Church Discipline (I)

William E. Wallace
Poteau, Oklahoma

The word "discipline" somehow leaves a depressing thought with us. Perhaps this is because discipline represents to us restraint and punishment. I think that when we talk of church discipline we must try to dispel these ideas of restraint and punishment in favor of ideas of care and protection.

The motive behind discipline is seen in the words of James, as he says, "My brethren, if any among you err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins" (Jas. 5:19-20) . Our concern for a wayfaring brother expressed in personal attempts to save him as this passage teaches, or, in the action of the church, is an expression of love for the offending party.

There is another motive behind discipline: Our concern for the welfare of the church. The Lord's body represents his will on earth. He would "present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:27). Christ "gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works" (Titus 2:14). Thus, we are a "peculiar" people, a group of people with characteristics which must be safeguarded.

It has been stated somewhere that "the object of church discipline is not the punishment of offenders, but vindication of the truth, purification of the church, warning of the careless, and reformation and salvation of the guilty." This statement expresses the Biblical idea of church discipline.

So, let it be known that we are not concerned with punishing wayfaring members. God will do that. That is God's business. It is our business to safeguard the integrity of the church by "marking" or by "withdrawing from" individual members who shame the good name of Christ and threaten the good influence of the church.

In I Cor. 5, Paul expresses indignation to the church at Corinth because it had not acted to safeguard the influence of the church in a case of immorality. He compared their neglect or laxity in this matter to leaven or yeast in a lump of bread. Yeast grows and it swells the bread, thereby affecting the whole lump. It is not the offending member, but the laxity of the church, which Paul compares with leaven. In I Cor. 5, the Corinthian church was reminded of the Passover feast of the Jews which required that all leaven should be purged out of the house (Exodus 12). The church is thus enjoined to put out the leaven of laxity or lethargy and do something about a member who was guilty of open immorality. The same thought is seen in the Lord's commands to the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira which were tolerating evil members and error (Rev. 2:14-16, 20).

We must realize that the toleration of wickedness or the failure to act in case of public evil on the part of members will bring disfavor from God on the congregation. The public sin of one Christian may be the occasion of God's condemnation of the whole church.

We shall study this subject under three headings: (1) What does the New Testament teach about church discipline? (2 ) Obstacles or hindrances to church discipline. (3) The results of church discipline.


What does the New Testament teach about church discipline? Under this heading we are discussing what the local church is to do. We are not talking about self-discipline, self-control or personal restraint on the part of the individual.

In Matt. 18, the Lord instructs the apostles in matters pertaining to church discipline. Although the church had not yet been established, Christ was giving preparatory instruction. The fact that this instruction was given before the church was established, and before the giving of the Great Commission, shows that the church discipline is an important matter with the Lord.

Jesus here taught that an offending person is first to go to the offender alone and try to rectify the evil. If unsuccessful, he is to take two others as witnesses and attempt a reconciliation. If the offender will not correct his offense, the case is to be brought before the local church. If this action is futile, the offender is to be excluded from the fellowship of the church.

You can see how that a public offense of one member against another would create public ridicule of the Lord's body. If members of the church cannot live together in harmony in God's family, our attempts to lead people into the church are hindered. So, the guilty party in a public alienation of Christian friendship must be disciplined if he refuses to correct his sin. This will protect the church's influence and work to save the sinning brother, if he has lost his love for Christ and the church.

Jesus said to treat the disciplined member as "the Gentile and the publican." This means he is not to be recognized as a member of the local congregation. It also means we should make every possible effort to save his soul (Jas. 5:19-20).

Passing to another case of discipline, we turn to Acts 5, where a man and his wife wanted to appear to give everything to the church while holding back some of it. Peter rebuked their hypocrisy, explaining that they did not have to give anything, but to pretend to give was intolerable. Peter pointed out that they had lied unto God, and the lives of both were taken by God. Now this is NOT a case of church discipline. God acted before the church could act in this case. This was a case of God's action. The lesson to us is in God's attitude toward such sin in the church. If God feels so strongly toward such sin in the church, how should we feel?

I would like to insert here a comment by W. McGarvey. He said:

This piece of corruption was connected with the Lord's treasury; and apart from the feature which was emphasized by Peter, it has a bearing on our modern church life. The lie told by Ananias consisted in representing his gift as being more liberal in proportion to his ability that it really was. Every time a member of the church at the present day makes exaggerated statements o f the amount he is giving, or understates the amount of his wealth, in order to make out a degree of liberality beyond what is real, he is guilty of the sin of Ananias and Sapphira; and if all such were to drop dead in their tracks, there would be a thinning o f the ranks in some places. All who are tempted to act thus should be faithfully notified that the same God who punished Ananias and Sapphira on the spot will not fail to punish in his own time and place, all who imitate them.

Consider now I Cor. 5. Paul was shocked at a situation in Corinth where a prominent member of the church was living with his stepmother in a marriage relationship. His chief concern was the attitude of the Corinthian church regarding this matter. The church was arrogant-the members should have been mourning about the existence of conduct which threatened the moral fibre of the congregation.

Paul commands the brethren to discipline the wrongdoer by severing him from membership in the local congregation. Note that Paul's objective was that of saving the soul of the guilty party as well as protecting the good name of the church. He said "to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Paul means to sever Christian fellowship from the man, thus encouraging him to realize that he is in the realm of Satan's destruction. This is designed to bring the man to his moral senses, and bring him to repentance.

Paul goes further and commands the church to exercise discipline on any member who is guilty of fornication, covetousness, idolatry, railing, drunkenness and extortion. He says the church must not keep company with "any man that is called a brother" who is guilty of these sins. We must "put away from ourselves that wicked person."

By fornication, he means sex offenders. By a covetous man he means a greedy man, like a gambler. A reviler is one who speaks in an abusive manner about his brethren. A drunkard is one who is given to alcoholic drinks. An extortioner is a thief.

When the church tolerates or overlooks these sins and fails to take proper disciplinary steps, it disobeys the commands of the New Testament and endangers its divine recognition as a church of Christ.

In II Thess. 3:11-16, Paul commands disciplinary action on members who would not obey the word of God. There was confusion in Thessalonica over doctrine about the second coming of Christ. Some members had quit making a living and had become disorderly. Paul taught the church the truth on doctrinal matters and commanded the disorderly and busybody members to change their way of living. Then he charged the church to "have no company" with those who would not obey the word of God. The purpose of this discipline, he said, is that "the guilty party might be ashamed." This idea is to bring the guilty party to repentance. Paul also instructs that the disciplined member must not be considered an enemy. The church is to have "nothing to do with him," yet admonish him as a brother-seek to bring him back to righteousness.

There are several passages in the New Testament which command us to withdraw fellowship or refuse fellowship to those who teach false doctrine. We must not consider false teachers as members of the local congregation. In Rom. 16:17 we are told to "mark them which cause division and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned and avoid them."

In I Tim. 6:3-5, Paul instructs the preacher against those who cause trouble in the congregation by teaching that which is not "wholesome." A proud, arrogant, contentious person who continually disrupts the peace of the church by unwholesome teaching and conduct is dangerous. Paul told Timothy, "from such withdraw thyself." Similar instruction is found in Titus 3:8-11.

John warns all members against fellowship and encouraging false teachers. He said, "If anyone cometh unto you and bringeth not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (2 John 10-11) .

Truth Magazine, V:11: pp. 9-11
August 1961