; punishment inflicted by way of correction and training. 6The enforcement of methods of correction against one guilty of ecclesiastical offenses; reformatory or penal action toward a church member."

Notice the different words used in this definition: "education," "development," "instruction" "exercise," "training," "drill," "correction," "chastisement," "punishment," and "reformatory or penal action." Discipline is, then, a much broader term than one might at first suppose.

Old Testament Usage

The Old Testament equivalent of our word "discipline" is "musar" (Hebrew), which comes from "yasar." "Yasar" means "to bind, to tame; hence to correct, chastise, instruct, admonish." These Hebrew words are used in the OId Testament concerning the disciplinary action of a parent toward his child (Prov. 3:11,12; 13:24; 22:15; 23: 13), and of the disciplinary action of God toward His people (Deut. 8:5; Job. 5:17; Ps. 94:12).

New Testament Usage

The Greek equivalent of "discipline" is "paideia," which means, "To bring up, rear a child; to train and teach, educate; to chasten, discipline." "Paideia" is used in referring to bringing up a child in the "nurture" and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Forms of this Greek word are used eight times in Heb 12:5-11 where the necessity of discipline by both earthly parents and God is discussed.

It should be clear by now that in the English, Hebrew, and Greek, the concept of discipline means more than chastisement. Church discipline includes instruction, training, admonition, correction, chastisement, and reformatory or penal action.

Two Kinds of Disciplinary Action

There are two kinds of discipline: instructive and corrective. Instructive discipline is preventive in nature, and prevention is always better than cure. Everything possible should be done to prevent the necessity of taking corrective discipline, which is reformatory or punitive in nature. But there are occasions when both kinds must be employed.

Jesus taught that we must not only "teach" and baptize people, but we must also "teach them to observe" all things He commanded (Matt. 28: 18-20). It is much easier to teach a child what he should do than it is to teach him to do it. Likewise, it is easier to teach some people what they must do religiously than it is to "teach them to observe" what they have been taught.

Solomon taught: "He that spareth his rod ha eth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes" (Prov. 13:24). Just as corrective discipline must be taken in the rearing of a child properly, so must unfaithful children of God be disciplined?

The Means of Discipline

There are several divinely specified actions to be taken in bringing up the children of God. All parents know that different problems with children necessitate different actions. Elders, in leading in disciplining erring church members, must employ all the wisdom their years of Bible study and experience provide. The Word of God specifies the actions to be taken. Let us observe six things that can, and must be done to correct unfaithful Christians.

1. Public Instruction  many sins are sins of ignorance. Hence, God commanded that the church assemble (Heb. 10:25) for public instruction from the Word of God. Paul reminded the Ephesian church that he had taught them "publicly'' (Acts 20: 20). Disciplinary (preventive) action is being taken when the church publicly is being taught. See also Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 14:26; 2 Tim. 2:2. Generally those demanding corrective action are the ones who habitually forsake most of the assemblies in which public Bible instruction is given.

2. Private Instruction and Exhortation  Public instruction often needs to be supplemented by private teaching. Thus Paul said: I taught you "publicly and from house to house" (Acts 20:20). See also Acts 18:26; Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 5:14. Individual teaching needs can often be more specifically met by private instruction, and those needing such teaching often feel freer to ask questions than when in the public assembly.

3. Private Rebuke and Admonition  (Lk. 17:3). Jesus taught that a private sin ought to be privately rebuked. He said "And if thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between him and thee alone" (Matt. 18:15). A brotherly rebuke privately administered should let the erring brother know you have only his interest at heart. It is not wise to parade every private offense before public gaze, as this could hinder both the offender and the church.

4. Public Censure You will note that these actions progressively become sterner, but stronger action is necessary when one is obstinate. Gross and brazen sins (2 Pet. 2: 13) require public condemnation. Paul withstood Peter "to the face" and "before them all" because of his hypocritical action at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). Paul further commanded: "Them that sin reprove in the sight of all that the rest also may be in fear" (I Tim. 5:20). See also I Tim. 1:1820; 2 Tim. 2:17; 4:10; 3 Jno. 9.

5. Social Ostracismthose working together in the church are in fellowship with one another (Eph. 3:6). They are partners in a work and sharers in God's blessings. When all the above actions have proven incapable of bringing the sinning brother to repentance, then he is to be "put away . . . from among yourselves" and the faithful are to "have no company" with him (1 Cor. -5:9-13). Paul further commanded that from impenitent sinners in the church, brethren are to "turn away" (2 Tim. 3:1-5) and to "have no company with" them (2 Thess. 3:14,15). In Titus 3:10 Paul teaches that when one has been duly admonished, "refuse" such a one admittance into the company of the faithful. John demands that a false teacher be so marked that the faithful neither "receive him into your house" nor give him greetings (2 Jno. 9:11).

The intention of such actions toward the unfaithful is not self-righteousness. It is to bring the sinner to repentance, by embarrassment, occasioned by his expulsion from the fellowship of the faithful. Sinning brethren are to be "marked" and "noted" (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:14), which demands specific public action on the part of the faithful. Such a brother must be publicly named in order that the members may know to "have no company with him to the end that he may be ashamed" (2 Thess. 3:14).

To refuse to take any or all of these commanded steps to try to save a sinning brother is to prove ourselves disloyal to Christ. Remember, nothing is really settled with the Lord until it is settled rightly. Overlooking sin in the church will not save unfaithful brethren; it will only condemn us.

November 1966