Biblical Principles for Church Discipline

Church discipline.  That is something rarely practiced today, it seems.  Yet Scripture provides clear instruction as to its necessity and means.  Today’s lesson comes from 1Corinthians 5:1-13.

1. It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles – that a man has his father’s wife!  And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.  For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed.  In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

6. Your glorying is not good.  Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?  Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened.  For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.  Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

9. I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people.  Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.  But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner – not even to eat with such a person.  For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside?  Do you not judge those who are inside?  But those who are outside God judges.  Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.”

A little historical background is necessary, here.  The temples of the Greek and Roman gods commonly employed prostitutes as a source of income and means of worship.  Homo-sexuality during this time was accepted practice among unbelievers.  It was a cosmopolitan world, much like America, Europe, and other areas today.  There were many things paralleling modern society.

Paul starts off by rebuking the Corinthians for not addressing a particular sinning member.  Moreover, it was a sin even the Gentiles, the unbelievers, considered wrong, sexual sin with his own step-mother.  Allowing this kind of behavior to go on in the church would ultimately bring a reproach against the faith of Christ, because the church is supposed to stand for holiness and warn of God’s judgment.

Rather than mourning and weeping over this serious sin, the Corinthians were puffed up, proud of their wishy-washy, tolerant “love.”  Now the issue had been addressed, based on Paul’s instructions for the next step, but no real effort was made to bring a consequence to the one in sin.  This is the same church we saw in an earlier lesson which were breaking up into factions ( “denominations” ).  They were divided concerning church leadership, but were in greater unity when it came to tolerance for a person committing a serious sin.

We find this same, sin-soft attitude in the modern church.  We just as readily have sex before marriage, and our divorce rate is as high, as among unbelievers – and we often refuse to see anything wrong with it.  Many churches, including old line denominations, put practicing homosexuals in the pulpit and defend the sin as acceptable to God.  Then we wonder why the church gets no respect.

Much of that is because we no longer look different from the rest of the world.  We live in sin and live worldly lives Monday through Saturday, then on Sunday we whitewash our tombs (Matt. 23:27-28) and go to church services.  Rather than being hated by the world because our way of life judges the sin and excess of the world, now we are despised because we no longer live the way the Bible says.  It used to be that most of those who named Christ generally tried to live an upright life before God and man, both publicly and privately.  But in this day and age, instead of being a spiritual thermostat, setting the temperature, we are thermometers, merely reflecting the temperature of the world.

In Matthew 6:23 Jesus taught that we are to be a light unto the world.  But He also warned if the light we shine forth is the same as the darkness around us, how great and deep is that darkness.

We need a little church discipline to help get back on the right path.  The purpose of discipline is two-fold. First, it helps maintain church purity so we can shine the light of Jesus on the world.  We need to regain our testimony of healed lives and changed hearts.  We need to prove to the world that they need Jesus!

The second purpose is to restore the one who has fallen into sin’s trap, to possibly even rescue his soul from death (James 5:19-20).  Sin is a serious matter to God, and it should be to the believer;  not in a legalistic sense, which condemns those who do not live up to our standards, but in a spirit of grace that wants them to walk in victory and gain all that God has for them.

How do we go about church discipline? Jesus gave us the kingdom way in Matthew 18:15-18:

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.   If he hears you, you have gained your brother.   But if he will not hear you, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.   And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church.   But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.   Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

But also remember:

Galatians 6:1-3. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

First, one person should go to the one who has sinned and talk to him privately – preferably either a witness to the sin or the one who has been wronged.  This person should ideally be spiritually mature and able to go gently, not with accusations and blame.  We are not to judge a person’s motives or their heart.  It is even possible they did not know they offended or committed a sin, and if approached correctly will immediately apologize and work it out.  A soft answer turns away wrath. Our motive should be to restore relationship, and if they are in bondage to a sin, to help them gain the victory.  We should bear their burdens and fulfill the law of Christ, which is love.

When we approach a person with the wrong attitude, it is usually either because we consider ourselves better than them because we do not have that sin (self-righteousness), or because we want to strike back and offend them the way they offended us (judgmental).  Or sometimes we approach them in a legalistic manner ( “The Bible says, do not…..” ), which instead of offering God’s forgiveness, heaps on judgment.  Romans says that the letter of the law,  smacking somebody upside the head with “Thus saith the Lord,” produces death, but the spirit produces life.  Thus we need to follow the Holy Spirit in approaching a person.

I’ll give an example with a current ministry God has given me.  I have a friend who has struggled with the faith all his life.  Sometimes he’ll get on fire for God for a time, but then the world and his sin nature drag him back down, he gets discouraged and falls away for several years.  Then God gives him a touch, and he is on fire again.  At the moment he is trying to serve God and live the kingdom.  Because I have been in a similar position, but persevered through it, God asked me to be involved with him and his family (his wife has the same issues, and they have kids who need stability), so maybe he can persevere this time and find true victory.  It also helps me to grow into what God wants me to be.

