Church Discipline Requires a Tender Heart – Love Not Legalism

A biblical attitude is crucial to the whole process of church discipline. If the attitude of those implementing discipline is not right, then what God designed to be a beautiful act of selfless love is transformed into an ugly act of power, even if all the other instructions are followed to the letter. The offspring of that evil may shortly surface as a disuniting and judgmental spirit in the fellowship, or it may lay dormant until the next attempt to lead the church in discipline and then surface with a vengeance. [1]

First, the attitude of the church should be one of grief. Paul scolded the Corinthians for their failure to have the proper attitude concerning a sinning brother when he said, “And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst” (1 Cor 5:2) (italics added). The word mourn is the Greek word pentheo. It means, “to mourn, to grieve it is commonly used for mourning for the dead.” [2] This is true in both the Old and New Testaments. It was used by the Old Testament prophets in prophecies of disaster (Joel 1:9, Jer 14:2; Lam 2:8) and in the New Testament (Matt 9:15; Rev 18:7-8). It is easy to see that mourn communicates an intense sadness and remorse.

The word embodies that inexpressible and profound sense of loss and grief that is experienced when a loved one dies. The church is to be brokenhearted over a brother or sister who chooses to walk in sin over walking with the Savior. I have seen discipline implemented with an attitude of grief on many occasions. I have experienced time after time when the chairman of the deacons, staff member, laymen, and pastors have stood before the flock of God sharing with tears the sin of a wayward brother or sister, and the church’s responsibility toward them; then witness that grief spread throughout the congregation. It is as though a death has taken place, and that is not by accident.

The practice of church discipline is not something that is supposed to be uplifting and easy. It is the reminder of death, and the cause of death succeeding once again in hurting the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the death of a walk with God, fellowship, and a testimony for Christ, and it should evoke deep grief.

Jesus’ feelings concerning Israel and her unwillingness to repent and how that affected Him demonstrate a true attitude of grief. As Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Messiah, “He saw the city and wept over it, saying, If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41-42). There is intense pathos in these words, deep and profound grief. Jeremiah expressed this grief in response to Judah being exiled to Babylon because of her defiance toward God saying, “My soul will sob in secret for such pride; and my eyes will bitterly weep and flow down with tears” (Jer 13:17).

Second, the attitude of the church should be one of humility. Paul warned the Corinthians against pride saying, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12).

Galatians 6:1-3 also speaks to the need for humility when dealing with brothers and sisters caught in a trespass, “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” This passage speaks to both the humility needed in viewing one’s own potential to fall and the humility needed for properly viewing one who has already fallen.

This passage also reiterates the believer’s spiritual responsibility to help a repentant brother or sister. The verb bear is present tense, plural in number, and imperative. The present tense signifies a continuous or repetitive action, plural in number signifies all the members and not just the leaders, and the imperative means this is a command. The body of Christ is commanded to care for and help those who are weak or are trying to overcome temptation. This is unglamorous and difficult to put on statistical reports, but it is authentic Christianity. This verse portrays a loveliness of Christianity found most prominently in a church practicing biblical discipline.

Third, the attitude of the church should be one of gentleness. The prescription set forth in Galatians 6:1-3 is unfortunately and regularly presented as an alternative to church discipline. However, it is not an alternative, but an indispensable element of it. This explains how a brother or sister, who is overtaken by sin and repents when confronted, is to be handled. The requirement for Christians to be gentle is as essential in church discipline as any other activity (Eph 4:2; Phil 4:5; Col 3:12-13, 4:6; 1 Pet 3:15).

“For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one shall bear his own load” (Gal 6:3-5).

The escalation of church discipline from one-on-one to the involvement of others is generally the church’s response to the unwillingness of the offender to repent. As long as the offender is seeking to follow Christ and deal with his sin, we are there to bear his burden (Gal 6:2).

Fourth, the attitude of the church should be one of love. The wayward brother is just that, a brother (or at least claims to be a brother, 1 Cor 5:11). “And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess 3:15). There may come a time to treat him as a tax gatherer and a heathen (Matt 18:17), but that is only after all attempts to restore him have been obstinately rejected, which evidences that the wayward brother is determined to act as a heathen, or he may not be a true believer and thus he is to be treated like what he appears to be. However, up to that point, he is to be treated as a brother who needs understanding, support, guidance, tender loving nurture, and compassion. Even if discipline escalates to “formal discipline” (taking it before the full body), the church is to love him as Christ loves the lost.

Church discipline has to be immersed in the love of Christ since it is from start to finish a love endeavor (Prov 10:12; 1 Cor 13:4-7; Eph 4:15; 1 Pet 1:22, 4:8). We demonstrate real love for one another when we are willing to give of ourselves in carrying a burden for a weaker brother or when we remove a potential wolf in sheep’s clothing. Jesus made love intrinsic to the Christian life by his life and words. He said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Our love for each other and the body of Christ is to be the same quality as the love of Jesus. His love was sacrificial, giving, and confrontative when it needed to be. Love that is unwilling to confront an erring brother in grief and humility is not the mature love of Christ. Often the love of Christ is portrayed as only smiles, acceptance, and overlooking any and every wrong; real love desires holiness, and it will not overlook a brother who is headed into or living in unholiness.

Fifth, the attitude of the church should be one of forgiveness, which is seen clearly in the words of the apostle Paul, “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph 4:32). The basis for, the ability to, and the pattern of forgiveness are all established by God. First, the basis for forgiving others is that we have been forgiven. Second, the ability to forgive even the most egregious offenses comes from the great Forgiver living within us. Even “while we were enemies” against God in league with the host of hell, He died for us (Rom 5:10). Notice that the blueprint is to forgive “just as God in Christ has forgiven” (Eph 4:32). Thus, the pattern of forgiveness established by God involves three steps: first, recognition of sin; second, a realization of the need for forgiveness; third, repentance and asking for forgiveness. The sinner repents and asks forgiveness by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 10:9-10), and in like manner, the Christian’s intimate walk with God is maintained or restored by recognizing his sin and confessing it to God (1 John 1:9).

Forgiveness includes both an internal (attitude of) forgiveness and an external (action of) forgiveness. The critical distinction between the attitude of forgiveness and the actual act of forgiveness is that the latter is dependent upon the appropriate response of the offender and the former is not. The attitude of forgiveness is dependent upon the offended party’s desire to walk with God. For example, in salvation, God made the offer of salvation unconditional, but He made the reception of salvation conditional upon faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for the sins of the world, which demonstrates the willingness of God to forgive. But the reception of the benefit of that death, which results in being restored to a right relationship with God, is conditioned upon the recipient exercising faith. Jesus prayer to the Father from the cross demonstrates this reality; Jesus prayed for His accusers and abusers to be forgiven (Luke 23:34), but they were not forgiven until they repented and put their faith in Him as Lord and Savior, nor is anyone else forgiven apart from faith.

That is to say, the willingness to forgive resides in the heart of the offended and exists because of the offended one’s desire to maintain an intimate relationship between himself and God. The believer who walks in the willingness to forgive does not hold grudges or allow bitterness, revenge, and resentment to fester in his heart because of the wrong done to him or the course of action taken by the offender. This is what is meant by walking in forgiveness. If these distinctions are blurred, it fosters unforgiveness and bitterness in the heart of the offended, and/or forgiving an offender without due repentance, both of which are contrary to the pattern of God and actually undermine the gospel.

[1] For a fuller explanation, see my book, Undermining the Gospel: The Case and Guide for Church Discipline.

[2] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testaments (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1985), s.v.”pentheo.”


Ronnie W. Rogers