Church Discipline - Order in Chaos
It's unfortunate that the church family we worship with can bring us some of the worst emotional pains when the community is not functioning as the Lord intends. This church malfunction can have many causes - probably as many as there are members - but the biggest and perhaps most obvious reason is when Christ followers don't act like Christ. This is called hypocrisy.
If you've ever been a part of or witnessed conflict, abuse, or disobedience in the local church that wreaked havoc on the community then you've seen the effects of hypocrisy firsthand. It's ugly. More than that, Jesus hates it with righteous passion. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus calls out hypocrisy a dozen separate times!
Christians not acting like Christ is a big problem, but the other reality is that we are ALL hypocrites on some level, right? Obviously, yes. However, the kind of hypocrisy Jesus despises (and we should too) is habitual and unrepentant - like the Pharisees. When confronted with truth in a loving manner, the hypocrite doesn't respond with repentance but obstinance. This is the type of behavior that rips at a community and it's precisely why Jesus provides us with clear instruction on how to handle such a situation. Read Matthew 18:15-20 below:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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 collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Matthew 18:15-20 is Jesus's outline for how to handle an errant brother or sister in the faith. Our Heavenly Father knows our frame and understands that in the course of our walk with Jesus in the community of the church we will come across divisive, disobedient, and dangerous individuals who will need correction. What do 1 Timothy 3:16-17 tell us but that the Lord has provided the scriptures for just such a purpose!
"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
We use Matthew 18 as a model for restoring wandering or errant members of the church family back to the body. Here are five things to know about church discipline and how it serves the church today:
Church Discipline is:
Context is key here for Matthew 18:15-17. Immediately preceding Jesus's instructions, He tells the parable of the lost sheep. (A man has one hundred sheep and leaves the 99 to find the one.) The implications here for verses 15-17 should not be lost. The purpose is to restore a wayward brother or sister in Christ. Why else would the Lord require such restraint, going to the person in error three separate times? Jesus institutes church discipline to win hurting people back to the body of Christ and the heavens celebrate when this occurs.
If the Lord is sovereign and people are fallible why would he leave a task like disciplining wayward Christians to us? It's true - The Lord is the final judge of hearts and to be sure he will exercise justice on the day of judgment but in the meantime, He has seen fit to vest some authority in the church. Verses 18-20 make that clear.
The righteous God of the universe intends for His people who have been sealed with the Holy Spirit (mind you NONE of this works without His help!) to preemptively make assessments and judgements of obviously unrepentant Christians. Why? As a caution to the rest of the body that there are earthly and eternal consequences for living in sin. The Church that exercises church discipline faithfully guards the hearts and lives of its members by giving reminders of the high stakes game we play when we refuse to kill sin.
The Lord has charged his church with defending the faith from those who seek to damage the name of Jesus, either willingly or through foolishness. In 1 Peter 5:1-3, Peter charges the pastors of local churches in this way,
"So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock."
By not allowing sinners to persist, unrepentant among us as a community we defend the integrity of God's word where it instructs us to be "blameless" and "walk in the light". We also defend the integrity and witness of the church itself. If we make claims that the gospel has changed us yet we live unchanged lives, what credibility is left for Jesus in the eyes of unbelievers?
In the same way that Church discipline is restorative for the sinner to the body of Christ it is works as a preservative force for the faith of the one who is restored. When Jesus says, "...you have gained your brother" he means more than just a social sense of the word. The negative consequences of walking in unrepentant sin are more than optics for the world; the person who would live in sin knowingly cannot reasonably call themselves a follower of Christ. Unrepentance cannot walk with repentance. Likewise, the consequences of removing someone from fellowship comes with a spiritual cost - the excommunicant's salvation is no longer vouched for! That's heavy. So to practice church discipline biblically and win a brother or sister back to repentance preserves their status as family member but also their status as Christ follower.
The church is a primary means of God's grace to the believer. For this reason, the Lord commands over and over for followers to walk in community with one another. The Christian life cannot be fully lived in isolation. The Church body functions as accountability, encouragement, resource and guardrail for the believer. Jesus means for healthy and biblical church discipline to remind the body that obedience to Christ is not optional. More than that though, obedience is worship. The church that takes seriously it's duty to restore, caution, defend and preserve the faith of it's member is a grace to all who call that church family. In a modern age where moral relativism reigns supreme the body that holds it's members accountable to God's true Word does the true work of the gospel.
For more on this topic check out the resources below: