Church Discipline

By Mark Mayberry

“As we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). The biblical emphasis on fellowship is primarily vertical, i.e., it describes the relationship we have with God. Yet, those individuals who have fellowship with God also share a relationship with one another.

We must always remember that fellowship with God is conditional. It is based upon obedience to His word. Rebellion shatters that relationship (Isa. 59:1-2). Horizontal fellowship cannot exist if vertical fellowship has been broken. We cannot jointly participate with those who rebel against God’s will.

Church discipline, or withdrawal of fellowship, is seldom practiced today. The subject is rarely even discussed. Is this because all modem day Christians remain faithful? Obviously not! Instead, churches have failed to demonstrate courage in this area. The Bible has a great deal to say on this subject. If our goal is to follow the apostolic pattern, we must obey the Lord’s teaching in this regard as well.

Does a congregation have the right to withdraw from those who do not remain faithful to the Lord? In this study we shall consider various Scriptures which answer in the affirmative. However, consider for a moment the following point. Almost every organization has certain conditions for membership. Persons who want to be identified with those groups must accept their rules. If those regulations are ignored, the group has every right to remove those individuals as members. This principle applies to community and civic clubs, to sporting organizations, and also to the church of our Lord.

Matthew 18:15-18

Moreover if thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. 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. And if he shall neglect to hear then, tell it to the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

This text describes a situation where one Christian wrongs another and then will not repent. The specific transgression is not mentioned, and thus any kind of sin could be described in these verses. How is the injured party to respond? He should go to the offender and try to work things out privately. It that doesn’t work, several other parties should be brought in to act as witnesses (cf. Deut. 19:15) and to lend their influence. If repentance is not evident, then the local congregation should be informed of the matter. Ultimately, if such a person fails to heed the exhortation of concerned Christians, he must be withdrawn from and treated as an outsider.

1 Corinthians 5

(1) It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.

“Fornication” (Greek, porneia) is a general word that includes all forms of sexual immorality, be it adultery, premarital sex, sodomy, etc. In this context, the exact nature of the transgression is not clear, although some form of incest was involved. The man was probably living in sin with his step-mother. The Gentiles had notoriously loose morals, but they were repulsed by this expression of depravity.

(2) And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.

This immoral brother still enjoyed fellowship with the church at Corinth. They permitted the situation to continue, and apparently were proud of their broad-minded attitude. The word “mourned” was also used to describe the bereavement that is expressed at a funeral. Here we learn that discipline is not to be carried out with a spirit of animosity, vengeance or hatefulness. It proceeds from a heart weighed down with sorrow.

(3) For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed.

This man’s sin was evident unto all and the facts could not be disputed, so the apostle states that he had already passed sentence. The Corinthians had failed in their duty, but now Paul demands that immediate action be taken.

(4-5) In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jew Christ 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.

Christ Jesus reigns as head over the church (Col. 1:18). All who are outside this realm are under the domain of Satan (Eph. 2:12; Col. 1: 13). To be expelled from the fellowship of the saved is to be delivered back to the kingdom of darkness (1 Tim. 1:20).

What does the expression “for the destruction of the flesh” mean? Withdrawal of fellowship is designed to lead one back to the truth. It should cause a man to seriously reflect upon the path he is following. Because of the spiritual understanding gained when we become Christians, we should realize the ultimate tragedy of sin. This man was dominated by his fleshly desires. Paul hoped that he would realize the dire consequences of his actions. From 2 Corinthians 2:6-8, we learn that the Corinthian church did exercise discipline and their action had a very definite effect upon the man. It caused him to realize, “I can’t continue to live in sin and maintain fellowship with other Christians.” He repented!

(6-8) Your glorying Is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Sometimes we think we can ignore a problem and hope it goes away. Yet, Paul says it only takes a small quantity of yeast to leaven a large lump of dough. Leaven, or yeast, often symbolizes evil in the Scriptures (Matt. 16:5-12; Gal. 5:7-9,13). The Corinthians were continuing to fellowship this sinful brother and thus they were retaining a bad influence that could very likely spread and corrupt many. Anytime we tolerate evil, our moral standards are lowered. Sin acts like a cancer that devours the body of Christ. The church cannot tolerate evil within its midst (2 Jn. 9-11).

(9-11) I wrote unto you In an epistle not to company with fornicators. Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with Idolaters; for them must ye needs go out of the world. 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.

God’s people cannot move to some mountain top and live in total seclusion. Christianity is to conquer the world for Christ, not to withdraw from it. Remember that Jesus associated with publicans, harlots and sinners in an effort to lead them to salvation. We cannot be a good influence on others if we isolate ourselves.

However, we cannot casually associate with one who claims to be a Christian, but still lives a life of sin. Sitting down to enjoy a common meal with such a one implies all is well. We cannot act like nothing is wrong. A withdrawal of fellowship shows that we disapprove of their actions. It puts the church on record as not condoning sin.

2 Thessalonins 3:6,14-15

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. . . . If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that men, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

Some argue that these statements apply only to the exhortations in the immediate context. I disagree. Certainly it would cover the teaching found in 2 Thessalonians, but Paul set forth a broad principle when he stated that we must withdraw from those who “walk disorderly.” As soldiers in the Lord’s army, we must walk according to His commandments. The authority of Christ is absolute (Matt. 28:18-20; Col. 3:17; 1 Cor. 4:6; NASV)! If we deliberately ignore His will, we are guilty of “disorderly” conduct. One who rebels against the teaching of Christ and remains impenitent must be withdrawn from.

Yet, those who administer discipline must strive to maintain the proper attitude: “Count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (v. 15). Christians are a close knit group of people. To be cut off from this relationship should have a sobering effect upon an apostate brother. Discipline is designed to restore the offender.

What about those people who drift away and quit? What about those who no longer desire to associate with other Christians? Withdrawal of fellowship may not have much of an effect on such a person. Yet, does this mean that there is nothing we can do? No, because there are other principles involved in church discipline. It has a sobering effect upon all the members. “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). Perhaps certain weak members are beginning to slip. If no disciplinary action is ever taken, they may get the idea that faithfulness is not all that important.

Often, we practice withdrawal by default. Members drift away, but no definitive action is taken. Then after a period of time, their names are deleted from the membership list. Certainly, this is not the most expedient way of handling the problem. The church needs to let it be known that faithfulness is expected of all who would be considered members. People must realize that it is not right for them to simply drift in and out of service. Discipline makes it clear that faithfulness is required of God’s people.

Guardian of Truth XXX: 18, pp. 564-565
September 18, 1986