Church Discipline

Church Discipline: A Mark of a True Church



In light of questions arising from our study of 1 Corinthians 5 I think it appropriate to have a follow-up excursus today on the broad subject of church discipline. I do understand that I have somewhat thoroughly covered this in conjunction with recent situations of church discipline here at FBC. However, not everyone attends our Sunday evening study sessions when most of these kinds of matters are handled. I must also acknowledge that the bulk of this material is taken from my essay, “How Shall I Respond to Sin? - A Plan for Restoring the Third Mark of the Church” in Reforming Pastoral Ministry, John Armstrong, editor, Crossway, 2001.

Illust: I read the letter carefully for the second time. Yes, it was clear. If I and the church did not cease and desist we would be sued. At least that is what the menacing letter from the attorney threatened. The situation had been brewing for some time. One of our members was ensnared in blatant sin and he was being lovingly, yet firmly, confronted by the church in accordance with our church discipline procedure. As I read the letter for the third time I experienced an array of emotional responses. My initial incredulity turned to outright anger and then to bitter disappointment. I had played golf with this brother. He had sought my assistance during a difficult personal crisis. He served in the church. I had observed him grow in his faith. Or so I thought. I had significantly invested in his life. Now it was all up in smoke. Nothing mattered. No amount of reason or appeal to Scripture penetrated his worldly thought patterns. The fleeting pleasure of sin had a death grip on his mind if not also his soul. So I prayed. And I wept. Sin is devastating.

Does this sound familiar? What is a church or pastor to do? Well, the simple answer is “Follow the directives of the Scripture wherever they may lead and at whatever the cost.” Of course, the implementation is a bit more complex. Let’s flesh this out a bit.

Focusing on the big picture


Before practical suggestions for the practice of church discipline in the local church are presented, it would be helpful to see the bigger picture. In my view there are some basic notions which help focus the sometimes hazy photoplay of life in the church these days. Though a detailed handling of these particulars is beyond the scope of this brief essay, a rudimentary grasp of these concepts is essential to the forging of a biblical strategy for confronting sin in the church.

God expects holiness from his people

A bedrock concept in the matter of personal holiness is the fact that the identity of the people of God is linked to His holy character. Consequently there is no lack of Scriptural imperatives regarding holy living:


As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, "YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY." (1 Peter 1:14-16)

But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Indeed, though rarely used appropriately, the teaching regarding the separateness of believers is at the crux of the issue of holiness. Paul pointedly admonishes the Corinthians to holiness.

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. "Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE," says the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:14-17).

God’s desires for His people are not vague! Hence we should strive to create an atmosphere in the congregation which is friendly to personal righteousness. Among other things this means that leaders must model godliness before the people. It also means the pulpit must resonate the need for, value of, and practical application of sanctification. Godliness must be spoken of in the classrooms as well. Thus when scandal breaks out in the flock, people will easily see the difference and recognize the grotesque nature of such conduct. If there is no holiness, sin looses its absurdity and becomes normal. Churches then become potential recipients of the prophet’s pronouncement, Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20).

Unfortunately, the description “holy church” is almost an oxymoron


The contemporary church is in trouble. SAM (sex, alcohol, and money) is doing a brisk business among the faithful. A pollster is not needed (though they are not lacking) to tell us what we know by simple observation: there is virtually no difference between the lifestyles of the typical pagan and the typical Christian. Christians and non-Christians both buy tickets to the same indecent movies, tune in to the same trashy television programs, read the same raunchy magazines, use the same colorful vocabulary, stick it to the company, fudge on tax returns, wear the latest provocative apparel, frequent the coolest sports bar…well, you can fill in the blanks. And remarkably the church hardly flinches in the face of the pagan practices of its people. In fact, it sometimes endorses them. Little wonder that prison Chaplain Samuel Atchison surmises that the church may be its own worst enemy.

…It has become common for the entertainment media to portray the Christian church and its clergy as hypocritical, lascivious or out of touch with the world around them…Still, if the purveyors of the new morality are dissatisfied with the traditional concept of holiness, it is in part because the keepers of the biblical flame have left much to be desired. The fact is, many in the Christian church are hypocritical, lascivious and out of touch. Media characterizations of unsavory church folk are unfair in terms of degree and proportion, but not altogether in terms of substance.

Christ requires that his churches confront their own sin


Sin should not shock us. We are all sinners. Indeed, if anyone claims to be sinless he is either woefully out of touch with reality or is a liar. John makes this plain, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8). So, as every first year theology student learns, we should expect sin in the church. Yet, the New Testament frequently urges believers to take decisive action in dealing with those in the Christian community who are caught up in aberrant conduct. And on two occasions the role of the church in confronting sin in its midst is directly addressed. The first instance is found in the Lord’s tutoring of his disciples.

And if your brother sins, go and reprove him 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. And 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-gatherer. (Matthew 18:15-17).

Here the Lord establishes the general principle of church discipline. Though this passage should be treated as a statement of principle regarding the handling of sin within the church rather than a detailed regulatory manual it none-the-less outlines a specific step process which should guide the church in its discipline practice. In short, the church is granted divine warrant to exercise discipline over its members.

On the other hand, Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church affords us vivid insight into an actual case of church discipline. That is our recently completed study of 1 Corinthians 5.

Even a causal reading of these passages leads to the conclusion that the church is not only authorized to exercise discipline over its members but is mandated to do so. It is therefore not surprising that many consider discipline a mark of a true church. Typically, the ministry of the Word and the sacraments are cited as essential marks of a true church. A third mark, discipline, is frequently named as well. Calvin implies this in his extensive discussion in Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1962), Vol. II, p. 288-296. Just as surely as God decisively crushed the outright disobedience of Achan in secretly plundering the banned spoils of victory at Jericho (Joshua 6 &7), so the church must deal with sin in its midst. It cannot be ignored. It will not go away.


Christians are part of a family


Privacy reigns supreme in western society. Today’s busy professional can communicate by voice mail, e-mail, fax, text, or social networking. His phone calls are screened. His lunch is brought to his office. After work, he can jump in his car parked in the reserved garage, stop by the ATM machine for a cash restock, call his wife on his cell phone on the way home (hands free of course), pull in the drive thru for some carry out pasta, and automatically close the garage door behind him when he arrives home. In short he can function nicely without actually having a significant personal encounter with another human being. And he believes this is his inalienable right. No one, including the church or other Christians, has license to invade any part of his life unless he grants it.

This, of course, is in stark contrast to the New Testament picture of the believing community. One of the vivid images of the church appearing in the New Testament is that of a body. One such portrayal is found in Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church. After establishing that every individual part of the body (the eye, the foot, the hand, etc.) is significant to the well being of the whole body, Paul concludes that, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26). The vivid image of the church employed in 1 Corinthians 5 is that of a “lump.” A kneaded piece of dough so thoroughly mixed up that it is a unified whole. Hence, those in Christ’s church are uniquely related to one another. What one does effects others. This of course was the underlying dynamic in Achan’s sin. As his sin tainted the whole nation (Joshua 6:18; 7:1,11,15,25), so an entire congregation is infected by the sin of one of its constituents.

Because we are so dynamically tied together in the body of Christ, we are exhorted to intentionally invade each others space. In fact, I believe this is a logo of a genuine Christian community. The sundry “one another” statements of the New Testament show God’s desire for his family. Christians are to be conspicuous because they love each other, they honor each other, they encourage one another, they accept one another, and they even admonish each other. And that is just the beginning! The church is a unique organization indeed.

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2017. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.