Church Discipline: A Necessary Action of Corrective Discipleship

There are many areas in the ministries and responsibilities of local churches that people find appealing and generally are easy to fulfill. Church discipline is not one of these areas. According to the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, “Perhaps the discipline most neglected by Christians of the 21st century is church discipline” (427). Undoubtedly, there are many misconceptions to this ecclesiastical mandate, as manifested throughout church history, modern scholasticism, and practice. Furthermore, Scripture does give abundant support for instituting this practice in the way that God intends. Therefore, it is vital that local churches would adhere to the guidelines and instructions, as well as intellectually comprehending the reasoning and goals for church discipline. As it will be noted, church discipline is also an important topic of teaching for each member of the congregation to appropriately understand, not simply the staff members and church leaders. Upon properly analyzing the crucial practice of church discipline, local churches will be able to receive the benefits of pursuing God’s will, will see the differences made in a restored member to the congregation by God’s grace, and therefore will edify the members as a whole.

Ken Blue and John White offer this definition: “Church discipline is the training of the of the church by the church” (18). Gerry Breshears and Mark Driscoll state the two major kinds of biblical discipline: formative and restorative. “Formative discipline is primarily positive, instructive, and encouraging. Restorative discipline has a corrective purpose” (171). The topic at hand is referring to restorative discipline. Contrary to much of contemporary thought, discipline is in fact a good thing. Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” Not only is the idea or practice of discipline valuable, but God Himself takes part in this corrective action. Proverbs 3:11-12 confirms this by saying, “Do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Therefore, God demonstrates that discipline is both beneficial and even loving. On the contrary, to forsake discipline shows absolutely no love whatsoever. Unfortunately, “what most people think of when they hear ‘church discipline’ is excommunication, the final stage of the biblical process” (Breshears and Driscoll 171). Church discipline is much more than kicking people out of the congregation. It is a loving, God-honoring, and necessary action within a local church that is utilized to correct a lack of repentance in a person’s life. Furthermore, “Authentic biblical discipline is not an elective, but a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity” (Mohler). Church discipline, when instituted correctly, is very important for churches to utilize and will allow them to reap the rewards of obeying God’s commands towards an unrepentant believer continuing in sin.

The best starting point for researching church discipline would have to be Matthew 18. In this passage, we find the comprehensive, four-step process to handle church discipline. Verse fifteen says, “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.” This is the first step, and if repentance is achieved, then the process is finalized. However, verse sixteen continues with the second step for matters that are extended to this point. Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 18:16). This second step follows a very similar principle regarding confrontation of sin as found in Deuteronomy 19:15. However, if the second step still does not produce a spirit of repentance, then continuing on to the third and, if necessary, fourth step will be needed. Matthew 18:17 says, “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.” The third step requires believers to take this matter to the church, which, in the Greek, is ἐκκλησία. This can be translated three ways: congregation, church, or assembly (Louw and Nida 77-78). Taking into consideration that this is prior to Acts 2, as well as simply examining the context, conclusions will probably be geared towards what Walvoord and Zuck say, “The disciples probably would have understood Jesus to mean the matter should be brought before the Jewish assembly” (62). However, it is relevant to keep in mind that the Christ’s church was already prophesied in Matthew 16:18. Thus, this commandment would not fall under Jewish law and unimportant for the church to adhere to. On the contrary, this is tremendously precise and necessary for the church to obey. Finally, if the unrepentant believer persists without change, then excommunication from the fellowship of the local church will be necessary. Following these four steps is what God truly intends for restorative church discipline.

