Though church discipline is a very difficult area of doctrine and one hard to practice, it nevertheless rests upon the divine authority of Scripture and is vital to the purity, power, progress, and purpose of the church. The responsibility and necessity for discipline is not an option for the church if it obeys the Word of God, but a church must be equally concerned that Scripture is carefully followed in the practice of church discipline. The following summary is suggested for study and as a guide for this very important area of doctrine.
of Discipline Defined
R.C. Sproul writes, “The church is called not only to a ministry of reconciliation, but a ministry of nurture to those within her gates. Part of that nurture includes church discipline . . .”1 The idea of church discipline is totally consistent with the basic purposes of the church—evangelism and edification. Evangelism ministers to those without the church who are in bondage to sin to bring them to faith in Christ where the transformation process begins. The edification process is designed to build up believers so they can be conformed to the image and character of Christ. Church discipline as a part of the edification process ministers to those within the body of Christ who are dominated by some area of sin so they can experience liberation from its power through fellowship with Christ.
How then do we define church discipline? Carl Laney states, “Church discipline may be broadly defined as the confrontive and corrective measures taken by an individual, church leaders, or the congregation regarding a matter of sin in the life of a believer.”2
Discipline in the church is not punishment. It is discipline and discipline is designed to train and restore.
and Basis for Discipline
(1) The discipline of the church is first patterned after the fact that the Lord Himself disciplines His children (Heb. 12:6) and, as a father delegates part of the discipline of the children to the mother, so the Lord has delegated the discipline of the church family to the church itself (1 Cor. 5:12-13; 2 Cor. 2:6).
(2) Discipline is further based on the holy character of God (1 Pet. 1:16; Heb. 12:11). The pattern of God’s holiness—His desire for the church to be holy, set apart unto Him—is an important reason for the necessity of church discipline. The church is therefore to clean out the leaven of malice and wickedness from its ranks (1 Cor. 5:6-8). A failure to exercise discipline in the church evidences a lack of awareness of and concern for the holiness of God.
(3) Church discipline is to be patterned after and based on the divine commands of Scripture (1 Cor. 4:6). We have numerous passages of Scripture which both command and give us God’s directives on the how, why, when, and where of church discipline. Again, a failure to exercise this responsibility demonstrates a lack of obedience and belief in the authority of the Bible (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Matt. 18:17-18; Titus 3:10; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:20; Gal. 6:1).
(4) Another basis for the necessity of church discipline is the testimony of the church in the world (1 Pet. 4:13-19). The world observes the behavior and life of the church. When the church acts no differently than the world, it loses its credibility and authenticity (1 Pet. 2:11-18; 3:8-16; 4:1-4).
of Church Discipline
(1) To bring glory to God and enhance the testimony of the flock.
(2) To restore, heal, and build up sinning believers (Matt. 18:15; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; Heb. 12:10-13; Gal. 6:1-2; Jam. 5:20).
(3) To produce a healthy faith, one sound in doctrine (Tit. 1:13; 1 Tim. 1:19-20).
(4) To win a soul to Christ, if the sinning person is only a professing Christian (2 Tim. 2:24-26).
(5) To silence false teachers and their influence in the church (Tit. 1:10-11).
(6) To set an example for the rest of the body and promote godly fear (1 Tim. 5:20).
(7) To protect the church against the destructive consequences that occur when churches fail to carry out church discipline. A church that fails to exercise discipline experiences four losses:
- The Loss of Purity: Church discipline is vital to the purity of the local body and its protection from moral decay and impure doctrinal influences. Why? Because a little leaven leavens the entire lump (1 Cor. 5:6-7). This is the “rotten apple” problem or the “snowball” effect.
An illustration of this is the Corinthian church which showed a lack of concern for purity. They neglected the responsibility to discipline and suffered as a result. Their insensitivity to one moral issue may have led to their compromise on other issues. Laney writes, “The Corinthians engaged in lawsuits, misused their liberty, profaned the Lord’s Supper, neglected the primacy of love, failed to regulate the use of their gifts, and questioned the resurrection.”3 Failure in church discipline in Corinth could be compared to a snowball tumbling downhill.
