Marks of a Healthy Church: Biblical Church Discipline (Part One)
Marks of a Healthy Church
Mark Seven: Biblical Church Discipline
by William Klock
Almost a decade ago now, a small group of people left a church body that had become apostate and gathered to form Living Word Church. Most of that group is still with us. Those people understood that a church that tolerates sin and false doctrine can never be a faithful witness to the saving work of the Lord Jesus. As a result of their faithfulness, many of the rest of you are here today. We looked at the issue of membership in the church two weeks ago and saw how there’s no such thing as a loner Christian—that as Christians we’re obligated to commit—or better to covenant—with each other for mutual support, exhortation, and growth and that as we do that, we make ourselves witnesses of the love of Christ.
That means that our covenanting together is going to naturally include accountability, discipline. And that’s something that we almost never hear about in the Church anymore and when we do, it’s almost always in a negative light. We live in an age when the church growth experts tell us we’re not supposed to talk about sin and repentance because it’ll scare people away. These guys never even get close to addressing discipline, because of course, if sin isn’t important, then there’s no need for accountability. Maybe we’ve seen churches enact some kind of discipline at some point, but it was done so wrongly, so unloving, so unbiblically that we’ve been turned off the whole idea. For a lot of people the words “church discipline” conjure up images of Hester Prynne wearing her scarlet letter A around Nathaniel Hawthorn’s nightmarish caricature of a New England Puritan town.
So for the next two Sunday I want to talk about church discipline and about what it means for us to be accountable to each other, and hopefully put aside the false ideas of what it is and show you what Scripture has to say about it, because discipline really is a vital part of every healthy church.
Brothers and sisters, if we’re honest with ourselves, we shouldn’t hesitate to admit that we need discipline—that we need correction and shaping. None of us is perfect. We need to be inspired, nurtured, and healed; but at other times we need to be corrected, challenged, and even broken. Whichever form it takes, we have to admit that we need discipline. We’re lying to ourselves if we think that we’ve reached perfection or if we think that God’s finished with us.
Now, if we’re ready to admit that much, consider that a lot of discipline is actually positive. There’s nothing negative about the stake you put in the ground to help your newly planted tree grow straight or the training wheels on your bike that teach you how to keep it upright. Even the braces on your teeth, while they might hurt at times, are a good thing to get your teeth where they ought to be. The comments your mother made to chew with your mouth clothed or to be careful with your words are positive formative discipline. Discipline shapes us as we grow emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually and these are all examples of the basic shaping that takes place in our relationships, in our families, and even in our churches. We’re taught by books and lectures at school and by sermons and classes and Bible studies at church. All of this is a part of discipline. It’s positive, shaping, formative discipline. Every truth you’ve ever heard someone talk about is formative discipline. What I’m doing right now as I preach this sermon and you take it in is discipline. So not all discipline is negative; in fact, most of the discipline we experience is positive.
The problem is that we can be prone to get defensive when it comes to the negative side of discipline. Especially when you talk about the church exercising discipline, I’ve heard people throw out Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” And indeed Jesus warns us about judging, but consider that in that same gospel, not to mention the others, Jesus also clearly calls us to rebuke others for sin, even rebuking them publicly if need be. So whatever Jesus meant by not judging in Matthew 7:1, he wasn’t ruling out the kind of judging he commands us to do in, for example, Matthew 18.
Remember that God himself is a Judge, and in a lesser sense, he calls us to be judges too. In quite a few places the New Testament tells us to judge ourselves and in other places it specifically tells us judge others within the church. Now let me be clear: there’s a difference between God’s judging and the judging he tells us to do, and that’s what Matthew 7:1 gets at. God is the judge who determines the final state of a person’s soul. His judgement means eternal life with him for some and eternal damnation for others. When he calls us to judge, he calls us to lovingly confront our brothers and sisters when their walk doesn’t match their talk in order to keep the witness of the church pure and to exhort our brothers and sisters to work out their own salvation—to make sure it’s real. It makes sense that we as a church would be told to judge. If we can’t say how a Christian should not live, how can we say how a Christian should live?
