Church Discipline (Part II)
The Purpose of Discipline
God has a purpose for everything He commands us to do. In view of the divinely required action toward unfaithful church members, we need to inquire as to the purpose of such actions.
The purpose of disciplinary action is not to "take vengeance" on anyone. Vengeance belongs to God (Romans 12: 19). When a parent disciplines his child, it is not done vengefully, but because of parental love (Prov. 13: 24).
Neither is the purpose of discipline to "throw somebody out of the church." It may surprise you to learn that the disfellowshiped brother is still in the church. He is yet to be counted "as a brother" (2 Thess. 3: 15). What then are the purposes of church discipline as stated in the scriptures?
1. Discipline is necessary to maintain the honor and authority of Christ. Jesus is the "head over all things to the church" (Eph. 1:22); He has "all authority" (Matt 28: 18). Yet he plainly demands that the disorderly be disfellowshiped (2 Thess. 3:6). In order to maintain and respect His authority in the church, we must withdraw ourselves from every disorderly brother. To speak of respecting the authority of Christ while we do not do what he commands is a farce (Lk. 6:46).
2. Discipline is necessary in order to maintain the purity of the church. The church consists of people who have purified their souls in their obedience to the truth (1 Pet. 1:22; Rom. 6:17), whose garments have been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14'. It is God's intentions that these keep themselves pure (I Tim. 5:22; 1 Tim. 4:12; 2 Cor. 6:17, 18).
Jesus shed His blood in order that the church might be sanctified and purified, and when He presents it back to God the Father, the church must be without spot, wrinkle or blemish in His sight (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Cor. 15:24). Unholy people in the church constitute spots and blemishes in His purified body (2 Pet. 2:13). In order to maintain the church's purity, such people, then, must be excluded from the fellowship of the faithful.
Paul told the Corinthian church that unless it "put away the wicked man (a fornicatorCW) from among yourselves" (I Cor. 5:13), the leaven of ungodliness and impurity would permeate and destroy the entire congregation (I Cor. 5:6). Sin in the church is not something with which men trifle. It will saturate the church, if not immediately expelled, until God will remove the candlestick of that church (Rev. 1:20; 2:5).
3. Discipline in the church is necessary to maintain the respect of the world. When God summarily dealt with ungodly Ananias and Sapphira, it caused fear to come "upon the whole church, and upon all that heard these things" (Acts 5:1-11). The image of the church before the world would be more respected if the ungodly were excluded from our fellowship (2 Pet. 2:2). Too, if it were clearly understood that one would be expected and demanded to live a godly life when he became a member of the church, none but the sincere would make such a godly profession.
Disciplinary action would have a salutary effect upon those already in the church too. All among us would be in godly fear (Acts 5: 11; I Tim. 5: 20). We then could have greater self-respect, zeal would increase, our influence would be greater, and the church "would progress as it has not since ungodliness began to be tolerated and lightly looked upon.
4. Disciplinary action is necessary to save the erring brother. James teaches that when a brother is converted from the "error of his way" a soul has been saved from death (Jas. 5:19,20). The Corinthian church was commanded to withdraw from the fornicator that his "spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Cor. 5:5).
Evangelism is designed to save those outside the church; corrective discipline is God's plan to save the sinners inside the church.
Let none of us be guilty of implying that God's plan will not work, for such an implication is an indictment of the infinite wisdom of God.
When disciplinary action begins to be viewed as the divine plan of salvation for the erring, relatives of the unfaithful then will urge that the commanded means of discipline be employed in an effort to save those whom they love. Such should be one's attitude.
The Manner of Action
Nearly everything can be done in a wrong manner or in a right manner. Particularly is this true regarding disciplinary action. At least six things need to be kept in mind when such action is necessary.
1. The action should be done in a manner calculated to accomplish the objectives in view. The purpose is to "gain thy brother" (Matt. 18:15), to "save a soul from death" (Jas. 5: 20), and that his "spirit may be saved" (l Cor. 5:5). These objectives necessitate that the sinner be converted from the error of his way (Jas. 5:20). His conversion may require strong teaching. Yet it must be done "in a spirit of gentleness," looking to one's self lest he also be tempted (Gal. 6:1). One can do much to gain his brother, if one's heart is going in the same direction.
2. The action must be taken in a spirit of kindness and love (Rom. 13:10; 1 Cor. 16: 14; Col. 3:12-14; Jno. 13:34, Jno. 13:35). At no time should the unfaithful brother be given reason to think that his brethren are prompted by any motive other than a sincere love for his lost soul. A sincere love for his soul will not tolerate hesitation and compromise in telling "him his fault" (Matt. 18:15).
3. Disciplinary action, as every other kind of religious action, must be practiced according to the law of Christ (Jas. 1:25). But it must be done! The law of Christ must be obeyed with firmness and faithfulness.
4. Corrective discipline should be practiced steadily and constantly. Otherwise the "disorderly" accumulate in a church and a disposition of remissness develops. It then becomes difficult to make the corrections necessary in the church to restore it to the Lord's favor. We all would deplore the housekeeper who permitted filth to accumulate until it became a stench to the nostrils and a source of disease to her neighbors. In like manner, churches should not wait to "clean house" until the reproach arising from toleration of the ungodly becomes too great to be borne longer.
5. Reformatory action should be taken with wisdom. Elders are to be discreet (1 Tim 3:1-Therefore, scriptural elders are the proper ones to direct the church in such matters.