I have to be very careful how I approach them, though.  I see several things which are wrong in their lives and beliefs.  If I preach the letter of the law to them, though, they will certainly be offended and come to resent me or grow discouraged, and I will not be able to help strengthen them in the faith.  So I must carefully listen to the Spirit of God, and give nudges here and there where He wants me to address issues.  For example, on one occasion my friend and I were talking in the car on the way to church, and God gave me some wisdom for him.  The preacher that night, almost word for word, had the same wisdom as part of his message, confirming it.  That encouraged both him, to begin learning to practice it, and me, in my ministering to him.

Thus our attitude matters greatly.  It is easy for most of us to fall into a judgmental attitude toward a person, or toward a specific sin which really irritates or angers us.  This general judgmentalism must also be put to death.  Scripture is clear that wherein you judge another, you judge yourself, as you do the same things.  We are all guilty of sin, and Jesus made it clear if we do not walk in forgiveness and mercy toward others, we will not receive it from God.  But this does not mean sin should not be addressed.

However, the one who addresses it should be spiritually mature.  And if the sinning brother will not hear you, then a couple of others who are likewise mature should come, hear the whole thing out and establish the truth.  Perhaps the sinning brother will receive correction from someone else.  In God’s eyes it is worth the effort expended to try to get a person fallen into sin back on the right path.  Jesus began his discussion of church discipline with a parable about the lost sheep.

Matthew 18:11-14 For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.  What to you think?  If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?  And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.  Even so it is not the will of you Father who is in Heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

Now if the sinning brother refuses to hear the witnesses, the next step is to bring it before the church.  There are two ways this can be put into practice.

The first way is to have a church meeting to bring the issue up.  This does not necessarily mean the entire congregation, which often includes non-members and those who are church socialites rather than believers.  It is better to bring them before a body which is growing and maturing in the Lord.  At this stage the offender has basically 3 choices: He can repent publicly before the church, he can willingly withdraw his membership from the church, or he can be removed from membership.  But remember this is done in a spirit of disciplinary love, with weeping and mourning over the person in sin – not in anger, hatred, or judgmentalism.

The second way is how my pastor brings it before the church.  If the Lord leads him, he will include the issue as part of his sermon, without naming names, and leaves the sifting in God’s hands.  In his experience, often times a person who is choosing a serious sin and unwilling to repent will not continue going to our church.  Our pastor teaches not only what God’s will is to do, but also the Kingdom way of how to put it into practice, and also deeper truths of the Kingdom than many churches receive.  As such, most pretenders or those not wanting a greater walk with the Lord do not remain long at our church.

1Corinthians 5:4-5 goes so far as to say, ““In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together… with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

Comparing Scriptures, back in Matthew 18:18 Jesus explained, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in Heaven.”

As God’s children we enjoy a certain amount of spiritual protection from the wiles of the devil if we are abiding in the Spirit, seeking God in all our ways.  But if we willfully choose to continue in a sin which God has addressed in us, that protection may be withdrawn.  Paul told the Corinthians they should agree together in the power of Christ for this protection to be withdrawn from this individual.  This sinning member had probably been rebuked, but no consequences followed for his continued sin.  The passage does not say this person had lost salvation or was not really a believer, though such is a possibility.  The church was to agree to the withdrawal of God’s protection that Satan be allowed free access for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit might be saved in the end.  It was too bring him to a position where he would crucify his sin nature (flesh), or else reject Christ completely (He who endures to the end shall be saved) or reap destruction (he who sows to the flesh shall reap destruction).

The goal is for restoration.  If fact, if you read 2Corinthians you will find the man apparently repented, for Paul instructs them to restore him to fellowship.  Sometimes this is the wake up call needed to get someone back on the right path.  A number of years ago God brought this kind of disciplinary action on me, and it brought me back to Him.

I guess the next question would be whether believers should be turned over to Satan for any un-repented sins.  The answer is “no.”  1John 5:16 says some sins lead to death.  All unrighteousness is sin, but not all lead to death.  Scripture gives us at least three examples of what qualify as deadly sins.  The first is here in our passage, gross sexual immorality, that is, willfully choosing it.  As believers, our bodies are living temples of God, and if we defile that temple 1Cor. 3:17 says God will destroy us.

The second deadly sin is blasphemy (1Timothy 1:19-20 Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.) We who love the Lord should absolutely never misuse His Holy Name, ever!  We should not let any unclean communication come from our mouths, including euphemisms, but blasphemy is downright evil when coming from those who believe in God.

The third example is found in Acts 5, blatantly lying to the Holy Spirit for self-glorification.

However, there are additional sins for which we are to withdraw from those who practice them.  1Thess 5:14 says, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly…” We must first warn them, try to correct them, as we have been learning.  In 2Thess 3:6-15 we read of some who were refusing to work to support themselves in expectation of Christ’s coming.  Being unemployed, they were unruly busy-bodies, and Paul said the rest of the church was not to support them – make them go to work to earn money for food.  He also instructed the rest of the church to take note of those who did not obey, and not keep company with them – not as if they were enemies, but as an admonishment to a brother.

Throughout 1Timothy Paul gives instructions for holy living, for church leadership, and other things pertaining to life as a believer.  He directed Timothy, as the local bishop:

1Timothy 6:3-6. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the means of gain.  From such withdraw yourself.  Now godliness with contentment is great gain.

He also gave Titus the same advice (Titus 3:9-11)

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