Following Christ and Church Discipline

The word for church, ekklasia, appears in the Gospels only twice. The first time is Matt 16:18, where Christ says, “I will build My church.” In this first mention of the church, Christ speaks of the universal church and establishes that it is His church, which He purchased with “His own blood” (Acts 20: 28; 1 Cor 11:24–25). He never abdicates His headship or ownership of the church to any self-enthroned human monarchy or oligarchy.

The only other time that the word church is mentioned in the Gospels is in His command to practice church discipline (Matthew 18:15–20).[1] That should at least prompt us to give deep consideration to the place of church discipline in the mind and heart of our Lord Jesus since the first and only time that He mentioned the word church, in reference to the local church, He did so in order to command and explain church discipline. He did this even before the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20) and the empowering and gifting of the church (Acts 1:8).

This, along with many explicit commands to practice church discipline (Matt 18:15–20; Rom 16:17–18; 1 Cor 5:1–13; 1 Tim 1:19–20; 2 Thess 3:6–15) and the command in the Great Commission “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:20), seems to position church discipline as an essential element of an authentic New Testament church. There is always the need to protect a local church from those who resist correction, repentance, or redemption and thereby pose a threat to her viability and purpose. Church discipline is not the church rejecting the unrepentant, but rather it is simply a recognition that the unrepentant has rejected the church by contemptuously choosing to disregard the call of Christ to follow Him.

Whenever stern disciplinary action is taken, such as removing someone through formal church discipline, someone will inevitably ask, “Where is the compassion?” On a practical level, as seen in Matt 18:15–20 and throughout the New Testament, the unrepentant has already received compassionate correction, love, care, time, and forgiveness, but all to no avail. At a certain point, the compassion must be for those whom the unrepentant poses either an imminent or potential spiritual danger (Rom 16:17–18; 1 Cor 5:6–8). To allow someone to remain a part of the local church while demonstrating callous disregard for what holds the church together is the embodiment of being uncompassionate.

On a substantive level, because God who is infinite compassion and mercy gave the commands, we must remember that compassion is present even when the more serious acts of discipline are implemented. Moreover, when a person questions the compassion of such commands or actions required to carry out the commands, he is actually questioning the infinite compassion and wisdom of God—His omnibenevolence. Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing could be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing could be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”[2]

Menno Simon responded to charges of harshness, “Wherefore, brethren, understand correctly, no one is excommunicated or expelled by us from the communion of the brethren but those who have already separated and expelled themselves from Christ’s communion either by false doctrine or by improper conduct.”[3] They viewed the discipline as a temporary remedial act, believing that a true Christian seeking to walk with God will repent when confronted with his sin. So they believed that church discipline was indispensable to maintaining a New Testament regenerate church, holding the Lord’s Supper in proper esteem, and preserving the testimony of Christ and His church.

In the past nineteen years our church has had to exercise formal church discipline by removing unrepentant members on about twelve occasions. We have disciplined both men and women. The sins committed have been varied, but the one constant is that the wayward member refused every compassionate beckoning for repentance, which generally spans a period of six months to three years.

During two of the twelve services in which we shared the unrepentant member’s sin and his  unwillingness to repent, we had an individual come to Christ in salvation. By each person’s own testimony, the evidence of the church’s love for the unrepentant, Scriptures read regarding the seriousness of sin, God’s call for repentance, and the overall environment of the service was what God used to reveal their own sin, lack of repentance, and need to receive Jesus Christ by faith.

There was no attempt to present the gospel in order to invite people to salvation during these services. We were riveted upon the responsibility of the church following the scriptural teaching of church discipline in both spirit and letter and our desire to see the wayward repent. I dare say that most pastors would love to see people saved in the same proportion of regular worship services, as would I.

What if the church decided not to pray and not even make an attempt at prayer? Not only does she quit praying but also begins to ridicule those who do. Pastors around the coffee table—where no church members can hear—begin to say, “You know it’s just too hard to pray, so we do other things.” They say, “I believe in it, but we don’t practice it. People get offended when you emphasize prayer so we focus on other things to keep the unity.”