- The Loss of Power: Sin in the life of the church grieves the person of the Holy Spirit and quenches His power. If sin remains unchecked by the loving application of church discipline in a body of believers, the Holy Spirit must abandon such a church to its own carnal resources. The unavoidable result will be the loss of the Lord’s blessing until the sin is dealt with.
The defeat of Israel because of the sin of Achan in Joshua 7 illustrates the principle. This is just as true for the church today, especially when we know certain things exist but ignore them or simply look the other way because it is difficult to deal with or because it involves one of our friends and we do not want to risk causing problems in the relationship.
- The Loss of Progress: A church that refuses to practice church discipline will see its ministry decline. The church may want to grow and reach out and it may try all kinds of stop gap measures, promotional campaigns, and programs in an attempt to turn things around, but if there is sin in the camp, it will all be to no avail. See Revelation 2:5 and 3:16 for illustrations of this principle.
- The Loss of Purpose: As His ambassadors to a lost and dying world, God has called the church to be a holy people, a people who, standing out as distinct from the world, proclaim the excellencies of the works of God in Christ (1 Pet. 1:14-16; 2:9-15). If this is to occur, we must be different from the world and church discipline helps us to both remember and maintain that purpose. One of the recurring judgments against the church today as demonstrated in various polls taken across the country is the fact there is little or no difference between the church and the secular world when it comes to attitudes, values, morals, and lifestyle. We have lost our sense of purpose.
of Church Discipline
The above goals or purposes automatically govern the spirit in which all disciplinary action is to be given. Thus:
(1) Discipline must be done by those who are spiritual, truly walking by the Holy Spirit and growing in the Lord (Gal. 6:1).
(2) Discipline must be done in a spirit of humility, gentleness and patience, looking to ourselves lest we too be tempted (Gal. 6:1-2; 2 Tim. 2:24-25).
(3) Discipline must be done without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality (1 Tim. 5:21).
(4) Those who walk disorderly are to be admonished, warned, and appealed to in love (1 Thess. 5:14-15; 1 Tim. 5:1-2; Eph. 4:15; 2 Tim. 4:2). This admonishing, is not restricted to church leaders, but may be done by any person in the body with another if that person is Spirit controlled and spiritually minded (cf. 1 Thess. 5:14 with Gal. 6:1).
(5) If there is no response in repentance and obedience, then the sinning believer is to be rebuked publicly and members of the body are to withhold intimate fellowship through the process and procedure of group disapproval and social ostracism as prescribed in the next section, Procedures for Church Discipline below (2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Tit. 3:10; 1 Tim. 5:20). This action has a two-fold objective:
- It is to indicate to the offender that his/her action has dishonored the Lord and has caused a rupture in the harmony of the body. The goal is always restoration and the person is still to be counted as a brother (2 Thess. 3:14-15).
- It is to create fear in the rest of the flock as a warning against sin (1 Tim. 5:20).
(6) If there is still no response in repentance and obedience, the church is to apply the procedures of excommunication as directed in Matthew 18:17.
Several examples of church discipline are found in Scripture. The Corinthian believers were to be “gathered together” in order to take action against the offending brother (1 Cor. 5:4-5; Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Phil. 3:17-19).
This is defined by Paul as “punishment inflicted by the majority” (2 Cor. 2:6). As a protective measure, we also find that the whole church in Rome and in Thessalonica were to take action with regard to the unruly and schismatic, not just a few (2 Thess. 3:6-15; Rom. 16:17).
(7) Finally, discipline in the name of our Lord always includes a readiness to forgive. The many or majority who discipline must also be ready and eager to forgive, comfort, and reaffirm their love to the sinning person (2 Cor. 2:6-8). (See Procedures for Church Discipline below.)