When Living Word Church was formed, one of the things the founders understood was that their former church had slid downhill because there was little or no accountability. Seminary professors, priests, bishops, and even laypeople were teaching false doctrine and were never held accountable. Members of the church were engaged in sin and many of the leadership were even proclaiming as virtuous what the Bible says is evil—and again, not being held accountable. And so the leadership of our church set some basic standards for membership. They wrote a statement of faith and they required that anyone wanting to be a member agree with that statement, attend regularly for at least three months, and demonstrate a faithful witness to Christ and a commitment to support the church with their time, talent, and treasure. That, my friends, is church discipline. But we can’t stop that discipline once someone joins and just hope for the best. Just as we want to be sure someone is truly a Christians before they join, we need to remain vigilant in order to keep our corporate witness pure. We need to be able to show that there’s a difference between the church and the world—that it means something to be a Christian. If someone who claims to be a Christian refuses to live as a Christian should live, we need to follow what St. Paul said and, for the glory of God and for that person’s own good, we need to exclude him or her. Paul deals with this in 1 Corinthians 5. He was correcting the Corinthians as they dealt wrongly with an instance of unrepentant and gross sin in their church, and in doing that he makes an assumption we need to consider. Look at what he writes in verses 9-10:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters,since then you would need to go out of the world.
Notice how Paul makes a very clear distinction between the Church and the world. Now ask yourselves if we make that same distinction today. Do we assume that the Church is different from the world? Not that the Church is full of perfect people and the world is full of sinners, but do we assume that there’s a fundamental difference between the lives of people in the church and people in the world? Paul makes a sharp contrast. Membership in the local church should be a reflection, as best we can tell, of true membership in the body of Christ.
That means that as we take in new members, we need to consider whether or not they are living Christ-honouring lives. Do we understand the seriousness of the commitment we’re making to them when they join our church, and do they understand the seriousness of the commitment they’re making to us? And are we willing to continue living out this accountability in our life together instead of forgetting about it once they’ve joined us? Certainly, if we’re cautious about membership, we won’t have to exercise discipline as often as if we simply allowed anyone to join with no questions asked, but we can’t drop the commitment to accountability once someone has joined.
Now, if you’ve got your Bible with you, let’s look at what God has to tell us about discipline within the Church.
The place to start is with Hebrews 12. Let me say: notice that here discipline is fundamentally a positive thing and that God himself disciplines us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:1-14)
The point of that whole passage is that discipline is the result of love. God disciplines us, because we are his children and he loves us. If we’re not somehow experiencing his discipline, it’s because we’re not his children. God himself lovingly disciplines us and, as we’ll see in the following passages, he commands us to do the same for each other. The local church body has not only a special responsibility to do this, but God has specially equipped us to do it.
Now, let’s move on to Matthew 18:15-17. This is the most important passage in terms of telling us how to exercise this duty. Ask yourself: What do you do when someone sins against you? What does the Bible have to say about how we respond? Do you say something once and then refuse to talk to that person anymore if they don’t make it right? Do you let it fester and do you become resentful? Do you just ignore it? Here’s what Jesus tells us to do:
[Step 1] If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, [Step 2] take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, [Step 3] tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, [Step 4] let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Notice that the goal is to restore a relationship that is damaged by sin. No Christian is allowed to simply write off a brother or sister because of an offence. If you can truly forgive and forget, that’s always an option, but if you can’t do that or if correction is really needed so that this brother doesn’t continue in his sin, offending others, then we must deal with it. We don’t deal with it by gossiping about it to others. We go directly to the person who offended us. And we don’t just sound off once. If the brother or sister won’t listen, we go back with a witness or two. Even then, if he doesn’t respond in a Godly way, we still don’t write him off. Jesus says then that the church goes to him to correct him. Only then, if he still refuses to show obedience to Christ do we put him out—and at that point we put him or her out because their lack of repentance and their contentious attitude disrupts the peace of the body, damages our witness to Christ, and calls into question the faith they profess.
