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Tuesday, February 5, 2013 | Comments (13)

by John MacArthur

What is the single greatest contributor to the impact, growth, success, and stability of a church? Some people might tell you it’s having a gifted pastor—someone who can rightly divide the Word of God, and do it in an engaging, enlightening, and entertaining way. Other people might tell you the most important thing is the music—you’ve got to engage people’s emotions through song and sound to keep them coming back for more.

Or maybe the key is to have friendly greeters and hospitable church staff to make people feel welcome. Or perhaps the success of your church depends on the quality of your Sunday school classes, your children’s ministries, or the in-home Bible studies. Some people might even tell you it comes down to the quality of the coffee you serve.

While every one of those aspects can figure into the popularity of your church, none of them guarantees biblical success like church discipline. You read that correctly—when it comes to growing a godly, biblical church, purity must be the first priority.

Purity was Christ’s first priority with the disciples, as He laid the foundations of the church in His teaching. Matthew 18 is loaded with instructions and warnings about personal purity and how to keep sin out of the midst of God’s people, starting in verse 6 where Jesus said this:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to a have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

That vivid, horrific imagery wasn’t lost on His disciples—it was a clear message that sin was not to be trifled with or tolerated.

Paul was just as clear with his exhortations to the church at Corinth, warning them he would deal firmly with their sin and “not spare anyone” (2 Corinthians 13:2).

The Lord takes the purity of His people seriously, and we need to reflect His priority in our local congregations. When I first began preaching at Grace Community Church, we didn’t practice church discipline—in fact, I’d never been to a church that did. It was a totally foreign concept to me, but Christ’s instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 are clear.

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

I hadn’t seen it done before, but I became convinced it wasn’t optional—that we were compelled to be obedient to Christ’s model for church discipline.

At first, people told me it would kill the church—people wouldn’t put up with that level of scrutiny in their lives, and they’d find somewhere less invasive to worship. In fact, the opposite has happened—Grace Church has thrived because God’s people take sin seriously and don’t tolerate it in their local congregation.

That’s because the purpose of church discipline isn’t to embarrass people by exposing their sin. On those occasions when the sinning man or woman refuses to repent and the elders need to bring the matter before the church, we don’t take any delight in that. We’re disappointed it’s gone that far, and we want to see the person repent before he or she has to be put out of the church altogether. We don’t do it because it’s fun—we do it because it’s the only way to keep sin from festering, taking root, and growing in our church.

We do it because it’s vital to the spiritual health and the testimony of the church. Ignoring church discipline is the most visible and disastrous failure of the church in our time, because it conveys to the world that we’re not really serious about sin.

The problem with the church today is not that it’s out of step with the culture or it’s too old fashioned. The problem is that it has lost its interest in holiness. It’s not nearly concerned enough with maintaining its purity. Churches today have become content to be fellowships of independent members with minimal accountability to God and even less to each other. We have generations of pastors and church members today who have never experienced church discipline—they don’t know anything about it.

And yet God’s first priority for His people is that they be pure. If we’re going to be useful to Him—as individuals and as local church bodies—we need to be united in our commitment to dealing directly and biblically with sin.


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#1  Posted by Matthew Doerksen  |  Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 1:21 AM

I wish I could find a local church that did this instead of placing such a high priority on the social aspect of church life. Which without solid theology is empty at best. And is just full of individual opinion and speculation and does not help an individual deal with the sin in their own life.

#2  Posted by Bjuster Baarlik  |  Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 5:03 AM

Thank you John, for this very helpful blog!

Unfortunately our church had to discipline a church-member recently. The elders followed the requirements of Matthew 18:15-17 to the best of their knowledge.

After the sermon though, the two elders were severely criticized for their 'behavior'. One couple even vowed to leave the church because of the way the discipline was done. Very sad story.

Now my question is: if the Bible says in Matth. 18 verse 17: If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." What exactly is understood by the word 'church'. Is it the gathering of people in the church on Sunday-morning (so including visitors who may not be christians) or should there be a separate gathering, maybe after church for only church-members/christians?

In our church it happened during the church-service (that's where the criticism came in). The elders chose their words very carefully though.

I would be greatful to hear from you. Your ministry has meant so much to me during the last couple of years! Thank you, pastor John.

#3  Posted by bob wire  |  Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 5:15 AM

I have never seen this praticed in any church either i have ben told we do behind closed doors i agree chuches have become fellowships of independent members a very hard topic thank you for bringing it out in the open bob

#4  Posted by Ben Hogan  |  Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 5:37 AM

This is such an important aspect to remember when trying to foster a healthy church. I'm curious as to what that actually looks like for GCC. When getting to that level of discipline, do you present it to the church as being the friends/loved ones of that individual, or is it to certain members - a larger group of witnesses, perhaps? I imagine it is not right before or after a sermon on Sunday morning, so how is it actually fleshed out. This could be an extremely helpful follow up to this post. Thanks, John, for your help with this!

#5  Posted by Jeremiah Johnson (GTY Admin)  |  Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 8:35 AM

For those of you interested in how Grace Church practices church discipline, let me refer you to this detailed article It will walk you through the specifics of what the process looks like. Below I've excerpted the section on the third step of discipline to help answer some of the questions that have already been raised.

Step Three (Matt. 18:17a). If the sinning brother refuses to listen and respond to the confrontation of the witnesses after a period of time, those witnesses are then to tell it to the church (v. 17a). This is most appropriately done by bringing the matter to the attention of the elders, who in turn oversee its communication to the assembly as a whole.