Reasons for Church Discipline
In church discipline we must exercise extreme care. Scripture does not warrant the exercise of discipline for an individual’s or a church’s taboos or pet peeves—the “dirty dozen” or the “nasty nine.” Scripture, not our opinions or dislikes, must be the guide for what is sin. Further, we must not become hypercritical or “speck inspectors.”
(1) General Causes: Disorderly conduct, conduct clearly out of line with the prescribed commands of Scripture and which negatively impacts the testimony and unity of the church (2 Thess. 3:6-15).
(2) Specific Causes:
- Difficulties between members (Matt. 18:15-17).
- Divisive or factious people causing divisions in the church (Rom. 16:17-18; Titus 3:9-11).
- Immoral conduct; sins of the type mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5 such as incest, immorality, covetousness, idolatry, abusive speech, drunkenness, swindling, or idle busybodies who refuse to work and run around spreading dissension (1 Cor. 5:1, 11; 2 Thess. 3:10-15).
- False teaching; erroneous teaching and views which concern the fundamentals of the faith and not lesser differences of interpretation (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; also implied in Rev. 2:14-16; Phil. 3:2-3, 15-19; Rom. 16:17-18).
The key concerns that guide us in this are: (a) the holy character of God, (b) the testimony of the flock, (c) the effect upon the unity and purity of the flock, and (d) the edification and restoration of the individual.
for Church Discipline
The scriptural procedure is clear and specific steps are prescribed as follows:
If you see the offense or you have accurate knowledge of the sin(s), please note these cautions:
- Be sure it is an offense which calls for discipline and not merely one of our pet peeves. Again, the Word must be our criterion.
- Remember how we too have sinned in the past and heed the warnings of Galatians 6:1.
- Bring the matter before the Lord in prayer before the confrontation takes place (1 Sam. 8:6).
- Don’t procrastinate. The longer the delay, the more difficult the condition can become. Remember the consequences listed above.
- Don’t gossip or even talk to others about it in the sense of Matthew 18:16 until you have talked to the sinning believer privately. We must guard and protect the person and the flock from rumors and a slanderous tongue (Prov. 6:19b; 10:19; 11:13; 18:8, 21; 20:19).
First, seek private correction and/or reconciliation with the offender (Matt. 18:15). In Matthew 18:15 many manuscripts have “and if your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private.”
There has been no little debate as to whether the words “against you” are part of the original manuscripts. The words “against me” in verse 21 may have led a scribe or copyist to personalize the matter in verse 15. Or, one could argue the omission was deliberate in order to generalize the passage. While some important manuscript tradition lacks the words “against you,” many feel there is good evidence for their originality. First, the words, “reprove him in private,” and second, the question of Peter in verse 21 about forgiving a brother who sins “against me” suggests their inclusion.
Whether the words “against you” were in the original text or not, Galatians 6:1 teaches that believers have a responsibility to confront sin in general in the life of other believers and not just when it is an offense against one’s person. It would seem, then that there is a two-fold application:
(1) When the problem involves one believer sinning against another, there are two problems that need to be taken care of: reconciliation and restoration (Matt. 5:23-24).
(2) When the problem involves a believer overcome in or by some sin, as was the case in Galatians 6:1, the need is restoration.
Matthew 18:16-17 should not be limited to the problem of one believer sinning against another in view of Galatians 6:1. So, the one offended or who recognizes the offense or sin is to go privately and try to rectify the problem.
Please note these guidelines:
(1) Begin by expressing your genuine appreciation for the person and their good qualities to show you are genuinely concerned about their welfare. Then and only then bring up the matter which is of concern.
(2) In some situations the sin is apparent and there is no question, but we must allow for the possibility that we have misjudged or have wrong information. We must listen to the other person’s side of the story and seek the facts in the interest of truth and fairness.
(3) If the person fails to respond, warn them that, according to the instructions of Scripture (Matt. 18:16), you will have to get others as witnesses and return with them to deal with the problem.
