Upon Whom Shall We Exercise Church Discipline?

I remember the first time we implemented church discipline in my former church. It was the greatest spiritual challenge the church had faced. The process took over a year, and it ended with removing a young lady and others leaving because of her removal.

But that was not to be the end of the story. Sometime later, I received a call from the young lady. She said she needed to come and repent before the church. She came and shared her story. She told how she had been saved subsequent to being disciplined by our church, and that it was the discipline of the church that God used to bring her to that salvation. She said she had always gotten away with everything she wanted, a pattern developed because of a lack of parental and self-discipline. The church had made her really examine her life and through that, she came to realize that she was not a true Christian. Correspondingly, she bowed her heart before our wonderful Lord, and He gloriously saved her. We welcomed her back to the Lord’s Table and the fellowship of the body.

What prompted her to feel compelled to come to the church and apologize was, no less, the hand of God. After being saved, and a year before she came back to our church, she went on a mission trip. While there God burdened her heart for the mission field. Just before she called our church, she was preparing to return to the mission field, but, as she said, “God would not let her.” She relayed how God kept convicting her that she had to get things right with the church that disciplined her before He would provide for her and use her in missions.

Out of her new desire to follow God, she came back to the church and repentantly apologized and asked for forgiveness, which was joyously granted. She shared how hard the discipline was to go through, but she had also come to realize we had done the right thing. This was a wonderful ending to the difficult task of church discipline. God granted redemption that was directly related to the church discipline. Discipline is extraordinarily difficult but can be eternally liberating.

If we practice church discipline, the question of where shall we start, and with whom shall we stop shall surely arise. It is evident there must be some appropriate candidates for church discipline or Jesus would not have commanded the church to practice discipline (Matt 18:15–20). It is equally apparent the church should not discipline everyone who sins. For that would result in the demise of the church since all who are a part of the church have sinned and still do.

There are four categories of behavior that make someone a candidate for church discipline. If a person continues unrepentantly in sin, this results in formal church discipline and removal from the fellowship. This article considers specifically the process of discipline that can result in formal church discipline rather than the many facets of church discipline that encompass all of church life that everyone experiences. Some people exhibit behavior that is annoying, draining, embarrassing, and mildly disruptive, but not worthy of discipline. Rather, they require patience, love, endurance, and discipleship. These individuals’ sins, in and of themselves, could be serious enough to warrant disfellowshiping, but the person’s repentance makes it unnecessary. They are repentant, willing to seek counsel, and sincerely believe what they profess about Jesus; they are simply spiritually weak.

People who are candidates for discipline are the ones who unrepentantly persist in their sin, refusing counsel and admonishment. The Bible determines what sin is and which sins are worthy of church discipline, and the church is to carry out the commands of her Lord. Every individual will determine how he responds to discipline. In other words, it is not always the sin that is determinate, but rather the person’s response to the counsel or reality of his sin. Two people may be guilty of the same flagrant sin, but one responds to counsel by repenting and the other does not. Only the latter, if he continues in unrepentance, ultimately is removed from the fellowship.

The first candidates are immoral members of the church

This is precisely what Paul wrote about in the church of Corinth (1 Cor 5:1–13). Immorality is that which violates the moral prescriptions of Scripture. However, as we too well know, we all struggle with sin. Consequently, it is not only the sin per se, but most importantly, it is the person’s willingness to repent. Repentance stops the escalation of the discipline process before it reaches removal (Matt 18:15–20).

The second genre of candidates for church discipline is the doctrinal deviate

When someone is found to be teaching false doctrine, they must be dealt with and dealt with decisively. That is what Paul practiced and instructed the young pastor Timothy to do. “This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:18–20, italics added). Paul handed Alexander and Hymenaeus over to Satan, just as he did with the man involved in immorality (1 Cor 5:5).

A caveat is in order here. Dealing with heresy is not equivalent to disciplining everyone who says something unorthodox or the leadership disagrees with. If the church is carrying out the Great Commission, there will always be those in the local church whose beliefs are not orthodox because that is the nature of babes in Christ. They may say things that make you cringe at times, but they simply are repeating what they have learned during a life of following themselves. Actually, all of us do this in varying degrees since we all are learning.

Additionally, minor disagreements over obscure passages are not grounds for discipline. Rather, it is the willful rejection of the obvious core truths of Scripture or seeking to corrupt the faith of others; however, the obvious and undeniable truth of Scripture does not have to be obvious and undeniable to the heretic. If that were the requirement of defining it, that would simply result in the non-existence of heresy or orthodoxy. The obvious and undeniable truth of Scripture is that which the leaders know, and that which is available to anyone with an open heart.

This may include the understanding of the leaders and church regarding major doctrines of the Scripture. Every church has the responsibility to define herself according to the church’s understanding of Scripture. Those who desire to be a part must do so within the theological parameters of the church.

The third candidate for church discipline is the person who sows discord

This person can inflict untold devastation upon a church, and just one person can sow the seeds for a church split. Admittedly, it does take others to join in order to successfully complete his spiritual coup d’état; nevertheless, the unsettling reality remains that it only takes one to sow the seeds of discord. Paul says the sower of discord follows his own lust rather than Christ and deceives the unsuspecting of the flock with flattery and smooth speech (Rom 16:17–8).