How long should the witnesses continue to call the person to repentance before telling the church? The elders at Grace Community Church avoid carrying out the third or fourth stage of church discipline until they are absolutely certain that the erring believer has truly sinned, or is continuing to sin, and that he has refused to repent when appropriately confronted. The elders will routinely send a letter by registered mail warning the individual that the third (or fourth) step of discipline will be taken if they have not received word of repentance by a specific date. When this date has passed, the person’s sin and refusal to repent are made known publicly, either before the entire assembly during a Communion service or through a fellowship group in which the person is known.

It has been the custom at Grace Community Church, upon enacting this third step, to clearly indicate to the congregation that they are to pursue the person aggressively and plead with him to repent before the fourth step becomes necessary. That crucial and potent procedure often draws the sinner to repentance and obedience. If repentance does take place, the sinning believer is forgiven and restored.

#6  Posted by Tim Eriksen  |  Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 3:27 PM

While I haven't attended GCC since I attended The Master's College more than twenty years ago, the one time I recall it being done was during a Sunday evening service. I also vaguely recall of there being an announcement of a person who had repented. There is no Biblical reason to limit it to an evening service versus a morning service. It is appropriate at either one.

I know there is a great pdf file available by Tom Pennington that you can find from the 2010 Shepherd's Conference entitled "Search & Rescue: A Practical Approach for Church Discipline & Restoration"

#7  Posted by Bryan Borth  |  Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 8:37 PM

This topic is a tough one especially in our water-downed, tolerant church culture. It is unfortunate that there are so few churches that are willing to be biblical in all aspects.

I pray that one day God would allow me to be a part of church that is biblical in all aspects! God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

I know I must do my part, sometimes I am just crippled with fear of hurting feelings and an inability to articulate the truths of scripture with confidence. I am sure there are others with me, thanks GTY for helping make a difference in our lives!!

#8  Posted by Thomas Clabaugh  |  Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 10:54 PM

I would imagine that the final step should be done before the entire congregation as an example to the others. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira were made an example to all. Not to mention, it is not pleasant for the church member to exercise church discipline. So not only is the sinner refusing to repent (twice), he is also making other brothers and sisters uncomfortable. This also could give the pastor the opportunity to exercise his rightful position of authority.

#10  Posted by Lois Begly  |  Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 7:36 AM

Would it be a similar responsibility in believing families as well as the church to enforce a measure of 'discipline?" My family is all saved, praise the Lord, not many can say that, I would think. But as we've grown we have gone to separate churches, and of course, most churches don't practice discipline. So when matters of large importance come to my attention, (concerning my siblings) I take the view that they should be confronted in love. My parents have a problem with this, because they are afraid it will cause a rift in our family. But since we are all Christians, and the sinful activity continues, I think we should hold each other accountable to the Lord as members of both an 'earthly' and the 'heavenly' family. I wonder how it is in other families in the body of Christ.


#11  Posted by Bjuster Baarlik  |  Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 8:37 AM

Thanks Tim, for the title of the PDF-file you mentioned. Very helpful indeed!

#12  Posted by Samuel Selvanayagam  |  Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 1:37 PM

It all comes to this ...let him without sin throw the first stone ... it is quiet apparent but sad that almost all if not most churches have to walk away. The elders I have come across could hardly be called elders. They all know to say right things at the right time and that is about all you can say about them. Purity is missing.

#13  Posted by Rita Carroll  |  Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 7:38 PM

A church without discipline makes a very dangerous place for God's children, especially if they are in a vulnerable state.

#14  Posted by Gary Lee Fennimore  |  Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 11:07 AM

I formerly attended a seemingly biblical church that even follows John Mac Arthur's writings. However, this Church did not confront my wife nor even me, a former deacon, when my wife of 21 years filed for divorce against me for no explainable reason. This so-called biblical church did nothing while I was banished from my home. I requested that they lovingly confront my wife and to counsel us, still nothing. Following months of trying to reconcile with my wife the Church could only send us to "a professional", a well-known psychiatrist that claimed to be christian. I tried it and my wife used their out-of-context biblical verses to defend her non-reconcilable position. I have since left that Church, my wife has divorced me and I now attend College Park Church in Indianapolis. I am wounded and frustrated, but GOD is faithful and I know this Church is faithful to all of HIS words. There are many, many so-called biblical Churches, but do not believe them until you see their adherence to the all-sufficient scriptures, everyone of them including Church discipline. I am entirely convinced that the falling away from Christ is rampant throughout "biblical churches." The admonishment that CHRIST gave to the 7 Churches in Revelation is very evident right now. The two HE commended, Smryna and Philadephia, note had "a little power and have kept MY WORD and have NOT DENIED MY Name...Because you have kept the WORD of my perseverance I will keep you..."and remain faithful".I was even careful and asked questions of this former Church but I did not see it until too late. The sufficiency of all of the scriptures defines whether a church is truly a Church. Please Pastor John be even more emphatic about this fact than you have ever been in the past. Understand that this Pastor of my former Church is a Dallas graduate and follows your teachings except for "Lordship Salvation" which in essence is the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures, all of them, the true discipline of the Church. Thank You GTY for standing in these perilous days. Please pray for my resilient perseverance in HIS power.

Sincerely, Gary Fennimore