A BRIEF DEVOTION ON CHURCH DISCIPLINE
by Stephen duBarry
1 Corinthians 5:1-13
1 It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife.
2 And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.
3 For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed,
4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ,
5 To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?
7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators:
10 Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.
11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.
12 For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?
13 But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.
1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.
2 Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.
3 For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.
4 But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.
5 For every man shall bear his own burden.
6 Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.
7 Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
8 For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
9 And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
10 As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.
These verses form a foundation for the local church practice of church discipline.
Church discipline is vitally important to the local church, because it is our primary means of protecting the purity of the church. We know that the church is the bride of Christ. And, as we would an earthly bride, we seek to protect her purity and her reputation. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul reminds us that "a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." Thus, it is the local church's duty to purge any leaven that is uncovered in the church if that body of believers is to be pure in the eyes of God. It is the church's responsibility to properly exercise church discipline for unto it are given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and "whatsoever [it] shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever [it] shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
What is this leaven to be purged out from the church? It is clear from both its discussions in the New Testament and its symbolism in the Old Testament that this leaven is sin.
But wait. We all sin -- even we who are members of one of the Lord's churches. Yes, we are sinners saved by grace, but we sin daily. Should we then therefore be excluded from our churches? If this were the case, churches faithfully practicing church discipline would be completely empty.
The fact is, we who are saved by grace, are justified by faith, and have the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. In God's eyes, we have no sin that hasn't already been done away with by the blood of Christ. "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us." It is only through this justification that we have the privilege of approaching the Lord's throne in prayer, or have been given any other access to the heavenly kingdom.
So then what sins remain in the church to corrupt its purity? If baptism is the "door" to the church, and we baptize only those who believe, and those who believe are justified by faith, how can there be sin in the church? It's because sometimes, usually unintentionally, people make false professions of faith, and we end up with unsaved church members.
When a church disciplines one of its members, it's not a judgment of that member's inward state -- no one but God has the knowledge or the authority to make such a judgment. It is instead a judgment of that member's outward walk. It is the decision of the church that the disciplined member's conduct does not typify the conduct that follows the regenerate. James says, "But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" If the disciplined member is indeed a saved person, albeit acting as if he were unsaved, the discipline performed by the church will hopefully bring the offender back into fellowship with God and then back into the church. If the disciplined member is yet unsaved, the church purifies itself from sinful leaven, and perhaps even awakens the disciplined man to his own lost condition. In 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul mentions another effect of disciplining a lost church member: "But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person." This means that church membership affords even lost people some measure of protection from divine judgment. When an unregenerate church member is disciplined, he loses that protection.
The behavior that qualifies a church member for discipline is any behavior that is typical of unregenerate man. I believe this behavior falls into one or more of four categories that are dealt with independently in the Bible:
Neglected personal offenses
An unregenerate lifestyle
Forsaking the assembly
The first category, neglected personal offenses, is dealt with in Matthew 18:15-22:
15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
19 Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
21 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?
22 Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
If a saved church member realizes that he has offended one of his fellow church members, he will ask for forgiveness. He will do so because he loves his brethren in Christ. In fact, Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." So an unrelenting stubbornness to forgive a fellow brother is evidence that the love that should be in a saved person may not be there. And it's on these grounds that the church is to discipline that member.
The second category, an unregenerate lifestyle, is given Scriptural treatment in 1 Corinthians. We read 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul says "But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat." These are characteristics of the unregenerate. He mentions more characteristics in chapter 6, verses 9 and 10:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
These are the fruits of the flesh. If one of our church members can live persistently and without repentance in one or more of these sins, he is to be disciplined, for it is evidence that he may be yet lost in his sins.
The third category is heresy. Titus 3:10-11 is very clear:
10 A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject;
11 Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.
2 John 1:9-11 says:
2 John 1:9-11
9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.
10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:
11 For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.
So we see heresy is a sinful leaven to be purged from the church, an evidence that a church member's sins may be yet unremitted.
The fourth category of offenses that compel church discipline is forsaking the assembly. Hebrews 10:25-27 states:
25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.
27 But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.
1 John 2:19 says of those who have left the faith:
1 John 2:19
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.
From these verses we can clearly see that it is uncharacteristic of the regenerate to forsake the assembly of the church. We are furthermore warned that forsaking the assembling of ourselves together is a willful sin, after which "there remaineth no sacrifice for sins" -- only judgment. Thus, we practice discipline for non-attendance. The forsaking of the assembly is an evidence that a church member may be yet lost in sin.
The church's purity is something that should be zealously guarded and in a timely manner. The reason Paul wrote what he did in 1 Corinthians 5 was that the church was puffed up and tolerant of the sin in their midst. When action is required, we must take action, however painful it might be.
But sometimes it happens that certain church members become overzealous in their pursuit of church discipline. Church discipline can be applied improperly, with malice, spite, or anger. These are certainly not the proper motivations for church discipline. Sometimes church members get anxious and begin to think, "We've got to hurry up and get this person out of here!" But remember that before discipline occurs, there should always be a time of reaching out to the offender in the hopes that he will repent. The offender Jesus spoke of in Matthew 18 was given three chances to repent: a one-on-one meeting with the offended brother, a meeting with the offended brother with one or two more church members there to establish every word, and finally a confrontation with the entire church. The heretic mentioned in Titus was given a first and a second admonition before he was to be rejected. The church should always make sure before disciplining one of its members that the member in question is being stubborn and unrepentant, and that discipline is a last resort.
Not every sin warrants church discipline. As we read in Galatians 6, many times a sin committed by a church member requires not discipline, but careful restoration in an attitude of meekness and self-consideration.
Sometimes sin is thrust upon us. It lies in wait until just the right moment. Because of the weakness of our flesh, we are overtaken by it. It happens. A saved church member still remains in this sinful flesh, and is therefore totally capable of committing any sinful act in the heat of the moment. So not every sin is evidence that would suggest a person is unsaved. As we read in Galatians 6, sometimes a brother is "overtaken in a fault," or in other words, has a momentary lapse in what is otherwise a good Christian testimony.
In these cases, if the offender is in the proper repentant attitude, I believe Galatians 6 bears out that church discipline may not even be necessary. If a brother confesses his sin to the church and turns from it, those in the church who are "spiritual" are to restore them in the "spirit of meekness." To get into the proper mindset to restore a brother who has gotten tripped up by sin, just realize that it could have just as easily been you that stumbled. Paul says there that we are to apply the Golden Rule, and treat our brother with the tender care that we would have him show to us, had we been overtaken.
In conclusion, church discipline is an essential function of the local church. It is not an option. For by it, we maintain the purity of the church and the validity of its testimony. We must be careful in its application - careful to determine the proper course of action, and careful to carry it out with the proper motivation and attitude. But if we succeed in practicing local church discipline, Hebrews 12:11 tells us our reward: "Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby."
[Stephen duBarry was a student at the University of Kentucky at the time of this essay, majoring in computer science and finance. He is a member of Olmstead Baptist Church, Olmstead, Ky. Used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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