Church Discipline

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

I.         Each congregation of the Lord’s people has the right and the responsibility to control its membership

            A.        Ideally, each congregation is composed of faithful Christians. Because of their common beliefs and shared work, they are joined together in serving God.

            B.        However, we understand that just because a person wears the name of Christ does not make him a faithful follower of Christ.

            C.        The Scriptures teach that a church should not exclude those who are in fellowship with God.

                        1.         Yet, we understand that congregations have and continue to make mistakes.

                        2.         Paul was excluded from the church in Jerusalem for a period of time - Acts 9:26-27

                        3.         Diotrephes kept brethren out of the church, including the Apostle John - III John 9-10

                        4.         Note that the congregation’s wrongful exclusion of a brother has no reflection on his actual salvation.

            D.        The Scriptures teach that a church should not include those who are not in fellowship with God.

                        1.         Yet, we understand that congregations have and continue to make this mistake.

                        2.         The church in Corinth accepted a man living with his father’s wife - I Corinthians 5:1-2

                                    a.         They were in fellowship with the man, but the man’s sin had separated him from God.

                        3.         The church in Pergamum allowed false teachers in their midst - Revelation 2:14-16

                        4.         The church in Thyatira had an immoral woman in their midst who was influencing other members - Revelation 2:20-21

                        5.         Notice that a congregation’s wrongful inclusion of an erring brother has no reflection on his actual salvation.

II.        What happens when a member of the church strays?

            A.        The church has several tools with which to train (or discipline) its members.

            B.        II Timothy 3:16

                        1.         Teaching what is right

                        2.         Teaching what is wrong (reproof)

                        3.         Teaching how to become right (correction)

                        4.         Teaching how to stay right (training)

            C.        II Timothy 4:2

                        1.         Reprove - To show fault, to convict

                        2.         Rebuke - To censure or warn

                        3.         Exhort - To encourage or give comfort

            D.        How a matter is handled depends on the situation - Jude 22-23

                        1.         When a person’s err comes from uncertainty, a gentle approach is needed to bring him back to the truth - II Timothy 2:23-26

                        2.         When a person is in danger, an abruptly fast approach is needed so that they may be saved before too much damage is done - Amos 4:11; I Corinthians 3:15

                        3.         When a person is immersed in sin, we need to act mercifully with fear lest we and others are pulled in as well - Galatians 6:1; II Corinthians 7:1

            E.        Ultimately, a church can use its control of membership to keep itself pure

                        1.         I Corinthians 5:9-13 - We are not to associate with immoral brethren

                        2.         The ties of fellowship are to be removed.

                        3.         Not rudely, but politely and firmly - II Thessalonians 3:14-15

                                    a.         Notice that it says “admonish him as a brother,” and not “treat him as a brother.”

                                    b.         You cannot treat a person as a brother and withdraw fellowship at the same time.

                                    c.         The scolding is to be done as you would scold someone you deeply love but who is in sin.

            F.        The steps to be taken

                        1.         Mourn - I Corinthians 5:2

                        2.         Try to solve the matter on a one-to-one scale - Matthew 18:15

                        3.         If a resolution is not possible, it is important to have witnesses to what is being said and done - Matthew 18:16

                                    a.         Too often we are willing to entertain accusations without confirming proof.

                                    b.         The Old Law required two or three witnesses to establish the truth and that same principle continues in the church.

                                    c.         This is especially true in dealing with leaders of the church - I Timothy 5:19-21

                                    d.         No bias for or against a person may be shown. Notice the importance Paul placed on this charge.

                                    e.         It is possible that the problem can be resolved while the facts are being gathered.

                                                (1)       It is one thing when a single person says you are wrong.

                                                (2)       It is another matter when several unbiased people show you that you are in error.

                        4.         If a resolution is still not achieved, the matter goes before the church - Matthew 18:17

                                    a.         In a sense, the entire congregation acts as the jury. Here is the time the evidence is examined and weighed.

                                    b.         This is what happened even when dealing with members of another congregation

                                                (1)       Paul and Barnabas disputed with false teachers from Judea - Acts 15:1-2

                                                (2)       Since the brethren teaching the false doctrine came from another congregation, the church sent Paul, Barnabas, and others (the two or three witnesses) to the church from where these brethren came.

                                                (3)       The evidence by both sides was presented to the church as a whole - Acts 15:4-5

                                                (4)       The applicable teachings was weighed by the leaders of the church in the assembly - Acts 15:6, 12

                                                (5)       The church then made a decision - Acts 15:22

                        5.         If the sinner will not listen to the church, all ties are broken - Matthew 18:17

                                    a.         The church has this authority - Matthew 18:18-20

                                                (1)       It is not that the church can make laws

                                                (2)       The literal reading is “shall have been bound in heaven” – in the past-tense.

