The Great Commission and Church Discipline

The Great Commission is talked about, promoted, and extolled, and rightly so.[1] The Great Commission is the mandate given by Jesus to the church (Matt 28:18-20). If someone preaches about reaching people with the gospel, everyone is rightly excited and supportive—even though some may not actually contribute more than an expected amen. When someone is baptized, there are numerous amens, hallelujahs, or applause because the Great Commission is being carried out. While people and churches may fail to live up to the challenge to take the gospel to our neighbors and the uttermost parts of the earth, at least there is a serious attempt by many and an esteeming of its importance by virtually every believer. To do less would be willful disobedience to our Lord who redeemed us.

However, there seems to be a profound misunderstanding of the Great Commission by many and a serious lack of clear communication of the nature of the Great Commission by others. This is evident when people view church discipline as unrelated or irrelevant to the Great Commission or even an impediment to evangelism. The prevalence of such is evidenced by the ubiquitously glaring omission by some regarding the importance of church discipline to carrying out the Great Commission. One may go for a lifetime to evangelism and missions conferences that passionately emphasize the Great Commission and evangelism without ever hearing the need for or even a mention of church discipline, much less its importance to following Christ’s command in making disciples. For if people deemed it relevant, church discipline would receive proportionally appropriate attention when discussing the Great Commission.

The very passage known as the Great Commission demonstrates the inextricable relationship between church discipline and the Great Commission. Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20). The phrase, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” does not make His post-resurrection authority greater than His pre-resurrection authority, but rather the sphere in which He exercises authority is now all encompassing. This is both an encouragement and a call to submission. Although the assignment to follow is humanly impossible, we can be encouraged because the One commissioning has absolute power and authority to empower the commissioned. Additionally, there is also the idea of encouragement in the words “lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” The absolute power is always available because He not only sends His people, but He goes with them. This passage is a call to unwavering and unreserved surrender to Christ as God.

Having established His all-encompassing, absolute authority, He now sends His disciples into all of the world to reproduce. Three components of the assigned task are go, baptizing, and teaching. These three verbs are participles in the Greek. Matheteuo is translated make disciples. It is the main verb, and it is in the imperative, which makes it the central command in the passage. It means to make learners and followers of Christ. This command can be summed up in the following way. I command you to make learners who follow Me, who in turn continue the commission to make disciples who follow Me. The participles—go, baptizing, and teaching —are dependent on the main verb, and it appears that “at least some imperatival force tinges the participle.”[2] Go is an aorist passive participle, which can be translated having gone. To wit, since they were His disciples, they were to continue His work “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), which involves intentional going. In other words, He assumed as followers, they would go as He did (Matt 4:23; 8:35), and as He had previously commanded them (Matt 10:6). Only now, their sphere of ministry included all nations. With this in mind, it seems that the word “go” incorporates imperatival force, assumption by Jesus, and intentionality by the disciples.

The two other participles, baptizing and teaching, are in the present tense, which signifies continuous action. Baptizing and teaching are not the means of making disciples, but they do characterize it. In other words, a person becomes a disciple by faith in Christ, then as a disciple, he is to be baptized and taught. The biblical response of a disciple is to submit to baptism as a sign of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as well as obedience to His instructions.

The verb observe is translated from the Greek word tareo, which means “to attend to carefully, take care of”[3] and “to cause to continue, to keep.”[4] Thus, the clear meaning is to obey carefully. A disciple of Christ is a follower of Christ who both learns and applies what he learns. Consequently, a disciple seeks to advance the kingdom by helping people come to salvation and then teaches and trains them to live in continued obedience to the commands of Christ. Notice that disciples are to observe all. There are no exceptions. The word all emphasizes that the Great Commission is to make disciples through communicating the gospel, then baptize the new disciples, and train and teach them to follow Christ in everything He commanded. To do any less is to disobey the Great Commission; to tell others to do any less than to observe all He taught is to misrepresent and molest the Great Commission.

