Church Discipline

<<correction inside the family of believers>>

None of us lives sinless lives; therefore we need discipling from time to time. Whenever there is unintentional error or sin between members the issue should be dealt with between those involved. If there is no resolution, only then are others informed and drawn in. Deliberate and flagrant public sin must be addressed decisively within the corporate church group or else, like with the individual, this will result in reduced love for God, the withering of the divine life, further tolerance and participation in ungodly vices. “Do not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slander, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat” (1 Cor 5:9,10).

Ex-communication (removal from the fellowship of the church) is the last resort if genuine repentance (and subsequent forgiveness) is not forthcoming after repeated opportunities to remedy the situation are shunned (Mt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:2-13; 2 Cor 2:5-11). The intention of being outside the support relationships of the church is not punishment but rather correction so that the erring will come to their senses with the sinful nature being destroyed and fellowship with God and His people restored. Tough love demands a response (2 Thes 3:14,15). Discipline administered by the church keeps the group pure yet does not condemn, withhold forgiveness or permanently exile, but helps wayward people to repent. Paul’s instruction regarding divisive people was, if they have not stopped after two warnings, to “have nothing to do with them” (Tit 3:10).

The focus should not be to hunt out sin, nor is it our right to judge, but we are obligated to question behaviour that is inappropriate and so we are in effect our ‘brother’s keeper’ holding each other accountable to the faith. This is another reason why we need to be

The motive is restoration in love

connected to a church because, on our own, sin can remain undetected and unchallenged yet its destructive power will still be at work causing separation from God. Do not ignore unbiblical behavior; instead bring it to the attention of the church leadership to deal with. If wrong conduct is not confronted, its influence will spread and permeate through the whole group, similar to yeast in a batch of dough, with disgrace being brought to the name of Christ (Mt 13:33; 1 Cor 5:6; Gal 5:9). Restoration back into fellowship with the Lord and the church family is the reason for addressing such issues – wanting the best for them. 

Leaders, by the nature of their office are mature Christians, conversant with Biblical principles who exert considerable influence as role models are not above being held accountable but this also must be done according to Bible guidelines – “Those who sin are to be rebuked publically, so the others may take warning.” (1 Tim 5:19,20). Corruption must be exposed and dealt with (Eph 5:11). By bringing it into the open (before the whole church), this will give no fuel to the gossipers who would otherwise embellish the fragments of information they glean. More importantly it vindicates the church from complicity with the sin and deters others from falling into similar wrong.

Paul publicly confronted Peter about his wrong actions, which was causing a division in the church (Gal 2:11ff). Church discipline is exercised most often over moral and doctrinal issues.  The church today is often very reticent to discipline Christians who sin deliberately, yet willful disobedience should be dealt with quickly and sternly.

Historic approaches: looking backwards

Many traditions and rules of conduct have become a heavy burden bringing enslavement to manmade demands as the emphasis has often been on specific ‘what not to do’ actions rather than the freedom principles for what we  as Christians should be doing – loving God with our whole being and other

Follow Jesus, not rules

people as ourselves (Mt 23:4; Mk 7:8, 12:30,31). This behaviour rather than relationship approach has been motivated by un-Christ-like control, strict judgement demanding the offender will ‘do the time for the crime’, resulting in fear, hard feelings and stunted lives because of guilt, shame and feeling helpless. Those imposing such measures have experienced some degree of hurt through this dilemma and this is a motivating influence in their stance. Yet these measures are allowing sin, and its penalty (the main focal point) to be the master, through an inward or self-orientated way of operating by focusing on the negative aspect of the problem rather than the positive way of dealing with the issue through the Lord’s provision and moving on into a better future. It is not about rules; rather it is about the grace and mercy of God, and restoring into alignment with Him. There is no life in rules, but there is a lot of life and hope in Jesus. We need to understand what is acceptable and pleases Him, so we can position ourselves to be blessed.

The early church leaders decided not to burden the converts with a multitude of practices unacceptable to God, choosing instead to focus on three major areas (Act 15:19,20,28,29). As the believers grew in their relationship with God, the Holy Spirit would have brought other issues before their consciences that were not pleasing to God, and those previous ways of the old life would be dropped. We should not insist on others adhering to our rules if they are not specifically outlined in Scripture. Christianity is not dependent on rule keeping, however we should “Find out what pleases the Lord” and exercise self-discipline as we obey Him from the heart as He does expect us to live by His standards (Eph 5:8-10).

A superior way: looking forwards

Thus, the better method is to bring people into a safe place in Him, of restoration to the Life Giver and empowering them by giving the opportunity for self-control and responsibility to become what God desires for them. It is giving them the choice to decide, the authority and permission to control the outcome by trusting and assisting them rather than imposing our heartless, domineering views and demands. This will involve addressing the issue with some form of accountability or follow-through, together with facing the consequences, yet with the emphasis on another chance to do life with God –  a coming back into alignment with Him, the place of blessing, freedom and peace. It exalts the grace and mercy of our loving heavenly Father revealed through love. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation – the bringing together to “resolve gently”. This needs to be done with compassion, humility and with the goal of seeing them restored to right relationship with God (2 Cor 5:18,19; Gal 6:1). Affirm who they are in Christ, and that although sin has occurred, Jesus has paid the debt in full; we are to help them into victory, not bury them in guilt and defeat. When a person sins or makes a mistake they forget who they are in Him – the sin holds greater power than their relationship to Him and they lose sight of how God sees them. As the goal is to restore them to intimacy with Christ who loves immensely and died for them, ensure there is a safe place in Him, a non-threatening place of love, respect, trust and healing where they do not feel threatened or else they will be defensive and try to save face rather than dealing with the problem. Don’t tell them their problem, ask questions to help them see the issue, (the underlying cause). Then you can ask ‘What are you going to do?’ This approach is not heavy-handed nor leaves them abandoned to punishment, rather it is walking with them through the predicament, so they can see the solution and solve their own problems. Godly accountability and love then asks, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you bring this to a victorious conclusion?’ Although this requires honesty, openness and vulnerability, it is the pathway to wholeness, restoration and victory. It is journeying with the person who has stumbled on the road of life, back into spiritual health, restored into the joy of their salvation, wiser and more in love with Jesus because of His amazing grace. It is not about punishment for past wrongdoing, rather hope and freedom for the future, being freed from shame.

We are not on the scene to condemn and throw the rulebook at them. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned to death, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more” (Jn 8:11). He was giving her encouragement and hope for a new start in a very different lifestyle and direction for her future, free from punishment and fear. We are often backward looking and so busy trying to stone

Assist offenders to wholeness in Christ

the sinner, we fail to show the redeeming grace of God that we all have received without measure. This is not to negate the seriousness of sin, by-pass the consequences or give a license to continue in wrongdoing because of His ability and promise to forgive. Instead, it is dealing with the issue in a way that will bring a desirable outcome.  It is positive and encouraging, not negative, discouraging and destructive. Any challenging of another person must always be done in love, not in overbearing judgement. Continually showing love (even in the midst of areas that need correction or discipline) honours and respects them as a person, and will be a catalyst to release them into more abundant life in God. Those being treated this way do not see themselves as powerless victims, rather as highly esteemed children of God who are being supported to take personal responsibility to bring about a healthy resolution. The emphasis is on caring for the person much more than requiring the demands of justice being met, and mindful although forgiven, there is still a restoration process of trust to be reestablished.

See also: accountability, church, conflict, confront, discipline, forgiveness, judging, resolve/resolution, restorative justice.