Shortly after i found the Lord i became very involved in a highly biblical church. They wanted to be biblical people doing biblical things the biblical way, and i greatly admired that myself, knowing firsthand that i wanted to live my life in a biblical way. (The new TV show is anything but actually living biblically–just saying.)
While involved in this church i witnessed someone being excommunicated from the church for unrepentant sin under the title: “Church Discipline.” It was scary to me because i knew that there were sins i struggled with that i hadn’t perfectly repented of yet. In addition, i knew that people knew that certain sins were present in my life; i worried about when i would be next on the excommunication list.
It never happened.
And for good reason. What follows is 10 things to keep in mind as relates to church discipline.
1. It doesn’t have to start with a sin
Matthew 18:15 is where the primary discussion begins. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”
Oftentimes, things can be understood as sins that are not actually sins. If something like this occurs, and a person feels that they have been sinned against, rather than gossiping to others about it, the first step is to “go and rebuke him in private.” It could very well be a real sin, but it could also be a hermeneutical difference or a misunderstood tone in a Facebook post. More often than not, at this point, it is probably a simple misunderstanding that could be easily cleared up if we would just communicate instead of gossiping to others and blowing things way out of proportion.
2. It starts with the offended confronting the offender
Matthew 18:15 is pretty clear on this as well, which i touched on slightly above. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”
Before anyone else is told about a person’s feelings toward a certain individual, the one who was offended must “in private” rebuke the offender. The hope and prayer is that reconciliation and forgiveness will happen at this point.
3. It continues by the offended taking others to again confront the offender
Jesus goes on in Matthew 18:16. “But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established.”
If the offender won’t listen to the offended party, then the offended party is to take others with him/her in order to confront the offender. Perhaps the offender says, “I wasn’t sinning,” and the offended person disagrees; or perhaps the offender says, “I refuse to repent of that sin,” and the offended person wants others to help try to “win the brother.” Either way, the goal is reconciliation and hopefully the added people will help to bring about such reconciliation.
4. This second step should root out non-sin issues
Facts are very important in this second step. Jesus says in 18:16, “But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established.“
If the issue that the offender is being confronted on is not a sin, but the offended one could not be convinced of this on his/her own, then having other people there should help to clarify for the offended one, “This is a personal preference, and instead of the offender repenting, you should check your pride and quickness to accuse.” However, the way people work is that they go to their closest friends to say, “Such and such sinned against me.” They then naturally side with their friend, and it causes the situation to get even more heated. This is why Jesus also added a third step.
5. It culminates in the offended taking the issue to the church
In Matthew 18:17a, Jesus gives the third step for this process. “If he pays no attention to them, tell the church.”
If the sole offended party can’t change the offender’s mind, and if taking fellow believers is unsuccessful as well, then Christ commands that the issue be brought before the whole church. This is necessary, because if the church to be a unified body, then it must work through its differences, and in this chapter Christ gives a step-by-step method for settling those differences. Since Christ gave this step-by-step method, it should never go to the whole church (or even to the leadership of the church) before the individual parties have conversed. (See my disclaimer at the end for a valid exception to this “rule.”)
6. The church leadership should have the discernment to differentiate between sin and preference
As i mentioned above, in Matthew 18:17a, Jesus gave the third step for this process. “If he pays no attention to them, tell the church.” This broad plea for repentance from more than just the offended individual’s closest friends–and especially the leaders of the church–should keep non-sin issues from escalating to the final step.
A local church as a whole–especially (at least) its leaders–should have the spiritual discernment to see the difference between a sin and a disagreement. If someone posts memes on Facebook, that is no reason to accuse them of dividing the church. If someone posts evangelistic posts on Facebook, that is no reason to accuse them of trying to divide the church. If someone lovingly sticks up for their close friend to fellow church members, that is no reason to accuse them of being prideful. The leadership of a church should be discerning enough to see through these types of foolish misunderstandings.
7. If church is ignored, excommunication results for the offender
The whole of Matthew 18:17 gives the end result of someone who is in sin who refuses to repent even after the whole church has pleaded for repentance. “If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.”