This is not to say that we can teach everything in the first day or year, nor is it to say that some things should not take priority over others within the discipling process. Additionally, it is obvious that no one comes to know and understand all the teachings of Christ (the New Testament) without time and dedication to do so. However, it is to say that when we neglect to teach and follow certain biblical commands, or ignore them because of their difficulty, we necessarily desert the command to “observe all” and “teaching them to” do the same. Thus, we fail to fulfill the Great Commission. A person’s failure to fulfill the Great Commission because he does not know or because of human frailty, even though his heart’s desire is to obey, is categorically different than someone who intentionally disassociates what Christ intentionally bound together.

Jesus always called people to follow Him. The call to follow was a call to obey (Matt 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 10:38, 16:24). Both philosophers and Pharisees had disciples, but Jesus’s call to be a disciple was different. The primary difference between Jesus’s disciples and the disciples of philosophers and Pharisees was that Jesus’s disciples were committed to the person of Jesus—not just His teachings. Gerhard Kittel notes, “A unique aspect of NT discipleship is that it is commitment to the person of Jesus. His teaching has force only when there is first this commitment to His person. This personal commitment explains the deep depression of the disciples after the crucifixion (Luke 24:19ff.). It is not enough that they have the legacy of His Word. They have lost Jesus himself. The crucial importance of the resurrection reinforces this.”[5]

It is worth noting that the Scripture clearly teaches that some commands are weightier than others are. For example, Jesus excoriates the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier provisions of the law while majoring on minors. However, it is important to notice that He then commanded them to keep the weightier commands “without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23). Even if church discipline is not a weightier command, it is still quasi-Pharisaical to know the Scripture commands churches to employ discipline and consciously choose to elide the command.

Moreover, I would suggest that it is obviously not a less important command when considered in light of the direct and explicit command of Christ in Matt 18:15-20, the inclusive all in the Great Commission, and the things Christ referred to as “weightier” in Matt 23:23, which are “justice and mercy and faithfulness.” It seems reasonable to view church discipline as one of the weightier since discipline is an act of mercy, justice, and faithfulness, and is essential to the church maximally carrying out the Great Commission.

The conclusion of this passage brings us face to face with the stark reality that the local church cannot fully obey the Great Commission without teaching and practicing church discipline since it was commanded earlier (Matt 18:15-20), and is therefore, most definitely included in the phrase “to observe all.” Additionally, since the Great Commission encompasses the whole counsel of God, which includes the entirety of the New Testament, all of the commands regarding church discipline are included as well.

Jesus emphasized the indissoluble relationship between love and obedience many times. For example, He said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15; see also John 8:31; John 14:23-26). Selective obedience only demonstrates that a person’s love for Christ falls short of what He is worthy to receive and what He requires. There are many things in the Christian life which bespeak of how much we love Christ, but perhaps none so much as our willingness to follow the teachings of Christ in areas like church discipline, where the potential for personal loss, difficulty, and misunderstanding seems boundless.

This reality is most true for the pastor and his family. To follow Christ only where it is easy is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” He wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”[6] (italics added)

The church must live out its faith in every area prescribed by the Scripture. She must live it out in the most difficult and unpopular areas if she expects to be taken seriously in the battle for the souls of individuals as well as the American mind. Dr. Francis Schaeffer said it succinctly; “In an age of relativity, the practice of truth when it is costly is the only way to cause the world to take seriously our protestations concerning truth. Cooperation and unity that do not lead to purity of life and purity of doctrine are just as faulty and incomplete as an orthodoxy which does not lead to a concern for and a reaching out towards those who are lost.”[7]

[1] It is important to note that the phrase The Great Commission is not actually in the biblical text, but rather it is referred to as such because of the comprehensiveness of the passage. Thus, it is the Great Commission in the sense that everything culminates in that commissioning. However it is, according to the biblical text, a command. Thus the added term “Great” does not make it more textually significant than the command to practice church discipline since it is also commanded (many times in the New Testament), and it is also an undeniable and inseparable part of this commission to the apostles and the church. The overarching mandate to the church is to glorify God, and we do that by obeying Him (Matt 5:16; Rom 15:6; 1 Cor 6:20; 1 Pet 4:11).
[2] Frank E Gaebelin and J.D. Douglas, eds. “Matthew, Mark, Luke” vol. 8, The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 595.
[3] James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text 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. “tareo.”
[4] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), s.v. “tareo.”
[5] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-), 390-461.
[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995. Previously published New York: Macmillan, 1959), 44-45. Citations refer to Touchstone edition.
[7] Francis A. Schaeffer, Trilogy: God Who Is There (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 197.

