By Larry Ray Hafley
Though the precise words, “church discipline,” are not found in the Bible, the action is authorized (1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). Common expressions, such as “gospel meeting,” “prayer meeting, ” “God’s second law of pardon,” are not found in those specific terms in the word of God; however, the ideas they represent are scriptural “as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11; cf. Acts 20:20; 16:16; 1 Jn. 1:9; Acts 8:22).
Things Not to be Achieved By Church Discipline
In order to study a subject, it is often helpful to consider negative aspects. It is not the goal of church discipline:
(1) To get revenge. One may harbor hatred in his heart for another. His abuse of church discipline is a cloak of malice to vent his bitterness against a brother. “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth” (Prov. 24:17). Surely, God will severely judge those who spitefully use church discipline in order to meanly hurt others. Beware of those who fiendishly enjoy prosecuting a brother with the lash of discipline.
(2) To drive someone away. Occasionally, a power hungry brother may see another growing in favor with God and man. His Hamanic jealousy maddens and motivates him to hang his Mordecai. In cases like this, a man and his disciples will decide to exercise church discipline; then, they will look for a weapon, a charge. This is the means the Jews used to put Jesus to death. “Give him a fair trial; then, hang him.” Look twice at the man who delights to “get rid of” someone rather than to salvage a soul. The spirit of Diotrophes is alive and well in such events (3 Jn. 9).
(3) To let the elders flex their muscles. Without sound judgment and devoid of sober discretion, freshly appointed elders may decide to show their newly acquired power by cracking the whip of discipline. An elder is a shepherd, a pastor, not a big game hunter on a jungle safari. Elders are to lead and feed (not dictatorially drive) the flock. The eldership is not a place where chairmen of the board are to “show who’s boss.” Certainly, elders should direct the church in disciplinary action, but they and the church are to act “with the power of our Lord Jesus,” and not by the authority of an autocratic eldership.
(4) To put the church on the map. Churches, like men, have personalities. Some are known for good works of all kinds. Others are known for personal work programs or great Bible classes. Some are known for their bickering, wrangling and divisions, and another may seek to be known as first in the practice of church discipline. A preacher may come in and decide to make a name for the church and himself by leading the nation in people withdrawn from. (It is a dubious distinction.) They announce the names of those on the “withdrawal list” with as much pride as a savage displays his scalps, hides and heads. A wholesale house cleaning may be necessary (2 Cor. 12:20, 21), but there ought to be better things to build a reputation, if that is your purpose.
(5) To hurt someone who has disgraced the church. Sin disgraces the sinner and the church (2 Sam. 12:14; 2 Pet. 2:2), but discipline is not to be used in the spirit of mob vengeance. A sinner cannot be redeemed if his tormentors seek to harm rather than help, and he (the sinner) knows the difference. In a shameful case, a church must search its collective heart and attitude as it strives to do what is right and best.
(6) To make up for the past. A sermon is preached on discipline and the brethren see it has been ignored; so, in order to make up for past negligence, “Let’s find some candidates and make an example of them.” A church, with a fiery new preacher or elders, can turn a quiet Sunday afternoon business meeting into a witch hunting lynch mob. Fur and feather will fly and heads will roll, but the errors of the past are not to be compared to the havoc of the future.
Purposes Of Church Discipline
Discipline is instruction. It is positive and negative in affect. It must tear down and build up. Parallel to Scripture, discipline “is profitable for doctrine (teaching), for reproof (of false words and deeds), for correction (of sinful conduct), for instruction in righteousness (to establish godly behavior.)” Therefore, church discipline:
(1) Is “for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5). A child is disciplined in order to eliminate dangerous habits and bad actions. The sinner is disciplined in order to remove his carnal conduct. The fornicating brother in Corinth needed to have his work of the flesh destroyed. One of the designs of discipline is “the destruction of the flesh,” i.e., the abolitfon of sinful acts. Hymanaeus and Alexander were “delivered unto Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”; that is, for the destruction of their evil ways (1 Tim. 1: 19, 20).
Discipline that is not done with this end in mind can only serve to harden the sinner in his error. Spanking a child is not for solely punitive purposes. It is to turn him away from negative activity. It is the same in church discipline.
(2) Is done “that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Discipline would be more often successful, perhaps, if churches would remember that this aim looms over all other objects. “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know “that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and hide a multitude of sins” (Jas. 5:19,20). It is absolutely essential that this purpose be communicated to the one in error. Otherwise, the discipline will be scorned. Passions may become feverish and intense during the ordeal of discipline, but an inflamed church will not convey its desire to have the sinner’s spirit saved. If the sinner is to be redeemed, he must see that this is your primary target, the salvation of his soul.
(3) Is to prevent others from being Infected. “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6). “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33). This is the old adage, “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.” Sin that is tolerated will grow and spread like a fever-“and their word will eat as doth a canker (gangrene)” (2 Tim. 2:17). “Them that sin rebuke before all that others also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). This was part of the function of Old Testament punishment: “And thou shalt stone him with stones…. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you” (Deut. 13: 10,11). If one is allowed to sin with impunity, others will be led to engage their lusts. Thus, discipline discourages others from being “led away with the error of the wicked.”
Again, in the Old Testament, rebellious, incorrigible children were to be stoned to death. Someone remarked, “If we did that today just think how many hundreds would be executed!” But it was, as I recall, Eugene Britnell who remarked, “No, they would only have to stone one.” His meaning was, of course, that others would fear and straighten up their lives.
The church at Pergamos contained those that held “the doctrine of Baalam” and “the doctrine of the Nicolatians” (Rev. 2:14,15). The implication is that as Baalam “cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel,” so would those in the church there cause saints to fall. Further, in the church at Thyatira, Jezebel taught and seduced God’s people to sin (Rev. 2:20). She had to be removed, “and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts” (Rev. 2:23). The hearts of the simple are deceived if errant members are not marked and avoided (Rom. 16:17,18).
(4) Projects a good image before the world. “And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things” (Acts 5:11). The sin and death of Ananias and Sapphira had a profound effect upon the entire community. Right thinking people will esteem a congregation that will abominate rather than tolerate sin. The unbeliever is turned away from truth when he sees a church coddling within its ranks what it condemns without. Perhaps the words of Paul included the heathen populace when he said, “In all things ye have approved yourselves clear in this matter (2 Cor. 7: 11).
In the Old Testament, reference is made to the negative influence of sin in Israel when seen by idolatrous nations. It is true today. Churches often wonder why they do not command the respect of their locality. Part of the problem is their failure to reprove and rebuke sin in their own midst. Imagine attempting to convert a gentile in Corinth when the pagan knows the church endorses and encourages one of its own who is involved in a gross and vile immorality that even the heathen himself denounces (1 Cor. 5:1)!
Church discipline must be practiced regardless of the world’s view of it, but, in general, it will have a salutary affect upon the hearts of those whose conscience is tender. The watching world may ridicule disciplinary action, but it respects nothing less.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 19, pp. 579-580
October 4, 1984