All Jesus specifically says here is, “let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.” Tax collectors were the worst of the worst in their time, and to be treated like a tax collector was to be shunned and avoided. To give a Scriptural example of someone being removed from the church, Paul gives a great example in 1 Corinthians 5. I have quoted the whole chapter below:
1 Corinthians 5:1-13 (HCSB)
It is widely reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and the kind of sexual immorality that is not even ⌊tolerated⌋ among the Gentiles—a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are inflated with pride, instead of filled with grief so that he who has committed this act might be removed from your ⌊congregation⌋. For though I am absent in body but present in spirit, I have already decided about the one who has done this thing as though I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus with my spirit and with the power of our Lord Jesus, turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old yeast or with the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. For what ⌊business⌋ is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves.
Those who persist in sin must be put out of the church.
8. Reconciliation is the goal of this process
We must remember the primary goal for the whole process. Matthew 18:15 closes by saying, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother.”
The goal of the process is to have our fellow believers restored to fellowship with us. One easy way for this to occur is for believers to be quick to forgive. We must remember Jesus’ conversation with Peter in Matthew 18:21-22 (right after the discussion on discipline): “Then Peter came to Him and said, ‘Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ ‘I tell you, not as many as seven,’ Jesus said to him, ‘but 70 times seven. ‘”
How different would our churches look if we didn’t jump on each other over foolish misunderstandings, but were rather quick to forgive? If we didn’t complain to our pastors instead of confronting our fellow believers when they are “in sin,” but were rather quick to forgive? If we gave people the benefit of the doubt and forgave them?
9. Shunning is never the result of this process
Let’s say reconciliation doesn’t happen prior to someone being removed from the church. What then? Do we pretend we don’t know that person any more? Do we gloat over the fact that they are clearly not a believer? Absolutely not!
Many commentators even believe that Paul later speaks of the man from 1 Corinthians 5. In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 he writes,
If anyone has caused pain, he has caused pain not so much to me but to some degree—not to exaggerate—to all of you. The punishment ⌊inflicted⌋ by the majority is sufficient for that person. As a result, you should instead forgive and comfort him. Otherwise, this one may be overwhelmed by excessive grief. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. I wrote for this purpose: to test your character ⌊to see⌋ if you are obedient in everything. If you forgive anyone, I do too. For what I have forgiven—if I have forgiven anything—it is for you in the presence of Christ. ⌊I have done this⌋ so that we may not be taken advantage of by Satan. For we are not ignorant of his schemes.
If reconciliation and forgiveness truly is the goal, then we MUST seek reconciliation and forgiveness for those we excommunicate. In a very practical sense, when we excommunicate someone from the church, we are–in effect–saying, “You are my number one evangelism target!” To do any less is to be inconsistent.
If we are offended that people are perishing in their sins but we refuse to seek out those whom we “know” are not believers, we are basically–pridefully–saying, “I’m better than that person, and I hope they burn in hell.” This is a terribly wrong attitude to adopt toward any human being, especially someone who was once in your church.
10. This is mandatory for Biblical church discipline
With all of that said, this is what church discipline must look like, or your church is not actually practicing biblical church discipline regardless of their claims to the contrary. Three things must be kept in mind for our church discipline to be biblical:
- Reconciliation is the goal
Reconciliation is the ultimate goal. We should never engage in church discipline or something that feels like or looks like church discipline for the sake of winning an argument or being right. The goal is to “win your brother (or sister).”
- The process steps should not be skipped
The steps must be followed. To skip the steps is to be a coward and hide behind other people. It is also to make your pastors even more busy than they already are. Plus, we should never jump to the third step of discipline before the offender knows who the offended party actually is.
- Even if excommunicated, repentance is hope and must be pursued!
Finally, repentance must be pursued and preached to those who have been excommunicated. To do any less is to not be loving. We are to be the most loving people in existence. We are to be more forgiving than anyone else on earth. We are to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth; if we can’t share it with Jimmy down the street who was kicked out of church over unrepentance for a sin, then how can we expect to share it with Jali who lives 20,000 miles away?
Well, that’s about all that i have. Let’s all do church discipline rightly, root out sinless discipline topics, and seek reconciliation and repentance regardless of the stage to which the discipline has progressed.
I love you
Soli Deo Gloria
(Disclaimer: this is a general understanding, primarily aimed at the non-sin disagreements. If an abusive relationship or something is under consideration, private confrontation would not be the wise course of action.)