Sam Storms on Church Discipline

Perhaps the best way to approach this topic, if only briefly, is to ask and answer a series of five questions.

First, why is church discipline so neglected, if not ignored altogether, in our day? Among the many reasons that could be cited, here are a few. Perhaps the principal cause is a pervasive ignorance of biblical teaching on the subject (many believe that it is infrequently mentioned in Scripture and therefore unimportant; others are ignorant of the purpose of discipline and see it only as destroying the person).

Another factor is calloused, insensitivity toward sin; a failure to take seriously the offense of sin and a tendency toward unsanctified mercy in our treatment of the unrepentant. Undoubtedly the spirit of individualism also plays a role. We have lost the sense of community and mutual responsibility one for another. How often has it been said, as a way of justifying our passivity toward sin, "Well, it's not really any of my business, is it?" Discipline is costly because my brother's/sister's business now becomes mine.

A misapplication of our Lord's words in Matthew 7:1 ("Judge not, that you be not judged") has certainly put hesitancy in the hearts of many in regard to dealing with sin in the local church. The fear of rejection also comes into play (i.e., the fear of being told by the offending party: "Mind your own business. You have no authority to tell me what I can and can't do").

I strongly suspect that fear of legal reprisal in the form of lawsuits has paralyzed many. Many people (even church leaders) simply dislike confrontation. Talking directly about personal sin with an offender is difficult; it makes us feel uneasy and uncomfortable; so why rock the boat? Many think that if we simply ignore the problem, in time it will go away. "Time heals all," or so they contend.

I've known instances where discipline stalled from fear of driving the person away, especially if the offender is a major financial contributor to the church! Related to this is the fear of dividing and ultimately even splitting the church over whether and how and to what extent discipline should be applied (invariably many think the discipline was too severe, while others are convinced it was too lenient).

Many struggle with a false concept of discipline because of observed abuses. In their minds discipline is associated with heresy hunts, intolerance, oppression, harshness, mean-spiritedness, self-righteousness, legalism, etc. Related to this is the fear of being labeled a cult if we insist on too strict a code of conduct for our members.

Others resist taking disciplinary steps because it entails change. In other words, the power of tradition is hard to overcome: "We've never done it before and we've done o.k. Why risk messing things up now?"

So, secondly, why is discipline necessary? To be brief, there are several reasons: (1) to maintain (as far as possible) the purity of the church (1 Cor. 3:17; Eph. 5:25-27); (2) because Scripture requires it (Mt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5; etc.); (3) in order to maintain a proper witness to the world; the church corporately, as with the elder individually, is to have a good reputation with "outsiders" (1 Tim. 3:7); (4) to facilitate growth and to preserve unity in the body (Eph. 4:1-16); (5) to expose unbelievers (1 John 2:19); (6) to restore the erring brother/sister to obedience and fellowship (1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 2:6,7,10; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:14-15); (7) to deter others (1 Tim. 5:20); (8) to avert corporate discipline (Rev. 2:14-25); (9) because sin is rarely if ever an individual issue: it almost always has corporate ramifications (2 Cor. 2:5); the whole of the body (or at least a large segment of it) is adversely affected by the misdeeds of one member; and (10) evidently Paul believed that the willingness to embrace the task of discipline was a mark of maturity in a church's corporate life (2 Cor. 2:9).

Third, in what instances or for what sins should it be exercised? Unrepentant moral evil, as in the case of the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians 5, would certainly qualify. Divisiveness and serious doctrinal error are also mentioned in the NT (Rom. 16:17-18; Titus 3:9-10). Paul speaks of more general, unspecified transgressions in Galatians 6:1 as calling for disciplinary intervention (see also 2 Thess. 3:6-15).

Fourth, how is discipline to be done? What are the procedural steps to be pursued? Matthew 18:15-17 recommends the following steps:

First, private rebuke (Mt. 18:15) - Do it gently, in love, out of compassion, seeking to encourage; the purpose for private rebuke is to resolve the problem without fueling unnecessary gossip.

Second, if private rebuke is unsuccessful, plural rebuke (Mt. 18:16; see also Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Num. 35:30) - Who are these "others"? Church leaders? People who know the person? People who know of the sin?

Third, if plural rebuke is unsuccessful, public rebuke (Mt. 18:17)

Fourth, if public rebuke is unsuccessful, "excommunication" (Mt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:11; Titus 3:10; possibly 2 Thess. 3:14)

Fifth, if repentance occurs, restoration to fellowship and reaffirmation of love (2 Cor. 2:6-8; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; Gal. 6:1)

Sixth, Mt. 18:18-20 affirms that whatever decision is made in the matter, whether the offending person is "bound" or "loosed", reflects the will of God in heaven. When a church is united in its application of discipline it can rest confidently in God's promise that he will provide wisdom and guidance for making the correct decision. Thus, the verdict of heaven, so to speak, is consonant with that of the church, before which the matter was adjudicated.

Fifth, by whom is discipline to be administered? Certainly the Elders of the church are to take the initiative and provide general oversight for the process (cf. Acts 20:28ff.; 1 Thess. 5:14; Heb. 13:17). But the congregation as a whole must also be involved (2 Cor. 2:6; this latter text raises the question of whether there may have been a minority in Corinth who dissented from the action taken).