How to Proceed in Administering Church Discipline

By O.C. Birdwell, Jr.

Before attention is directed to the above subject, some consideration needs to be given to the word “discipline” as it is used in this discussion. In most translations, the word is not found in the New Testament. It must be used, therefore, to describe action taught in the New Testament. This, it seems, is where problems arise. What do we have in mind when we talk about exercising discipline? Numerous definitions are given for the word. Three by Webster are as follows: “(1) To punish or penalize for the sake of discipline; (2) to train or develop by instruction and exercise esp. in self-control; (3) to bring (a group) under control; to impose order upon.”

The common practice of discipline by religious cults seems to be number three, “to bring under control, to impose order upon.” The fear tactics and mass murder of the “Jones cult” of a few years ago illustrate the results of this type discipline. Quite frankly, in this type, this writer wants no part. Yet, it seems, that some have this concept of New Testament discipline. A recent news report stated, in effect, that once one gets into the church of Christ, he cannot get out. This obviously misrepresents the teaching of most, if not all, of the congregations; but I wonder if this is not the impression many leave because of their practice.

A member of the family of God may, of his own free will, join himself to a local church (this is the only way one can join the church [Acts 9:26]). The local church may accept, or reject, such a person. The account in Acts 9 shows both actions. It seems logical that if one may of his free will join himself to a congregation, he may by the same action leave the congregation. One may move to another city. Decision may be made to attend another congregation in the same city. One would have the right to do either. When a Christian leaves one faithful church for another, there should be no stigma attached to him and no resentment toward the congregation where he is accepted. This is often not the practice. Some will never attend another meeting at the receiving church, will be critical of the preacher and/or elders, and speak disparagingly of the one who left. This is a sign of what a good preacher friend was heard to say concerning another subject. “What’s so bad is they accuse us of being cranks, and then prove it on us!” They accuse us of teaching one cannot get out of a local church, and then prove it on some of us.

Is it not also possible for one who loses his faith, or just decides he wants to serve Satan and go to hell, to sever himself, by his own free will, from a congregation? It seems, as we shall show, that the New Testament cases of what we commonly refer to as “church discipline,” deal with those who are a part of the local church and want to so continue.

Our present task is to show how to proceed in administering what we call “church discipline.” In doing this, we will present New Testament accounts of how to deal with the unfaithful and when we see the action in each case, we will see what I mean by “church discipline.” Remember that often how the instructions are carried out is left to the judgment of brethren.

Matthew 18:15-17

“And if thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone.; if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he hear thee not, take with thee one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established. And if he refuse to hear them tell it unto the church: and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican.”

Here is sin by one brother against another. Jesus tells the wronged brother to go and show the other his fault. With no success, take one or two more. If he refuses to hear them, “tell it unto the church.” The “church” would have to be the local congregation. There is no way one could tell it to the universal church. Notice that he said “tell it to the church.” He did not say tell the preacher, elders, or a business meeting of the men. Nothing is said about writing the person a letter, writing to other churches, or publishing the action in a religious journal.

If he will not hear the church, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican. I understand this to mean that he is now to be rejected as a part of the congregation, and is no longer to be in fellowship with the saints. If he goes to another congregation without repentance, it is their obligation to check into his background. This passage tells us how to deal with sin by brother against brother. Other passages relate to the false teacher and the immoral person.

Romans 16:17

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye learned: and turn away from them.

“The doctrine which ye learned” would be the teaching received from inspired men like Paul. Those who reject this teaching and cause “divisions and occasions of stumbling” are to be marked and turned away from. A mark is used to identify something or someone. Paul said to mark those who imitate him (Phil 3:17). These would be the righteous and godly who follow after inspired teaching. False teachers, likewise, are to be marked or identified. Not only are they to be identified, but Paul said, “turn away from them.”

This means avoid them. Do not use them as teachers. Do not accept them as faithful brethren into the fellowship of the saints. Any false teacher, anywhere, may be marked, or identified. If he is dispensing false teaching through a national journal or causing divisions and occasions of stumblings in a hush-hush, undercover manner, he should be marked. Brethren need to be informed about the danger. Nothing is said about a personal visit to the false teacher, or about taking one or two more with you. If he is a false teacher, mark him, and avoid him!

1 Corinthians 5:4, 5, 7, 13

“. . .In the name of our Lord Jesus, ye being gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 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. . . .Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump. . . .Put away the wicked man from among yourselves.”

Fornicators, the covetous, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, and extortioners are to be put away from the congregation. The fornicator, in this account, obviously wanted to continue in fellowship with the Corinthian church and at the same time commit his sin. It was not a one-time act of which he had repented, but sin in which he was persisting. The church was failing in that they were puffed up, had not mourned, and had taken no action in the matter. Paul commands that the guilty one be delivered unto Satan, or put away from among them. He was no longer to be accepted as a faithful member of the congregation. This action has a two-fold purpose. The guilty will be encouraged to put away his sin that his spirit may be saved, and the sinful leavening agent will be removed from the church. The action is to be taken when the church is “gathered together.” It seems that there could be a special assembly arranged for this action. There is no doubt left about what is to be done, but the administering of the action by the church, as is the case in the Matthew 18 account, will involve human judgment. Let it be good judgment. There is no reason for visitors and non-members to be present when such action is taken. Neither is there any scriptural reason to broadcast the action to the world or to other congregations.

2 Thessalonians 3:6,7, 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 they received of us. For yourselves kn o w how ye ought to imitate us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you,. . .And if any man obeyeth not our word by this epistle, note that man, that ye have no company with him, to the end that he may be ashamed. And yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

Command is given that we withdraw ourselves from those who do not walk after the tradition (inspired teaching) delivered by Paul. Such things as refusing to work, being busybodies, and failing to obey Paul’s word by his epistle, are listed as constituting disorderly walk. One who will not obey Paul’s word is to be noted, and there is to be no company with him. This is to the end that he may be ashamed. What we call discipline is here called withdrawing from, noting, and having no company with. No specific administering procedure is given for taking this action. It seems that there would have to be proof of guilt, and then public congregational action and announcement, as was the case in the before mentioned accounts.

There should be a specific charge or charges. I have known of brethren who were withdrawn from with only a charge that they walked disorderly. This is not sufficient. Name the sinful practice, prove the one accused guilty, and if he will not repent, withdraw yourselves from him. This means let him be “as the Gentile and the publican,” or the same as putting him away “from among yourselves.” Have no spiritual fellowship with the person.

Should there be within the congregation a false teacher, immoral person, or one walking disorderly in specified ways, who will not change, or one who has sinned against a brother who will not correct his sin, let him be promptly named to the congregation and, if he still will not correct his ways, let him be immediately regarded as out of fellowship with the church. Should there be those who ask to be no longer a part of the congregation, make a public congregational announcement to that effect. If they go back to the world, or into denominationalism, let everyone do all within their power to teach and convert the sinner from the error of his way (James 5:19). If they go to another faithful church, bid them God’s speed, and wish them well.

My approach to “church discipline” may be, to many, far too simplistic. Possibly so, yet, on the other hand, when we separate human tradition from Bible teaching, what the Bible teaches on the subject is rather easily understood. Also, I fear that some spend too much time discussing and preaching on the kind of discipline under consideration here and much too little time with discipline that involves Bible teaching and instruction which molds, shapes, and guides lives in useful paths of service for God and His Christ.

Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 19, pp. 582-583
October 4, 1984