by John MacArthur
Few aspects of church life offend modern sensibilities more than the practice of church discipline. The contemporary dogmas of civility and tolerance keep it outside the doors of many congregations, fostering a culture of unrestrained carnality, unrepentant sin, and false professions of faith.
Regardless of how liberal a church may be, there is always a threshold where escalating sin can no longer be ignored. It is unavoidable that there will be times when sin has to be dealt with through confrontation. And if the guilty party refuses to repent, the ultimate result may mean excommunication from the church. This is true chiefly when the offender’s sin has a potential to harm others, or when the offense brings a public reproach on the name of Christ.
“Church discipline” is the theological term used to describe the process Scripture outlines for dealing with sin in the flock. It’s a fitting term because, as with parental discipline, the main goal of church discipline is correction. It is successful when it brings about repentance and reconciliation. When it is unsuccessful, it ends in excommunication. But restoration of the sinner is always the desired goal.
Some time ago we dealt with the subject on our radio broadcast. I was amazed at the letters we received from people who strongly felt that all forms of church discipline are inherently unloving. One listener, who admitted she heard only part of a broadcast, wrote:
The whole process of church discipline sounds incredibly controlling and uncharitable. I cannot believe that any church would ever threaten to excommunicate its own members for what they do in their private lives. And I cannot imagine a church making a public pronouncement about someone’s sin! What people do on their own time is their business, not the whole church’s. And the church is supposed to be where people can come to learn how to overcome sin. How can they do that if they have been excommunicated? If we shun our own members, we’re no better than the cults. I cannot imagine that Christ would ever excommunicate someone from His church. Didn’t he seek out sinners and avoid those who were holier-than-thou? After all, it’s not the people who are whole that need a physician. I’m glad my church does not excommunicate members who sin. There’d be none of us left! I thought the gospel was all about forgiveness!
Those comments reflect several common and widespread misunderstandings about the subject.
First of all, church discipline is not antithetical to forgiveness. In fact, Jesus outlines exactly how forgiveness should work when a believer’s sin affects the whole flock.
Second, biblical discipline is not about micromanaging people’s lives. The kind of offenses that require confrontation and biblical discipline are not unintentional transgressions, petty annoyances, or matters of simple preference. They are serious violations of clear biblical principles—sins that hurt other believers, destroy the unity of the flock, and sully the purity of the church. In such cases, sin must be dealt with. Such sins cannot be covered up. They are like leaven, and left alone their evil effects will eventually permeate the whole church (1 Corinthians 5:6).
Third, proper discipline is not out of harmony with the Spirit of Christ. Christ Himself prescribed this method of dealing with sin in the flock (Matthew 18:15–20). If your opinion of Jesus is that He would never participate in or even affirm the denunciation of a rebellious and unrepentant sinner who professed to be a Christian, you have a distorted understanding of Christ (Matthew 7:21-23; Revelation 2:5; 2:22-23; 3:16).
Fourth, correctly applied discipline is not incompatible with love. In fact, just the opposite is true—God lovingly disciplines believers who sin (Hebrews 12:7–11). The Matthew 18 process recognizes the legitimate role of the church as an instrument of both loving exhortation and, on occasion, divine chastening. Properly applied church discipline therefore pictures God’s love for His children.
Fifth, the public aspect of discipline is a final resort, not the first step. The point of reporting a person’s offense to the church is not to get church members to “shun” the sinning individual, but precisely the opposite: to encourage them to pursue that person in love, with the aim of restoration.
The permissiveness that results when discipline is neglected inevitably leads to chaos. This is as true in the church as it is in a family. No adult enjoys being around children who are never disciplined. In the same way, a church that is lax on dealing with sin in the body ultimately becomes intolerable to all but the most immature believers. Failing to practice church discipline therefore ensures that the flock will be spiritually stunted. It is also a sure way to incur God’s displeasure (Revelation 2:14, 20).