                                                (3)       In other words, the church has the authority to enforce the following of God’s Laws.

                        6.         Not all sins are private disagreements between two brothers.

                                    a.         Some by their nature will be placed immediately in the public realm.

                                    b.         That is why Paul didn’t tell the Corinthians to first privately talk to the man who was committing fornication - I Corinthians 5:1-5

                        7.         It is not a long, drawn-out process - Titus 3:9-11

                                    a.         If there is a rotten apple in the barrel, you don’t take your time about removing it.

                                    b.         Sin spreads

III.       What is meant by withdrawal

            A.        It is a breaking of ties of fellowship

                        1.         A avoidance - II Thessalonians 3:6

                        2.         A leaving behind - II Timothy 2:19

                                    a.         Shown in Paul’s actions towards the Jews - Acts 19:9

                        3.         A shunning - II Timothy 3:1-5

                                    a.         Similar in idea to Matthew 18:17 to treat as a Jew treated a Gentile.

                        4.         All ties are cut.

                                    a.         Not even to share a meal - I Corinthians 5:11

                                    b.         Not even to give greeting or offer hospitality - II John 9-11

            B.        It is a handing over to Satan

                        1.         I Corinthians 5:3-5 - Remember Christ’s statement in Matthew 18:18-20?

                        2.         I Timothy 1:19-20

                        3.         The word “handing over” literally means a betrayal or a surrender. It means that the church is acknowledging it’s failure to keep a brother out of sin. It is a public statement that we lost a brother to Satan.

                        4.         Notice that the withdrawal is commanded of the congregation.

                                    a.         It is not a sending of a letter saying “don’t come back until you straighten yourself out.”

                                    b.         It is directed to the group saying “sever your ties with this person.”

            C.        The reason

                        1.         Keeping ties to a known, documented sinner tells the world you approve of their deeds - II John 11, Ephesians 5:5-11

                        2.         Sin unchecked spreads - I Corinthians 5:6

                                    a.         I Timothy 5:20 - When a stand is made against a sinner, others learn not to sin.

                                    b.         Galatians 6:1 - Restore, lest we are also tempted to sin.

                                    c.         Those who spread false teachings will gain followings among those who are naive and easily persuaded - Romans 16:17-18

                        3.         Sin interferes with our worship of God - I Corinthians 5:7-8

                                    a.         Ephesians 5:27 - The church is to be pure.

                        4.         It is to force the person to be aware that he is in sin - I Corinthians 5:5

                                    a.         It is to make the person ashamed of their action - II Thessalonians 3:14-15 (and a chance to admonish)

                                    b.         It is to teach the sinner to do right - I Timothy 1:20

IV.      Frequent Questions

            A.        How do we withdraw from someone who has left the church?

                        1.         First, understand the same words used for a church removing fellowship from a sinner is used for a sinner returning to the world.

                                    a.         I Timothy 4:1 - Falling away from the faith

                                    b.         Hebrews 3:12 - Falling away from the living God

                                    c.         Romans 3:12 - All men have turned away from God.

                        2.         Does it matter who initiates the separation?

                        3.         What is necessary is for the church to recognized that the wayward person is no longer a member of the group.

            B.        What if everyone doesn’t separate himself from the sinner?

                        1.         Ideally the church is of one mind - I Corinthians 1:10

                        2.         While that is the goal, we understand that due to growth, not everyone has matured to that point

                        3.         Corinth was able to rescue the sinner even though everyone did not do their job - II Corinthians 2:6-8

                        4.         But the majority need to do their part. As each one undermines the work of the whole, the job will not be accomplished.

            C.        What if I can’t sever all ties (work relationship, family relationship, spouse)?

                        1.         The withdrawal is a severing of church-related ties. It does not sever other responsibilities.

                        2.         However, it might come to that as well. Many sins are a danger to others.

                                    a.         You don’t want a thief or a compulsive liar working for your company because he might damage the company and its reputation.

                                    b.         You don’t want to keep a violent person, a sex abuser, or a drug addict in a home because he represents a danger to other members of the family.

                        3.         The overall answer is to do the best you can without sinning in other areas.

V.        We, as a congregation, have a duty in managing our membership.

            A.        Withdrawing is not a pleasant topic; it never should be.

            B.        We don’t like to think that we have lost ground to Satan, but to fix any problem, we must first acknowledge the problem exists.

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