If the first step fails, take witnesses to strengthen the effect of the discipline, preferably spiritual leaders, so that if it has to be brought before the whole church it can be firmly proven and established (Matt. 18:16-17; 1 Tim. 5:19). The aid of church leadership should be sought if the problem involves an offense that is against the whole body or if it is a threat to the unity of the body.
These initial contacts, private and with witnesses, provide opportunity for loving admonition, correction, and forgiveness. On the other hand, if these first steps do not produce results, it constitutes a warning that further action will be taken and provides occasion for serious rebuke (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:12-13; Titus 2:15; 3:10).
If the second step fails, seek reconciliation and restoration through the whole body. If further action is necessary, it is to be taken before the whole church (2 Thess. 3:14-15; Matt. 18:17; 1 Tim. 5:20).
This action appears to fall into two stages when we combine 2 Thessalonians 3:14 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 with Matthew 18:17.
(1) The body is to exercise group disapproval by way of social ostracism (refusal to have intimate fellowship).
(2) If this doesn’t work, the local body of believers is to exercise excommunication: removal from church membership, loss of voting privileges, and continuation of the loss of intimate fellowship. This must be approved of and done by the entire congregation (2 Cor. 2:6).
This is, in essence, the Lord carrying out discipline through the action of the entire body under the leadership of the elders or the spiritually mature (1 Cor. 5:4). Similar heavenly authority is seen in the ratification of this disciplinary action as spelled out in Matthew 18:18-19.
Procedures for Restoration
In keeping with the goal of restoration, the role of the church must change after there is repentance. This means accepting the person and forgetting the past (2 Cor. 2:7a).
But how do we know when repentance is genuine? What is our responsibility when the sinning party acknowledges their wrong and claims repentance? The following two passages answer this for us.
Luke 3:8, when they “. . . bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance.”
Acts 26:20, “. . . that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.”
Genuine repentance will make itself evident by its deeds and attitudes. The repentant person will:
(1) Freely acknowledge his sin (1 Jn. 1:9; Prov. 28:13a).
(2) Cease the activity for which he was disciplined or at least seek help if it’s a case of life dominating patterns (Prov. 28:13b; Gal. 6:1f; Jam. 5:19-20).
(3) Make restitution and/or ask for forgiveness from those hurt as it is applicable (Phil. 18-19; Matt. 5:23-24).
(4) He/she will demonstrate a genuine change of heart, a real concern and godly sorrow over his actions, not in order to be forgiven, but because of the harm caused to the glory of God and the hurt caused others (2 Cor. 7:8-11; Ps. 51:17).
(5) He/she will begin to manifest the fruit of the Spirit and a concern for the things of Christ (Gal. 5:22f).
This means reaching out to them, assuring them of your support, and encouraging, exhorting, and challenging them to move on (2 Cor. 2:7b).
This means including them, drawing them close, doing for them that which will aid their growth and complete recovery (2 Cor. 2:8). This would include encouraging them to get involved in ministry (Luke 22:31-32). For positions of leadership, there should be a time of testing to demonstrate their qualifications after the analogy of 1 Timothy 3:10.
For excellent and more complete studies on this subject, see (1) A Guide to Church Discipline, by Carl Laney, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1985, and (2) Healing the Wounded, The Costly Love of Church Discipline, by John White and Ken Blue, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1985.
1 R. C. Sproul, In Search of Dignity, Regal Books, 1983, p. 182.
2 Carl Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline, Bethany House Publishers, p. 14.
3 Ibid., p. 20.
What is Church Discipline & Restoration?: Theology, Philosophy & Practice at Fellowship
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Introduction: Discipline in Light of the Gospel
In the beginning, man and woman were created by God for His glory and for our greatest joy. By design, our greatest delight and truest satisfaction were to be found in trusting and treasuring God.