6. Discipline, like all other dealings with men, should be done impartially, or without discrimination (1 Tim. 5: 21; Jas. 3: 17). The poor, humble, and quiet are not to be subjected to actions that are not likewise applied, under similar circumstances, to the wealthy, prominent and powerful. Both classes should be dealt with precisely as God said to do.
The Subjects of Discipline
We now ask, "Who should be disciplined?" The obvious answer is, "Those who need it." Basically, those who corrupt themselves with the world and those who are indifferent need corrective or reformatory action. But to be more specific, should they refuse to repent the church should withdraw from the following:
1. Those who refuse to correct personal offenses against brethren (Matt. 18: 15-17).
2. Those who cause divisions contrary to the gospel (Rom. 16: 17, 18; Ps. 133:1: Prov. 6: 16-19).
3. Those who are factious or who teach heresy (Titus 3:10).
4. Those who are guilty of the sins of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:11).
a. Fornicators (1 Cor. 5:9 6:13-20: Gal. 5:19).
b. Adulterers (Matt 5:32; 19:9: Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 5:1-5).
c. Drunkards (Rom. 13: 13; I Cor. 5:11: 6:10; Gal. 5:21 Eph. 5:18).
d. Covetous (I Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:5).
e. Idolaters (Eph. 5: 5; Col. 3: 5: 2 Tim. 3:2, 4; 4:10).
f. Railers and revilers (1 Cor. 5: 11).
g. Extortioners (1 Cor. 5:11).
h. Tale-bearers and idle (2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:13).
5. Those that are "disorderly"(2 Thes. 3:6). The Greek word translated "disorderly" means "out of ranks, irregular, inordinate, deviating from the prescribed order or rule" (Lexicon, p. 83). The "disorderly" are impenitent, defiant, and show a disposition to continue in sin. The above definitions certainly include those who willfully absent themselves from the assemblies of the church. Willful absentees are also "unruly" (1 Thess. 5: 14). They are "deviating from the prescribed order" set forth in Heb. 10:25. Does anyone think such negligent action is "orderly" for a Christian? If not, it is "disorderly" action, and from such persons we must withdraw, unless they repent and properly correct this sin.
Our Duty Toward Disfellowshiped
It is never our desire to disfellowship anyone. We would much prefer that they reform their lives to conform to the Word of God. But when it becomes necessary to disfellowship an unfaithful member, what should be the faithful attitude toward him?
The disfellowshiped certainly should not be used in the services of the church. To do so would be to make a sham of our righteous profession. No recognition should be given such a one that would imply endorsement of him as a faithful Christian. Instead, the unfaithful must be "marked" (Rom. 16: 17), and treated as a heathen or a publican (Matt. 18:17).
Even private association with a disfellowshiped member is restricted. The Bible commands that no company be kept with the disfellowshiped (1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:14), and that one is not even to conduct social engagements with such a person, lest the humbling and shaming intended effect be lessened.
The disfellowshiped are to be made to feel "ashamed" (2Thess.3: 14) that they might be brought to repentance. However, one is not to count them as enemies. One should admonish them as brethren (1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:15), pray for them (1 Jno. 5:16), convert them (Jas. 5: 19, 20), and restore them if at all possible (Gal. 6: 1).
Once one has been disfellowshiped, he is not to be forgotten. He continually is to be admonished, as opportunity is given. The entire church must act in the withdrawal of fellowship. When some withdraw their fellowship and others do not, the corrective effect of the action is greatly impaired. Any member who refuses to respect the scriptural action of the church toward the unfaithful is himself a subject of corrective discipline. Those who object to disciplinary action when properly taken, are either ignorant of the Bible teaching on the subject, or are rebellious to it.
If one should feel insufficient effort was made to reclaim the "unruly" brother, he is at complete liberty to make additional efforts. But he should be sure his is an effort to bring him to repentance, rather than to tell him how badly he thinks he has been treated. The disfellowshiped "unruly" man has been treated precisely as God said to treat him to save his soul. Just as not all who hear the gospel will obey it, there may be some disobedient brethren who cannot, by any means, be brought to repentance (Heb. 6:6).
No church should accept into its fellowship one who scripturally has been disfellowshiped by another church. To do so also would break the shaming effect of the action. Sinners in the church need to be taught that they cannot run from one church's corrective action into the blissful fellowship of another church.
By some proper means, the church taking such disfellowshiping action should notify nearby churches, lest others receive the one out of fellowship unawares. Just as the sinner cannot by any means escape the wrath of God, he also should not be able to escape the opprobrium of his brethren until he repents.
The objective of all such action should be the correction of the offender. When one repents, the Bible teaches we are to forgive him (Lk. 17:3). Lest the penitent disfellowshiped be swallowed up by much sorrow, we should hasten to comfort him and to confirm our love toward him (2 Cor. 2:4-11).
Many passages now have been cited showing, not only that disciplinary action is demanded, but also even how it is to be administered. Brethren who are reluctant to apply these passages to rebellious sinners are like gloating parents who "love" (?) their children too much to chastise them. Read again Solomon's words: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes" (Prov. 13:24). A lack of practice of church discipline toward the "disorderly" is not prompted by love!
When discipline is practiced by all churches, as it ought to be, the authority of Christ will be honored and maintained, the church will be kept pure, the world will respect us, and the souls of sinful brethren will be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. May it be so!
TRUTH MAGAZINE XI: 3, pp. 2-5