Church Discipline (III): The Purpose, Manner and Subjects of Discipline

By Larry A. Bunch

The purpose of church discipline is not to take vengeance on anyone or to throw someone out of the church (Rom. 12:19; 3 John 10). Any brother disciplined is still to be admonished as a brother (2 Thess. 3:15).

Instructive discipline is, as has already been pointed out in this article, for the purpose of strengthening the Christian so he can serve God in a manner pleasing to God. When one knows the will of God, he can live the life pleasing to God.

Corrective discipline is as important as instructive discipline. Here are five reasons why it is important:

1. Corrective discipline must be practiced to maintain the honor and authority of Christ. We must do what Jesus says (Luke 6:46) since we are in subjection to Him (Eph. 1:22) and He has all authority (Matt. 28:18). He tells us, through the apostle Paul, “. . . withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.”

2. Corrective discipline is necessary to maintain the purity of the church. The church is made up of “purified” souls (1 Pet. 1:22; Rom. 6:17-18; Rev. 7:14) and must be kept pure, as far as humanly possible, in doctrine and practice both in the local congregation and the individual lives (1 Tim. 5:22; 4:12; 2 Cor. 6:17-18; 2 Pet. 2:13; 1 Cor. 5:12; 5:6; Rev. 1:20 with 2:5; Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Cor. 15:24).

3. It is necessary in order to demonstrate that the church is subject to Christ in all things (2 Cor. 2:9).

4. Maintaining the respect of the world makes it necessary (Acts 5:1-11; 2 Pet. 2:2). Increased respect would result of ungodliness were not tolerated!

5. The most important reason, I believe, for brethren practicing church discipline (corrective) as God instructs is in order t save the erring brother (James 5:19-20; 1 Cor. 5:5). evangelism is to save the alien sinner; corrective discipline is to save the erring brother. Friends of brethren living in sin should demand that corrective discipline be employed to try and save those whom they love!

The Manner of Action

Almost all things can be done in a wrong way as well as a right lay. In the matter of church discipline, wrong attitudes coupled with wrong actions are too often characteristic of churches and brethren. The attitude and action oust be toward the end of accomplishing the objective in view – saving an erring brother (Matt. 18:25; James t:20; 1 Cor. 5:5). This may require strong teaching, but it should be done in gentleness (Gal. 6:1). It must be done with kindness and love (Rom. 13:10; 1 Cor. 16:14; Col. 3:12-14; John 13:34-35) while at the same time recognizing that we must do what the Lord says in regard to discipline. We must tell the sinner his fault and help him correct it if possible.

It must be practiced according to the Law of Christ and done constantly and steadily, otherwise the disorderly will accumulate. We should not wait to “clean house” until it becomes a reproach. It must be practiced impartially and without discrimination (1 Tim. 5:21; James3:17). Those rich, powerful, prominent, intimate friends should all receive the same treatment as the poor, humble, quiet and those with whom we do not intimately associate. The action must be taken with wisdom and the elders (who should take the lead in this) are to be discreet (1 Tim. 3:1-6). The absence of elders, however, does not negate the necessity of church discipline.

Who Are The Subjects of Discipline?

“Those who need it” would be an easy answer “False teachers, indifferent brethren, defilers of the themselves with the world” – but we want to look at it a little more closely. In doing so, we probably will cover again some of the material already covered or alluded to. In this section we are speaking, not of the whole range of church discipline, but particularly of withdrawing fellowship or of having no fellowship with these ones.

1. Those who refuse to correct personal offences (Matt. 18:15-17).

2. Those who cause divisions contrary to the gospel. Those brethren who are contentious (Rom. 16:17-18; Psa. 133:2; Prov. 6:16-19).