Though man was originally created good, the Scriptures reveal that he eventually and willingly rebelled against his Creator. Therefore, he has ever since suffered the consequences, condemnation and curses of what has been called “the fall.” This fall did not merely change mankind’s environment, but also his very essence. By this one original sin, the nature of humanity was altered, and we became sinners, natural enemies of God, predisposed to hate and rebel against Him. We were enslaved to the tyranny of sin and the death which it brings, and we were exposed to the just wrath of God.
Though man suppressed and exchanged true worship of the Creator for praise of created things, God’s plans to unite His glory and our joy were not thwarted at the fall. Rather, He has been patiently and purposefully working to restore what was broken. This restoration has been most clearly and fully revealed through the person and work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. In the perfect obedience of His life, His death for our sins, and His resurrection, Christ introduced reconciliation into the world. Through treasuring and trusting in His finished work, we once again have relationship with our Creator.
Though we who believe have experienced true redemption and reconciliation, the fullness of our hope awaits us in the future. We are longing for the promise of Christ’s return, our resurrection and the restoration of creation. Until then, we still struggle with the residue of our old self, the flesh. This struggle is not to be lived out alone, but rather in the context of community, particularly the local church. We are called by God to watch out for ourselves and those whom we love lest we be enticed by the deceitful promises of sin. We will never truly love discipline until we hate sin.
Love demands discipline. On a personal level, love for the Lord demands a response in which the desires of the flesh are slowly and methodically put to death. On the corporate level, love for the Lord and for His church requires a response in which sin is dealt with as God has intended. What loving parent would allow their child to play with fire? Would we expect anything different from our heavenly Father? (Col. 1:28-29)
Discipleship and the discipline through which it occurs is defined as maturity in Christ. This is accomplished primarily through teaching and warning. We might divide these two aspects of discipleship into two necessary components: those which are formative and those which are restorative.
- Formative discipline involves teaching, preaching, prayer, study, fasting and various other forms of engagement or abstinence to fill us with the Holy Spirit and remind us of 1) our ongoing need to repent and believe in the Gospel, and 2) its free provision to us through our faith in Christ.
- Restorative discipline occurs in the context of community and involves warnings, rebukes, exhortation and correction intending to prevent or to correct explicit, willful, unrepentant sin within the church.
Both are a means of training us toward our goal of maturity in Christ. Neither personal formative discipline nor corporate restorative discipline are easy or necessarily enjoyable at the time. However, both are means that God uses to shape us to become like Christ. We must be trained by discipline in order to grow into maturity.
The Scriptures are full of wisdom regarding discipline. The writer of Hebrews teaches us that God’s children are disciplined by Him in one form or another. Sometimes He sends tribulation and persecution or removes worldly comforts to foster humility, holiness and faith in us. Sometimes He disciplines through the work of the local church. It is this context of corporate discipline in the local church body with which this document is concerned. Therefore, the term “church discipline” will include the various steps of the community of faith coming alongside a professing believer to exhort, encourage, warn and rebuke him in loving hope for his or her restoration and movement toward Christian maturity.
Our hope, however, is that formative discipline through the work of the Holy Spirit will keep us from the need for the restorative forms. Regardless of the form, we will certainly be disciplined and God will use it to accomplish His loving purposes. (Hebrews 12:5-11)
An Individual Calling
A significant part of the Christian life calls for the believer to be intentional, disciplined and self-controlled in seeking and submitting to the Lord through personal devotion and practice (Galatians 5:22-23; 2 Timothy 1:7). However, our flesh is opposed to our desire for holiness (Galatians 5:16-17), and we must therefore be diligent to fight the flesh by walking in the Spirit (Romans 8:12-14) as children of God. By His grace, we can grow in our ability to live by faith through the Spirit’s sanctifying work (1 Peter 1:2) as we relate to God and others through the realities of life.
