The Scriptures of Church Discipline

I’m guessing that if you asked 20 church elders about church discipline, maybe all but one would immediately latch on to Matthew 18 . . . and stay there. It seems that Matthew 18:15-19 is the only Scripture many think about for handling church discipline. That text deals with the process of discipline, but it’s only one of many sections the Lord provides for dealing with sin in His church.

I was talking with a pastor about a sin problem in the church. He was completely glued to Matthew 18. When I said, Well, you know there are many passages in the Scriptures that deal with church discipline, he became quiet. Then he blurted, Oh yeah? Like what?

Like Titus 3:10-11. If a person’s causing divisions or factions in the church, warn him once, warn him a second time, and then remove him from the church. That’s it. Very clean. But be careful to discern that he’s really a divisive person. What does a divisive person repeatedly do that warrants removal from the church?

Several examples:

• Personality Cults –  pitting one personality in the church against another, as in I am of Paul, I am of Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:3-4), or denigrating one personality in order to lift another (Numbers 16:1-11; 1 Corinthians 4:6-8; 2 Corinthians 10:10-12);

• Music Style – dividing the church according to music preferences; insisting on the falsehood that music style is a matter of doctrinal purity rather than personal preference, insisting that any new music form is inferior to older music forms. (Psalm 33:3; Psalm 40:3; Psalm 144:9; Revelation 5:9);

•  Heresy – leading others to depart from the fundamental truths of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 11:19; 2 Corinthians 11:3-4; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 1:3-4; 2 Peter 2:1);

• Legalism – dividing the church and judging others according to a non-biblical set of rules and restrictions (Galatians 2:15-21; Galatians 3);

• License – dividing the church and judging others according to a non-biblical set of freedoms; encouraging the abandonment of spiritual discernment that leads the church to stray from self-control and personal holiness (1 Corinthians 6:12; 1 Corinthians 9:25-27; 1 Peter 2:11-12);

• Syncretism – leading others to blend Christianity with other religions or cults (2 Peter 2:1; 2 John 10);

• Gnosticism and its forms – twisting the meaning of the Scriptures to claim a special enlightenment that is not available to all (1 Corinthians 2:2-5; Colossians 2:18; 1 Timothy 1:4; 1 Timothy 6:20-21);

• Judaizing and its forms – forcing Jewish practices and customs on non-Jews. (Acts 10:10-35; Acts 15; Galatians 2:15-21);

• Docetism and its forms – denying Christ's real combination of humanity and divinity; denying that the humanity and sufferings of Jesus were real and inherent to His life and work; proposing that if Christ suffered then He was not divine and if He was God He could not suffer. Romans 1:3-4, as one example, affirms His humanity and divinity. Examples of attack on Christ's identity in 1 John 4:1-3 and 2 John 7.

The Lord expects His leaders to deal with sin in His church. He expects the congregation to cooperate with the leaders. Discipline is to cleanse the church of sin, keep the church from future sin and bring sinning saints back into fellowship with the church.

I see at least 14 additional sections in the New Testament that discuss or are connected to the principle of church discipline:

Romans 16:17-19 – removing those who cause dissentions and hindrances;

1 Corinthians 5:1-11 – disciplining sexual sin in the church;

2 Corinthians 2:5-11 and Galatians 6:1-2 –forgiveness and restoration of those disciplined;

2 Corinthians 13:10-11 – severity is not desired, but may be required in church discipline;

2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 – how the congregation is to respond to those under discipline;

1 Timothy 1:3-7 – the importance of sound doctrine and handling those who teach strange doctrines;

1 Timothy 5:3-8 – helping widows and handling those who refuse to provide for their families;

1 Timothy 5:17-25 – disciplining a sinning elder;

Titus 1:9-14 – how to handle the rebellious as well as empty talkers and deceivers;

Hebrews 12:11-13 – the work and fruit of rightly placed discipline;

Hebrews 13:17 – the elders’ responsibility to discipline;

James 5:19-20 – the fruit of rightly placed discipline;

Revelation 3:19 – the Lord’s heart for discipline.

Clearly, the Lord has left us multiple layers of instruction for the conduct of church discipline. There’s no room for elders’ cowardice in their application of discipline. The Lord instructs His leaders to move with confidence and certainty against the divisive person.

What should be the basis of their confidence and certainty? That’s rooted in the elders’ primary responsibility to honor the Lord by protecting His church (Acts 20:28). There are times when that protection requires confronting and removing factious people. Rely on the words in Titus 3:11 . . . Such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. And that person would hurt the church.