And remember that our goal in excluding some is to bring them back to repentance. Anger and revenge have no place here. It’s all about love for our brother or sister who is straying and about a desire to restore them. Look at 1 Corinthians 5:1-11:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you areto deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, sothat his spirit may be savedin the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters,since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyonewho bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
Notice, St. Paul wasn’t motivated by hate or self-righteousness. This man sleeping with his step-mother was deceived. He thought he could be a Christian while at the same time disobeying the Lord. Or maybe he thought—and the church allowed him to think—that there was nothing wrong with it. Paul says that a person like that is deluded, and that in order to truly serve such a deluded person and to glorify God, the church needs to show him just how ludicrous his profession of faith is in light of the way he’s living.
In other places Paul tells us how this process of loving confrontation should happen. Look at Galatians 6:1. Paul tells us how to restore a brother or sister who has been caught in sin:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him ina spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
We need to remember that the point isn’t revenge or lashing out in anger; the point is restoration that is ultimately motivated by love. We model the same kind of restoring discipline that God so often shows us.
In 1 Timothy 5:19-20 Paul gives instructions for what to do when the leaders in our church are caught in sin:
Do not admit a charge against an elder [in the Greek it refers to a priest or presbyter] excepton the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Paul also wrote to Titus to advise him how to deal with these problems. Titus was struggling with people in his church who were causing divisions over things that weren’t important. In Titus 3:9-11 Paul writes:
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, forthey are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
But it’s not just disobedient behaviour. As we’ve already seen, Paul warns us about the leaven of sin and disobedience in the church. Leaven spreads and can eventually corrupt the whole body. For that reason we have to watch out too when it comes to doctrine. St. John warns in his second epistle that there are many deceivers who don’t abide in the teaching of Christ. He tells us in verses 10-11:
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
That’s a strong warning aimed how we deal with false teachers. False teachers and prophets are insidious and we’re warned over and over in Scripture how their teaching spreads easily and corrupts. John doesn’t say to go ahead and listen, then filter out the bad and keep the good. He says not to associate with them—not even casually—because their danger is so great.
We could sit here for another couple of hours looking at more passages that deal with these issues, but these are the main ones and as we take them all together, I think you can see that God really does care about both our understanding of his truth and how we live it out. He especially cares about how we live together as Christians. All kinds of situations mentioned in these passages are, according to Scripture, legitimate areas for our concern—areas in which we as a church should exercise discipline.
But one last thing: Did you notice how serious the consequences were that these Scripture passages laid out? “removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2); “deliver this man to Satan” (1 Corinthians 5:5); “…not to associate with… not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:9, 11); “keep away from” (2 Thessalonians 3:6); “take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15); “handed over to Satan” (1 Timothy 1:20); “rebuke them in the presence of all” (1 Timothy 5:20); “Have nothing to do with them” (2 Timothy 3:5); “have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:5); “do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting” (2 John 11).
We might be tempted to ask: Are Paul and John—not to mention Peter, who has some similar things to say— are these guys unusually harsh and mean-spirited? But consider what Jesus himself said about the person who refused to listen even to the church: “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). In other words, stop treating him as a brother, put him out of the Church, and evangelise him, because by his unrepentant behaviour, he’s effectively giving witness that he’s not the Christian he claims to be.
Friends, holiness is important. It’s becoming increasingly popular in the wider Church today to talk about grace without holiness. In the last few months I’ve even come across some groups that are active locally, preaching that because we’re saved by grace, we can do whatever we want—that holiness is not only unimportant, but that it’s actually a unneeded and unhealthy burden to place on people. And yet that kind of teaching ignores everything the Bible has to say about God’s call to us to be holy. Our holiness and our love for each other are at the centre of who we are as a church and it’s as we show the world our holiness and our love that we witness Christ to them. And if our corporate witness is that important, it means we must be accountable to each other. If we desire to give God glory by how we live and if we desire to have an effective witness to our community, we need to start by being lovingly accountable to one another, because, brothers and sisters, a church without discipline is only a few short steps from being a church without Christ.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, we thank you for the love, mercy, and grace by which you have made us your people, but let us not forget that your desire is to make us into a holy people who will reflect your own holiness to the world. Help us to see the importance of being faithful to your Word when it comes to accountability, and as we lovingly hold each other accountable, let us ever more and more be the salt and light that the world around us so desperately needs. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.
This series of sermons is adapted from Mark Dever's book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Crossway, 2004.