A Corporate Calling
Given the deceitfulness of sin, all of us need the most basic level of church discipline that involves our brothers and sisters speaking truth in love to us (Ephesians 4:15, 29) because we are often blind to our own sinfulness (Matthew 7:3-5). We need one another to believe and live out the gospel—this is God’s design. Every church member is called to exercise their individual gifts to build up the body in love (1 Corinthians 12). Every member is called to labor and struggle with all energy to help one another in the church to grow in conformity to Christ (Colossians 1:28-29). This corporate calling is overseen through the shepherding and spiritual authority of the overseers of the local church, the elders (1 Peter 5:2).
Our call to live out the gospel takes place within the realm of spiritual warfare. The kingdom of evil is ever-present and always working against the kingdom of God. The difficulties we face in life are ultimately “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) and seeks to keep us living in fear and not by faith. Therefore, we need to love one another through encouragement, rebuke and correction since we are all prone to wander from our God.
The Context of Discipline
The situations addressed in this statement are those of explicit, willful, unrepentant sin. Far too often individuals and churches engage in the disciplinary process in situations where the issue is not willfully unrepentant sinful behavior. This must not be the case. However, we must not let the fact that some would misappropriate Scripture to distract us from our responsibility to apply it as the Lord has directed.
This distinction between dealing with issues of preference and those of unrepentant sin is made explicit in Romans 14:10 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 where Paul’s admonitions appear contradictory. In Romans 14, Paul writes that we should not judge our brothers. In 1 Corinthians 5, he writes that we should judge our brothers. Given that Scripture is not self-contradictory, we know that Paul’s inspired interpretation of events must reflect differing circumstances.
The contexts of both passages clearly indicate that the situations are quite distinct. Romans 14 is dealing with principles of preference while 1 Corinthians 5 is dealing with that which has been clearly revealed as unrepentant sin. This distinction must be maintained in the way in which individuals and Fellowship Bible Church interpret and apply Scripture today. The issues with which this paper will be concerned are those of explicit, willful, unrepentant sin, not preference or conscience.
The Purpose of Discipline
Why should the church engage in corporate discipline? Five reasons stand out as most pertinent:
We love the Lord
Our God is a holy God whose eyes can look on no evil (Habakkuk 1:13). Though none of us will fully comprehend the Lord this side of glory, we recognize that our love for Him is informed by our understanding of who He is. We cannot love Him Whom we do not know. Part of the call to love God is to abhor that which is opposed to Him. Failure to fully appreciate the utter horror of sin is evidence of an incomplete understanding of the holiness of God.
Sin is a horrid thing. Through just one sin death, depravity, corruption and disease have reigned upon the earth for thousands of years. It always has devastating effects and all of us constantly live in that awareness.
As believers, we have great hope in no longer being enslaved to sin or its curse. We have been granted liberty through the free gift of God’s grace. However, this liberty does not grant us license to sin. Rather, those who have tasted of the grace of God should be all the more adamant to oppose the sinful flesh. While we recognize that we will not see perfection until Christ returns, such acknowledgment should not lull us into an apathetic view of sin. Ultimately sin must become bitter to us because our sin necessitated the death of our savior, Jesus Christ – we were bought with a price, the blood of the spotless lamb. (1 Cor. 6:20, 1 Peter 1:18-19)
The church must recover a healthy view of the holiness of God and our responsibility to flee from our natural passions and desires. We would do well to remember the many admonitions of Hebrews to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1), and to “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.” (Hebrews 3:12), and to realize that “any one of you may seem to have come short of it…Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:1, 11)
We do not believe that any true believer can ultimately fall away from God’s grace. However, we must also confess that there exists the very real possibility that some will find false assurance of salvation. This is surely terrifying. (Hebrews 10:26-31)