The Five Reasons for Church Discipline

I have led churches to practice church discipline for over thirty years now, and I do not see the need for church discipline to be any less today than in years past. If anything, the need has increased.

Church discipline can be understood as the biblical attitude and actions of the local church that enable her to preserve her submission to the head of the church in holiness, fellowship, testimony, mission, and doctrinal purity, with the purpose of maintaining a conducive atmosphere for following Christ and experiencing His presence and power. Church discipline includes the following purposes: redemption, correction, protection, purification, and justice. On a practical level, I would further distinguish between non-formal and formal discipline. Non-formal includes all aspects of the biblical teaching and practical application of church discipline up to public involvement of the full church body in either seeking repentance of the sinning brother or sister or removal from fellowship.

John Calvin said, “As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so discipline forms the ligaments that connect the members together and keeps each in its proper place. Whoever, therefore, either desires the abolition of discipline, or obstructs its restoration, they certainly promote the entire dissolution of the church.”[1]

Thinking about church discipline in our undisciplined age is daunting indeed. However, the church must live out its faith in every area prescribed by the Scripture; she must live it out in the most difficult and unpopular areas if she expects to be faithful to the Lord of the church and taken seriously in the battle for the souls of man and the American mind and soul. Dr. Francis Schaeffer said it succinctly; “In an age of relativity, the practice of truth when it is costly is the only way to cause the world to take seriously our protestations concerning truth. Cooperation and unity that do not lead to purity of life and purity of doctrine are just as faulty and incomplete as an orthodoxy, which does not lead to a concern for and a reaching out towards those who are lost.”[2]

The first reason for discipline is redemption. Redemption includes either being instrumental in someone in the church coming to saving faith (since we do not know if a person requiring such is actually a Christian or not), restoring a person to the fellowship of the church, or spiritually rehabilitating a person. Redemption is the reason most often cited for exercising any form of discipline. Unfortunately, far too often this is the only reason given to justify the use of discipline. When redemption becomes the reason for discipline, rather than a reason, the whole concept of discipline is obscured and excused into non-existence.

Although making redemption so prominent in defending discipline tends to make the idea more palatable, the backlash occurs when discipline does not result in repentance and redemption. However, if redemption is viewed as being one of the biblical reasons for discipline and if redemption does not occur (which is often the case), then discipline can still be appreciated for what it is beyond its redemptive aspect.

Redemption is a wonderful and biblical reason for God’s discipline, and it is based on the fact that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and can be found in a number of passages relating to discipline (Matt 18:15–20; 1 Cor 5:5; Gal 6:1). God desires the lost to be saved and His people to be redeemed from a path of sin or rebellion and wanton destruction (Ezek 33:11). God’s discipline always begins with a desire to redeem and show man his evil way so that man will turn to God and be redeemed. The law of God does this well (Gal 3:24).

The second reason for discipline is correction. God’s holiness and righteousness are the basis for corrective discipline. Corrective discipline is designed to correct wrong thinking or actions and is related to redemptive discipline in that it seeks to correct our thinking and behavior, which will result in a closer relationship with God. However, unlike the redemptive aspect, the person is not necessarily in willful rebellion against the will of God, although he could be. “The goal of chastening is not mere outward conformity to established standards, but an inner commitment of the heart and will to obey biblical mandates because it is right to obey.”[3]

Parental discipline demonstrates this point well. Parents are constantly correcting their children for behavior that often the child does not know is wrong or does not understand why it is wrong. Thus, the parent disciplines in order to teach the child the right conduct. The parental aspect of corrective discipline lucidly demonstrates the love that is involved in discipline, and it clearly models the love that motivates all biblical discipline. Further, corrective measures often precede redemptive measures; if they are successful, redemptive measures become unnecessary.