3. Those who are factious or who teach heresy (2 Pet. 2:1; Titus 3:10).

4. Those who are guilty of the sins of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:9-1b): Fornicators (1 Cor. 5:9; 6:13-20; Gal. 5:19); Adulterers (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Rom. 7:1-2; 1 Cor. 5:1-4); Drunkards (1 Cor. 5:11; Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 6:10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:18); Covetous (1 Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:5); Idolaters (1 Cor. 5:10; Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5); Railers and Revilers (1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Tim. 3:1-5); Extortioners (1 Cor. 5:11); Tale-bearers and Idle (2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:13).

5. And, we list separately, those who are “disorderly” (2 Thess. e:6). We want to spend some time on this subject because some want to limit the “disorderly” to those who will not work and are busybodies (2 Thess. 3:11). Others charge that if we cannot get someone on a “specific sin” (by this I suppose is meant things like adultery, murder, drunkenness, etc.) then we just “lump it” under “disorderly” and get them on that (usually with reference to non-attendance, Heb. 10:25).

The word translated “disorderly” in 2 Thess. 3,:7, 11 means “to be disorderly; a. prop. of soldiers marching out of order or quitting the ranks . . . Hence, b. to be neglectful of duty, to be lawless . . . c. to lead a disorderly life . . . .” The word in 1 Thess. 5:14 (“unruly”) and 2 Thess. 3:6 means “disorderly, out of the ranks, (often so of soldiers); irregular, inordinate, deviating from the prescribed order or rules . . .”(Thayer p. 83). Hence, the “disorderly” are impenitent, defiant, and show a disposition to continue in sin. It certainly includes those who habitually absent themselves from the assemblies, according to this definition!

We assert that the context of 2 Thess. 3:6 will not allow us to confine the act of “withdrawing fellowship” to those who will not work.

1. After commanding them to “withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (v. 6) he said, “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us; for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you.” (v. 7) This does not mean that he behaved only in the matter of working, but in every respect! Then he gave an example of his behavior (v. 8); “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you.” The word “neither” indicates the beginning of another thought and in this case it is an example of one way “we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you.”

2. In verse 14 he said, “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.” But there is more in Second Thessalonians than just the instruction regarding those who will not work! In 2 Thess. 2:15 he said, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” Does this mean, then, that if one does not “Hold the traditions” the church cannot (must not!) do anything about it? Certainly not! Further than that, the instructions of 2 Thess. 3:6 cannot even be confined to Second Thessalonians! The things learned by the Thessalonians are not contained in Second Thessalonians only – Paul also wrote First Thessalonians! And, he wrote about the “disorderly” in 1 Thess. 5:14 (“Unruly”).

3. To further illustrate that one cannot confine the subjects of withdrawing to those engaged in sins specified, as in 2 Thess. 3:10-12 and 1 Cor. 5:9-11, consider the following charts:





In charts “A” and “B” we have attempted to illustrate that one cannot restrict withdrawing of fellowship to only those sins specifically listed in connection with withdrawing of fellowship. Nor can one just confine disfellowship to those sins listed as the “lust of the flesh.”

In chart “C” we have illustrated that brethren have spiritual fellowship with God and other brethren when they are walking in the light. And that they also may have association with one another.

In chart “D” we have illustrated that SIN cuts off a brother from the spiritual fellowship with God and other brethren, and that our ASSOCIATION with such brethren SHOULD ALSO BE CUT OFF! Why do brethren persist in associating with brethren who are living in sin (cf. 1 Cor. 5:11)? If God has no fellowship with a man in darkness, why would brethren want to continue their fellowship with that man?

We ask that you also consider Eph. 5:11, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness.” And 1 Cor. 5:6, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” If a little “leaven” (sin) “leavens” (contaminates) the whole “lump”(church), does it matter what sins a brother or sister might continue in (refuse to repent of)? The apostle is taking a general truth and applying it to a specific sin (i.e., regarding the one living with his father’s wife). Any and all sin, if allowed to go unchecked, will contaminate the whole church!

Truth Magazine XXI: 24, pp. 375-377
June 16, 1977