These texts are not intended to relegate believers to perpetual fear, but rather to rouse the sluggish and undisciplined from their slumber. If a so-called believer is engaged in willful, persistent and unrepentant sin, the Scriptures say that his honest expectation should be judgment and punishment. That does not mean that he will receive such, for all true believers will ultimately persevere, but it does mean that he or she has no evidence upon which to base his or her claims of safety. Unrepentant sin in the believer must be dealt with by repentance. Failure to repent might be evidence of an unregenerate heart which is unable to turn from sin (Hebrews 12:15-17). Love for God demands the desire to be made holy in the image of Christ. (Romans 8:29)
We Love our Members
The motivation behind church discipline should always be the hope of the restoration of the wayward brother or sister. Discipline is not the end, but rather is the means to the expected end of repentance and reconciliation in the life of the true believer. (James 5:19-20)
In loving our brethren, we must remember to allow the Scriptures to define the means and manners of our love. While our culture might tell us that acceptance is love, the Scriptures are clear that true love means a call to holiness and life through the gospel of Jesus Christ. (1 John 5:2)
Attempting to love in a way that neglects Scripture not only evidences a lack of faith in Scripture and the Author of such Scripture, but also an ignorance as to the meaning of genuine love for the brother or sister. We must love in a way that is consistent with the biblical revelation. The Lord created the method of church discipline as His intended means of sanctifying the church and her individual members. This is how He intends to sanctify His people and therefore failure on our part to carry out His desires is decidedly unloving. Love for each member demands that we engage in discipline for their good and not let them sit idly in their willful, unrepentant sin and pretend as if nothing is wrong. (Galatians 6:1, 2 Corinthians 7:8-13)
We Love His Church
Not only are we called to love our individual members, but also to love the whole assembly who gather together in the name of the Lord. To allow for unrepentant and persistent sin to leaven the congregation should certainly be a concern which drives and informs our decisions in church discipline. (1 Corinthians 5:1-13) Love for the church demands that we discipline ourselves for the sake of purity.
We Love Non-Believers
Those who profess belief in Christ and yet continue in unrepentant sin misrepresent the nature of grace and the very faith that they claim. We want non-believers to know that the Christian faith does not merely gloss over hypocrisy and pretending. We take seriously the calls of our Lord. (Romans 6:1-4)
We Love the Scriptures
As we will discuss in the following sections, the Lord has specifically revealed the method through which the church is expected to deal with sin in its body. Failing to obey God’s commands is sin. We must be careful lest we ourselves fall into sin merely by allowing others to engage in it. (Psalm 119:9-16 and I Timothy 3:16) Love for the Scriptures demands that we discipline in accordance with its instructions.
Fellowship Membership Commitment
The membership process at Fellowship includes the signing of our Membership Commitment. This commitment outlines the respective responsibilities of elders and members toward the church body. Particularly relevant are the following responsibilities:
- To care for the church and seek her growth in grace, truth and love (Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 1:28).
- To restore lovingly through a process of church discipline and restoration those ensnared by sin, for the glory of God and the health of the church as a whole (Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1).
- To submit to the discipline of God through His Holy Spirit by following the biblical process for church discipline where sin is evident in another with the hope that such discipline will result in repentance and restoration. This includes receiving righteous and loving discipline when approached biblically by fellow believers (Psalm 141:5; Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13; Hebrews 12:5-11).
- Submit to discipline & restoration by the church when ensnared in sin (Matt. 18:15- 20; 1 Cor. 5:1-5). • To submit to the elders and other appointed leaders of the church and be diligent to strive for unity and peace within the Church (Ephesians 4:1-3; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5).
- To submit to the authority of the Scriptures as the final arbiter on all issues (Psalm 119; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21).
Given that these responsibilities in the Scriptures are applicable to all believers, Fellowship Bible Church will reserve the right to exercise loving discipline outside of its official membership for those who regularly attend.
Practicing Church Discipline at Fellowship
Fellowship Bible Church believes that the only way to deal with sin and love the sinner is through the means revealed in Scripture. Our desire to obey the Lord thus necessitates that we follow His Word.