Though obedience to God’s Word is important enough, there is sufficient, Biblical reasoning behind this whole process that God has revealed. Rolland McCune offers three specific purposes within church discipline, “To remove the offender and thus restrain the evil,” “To restore the offender and heal the offense,” and “To uphold the purity and good name of the church” (290-292). These are all definitely included in the facets of church discipline, yet Breshears and Driscoll state the purpose in a more succinct, simple, and perhaps better fashion: “One goal of all church discipline is reconciliation” (173). This inference leads back to the word “discipline” itself, in that the root of discipline is also used for the word “disciple” (171). In other words, church discipline is a corrective form of discipleship. Understanding this prerequisite is important for two reasons. First, it defines that discipline is meant for believers of a local church, not unsaved people. It is not possible, after all, to disciple someone who is unconverted. Secondly, understanding church discipline as a corrective form of discipleship helps better define the purpose or desired result of discipline. The foundational goal of church discipline should really be for reconciliation, and thus spiritual growth and maturity of the disciplined believer.  Likewise, this also helps the church determine that the discipline is not necessarily about cleansing sin within the congregation. Chapter one of first John is very clear that believers will indeed sin (1 John 1:7-10). Therefore, if a Christian within a local church commits a sin, but repents, the church is not called upon to invoke some form of discipline. The Christian at fault will certainly reap the moral or legal consequences of his sin, but there is no need to discipline since the goal of repentance has already been achieved. Such moral or legal consequences that would still exist could include marital affair aftermath, theft, drunkenness violations, etc. Gerry Breshears and Mark Driscoll define this as the fourth step of “restitution,” which places the responsibility on the offender to seek forgiveness (169). A great example from Scripture would include Zacchaeus in Luke 19. On the other side of responsibility, the church then has the duty of forgiveness (Ephesians 4:32). Driscoll and Breshears define this conclusion as “reconciliation” (170). Thus, the desired purpose of church discipline is for the Christian at fault to repent and for the church to be reconciled with him or her.

In order to have a more visible understanding of church discipline and to see how reconciliation is desired within the church, it is important to see examples found in Scripture. While Matthew 18 is probably the core passage on the process of church discipline, it has already been mentioned, and thus seeing the practical example mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians will be beneficial. The unrepentant sin involved in this situation would be as Rolland McCune defines, “Gross sins among professing Christians” (292). Paul exclaims, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (I Corinthians 5:1). The verb for has is “ἔχειν,” a present, active infinitive. The NET Bible translates this phrase, “so that someone is cohabiting with his father’s wife.” What this all means is that a man is continuously, without repentance, committing acts of sexual immorality with his step-mother. Paul’s admonishment to the Corinthians is to “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (I Corinthians 5:2). Excommunication is the final step in church discipline, so this passage is somewhat difficult in displaying every step. However, the fact of the matter is that this is both dealing with a corrective form of discipleship towards a professing Christ and there is also the goal of reconciliation. In verse five, Paul says, “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” It does not appear that Paul simply wants the church to be without sin altogether, but that he is disciplining continual, unrepentant sin. The person involved is not hated by Paul, but rather he has the goal that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Though there are several speculative interpretations of this passage, John MacArthur says, “This is equal to excommunicating the professed believer. It amounts to putting that person out of the blessing of Christian worship and fellowship by thrusting him into Satan’s realm, the world system…The unrepentant person may suffer greatly under God’s judgment, but will not be an evil influence in the church; and he will more likely be saved under that judgment than if tolerated and accepted in the church.” Furthermore, Paul says in verses 12-13, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” Likewise, it can be determined that the responsibility of the church is to discipline those who profess the name of Christ and when in the midst of church discipline, desire to have reconciliation as Paul mentioned, “So that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” While commentators differ on different aspects of this passage, Paul does seem to make it clear that church discipline is for the benefit of the church’s spiritual well-being, but especially for the disciplinary correction of the unrepentant, professing Christian.

