Church Discipline: A Path to Restoration

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Matthew 18:15-20 records a very important teachingof Jesus. It is likely one of the least observed in the church today because of its apparent counter-cultural implications. Other sayings of Jesus are much more frequently quoted and passed along. “Judge not, that you not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also tothem, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). These statements and others like them are no doubt clear teachings of Jesus but taken out of context almost appear to be at odds with Matthew 18:15-20. Yet the same Jesus who preached and exemplified love and forgiveness challenges us to embrace a form of loving one another nearly forgotten in our day; loving one another through biblical discipline.

Mentioning the phrase biblical discipline or church discipline quickly conjures different thoughts and opinions, not to mention many questions. This blog entry will attempt to answer the following critical questions and hopefully paint a clearer picture of church discipline.

How should a church practice discipline today?
Why should we should we practice church discipline?
When should church discipline take place?
Who should be disciplined?
What is the purpose of discipline and does it really work?

The church in America today is in need of serious church discipline. Most Baptist churches, prior to the civil war, regularly practiced church discipline. Yet likely due to the increasing size of churches and a desire for increased growth, most churches transitioned away from the practice. The result is that most churches today don’t dealwith sin within the church and there is little difference between the world and the body of Christ.

How should a church practice discipline?
Learning the basics of biblical Church discipline will help begin to answer every subsequent question regarding its practice and importance. Jesus, through His very words, commands us to love one another in this way. Following Christ demands a genuine love for one another requiring biblical discipline for every believer.
Stage 1: Formative Discipline
All believers most often find themselves in Stage 1. Formative Discipline is simply discipleship. It is the process of sanctification where a believer is daily transformed to resemble and reflect Christ. Sin is brought to mind, confessed, and dealt with. Through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the flesh is put to death and a believer walks in a growing relationship with God. Formative Discipline takes place within normal church activities such as preaching, involvement in Adult Bible Fellowships, and discipleship classes such as Foundations. Formative discipline actively exists within accountability groups and godly friendships. One author, Jay Adams, labels this self-discipline. Through the power of the Spirit, the believer disciplines himself reducing the need for corrective discipline.
Stage 2: A Private Confrontation
Jesus begins with the second stage of discipline in Matthew 18:15. When a brother sins against you, approach him and communicate the grievance. Jesus also stresses that this confrontation should be private. The Words of Christ clearly communicate one of the least followed practices in many churches. When a believer hurts another through his sin, the one harmed has a responsibility and privilege to approach his brother humbly and correct his behavior. Scripture communicates the importance of this meeting being private. All too often, we recruit other believers to our viewpoint of a sin committed without ever approaching the one who committed it. We can easily divide the body of Christ. Jesus makes an important point concerning the goal of this encounter. It is designed to win your brother back. The goal is always restoration of the relationship and the sinning believer.
Stage 3: A Semi-Private Confrontation
Matthew 18:16 describes the next step in the process. The issue is still very private. The offended party has only involved one or two more who would substantiate his claim of harm. Wisdom would suggest using godly men and women in this situation to not only add credibility to their witness, but also help the offended party see any fault of his own. Any others involved at this point should also understand the critical value of keeping the sin private. Ideally, the offending brother would recognize his mistake, repent and ask forgiveness. The matter could then be resolved and both parties could move forward.
Stage 4: Church Involvement


This next step is what most churchgoers immediately associate with the term church discipline. The immediate involvement of the church does not necessarily mean the entire church. At first, church leaders may be involved in the discipline process attempting to keep the sin private. Godly church leaders hope to help the sinning brother recognize the sin and repent, always seeking restoration. Church involvement only takes place after the sinning brother refuses to deal with his sin after multiple attempts. The step of church involvement signals an escalation in the formality of the process. The sin has not been dealt with and it now requires a process involving the greater body of Christ. It is crucial for any church to have a process predetermined when a situation of discipline arises. A good process protects the church and the one sinning from any unintended bias. This process might resemble the following:

4-1. Inform appropriate church leadership of the sin. Appropriate leaders might include elders, pastors, or a specific team designed to evaluate these situations.

4-2. Church leaders approach the believer who is sinning and attempt to help with the reconciliation privately. If successful, the process ends. If unsuccessful, the process continues.

4-3. Church leaders inform the church in an appropriate manner, protecting his character where possible and encourage the body of believers to act according to Scripture. All of this is done with restoration as the goal.

Stage 5: Dis-fellowship
The final stage of church discipline is where the church begins to treat the offender as a non-believer. He cannot play a role in the community of faith until repentance and restoration take place. First Corinthians 5 gives a powerful example of such an occurrence. Paul encourages the church not to associate with one who is involved in unrepentant sin. The Scripture states, “not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11). This dis-fellowship is in hopes that the sinning believer would repent and be restored. The entire church is responsible to treat this man in accordance with Scripture – always hoping for restoration. The sinning brother has chosen to live like an unbeliever and the sin should be dealt with biblically.

 

Why should we practice church discipline?
First and foremost, Scripture demands the practice of church discipline. This reason alone should be enough for our faithful participation. Other important reasons exist as well:

    • Discipline honors Christ by obedience to His Word (John 14:15)
    • Discipline purifies the Church (Ephesians 5:25-27)
    • Discipline lovingly restores believers in their relationship with Christ and one another (Galatians 6:1-2, Matthew 18:15)

 

When should church discipline take place?
Church Discipline should be used in any circumstance where an offense has been made that cannot otherwise be reconciled. Scripture encourages believers to “keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). When we can overlook sins committed against us without carrying any sort of grudge and truly forgive the transgression, no action of church discipline is necessary. We must also weigh the thought of our brother’s spiritual growth in that decision. There might be situations where the sin is easily forgiven but the context requires a love that corrects. A parent will quickly teach a child not to run out into the street. Though no harm is brought to the parent, he understands that great harm can come to the child if discipline is not enforced. The most obvious situations where discipline should take place are those where a sin cannot be easily over-looked or forgiven and reconciliation needs to take place.

If done well, most situations never escalate past Stage 2. A one-on-one confrontation will usually resolve a situation, particularly when the offended brother approaches with humility and grace, ready to forgive. Church involvement will hopefully only occur in the most extreme situations.

 

Who should be disciplined?
Every believer should actively be engaged in Stage 1 of church disciplineand every believer who harms another should be engaged in the church discipline process at Stage 2 and beyond. Paul writes in Galatians 2 of an encounter with Peter where he opposes Peter for a sin committed against Gentile believers. All believers should be equally treated, no matter their gifting or position within the church.

 

What is the purpose of discipline and does it really work?
Galatians 6:1-2 states, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” The purpose of church discipline is always restoration.
When practiced according to Scripture, church discipline works. Brothers and sisters in Christ are restored to Christ and one another. Marriages can be saved, friendships mended, and the body of Christ strengthened and unified through the proper Scriptural practice of loving one another through discipline.