What we get wrong about church discipline

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Over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of stories come to light about evangelical churches practicing “shunning” as part of church discipline. This typically happens as part of the final stage of church discipline, when a congregation member persists in unrepentant sin is excommunicated—and then cut off socially, with friends (and sometimes family!) actively distancing themselves socially.

And herein lies the problem.

The key passages on church discipline

There are a few key passages of the New Testament that describe church discipline, the most famous being Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13:

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. 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. 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. (Matthew 18:15-17)

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 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. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

The first deals with personal sin in general, while the second deals explicitly with sexual immorality (specifically, a church member who was having [a possibly incestuous, but regardless incredibly icky] adultery with his father’s wife).

There is a simple point here: habitual, unrepentant sin in all its forms should not associated with the people of God. Whether someone is a perpetual gossip, slanderer, malcontent, fornicator or adulterer, these things should not be known of among us, at least, not if we are to be people who are above reproach.

About the gentile and the tax collector…

But notice, something else, something very important that we see in Matthew 18:17: “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

What Jesus says here is what is so often missed in our approach to church discipline (or more correctly, in the approaches of certain mega-churches): we forget that we have an active role to play in the offender’s restoration. We are called to pursue them with the gospel.

Before going further, I want to be 100 per cent clear: I am absolutely for church discipline, provided the way we handle it is biblical.

So consider Jesus for a moment. During His earthly ministry, we find numerous occasions where Jesus commends the Gentile’s faith, rather than the Israelite’s. Among them, the Syrophonecian woman (Mark 7:24-30), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-45), and the official at Capernum (John 4:46-54). And among the tax collectors, we see no less than two breathtaking examples of repentance, including the apostle Matthew (9:9-13), and Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). In both instances, Jesus makes it very clear: His mission is to seek and save the lost. He does not pursue the righteous but sinners to repentance.

In other words, in church discipline we are to treat unrepentant offenders as though they are not believers. Which necessarily means we are called to share the gospel with them. 

Restorative and evangelistic[1. I’ve updated this section in order to (hopefully) add clarity.]

And yet, it seems we’ve forgotten this. Instead of pursuing those who have been “handed over to Satan” with the gospel, we entirely ostracize them. We are right to not permit them to serve in the church, to bar them from taking communion and no longer recognize their profession of faith as genuine until proven otherwise. But, we may go further in our application of this than Scripture does in the way many churches cut off contact.

Again, to be clear: we must be absolutely committed to the purity of the Church. All who continually besmirch the name of Christ through their ongoing, unrepentant sin should be dealt with appropriately. But we still face a tension: without compromising the purity of the body, we need to consider how we pursue these people evangelistically.

Yes, they are to be cut off from fellowship, as Paul says—but we also need to show fearful mercy to someone continues in sin, even as we carefully protect the purity of the Church—we are called to both reprove and exhort. We tear down pride with the Word and build up in humility. This is what Jude stresses in the final verses of his epistle when he writes, “have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23).

Thwarting the schemes of the devil

We are not alone in our goofing on this. It seems the Corinthians fell into the same trap. Prior to writing 2 Corinthians, word came to Paul that while the church had, largely, repented of their rebellion against Paul and apostolic teaching, they had not reconciled with the one who was responsible for the rebellion. And so, Paul encouraged them to forgive and be reconciled.

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. (2 Corinthians 2:5-11)

“Reaffirm your love for him,” he wrote, “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan.” There is nothing the devil loves more than to mar the name of the church. And when we handle discipline wrongly—when we fail to pursue those who persist in unrepentant sin with the gospel and welcome those who have turned away from their sin back—we are undone. The devil “wins”.

So yes, let’s practice church discipline, biblically. Let’s also make sure our practice includes the earnest pursuit of those in sin with the gospel, so that they might come to repentance and fellowship can be restored.

 

Posted by Aaron Armstrong

Aaron is the author of several books including the Big Truths Bible Storybook, Epic Devotions, Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty, and Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World. His next book, published by Lexham Press, will release in Spring 2023.

Reader interactions

9 Replies to “What we get wrong about church discipline”

  1. Really liked your post – well thought through. In the past I’ve been involved in 2 cases of church discipline, neither of which we handled perfectly, and both of which ended with the person in question voluntarily leaving the church (albeit before they had been asked to, but decided to do so rather than continue in what they felt was an unjust process).