Therefore, discipline in the life of Fellowship Bible Church will follow the steps outlined in Table 1 – The Steps and Dynamics of Church Discipline at FBC. Except in rather extreme and extenuating circumstances (e.g. an abused child would not have to privately confront his or her abuser in order to facilitate the first step of discipline), the process should be followed with faithfulness and expectation of God’s Spirit to work through His intended means.
Members of Fellowship are expected to follow the biblical process of discipline as outlined in this paper. Therefore, the first step in instances of overt sin should be a private meeting to express concerns and correct any misunderstandings. We cannot stress strongly enough the need for confidentiality. Our practice as a church is to keep the group of people involved in a discipline process as small as possible for as long as possible.
In the event that the sinning brother or sister is unrepentant, members are encouraged to ask a witness to accompany him or her for another meeting. If this too fails, the member is then asked to contact a pastor at Fellowship for further instructions on the church’s response. Functionally, the 3rd and 4th steps of the process will be carried out in the presence of two or more recognized pastors, at least one of whom being an elder.
While we never hope to need to arrive at these final steps, we fully believe that engaging in such is the best way to love a wayward brother or sister. Therefore, we will unapologetically obey the Scriptures as they apply in such instances. While such action may rail against our ideas of love and compassion, we trust that God will ultimately show Himself faithful and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
Practicing Church Restoration at Fellowship
When a member has confessed their sin and demonstrated genuine repentance, it then becomes necessary to set in motion a plan for restoration. (2 Cor 2:5-8) This plan will be put in writing for the sake of clarity. FBC Pastors and Elders are typically involved in this process that includes the following steps:
- Setting expectations regarding the terms of restoration, the process and the resultant outcomes, the long-term effects and implications including any resultant disqualification from future ministry. It is important that others affected by the sin be involved and informed throughout the process. Where the sin is against another person, their cooperation and involvement is necessary. Particularly in marital situations, the spouse needs to be engaged through the process.
- Establishing a willingness to submit to accountability for the purpose of active repentance, pursuing restoration, and seeking godly counsel and submitting to authority. In each situation the specifics of how this is accomplished will vary.
- Forming a restoration team to assist in the process of restoration with Elder and Pastor team leadership, oversight, and accountability. The team of 3-4 members will be chosen from the person’s established community or known relationships who are committed to the restoration process and able to give time attention to this person and assess credible progress.
The purpose of the restoration team is to provide accountability and encouragement. This group may not be qualified to offer the kind of counseling that may be necessary. In some situations, it may be necessary to secure professional counseling for the individual and those directly affected by their sin. Where finances may be an impediment to receiving counseling, Fellowship will provide assistance through its benevolence fund.
Finally, there should be a time for follow up and evaluation. This could be a great time to celebrate with the one who has been restored and help them see and appreciate all that God has done in their life. God has done incredible things among Fellowship members who have participated in the restoration process. We highly encourage it in order to actively experience the Gospel and His grace in seemingly impossible sin situations.
A Need for Humility
God’s word has ordained the discipline of believers as a means He uses for the building up of the saints. But we must confess that at times the church has failed to undertake this responsibility with a spirit of humility appropriate for fellow sinners who are equally in need of God’s grace. The way in which we have interacted with those ensnared in sin has at times been hurtful and has driven them from us rather than creating in them a thirst to be reconciled to us. For that we are truly heartbroken and cry out to God in our own need for forgiveness. Whenever we engage in church discipline we would be mindful to remember the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14, where our Lord reminded us that it was the brokenness and cry for mercy of the tax collector that revealed true righteousness, not the religious boastings of the Pharisee.
Exercising church discipline is a burden for the believer that is meant to sacrificially serve other believers. It is a burden that we cannot carry in our flesh, but must be carried by the Spirit of Christ in us who makes all burdens light. If we exercise discipline in keeping with the Holy Spirit, those ensnared by sin will be drawn to Him who is in us. If we exercise discipline in our flesh, they will be wounded and repulsed by us.
Thank you to The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas for their diligence in pursuing this topic so thoroughly and for allowing us to incorporate their material as a part of this document.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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