What if the subject were the Great Commission? A church says they love Christ. They sing about Him, and they even have Bible studies, but they simply decide that our culture is too secular, and that trying to reach people in America causes too many problems and costs too much in personal sacrifice. Consequently, they emphasize fellowship, preaching, and worship. Obviously, this would be willful disobedience.

I believe the same is true of relegating church discipline to some obscure theological closet talk. Do we think we can attain biblical fidelity if someone says that our church may not evangelize, but we do many other good things? There is a prima facie hollowness to these words, and we all know it. It is no less serious to consign church discipline to the Jurassic Park of church history. Maybe it is a lack of understanding how prevalent the teaching of church discipline is in the New Testament. Alternatively, maybe it is the high personal price church leaders are often required to pay in following the New Testament teaching on church discipline.

Maybe Christ mentioned the local church in connection with church discipline first because He knew that the church could not have the power of God upon her without purity, and some who do not desire to follow Christ would penetrate the church (Acts 20:29; Rom 16:17–18; Jude 3). Everything we seek and hold dear—power, peace, unity, credibility, believability, and being imitators of Christ—is inextricably bound to church discipline.

Corporate and personal holiness cannot be relegated to a secondary or tertiary place of importance without sacrificing the unique presence of God. The church prays for power, and yet power is capsized in a sea of disrupted fellowship, moral impurity, doctrinal divisions, and heresy. Every pastor will face the issue of church discipline many times. Churches who shun formal church discipline end up existing in a perpetual state of underlying spiritual infection and vulnerability because of the presence of destabilizing mutineers. This is particularly true in the day in which we live, where normal moral restraints are marginalized or diminished.

The pastor must take this very seriously since he serves as the undershepherd of one of the Great Shepherd’s flocks. Shepherds must come to grips with two things in this regard. First, the problems with church discipline are not because of properly implemented church discipline, but because of the lack of it. Second, the worst thing that can happen in a church is not that some people may leave, but rather that Christ may leave (Rev 3:15–16, 20). The one who seeks to care for himself and not provide what the sheep really need is called a hired hand—hireling in the KJV (John 10:12–13). This term signifies someone who does not love the flock like the real shepherd, but who is merely doing a job. Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him, and after each time Peter answered yes, Jesus’ response to Peter was “tend” or “shepherd” my sheep, John 21:15–17. The undershepherd’s love for the Great Shepherd is seen by whether he loves the sheep like Christ.

Tolerance of sin eventuates in an increased pervasiveness of sin, which then feeds the desire to overlook more sin, since by this time everyone is involved in some kind of sin. Consequently, every pastor must decide whether he will succumb to ungodly pressures or follow Christ’s commands. My heart truly goes out to pastors in light of the price they may pay if they follow our Lord’s teaching on church discipline. Yet, for all of us, it always comes down to whether we follow Jesus at all costs. Jesus never prescribed a certain size church or whether our church is to be traditional or contemporary in decorum, but He did command us to practice church discipline as well as prescribing how it is to be carried out.

The question is, by what authority do we dare to practice church discipline? The Scripture makes it lucidly clear that the answer is by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 18:15–20). Christ is church discipline’s raison d’être. Since Christ purchased the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28) and is the head of the body (Col 1:18; Eph 5:23), He is the supreme authority. Since He is God, no one can trump His authority. In light of this reality, the importance of church discipline to the gospel, and the pervasive neglect of church discipline today, maybe the real question is, by what authority does a church decide not to practice church discipline?


[1] Although according to Matt 16:18, the start of the church is future, when full New Testament revelation is considered, this passage seems to apply directly to the local body of believers. It speaks specifically of the sequential nature of how an erring brother or sister is to be approached in the confines of the local assembly. This sequence has relevance whether the matter is only known between two persons or more publicly.
[2] Lynn R. Buzzard and Thomas S. Brandon, Jr., Church Discipline and the Courts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1987), 3.
[3] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 189.