    I spent some time during the 2nd case reading “God Redeeming His Bride” by Robert Cheung (http://www.amazon.com/God-Redeeming-Bride-Robert-Cheong-ebook/dp/B00AQMNKF4/), although I confess it’s on my shelf somewhat unfinished. It had been recommended on one of the blogs I read. It really helped me to make sure that, during the process, my primary question was “How can I lead this person to repentance?” rather than “How can I protect my church from this person?”

    In response to one of the other commenters, I think that church leaders have a responsibility to recognise their position within the church global, and to be able to approach other church leaders if you feel there are unresolved issues that have led to a person move from your church to theirs – allowing people to simply walk away from their issues by moving from church to church is in no way helping them find their way to repentance.

  2. “In other words, in church discipline we are to treat unrepentant offenders as though they are not believers.”

    Aaron,
    Really puzzled by this conclusion when one of the very passages (I Cor. 5) you referenced makes a point of differentiating between our treatment of those in the world (non-believers) and “so-called” brothers (those who claim the name of Christ) who refuse to repent of revealed sin. That was the very point of the passage. The apostle Paul saying that he did not mean we are to not associate with those in the world who are guilty of such things, for that would mean we would need to go out of the world. He meant those “who bear the name brother”, if he is guilty, do not associate with him. Don’t even eat with such a one! Remove him from among you. “Purge” the evil person from among you. “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump” (vv. 7).

    Seems pretty clear to me there is a difference, and a pretty dramatic one at that.

    Not saying that we are not to pray for them and earnestly long for restoration. We certainly need to be
    responsive if and when they do repent. But they are claiming to be Christians and yet do not respond to the light that has been given them. At the point where they have refused “to listen even to the church”… at that point the Holy Spirit must do a work to convict them. And until repentance is in evidence… we know them by their fruit. We have our marching orders. I don’t see scripture instructing us to actively “pursue” them further.

    1. Thanks for this pushback, Doug. I’ve been re-reading the post and have made some edits to add clarity. Hopefully they help.

      1. Thanks Aaron, saw the changes. Appreciate your consideration. It is an important topic. God bless!

    2. I appreciate your blog Aaron.

      Along the lines of Doug I think you misread the text of Scripture especially if you interpret it in the light of 1 Cor 5. To suggest “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” just means add him to your list of candidates to evangelize is surely missing the force of the text. Jesus was going to dinner parties with Gentiles and tax collectors. So if the text means what you say it does then it basically means nothing. There really would not be much of a change of relationship. In 1 Cor 5 Paul, however, commands us not to associate with the someone who professes to be a brother but is immoral and he differentiates that with our relationships with the immoral who do not profess to be a brother. Surely the force of Jesus’ words is to treat the preson as the Jews of his day treated Gentiles and tax collectors, i.e. not to associate with them.

  3. Hi Aaron, great topic. It is one that is not talked about enough. However, I wonder about its impact especially here the Southern US. We have a church on every corner. If one church disciplines a member they just leave and go somewhere else.

    1. Yeah, that’s definitely one of the other issues. Even where I live (and really, almost any community in North America), this is a problem. It is far too easy for someone to hide from their sin, especially when no one holds you accountable (or in some cases, ever asks about your past).

  4. I only have one experience with this kind of thing – a church member being “shunned.” And I thought it was overly harsh until I knew the whole story. We were very surprised one day to find out that a friend, after going through the discipline process, had been asked to not return to our church. As it turns out, as a respected church member, he had been continually preying on young college girls who attended our church group, getting them drunk and assaulting them. (We had a very popular ministry that drew a lot of new college freshmen each week.) He later went to jail for this, and it’s worth noting that the police had also requested, before he was tried, that he not be allowed at our church, which had been his hunting ground. The individuals who were closest to him continued to reach out to him and visit him in prison, but he wasn’t to have contact with our young college group anymore. So, I guess my comment on this post is that, yes, we should continue to pursue those who need the gospel, but sometimes it’s appropriate for a select few to do the pursuing while protecting the rest of the congregation.

    1. Entirely agreed.

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