In the church, corrective discipline can be exercised in a diversity of ways such as counseling a young Christian that is engaged in activities that are contrary to his new life in Christ, biblical preaching, one-on-one discipleship, as well as other aspects of church discipline. One of the greatest means of corrective discipline in the church is biblical preaching. When we exchange biblical preaching and equipping the saints for orations on the most faddish psychological postulate of the day, an essential means of church discipline is lost to the church. Each time that the Word of God is delivered, it affords us the opportunity and mandate to bring “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

The third reason for discipline is protection. Christ seeks to protect His people and work from those who constitute a threat to them. This is in contrast to the redemptive and corrective aspects, which maintain a primary emphasis on aiding the person carrying out the wrong. The protective aspect shifts the emphasis to the people that might be harmed (Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 5:5; Titus 3:10). There still exists a desire and maybe even an effort to redeem and correct the perpetrator, but that is no longer primary since they have demonstrated a recalcitrant attitude; their aberrant behavior is now a menace to the fellowship and mission of the church.

In order for a local church to maintain a spiritually safe and orderly environment, there must be a means of dealing with those who resist correction or redemption and thereby pose a threat to others and the raison d’etre of the church. Sometimes the one committing a moral sin may not be fellowshipping in the body, whereas, the divisive and doctrinal deviants are always working arduously and deceptively (Rom 16:17) at sowing seeds of dissension and heresy. Those who refuse the call to redemption or correction must be removed to protect the church, as they were in the Old Testament (Deut 21:18–21).

Sometimes the danger to the church is a sin that is both spiritually lethal and illegal. This type of sin would include things like child abuse or an inappropriate relationship between an adult and a minor. When the sin is both a spiritual and legal issue, it must be handled both spiritually and legally. That is to say, all of the steps of church discipline that are employed in dealing with flagrant unrepented of sin that is not a legal issue must be followed as well as immediately calling the legal authorities. These can and should be initiated and followed through on simultaneously.

The protection aspect of church discipline includes taking appropriate measures to safeguard the spiritual and physical well-being of the fellowship of the local church. While it may be impossible to prevent all spiritual or physical harm to the body of Christ, a comprehensive understanding of church discipline does comprehend the implementation of preventative safeguards. Safeguards include things like monitorable membership requirements, seriousness about spiritually equipping the saints, commitment to all aspects of church discipline, background checks for people working with children, and checking references of those employed by the church.

The fourth reason for discipline is purification. Discipline for purification is similar to protective discipline in that it protects, but it is dissimilar in that it seeks not only protection from those who seek to harm the fellowship but promotes growth in purity. It is true that if a community is not protected, it will experience a purity meltdown, but merely protecting it does not guarantee the community’s advancement in purity. Purity has to do with becoming more Christlike (Eph 4:15). Purity is moving toward the glory of the image of God and away from the sinfulness of man. The choice to move toward purity produces a godlier atmosphere. When sin is tolerated, it has an inevitably degrading impact on the purity of the community. Minimizing the seriousness of sin results in more sin being tolerated, which eventuates in a loss of desire for purity and ultimately even knowledge of what true purity is.

Paul warns the Corinthians of the danger of winking at sin (1 Cor 5:6–7). This does not refer to perfectionism, but rather maintaining a conducive atmosphere for the body of Christ to grow in holiness (1 Pet 1:15–16). This requires both the protective and purifying aspects of church discipline.

Far too often, the church’s lack of will to exercise biblical church discipline has diminished her ability and desire to pursue purity. Some would say that the lack of desire for purity in the church diminishes her will to exercise church discipline. In either case, the demoralizing result is the same. In churches without discipline, corporate purity becomes at best a heavenly abstraction and at worst a worn-out cliché, which disfigures and cripples the society of believers since God intended purity to be an experiential reality of the church community.

The final reason for discipline is for the sake of justice. The church is to be a place to experience the love, grace, and forgiveness of God. That does not mean that the church is to be a morass of injustices, or malicious or malevolent injurious behavior in the name of grace. While it is true the church needs to model grace for all to see and experience, it is to be God’s grace that does not spurn or ignore doing what is right and righteously legal.

For example, those in the church that commit sins and break the law, such as child abusers, should not be discovered by the probing eyes of the media. The church should never try to cover up such under the guise of “protecting the church” or other such misguided ideas. For in the end, they dishonor Christ, damage the reputation of the church, and obscure the clear teaching of Scripture regarding God’s demand for justice in this life, which if spurned, will be experienced in hell.