Jesus’ instructions about church discipline in Matthew 18 are clear and unequivocal. This issue is therefore a good test of whether a church is serious about obedience to Christ. People often ask me what to look for in a church. Consistent, proper discipline is near the top of my list. One thing is certain: A church that does not discipline sinning members is going to have perpetual and serious problems.
(Adapted from The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness)
#1 Posted by
Mark Foy | Monday, August 18, 2014 at
Excellent post. I've maybe seen church discipline practiced 2 or 3 times in my life! Some questions though...
The second step is to take 2 or 3 witnesses with you to the unrepentant sinning brother: Are these witnesses already privy to the sin or must one inform them first in a non-gossiping way?
What if the person doesn't attend a church and there is no church to put them out of, if it comes to that step?
Thanks for bringing up such an important topic.
#3 Posted by
Jason Larose | Monday, August 18, 2014 at
*Are these witnesses already privy to the sin or must one inform them first in a non-gossiping way?
As witnesses they would have to be privy. Otherwise you're confronting them on the word of one presumed witness (who has hopefully already confronted him/her) and other people who are simply parroting what the first has told them.
*What if the person doesn't attend a church and there is no church to put them out of, if it comes to that step?
Putting them out of a church isn't supposed to be a corrective punishment so much as a step to protect the church if the person refuses correction. If the person is isolating his/herself from the body of believers and refuses correction it may be that he/she loves live too much to lose it (John 12:25).
Not everyone who professes belief should be taken at their word.
In any case, the step you mentioned has already resolved itself if the person is isolated from the church of their own will.
#4 Posted by
Keith Kilburn | Monday, August 18, 2014 at
I would add, if that individual claims to be a born again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, and yet does not associate himself with a local body, that is an indication that something is not right in his understanding of his place in the church, or something is wrong spiritually. Everything that you read in the New Testament is in the context of the local church. Learning, growing, serving, loving...the reason people are so ready leave churches is because they are there for the wrong reason...usually their own pleasure.
When we read the New Testament we find that the focus of everyone is to be completely outside themselves. Worshiping Christ, encouraging others, serving others. Nothing in the Bible gives any support that church attendance is to be selfish in its focus.
Also, taking two or three witnesses does not have to mean they are witnesses of the sin. Those others that go with you the next time, may not be witnesses of the actual sin, but they become witnesses of the unrepentant attitude as they strive in love to help that brother or sister. A discerning believer is going to be cautious that he isn't being drawn into a "he said she said" personal battle. It requires much prayer, and attitudes need to be evaluated that their own hearts and motives are in line with scripture, with a goal to see Christ honored and the church protected and blessed.
#5 Posted by
Jason Larose | Monday, August 18, 2014 at
Good point. A witness could also be someone who experienced their unwillingness to change when the person was confronted with the sin.
In any event, it shouldn't just be some buddies you got together and briefed to go with you when you confront someone for a second time. These should be brothers and/or sisters who can be called on to bear witness to the behavior and attitude and how it is harmful.
#14 Posted by
Cameron Buettel | Thursday, August 21, 2014 at
Jason, hang in there. I think your questions will be answered as the series progresses. Stay tuned!
#2 Posted by
Jason Larose | Monday, August 18, 2014 at
I've been reading a lot more Christian discussion across the web lately and the term that frequently comes to mind is "undisciplined". Not just in matters of sin, but in nearly every aspect of Christian life.
When confronting teachers in a church that we reluctantly left after 2 years, my wife and I were fairly frequently warned we may be getting a little too "Pharisee" because we weren't being tolerant of every wind of doctrine (largely prosperity teaching). That had me thinking, what exactly was wrong with what the Pharisees did?
They were never guilty of chasing too intently after God's will. Instead, they created their own rules which contradicted the ways of God and strictly enforced those rules over God's way. Ironically, is that not what the very people who throw out "Pharisee" as an insult so frequently are actually guilty of doing?!