Another passage that Paul writes about church discipline is found in chapter five of First Timothy. While the previous passage related to church discipline of sexual immorality, here Paul instructs Timothy concerning church discipline of elders. Though the four steps are not overwhelmingly visible in First Timothy chapter five, it still does give enough evidence as to patterning Matthew chapter eighteen. Paul first says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (I Timothy 5:19). Verse nineteen alone covers the first two steps: going individually to the person and then taking along one or two witnesses. If this small meeting causes repentance, then there is no need for any further step to take place; unless, of course, the sin involves something that would disqualify the elder from a pastoral role. However, Paul says in verse twenty, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Paul’s instruction perfectly matches what Jesus said in Matthew 18:17, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” The part that Paul does not mention in First Timothy five is the final, excommunication step. However, Paul has already mentioned the qualifications for the leadership of the church in chapter three and gave instructions about false teachers in chapter one. Additionally, Paul mentioned his actions of church discipline to the false teachers, Hymenaeus and Alexander, in I Timothy 1:20. Furthermore, Paul makes it explicitly clear that leadership responsibilities in the local church are important decisions. First Timothy 5:22 says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” Therefore, while Paul does not include all of the steps of church discipline that Matthew 18 records, this does not nullify the importance of incorporating all of the steps. In all actuality, this passage gives us very good reason to continue in all four steps since a lot of the material is, in fact, repeated from Matthew 18 and absolutely none of it is in opposition to other Biblical accounts of the church discipline procedure.

In addition to the foundational church discipline passage of Matthew 18 and the instructions found in First Timothy five, it is also helpful to see the example displayed in Titus chapter three. Titus 3:9-11 says, “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” Since this is a Pastoral Epistle, this is very wise counsel for Titus. Clearly, men and women who cause divisions is not just a twenty-first century phenomenon, but has been a threat that pastors have been much aware of for two centuries. The Bible Knowledge Commentary remarks, “Paul’s thought here is similar to the Lord’s instructions (Matt. 18:15-17), when He taught that after giving an offender three chances to repent, he is then to be cut off.” While it is certainly true that the goal is kept in mind about desiring to restore the person and to refute false and disruptive teaching, what makes this passage a little more difficult is the numerical amount of confrontations. While Matthew eighteen speaks of the four steps, Titus three speaks of only “once” or “twice” warning. Therefore, it would be helpful to note that Paul is writing to a pastor and specific ministry responsibilities that would be possible, such as bad teaching, would be addressed. Truly, the events described in this text would most likely constitute as unrepentant sin, and thus should be dealt with church discipline. However, this is a public sin, while the context in Matthew 18 seems to be more of a private situation. After all, Jesus said in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” On the other hand, a Titus 3:9-11 type of situation could skip the first step since this is a serious and public issue. Paul does not really give more information about what the process includes in these one or two warnings. Though Paul is not explicit on this interjection, it is possible that steps two and three of Matthew eighteen could be instituted for repentance. That way, a small group of godly men, two or three witnesses, can confront the sinning individual first. If that is not successful in bearing repentance, then taking the issue to the church would certainly be necessary. All in all, skipping the first step in Matthew 18 for a public ordeal but still incorporating the next steps does seem to match up with Titus three. Without a doubt, much prayer should precede a difficult situation of church discipline like this one. However, the Bible is unequivocally clear that false teaching must be combatted. Paul says in Galatians 1:8-9, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

An additional difficult topic to tackle within the discussion of church discipline is how to administer within and outside a member’s local church. While Christians are members of the universal Body of Christ, the Congregational view of autonomy gives authority to each local church. Cross and Livingstone say this belief  “professes to represent the principle of democracy in Church government, a polity which is held to follow from its fundamental belief in Christ as the sole head of His Church. All the members of the Church, being Christians, are ‘priests unto God.’ When examining Matthew eighteen in unison with the Baptist distinctive in mind, the two certainly seem to go together. Jesus said in Matthew 18:17, “If he refuses to listen to them [the two or three witnesses], 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.” Upon observing this verse, it is clear to see two important points. First, enforcing church discipline beyond step one on someone must be done within the limits of a local church. After all, it is impossible to tell a matter to every single Christian within the universal Body of Christ. Secondly, if church discipline is not done within the limits of a local church, there is nowhere to excommunicate someone. The disciplinary measure taken against an unrepentant, professing believer leads up to a loss of fellowship. From a simple observation, the text certainly indicates a localized congregation even though the Church Age had not begun until Acts 2. Hypothetically, if two people are involved in a situation that is not resolvable after a personal confrontation, the Bible would seem to indicate that the next steps taken would involve the offender’s local church: two or three witnesses first, and then congregational activity if necessary. That way, unrepentant sin can be dealt with, local churches can avoid potential threats of sin and error, and by God’s grace, a positive outcome might occur in the middle of a difficult situation. Overall, this argument not only supports the necessity of a proper ecclesiology for local church governance, but also gives reasoning for disciplining within the limits of a local church.