Hell is the eternal discipline or judgment of God exercised upon all who willfully and finally reject His grace. This discipline does not emphasize the idea of correction or redemption, for by this time that has been sufficiently rejected. This discipline does incorporate the last two reasons, protection, and purity. The final judgment of God must happen in order to afford eternal protection for the new community of heaven and an environment conducive to perfect security and purity. Even in the church, some must be removed because of the rightness of it regardless of whether they receive redemption or correction. We need not look for those whose actions demand such, they will surely arise and force us to compromise Scripture or remove them (Acts 20:28–30; Jude 4).

For more information on the biblical justification for church discipline and practical steps in implementing church discipline see my book, Undermining The Gospel: The Case and Guide for Church Discipline

[1] Marlin Jeschke, Discipling the Brother (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972), 32.
[2] Francis A. Schaeffer, Trilogy: God Who Is There (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 197.
[3] Robert E. Clark, Joanne Brubaker, and Roy B. Zuck, Childhood Education in the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), 303.

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] Continue reading →

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 a young lady having to be removed 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 is, if he continues in unrepentance, ultimately 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 in unnoticed” (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 word poimaino, 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 busybodies (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 the reproof 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.

The Practical Reasons for the Banishment of Church Discipline Answered

I have practiced church discipline for over thirty years, and here are some of the practical reasons often posed to me against the practice of church discipline.

It was abused in the past

When the subject of church discipline surfaces, someone will inevitably point to the abuses of the past as reason enough to squelch the whole conversation and move on to something more palatable. It is an undeniable fact that there have been abuses in the past. George Davis writes, “A perusal of old church minutes would tend to justify the claim that in the past church discipline was often wrongly motivated and sometimes concerned with petty matters.”[1] A classic example of abuse is when Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) forced Henry IV to stand as a penitent in the snow outside the castle at Canossa begging the Pope to cancel his excommunication.[2] Continue reading →

Liberated through Discipline: The Five Kinds of Discipline

The term discipline, both in the Bible and in everyday usage, displays various nuances depending on the particular biblical or life context. The ideas communicated by discipline are that of chastening, instruction, nurturing, training, correction, reproof, and punishment. In the negative sense, the idea of punishment is most prominent. In the positive sense, things like nurturing, training, and instruction come to mind. However, since all discipline is based on the perfect character of God, all discipline is actually positive even though it is not always immediately apparent. Just as the Scripture says, “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11). The reality is that discipline and discipleship are so closely connected that to minimize discipline is to minimize discipleship. Lynn Buzzard notes, “To separate discipling from discipline is not only to tear words from their etymologically common roots, but also from their organic relationship.”[1] Continue reading →

God Protects His Temple and So Should We

“If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Corinthians 3:17a)

“Under the Old Testament any person, other than the high priest on the Day of Atonement, who dared to enter the Holy of Holies, would drop dead on the spot. He would not need to be put to death by the people. God would strike him dead. Even less does God look kindly upon those who threaten or defile His holy people (Matthew 18:6-10).”[1] The things that destroy the temple of God were present in Corinth: pride, jealousy, unjustifiable elevation of human relationships, prolonged infancy, human wisdom, and milkoholism, all of which are the products of imposing human wisdom upon the temple of God. [2] By supplanting divine wisdom with human wisdom, they placed themselves under the patient but sure judgment of God. Using human wisdom to build the brick and mortar church building is fine, but building the church the spiritual temple of God with human wisdom is sin. Continue reading →

The Friendship of Church Discipline and the Gospel

The Friendship of Church Discipline and the Gospel

On one occasion, the chief priests and elders approached Jesus while he was teaching and asked him, “By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” (Matt 21:23). While it is obvious that the priests and elders were disputing rather than making careful inquiry, the question they asked is good and deserves being asked and answered. Many indeed ask by what authority does the church practice church discipline? In answering this question, I will seek to briefly demonstrate that we not only practice church discipline because of explicit commands to do so (Matt 18:15–20; Rom 16:17–18; 1 Cor 5:1–13; 1 Tim 1:19–20; 2 Thess 3:6–15), but also because church discipline is inextricably related to the gospel, evangelism, and the Great Commission.

We see this relationship definitionally. Church discipline encompasses both individual and corporate actions of a local church seeking restoration of one of her members as well as the preservation of the assembly’s fellowship of holiness, public testimony, and doctrinal purity. Additionally, the purpose of maintaining a conducive atmosphere for following Christ and experiencing his presence and power is paramount.