Of course, often such behavior is under the guise of loving Jesus and His church. If you are waiting for dissenters to wear a big sign that says “I sow discord”, you will continue to wait as they unleash their spiritual smart bombs upon the fellowship. God includes the sower of discord in the list of seven things He says He hates: “There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven one who spreads strife among brothers” (Prov 6:16, 19).

Although everyone who sows discord may not be an apostate, his or her behavior parallels that of an apostate. Jude calls apostates “hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds” (Jude verse 12). Notice they are “hidden reefs;” you may not really know they are there until it is too late. Hidden reminds us again of their clandestine operations. Paul similarly warned the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28–30). Jude warns, “For certain persons have crept inunnoticed” (Jude verse 4, italics added). A significant part of these people’s insidiousness is their ability to conceal what they really are.

The words “caring for themselves” are a translation of the wordpoimaino,which is translated in other places as shepherd or pastor. In other words, these people pastor themselves. They are not under the authority of God’s leadership, and thus they are not under God, even though they parade themselves to be super spiritual. They are “clouds without water” (Jude verse 12), which pictures their deceptive nature and cunning escapades and spiritual bankruptcy. That they shepherd themselves becomes glaringly and painfully evident when things do not go their way.

The fourth recipient of church discipline is the disorderly disciple (2 Thess 3:6, 1–15)

Commentators are divided over whether this passage teaches church discipline, including formal church discipline, or just a form of social ostracizing. All things considered, I think it is best and most natural to take the passage to mean church discipline, which includes formal church discipline if the sinning brother does not heed godly instruction. Three things in the context seem to support this interpretation.

First, the phrases “keep aloof from” (verse 6) and “do not associate with him” (verse 14) are best understood as formal discipline. Further, the verb stello “keep aloof” is in the present tense, signifying continuous action of avoiding. In the latter phrase, “do not associate with him” (verse 14), the word “associate” is a translation of sunanamignusthai. It means “to associate with one another, normally involving spatial proximity and/or joint activity, and usually implying some kind of reciprocal relation or involvement to be in the company of, to be involved with, association.” [1] Being preceded by “do not” and in the present tense signifies a continuous action of not being involved with or keeping company with. Another evidence that this includes formal church discipline is the fact that sunanamignusthai is the exact same word and form that is used of church discipline in 1 Cor 5:9–11, which is clearly referring to formal church discipline.

Second, the direct intention of the discipline was “so that he may be put to shame” (verse 14). A true believer will feel shame when the entire local body confronts him with his sin and the wrongness of his actions. He also will feel ashamed because His Lord has forbidden him to have a part in the life of His church (at least until he properly repents), which has to bring enormous shame upon any child of God. The third reason for understanding the passage to include formal church discipline is the full consideration of the charge against them. The word unruly (verse 6) is from the Greek word ataktos which encompasses more than idle. It is defined as “disorderly, out of ranks (often so of soldiers), irregular, inordinate, immoderate pleasures, deviating from the prescribed order or rule.” [2]

Also, the context seems to support understanding it as unruly or undisciplined while recognizing that the most prominent fault is idleness. Michael Martin notes, “In the verses we find that the atakoi were brothers (verse 15) who were living contrary to apostolic teaching (verses 6, 10), contrary to the apostolic example of hard work and self-support (verses 7–9), and disrupting the church as busy bodies (verse 12).” [3] Now, whether one views the problem as idleness or unruliness, it must not be forgotten that the root problem is the same here as in the other passages concerning church discipline. It is refusing to obey the instructions of the Word of God from the Lord Jesus Christ, and heed there proof of the church.

Therefore, whether someone is disciplined because of immorality, heresy, sowing discord, or a bad testimony in the community, the underlying problem is a recalcitrant spirit because formal church discipline is only enacted in the absence of repentance. A professed believer who lives a life that is contrary to the teachings of Scripture diminishes the holiness of the church, the testimony of the church, and his own spiritual progress; consequently, he must be dealt with according to the scriptural teaching of loving discipline. In this situation, the problem is in part idleness, but it could be someone who does not provide for his family, is involved in shady business dealings, or other such unruly behavior.

Paul also includes two well-needed caveats. The first one admonishes the brethren not to “grow weary of doing good” (verse 13). My experience over the last thirty-five years of practicing church discipline has been that each situation generally takes six months to three years. Done properly, in love and prayer, it is quite grueling. Additionally, once people have been taken advantage of by others, they can grow cold toward helping others. Paul may also have had in mind the potential discouragement that comes after discipling someone only to see him squander his work away. This can tempt Christians to believe their work was in vain or that they failed, and this results in a loss of passion for discipleship. The main idea is not to let those who will not follow Christ keep you from following Him.

The other caution is “yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (verse 15). Those who see this passage as excluding formal discipline base some of their understanding on this verse. They posit you cannot admonish someone if you disfellowship him. This is an egregious error. While it is not appropriate to seek fellowship which undermines the action of the church and the disciplined person having to face their sin, it is in fact always appropriate to go to a lost person to seek to win him to Christ, which is what the one under discipline may very well be. It is equally appropriate to approach brothers or sisters in order to admonish them to repent and follow Christ. Admonishing a brother along the way is a valuable part of church discipline.

[1] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida ,Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains, electronic edition of the 2nd edition (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), s.v. “sunanamignusthai.”
[2] James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Test of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, electronic edition (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1996), s.v. “unruly.”
[3] D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, vol. 33, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 287.

Ronnie W. Rogers