While the Bible has clearly taught the principles and proper actions taken in church discipline, not everyone has heeded this instruction. The history of the Roman Catholic Church is one example of combining false doctrine with an assumed church discipline. Three levels of church discipline arose in times past for this establishment: excommunication, anathema, and interdict (Peterson). While forcing a member out of the church as well as warning the excommunicate about a loss of eternal life, within the first, the second was more of a threat to the individual being kicked out of a certain state. However, the interdict was an even broader influence, as “whole towns, districts, or countries including both the guilty and the innocent were affected” (Peterson). Clearly, the Roman Catholic Church’s history has revealed that they have not taken the principles for church discipline to be corrective discipleship, nor did they bear any resemblance of the proper steps mentioned in Scripture. Therefore, while a lack of church discipline can be dangerous, a misunderstanding of too much “discipline” can also amount to a disastrous result.

If a church does not participate in church discipline, it is either blessed with a congregation free of unrepentant sin or it is simply disobedient to God’s design for corrective discipleship. As it has been visibly manifested, for a church to forsake disciplining unrepentant sin it is not functioning in a Biblical and loving fashion. Contemporary culture might respond to the word “discipline” with a cringe or an unsettled feeling within themselves. However, God has spoken and He is quite clear about the importance of church discipline, even though it might not always be easy. John Leadley Dagg once remarked with some intriguing words of wisdom, ““It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it” (274). While that statement might not be without flaw or inaccuracy, it certainly goes to show that church discipline is neither an optional nor a minor issue. Rather, church leaders should embrace this responsibility as a way to correct unrepentant sin, to be obedient to God’s Word, to promote purity within the congregation, and to ultimately bring glory to God.

Works Cited

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible.

Biblical Studies Press, 2006.

Blue, Ken and John White. Healing the Wounded: The Costly Love of Church Discipline.

Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985. Print.

Breshears, Gerry and Mark Driscoll. Vintage Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008. Print.

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd

ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Dagg, J.L. A Treatise on Church Order. Charleston: The Southern Baptist Publication Society,

1858. Print.

Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England, Steve

Bond, E. Ray Clendenen, Trent C. Butler and Bill Latta. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament:

Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.

MacArthur, John F., Jr. The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. Nashville,

TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006.

Mohler, R. Albert. The Compromised Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 1998. Print.

Peterson, Roger L. “Discipline in the Local Church.” Central Bible Quarterly 2.3 (1959). Print.

Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge

Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.

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2 thoughts on “Church Discipline: A Necessary Action of Corrective Discipleship

  1. The problem or concern with church discipline is the shifting application of what is considered to be a sin and exactly what sins warrant discipline.

    1) Not too long ago, George Whitefield advocated for the introduction of slavery to Georgia. Yet, George Whitefield was used by God in the Great Awakening of the colonies. Today, we would say that slavery is a sin and any Christian that advocates for slavery would need to be corrected and/or disciplined.

    2) Jim Crow laws were not considered sinful, now they are considered sinful.

    3) It seems that churches today focus on only one type of sin – sexual sin. Greed and gluttony are not even on the radar screen.

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