Many have determined that tolerance of sin should be the rule (man's way) instead of discipline(God's way), and then judge those who are trying to do it God's way. In doing so we create churches that no only are worthless at being "where people can come to learn how to overcome sin" but also are worthless at showing the world what godly living look like (Matthew 5:13-16 comes to mind, we've lost our taste).
As evangelists many have become con-men, trying to convince people that it will be a great deal to buy something they don't have to offer. As teachers they are unlearned. As pastors they lead the sheep straight to the wolves. All because we've been taught that learning too much would make things too complicated, discerning too much would make us unloving, and having too much discipline would make us too strict.
It's only recently that I've spent enough time in God's word to realize just how much of my walk with Christ was actually following a crowd carrying a cardboard cutout of Jesus way up front. It took the path getting pretty treacherous to make me look around and realize I was headed the wrong direction. Talk about a reason to delight in trials (James 1:2-4)!
#6 Posted by
Kevin Mason | Monday, August 18, 2014 at
My wife and I are missionaries in South America, upon returning to the USA for a visit, I met with the different pastors of our church. During a conversation with one of the pastors, I was told that the church leaders made the decision they would not implement church discipline when a member willfully remains in unrepentant sin, and that they knowingly tolerate unrepentant sin in the church. When asked why, the response was the church is about “relationships”, “grace”, “showing love” and “unity”. When pressed further, the pastor also replied that if the church would implement church discipline, the process would require a lot of work, a lot of time, and they feared people might leave the church.
Here on the mission field, we had to discipline church members (and a pastor) who willfully sinned and remained unrepentant. Some of the church sinning members eventually repented and were welcomed back into the church. It was a very difficult, painful, yet rewarding when fellow church members repented and returned to fellowship with God and the church. There was much celebration and glory given to God for their return. The pastor and other members who did not repent of their sins (sins that were also criminal offenses) accused the church of legalism and maligned those who held them accountable. The leaders from our home church instructed us to NOT discipline the unrepentant pastor.
I can understand why some churches prefer not to discipline members who openly live in unrepentant sin. It is difficult! It is painful! It can become ugly when there is defiance and not repentance. And some people will leave the church. But when done properly and lovingly, the results created within all the members are a greater reverence for God, understanding of God’s holiness and a greater love for God, for each other, and for Christ’s church.
#7 Posted by
Mark Foy | Monday, August 18, 2014 at
Thanks for the insights Guys, I appreciate them.
#8 Posted by
Kyle Kindel | Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at
As someone who has been through a couple these 'church discipline' encounters, I can tell you they can get nasty and out-of-hand real fast, even with the best of intentions. Feelings get hurt, people get irate, and sometimes they leave. It really threw me for a loop for a while. Thanks to the counseling of a good Christian brother I made it through. But you guys are spot on, stick with Matthew 18
and you'll be OK, just understand it can get pretty dicey.
This is a little off the subject, but not attending a local church regularly does not necessarily denote a spiritual problem. Churches today are awash with all kinds of spiritual and theological silliness. The Pentacostal/Charismatic influence is pervasive(Strange Fire anybody). Everybody wants to have a rock concert every Sunday morning. Then there's Liberalism/Arminianism, amillenniallism, post-millennialism, paedo-baptism,,,,,.Trying to find a baptistic Reform/Calvinist church isn't easy. I take church membership to seriously to sign on to a bunch of stuff I don't believe. I've come too far and know too much Bible to put up with such nonsense. If that sounds harsh, I do apologize. But I have lost fellowship with friends and relatives over some of these issues. I think the Lord has blessed me for that. I have a computer, so I can listen to John MacArthur(and others) anytime I want and write out a check every month for the ministry. All is well!
#9 Posted by
Keith Kilburn | Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at
I understand what you mean about finding a good solid church. I know enough people who have had difficulty wading through the morass of everything you mentioned. The issue is, I think, the attitude of the individual. I think we're talking about the difference between a person who is apathetic towards church, cold towards the notion of it, making excuses for not attending anywhere...versus the individual who is searching and simply struggling to find a church home. For that individual I would counsel that they need to determine their non-negotiables for a church, find a place that will provide that, and do their best to be patient with the "secondary" issues that they may not entirely agree with. Worshipping Christ is the purpose. If a person is focusing on that, and the church is doing its best to be faithful, sometimes those secondary issues can become not quite so important. But I in no way mean to minimize the difficulty of finding a solid Bible teaching church in these times.