For clarity, I distinguish between church discipline and formal church discipline. The former refers to the full breadth of New Testament teaching regarding church discipline, whereas the latter refers to steps that potentially lead to the final removal of an unrepentant member. When church discipline is mentioned, it is the latter that most commonly comes to mind, but the New Testament teaching on church discipline is much more comprehensive. Similarly, church discipline is often understood and supported only if it has the exclusive purpose of redemption for the wayward member. Consequently, it is valued only for its utility in winning a wayward brother or sister. Accordingly, if church discipline does not potentiate such or fails to achieve this goal, it is deemed unworthy of implementation or, if implemented, to have failed.

However, in consideration of the full New Testament teaching on church discipline, one readily sees that it is much more inclusive and actually pervades the life of the church. Properly understood, church discipline seeks redemption, correction, protection, purification, and justice.[1] Consequently, while it is for the sake of seeking redemption of the wayward member, it is also for the sake of the gospel. The lack of church discipline hinders the church from being able to fully live and spread the gospel according to the mandate of Christ. The absence of church discipline leaves the church weakened by the sin of the unrepentant (1 Cor 5:6; 11:17–22; 11:30–32). For that reason, in addition to the redemptive aspect that applies to the wayward member, church discipline is essential for the church to maintain a conducive atmosphere for body life and be effectively redemptive toward the lost as well.

The corrective aspect includes such important ministries as prayer, teaching, discipling, counseling, and preaching. These provide instruction and correction for training in righteousness for those who desire to follow Christ. The purity aspect focuses on the purity of the body (1 Cor 5:6). The church is to be a holy place that is morally and spiritually set apart unto God (1 Pet 1:13–16). Similar to the purity aspect, the protective aspect emphasizes the need to protect the spiritual purity of the fellowship, doctrines, and mission of the church (Rom 16:17–18; 1 Cor 5:1–13; 1 Tim 1:19–20; Eph 4:11–16).

The final aspect is that of justice. Church discipline underscores the sinfulness of sin and keeps before the congregation and the world the reality that sin is a violation of holy righteousness and justice, which a holy God will judge. It stresses that sin is not a psychological dysfunction, sickness, social construct, or mistake without accountability; rather, sin urgently requires one to repent. It testifies that unrepentance is not to be taken lightly, and it is a very serious reminder that if the sinner fails to seek forgiveness by grace and repentance through faith (Eph 2:8–9), he will ultimately be judged by God and find himself eternally separated from God in hell (Rev 21:7–8).

Church discipline highlights the reality that God will judge every violation of justice, as is so graphically demonstrated in Christ’s death on the cross. The availability of forgiveness through repentance emphasizes God’s love that provides an escape from our condign punishment through faith in his Son, who died for our sinand bore the wrath of a holy God. The benefit of the gospel is given to all who repent and believe (John 3:16), but the unrepentant will suffer his just desert, as is seen in the practice of church discipline (1 Cor 5:5; Gal 6:1–5).

The reality of church discipline is that it is not the sin per se that results in formal church discipline, but rather it is the lack of repentance, which is the same standard for eternal judgment. The Bible is clear that unrepented of sin is never excused, overlooked, or forgiven, and it is equally lucid that every sin can be forgiven by repentance and faith in Christ (Luke 13:3; Rom 10:9–10; 2 Pet 3:9). That is the gospel. Correspondingly, we see that church discipline, properly defined, elevates both the seriousness of sin and the wonder of grace and, therefore, the gospel (Heb 2:9; 10:10, 14).

As a result, it is clear that church discipline encompasses redemption for the wayward sinner, protects the church from the moral and spiritual corruption that undermines its effectiveness in spreading the gospel, and combats the world’s constant redefining of sin whether by psychologizing, medicalizing, or reducing it to an inconsequential mistake. Church discipline encompasses redemptive measures for the wayward member, but it is not reducible to that one component because it is equally important for the protection of the church members who are seeking to obey Christ as well as for the lost world who needs to see the church of the Lord Jesus as he designed her to be.

[1] For a fuller explanation of these components, see my book, Undermining the Gospel: The Case and Guide for Church Discipline (Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2015).