In our world today, we see a major shift away from the idea of discipline in almost every way of life. Children go around rarely punished by parents, and then we wonder why our young adults do not respect any authority. Even in the church, we now see a lack of discipline being performed, and then we wonder why we see so many churches being led into apostasy.
Church discipline, while never pleasant, is unfortunately necessary. Paul speaks of it in 1 Corinthians 5:
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler– not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.
We see in this passage that the Corinthians had accepted a man who was committing incest with his mother, and the Corinthians were glorying in their “tolerance” (1 Corinthians 5:1, 6)! Many of the more liberal churches today seem to feel this way, that no matter what a person has done, even if they have not repented, they are still okay. After all, we are all sinners too, so what right do we have to judge?
Paul says here, however, that not only do we have the right to judge, we must judge! He said in verse 12,
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?
What are we to do?
Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (verse 13).
Therefore, we are told that we must remove those who are not repentant from our midst. But why is this?
Paul explains why in verses 6-8 when he comments,
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
A little leaven leavens the whole lump! The implication is clear. If one man sins publicly, and nothing is done about it, what message does that send to the rest of the members? After all, if so-and-so can be an adulterer and no one says anything about it, what should stop me from being one? Church discipline sends a clear message that sins committed without repentance will not be tolerated in the Lord’s church, and this will bring about a genuine feeling of sorrowful repentance within the church, as it did in Corinth. Paul relates the change in 2 Corinthians 7:8-12:
For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it– for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while– I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. So although I wrote to you it was not for the sake of the offender, nor for the sake of the one offended, but that your earnestness on our behalf might be made known to you in the sight of God.
From this letter, it appears that the one who had sinned repented, and turned back to the truth! The idea of church discipline can be effective!
It must be stated that church discipline is not a happy event. No one wants to see any brother or sister in a trespass that can lead to death. We also do not want to turn them completely away from the truth, never to return. Therefore, we must take extreme care to perform this discipline in love, following the pattern set by Christ in Matthew 18:15-17:
“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”
We must always first go to the brother to hear his story– until we have gathered all of the facts, we are not helping him or the church. Only if the brother refuses to see his error must the matter go to the church; it is the sincere hope and desire of those in the position of discipline to not reach this level. However, our hesitance and lack of desire to do so should not get in the way of performing the act if necessary; if we do not do this, we have not attempted to help our brother to be returned to the fold of safety as we ought, and we have allowed a stain on the Body of Christ to remain.
It is not pleasant, nor ever desired, but church discipline is a necessity if a brother or sister refuses to repent of public sins. We have seen that Paul vehemently declared its need, that the church may always remain unstained from sin, and that the one who is in sin may recognize his error so that he may return and God be glorified. To deny this discipline is exactly like denying discipline to a child: they will grow up not respecting nor recognizing the authorities and dangers which they need to respect and recognize, and they will cause much grief and disrepute for their families. It is my sincere desire that we understand the pressing need for church discipline when it is required, and the unfortunate consequences of not performing it.