#11 Posted by
Jason Larose | Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at
I've been struggling to find a good church as well (think I may have finally found one but I'm going to have a sit down with the pastor soon), but that's not a good reason to not attend church regularly. The global church isn't healthy today, but mature Christians aren't going to make it better by distancing ourselves from those who are immature.
At some point it's going to become clear whether the leadership are interested in Biblical correction or just catering to itching ears. If they refuse correction that's the right time to try another congregation (similar to how the church is meant to remove those individuals who do so). However, neither window shopping around for the "perfect" congregation or sitting it out are going to provide the church with any correction you may offer.
Keep searching and don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and have a serious chat with the teachers of a church if you believe God's Word says something they need to hear!
#12 Posted by
Dennis Young | Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at
#10 Posted by
Darrell Astelle | Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at
Church discipline is about "restoring" the sinning member to bring them back into fellowship with the Lord and other saints in the "family of the Church". The use of the word "discipline" is not to convey punishment, but of letting them know that fellowship is broken between them and God, as well as the group of members of the Church. As a result, service as "a leader of spirituality", or as "an ambassador of Christ", or as a representative of the Church's doctrines, here in the Land of the Living, is broken! As the local members of the Church remove their presence from them, they are to know that we are praying for them. The Old Testament examples to us of Korah, and others, illustrate that if we continue with them in fellowship, we shall also be part of their punishment. This is what is meant by the New Testament phrase to "deliver them unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh" (not Spirit, but flesh). A sinning Saint can "sin a sin unto death", I John states. It does not help that Saint to continue in their sin with the blessings of fellowship, with no one warning them of their condition.
#13 Posted by
James Sisco | Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at
Thank you for this message...timely and of great importance...often misapplied...infrequently discussed or taught. I think many are left to deal with this situation without much help.
Speaking of help...I could use some also so I'm clear on the subject of biblical discipline...
I cannot recall ever having been on the receiving end of Jesus' teachings in Matthew 18 but have experienced "modified" versions on the application on a number of occasions. The modification being that instead of going to the sinning brother yourself, you simply call, text or report directly to the church leadership who then confront you en masse concerning your sin or error. I suppose it is felt and we are taught that it is the responsibility of the leadership/elders (as that is their job as shepherds of the flock) to deal with the "brother in sin". However, I believe there is good reason that Jesus is specific in listing the steps and method in which to discipline a brother who sins. And, I suppose that the "sin" could be identified as any number of things like: something personal and private in nature, a public display, a disruption of church unity, gossip, criticism of the church and/or its leadership and slandering a brother to name a specific few. Now if that is the case, are there no other biblical teachings on the subject that are different depending on the offense committed? I believe the purpose and goal is to "win the brother" and restore unity to the church. I believe "modifications" to the teaching of Jesus lead to resentment, animosity and distrust. I can understand the willingness of others to want to avoid confronting someone that is sinning, it is or can be a difficult undertaking. It requires that we be loving, not experienced. It requires a prayerful approach as we are guided by the Holy Spirit, not from a position of authority but of a heartfelt concern for a fellow in Christ. If unsuccessful, then bring in witnesses. If still unsuccessful, then bring it to the church, the body of believers. Now at some point the elders/leadership should be advised or brought in on the situation. Maybe as the witnesses, maybe prior to bringing it to the whole assembly. Things must be done in an orderly manner and the leadership should guide the process if the first two steps fail to "win the brother".
I more than welcome any help, opinion, insight, correction and/or guidance in this matter.
#15 Posted by
Cameron Buettel | Thursday, August 21, 2014 at
James, I think your questions will get answered as this series progresses. Please keep checking in and keep us posted.