The Necessity of Church Discipline for Great Commission Living
- Reclaim a vision of regenerate church membership by reclaiming corrective/redemptive church discipline as the biblical means of restoring believers to healthy discipleship and faithfulness.
Church discipline isn’t a pleasant topic to cover. Nor is church discipline a pleasant thing to do. But it’s biblical, and it’s necessary for us to fully obey the Great Commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20a). Part of what Jesus commanded the disciples was how to perform church discipline. Jesus does so in Matthew 18:15-17.
“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, 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, 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 collector.
In these verses, Jesus lays out step-by-step what church discipline looks like:
- Confront the sinning Christian, “you and him alone.” (If the Christian’s sin is a public sin, the pastor of the church should do this.)
- If the Christian doesn’t repent, gather one or two other church members (preferably leaders and/or those close to the sinning brother), “that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
- If the sinning Christian won’t even listen to two or three other Christians, “tell it to the church.”
- “And if he refuses to listen even to the church,” treat him as you would treat an unbeliever. As the ESV Study Bible’s commentary phrases this, the unrepentant sinning brother or sister “is to be excluded from the fellowship and thought of as an unbeliever. Gentile and tax collector describes those who are deliberately rebellious against God.”
To some, casting out an unrepentant Christian of church fellowship may seem harsh. But that was our Lord’s command. He commanded that a thoroughly unrepentant sinning Christian should be cast out of church fellowship because continuing repentance is one of the marks of a true Christian. When a true Christian is confronted with sin, he may still struggle with it, but he will not love it. He will seek forgiveness and restoration, not arrogantly disregard the warnings of fellow Christians.
In verses 15 through 17, Jesus listed the worst-case scenario. But what if this sinning Christian repents before being cast out as an unbeliever? (Or what if they repent afterward?) We receive the answer to this scenario in verses 21 and 22 of the same chapter. Right after Jesus gave the teaching on church discipline,
Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
So, if a sinning Christian refuses to repent and begin warring against this sin, he or she is to be cast out of church fellowship. But if he or she repents, evincing this by seeking forgiveness (and restoration, by extension), then the church should forgive him or her, even if they keep struggling with this sin 489 more times. Not that we must literally forgive others 490 times exactly, but we should forgive others so much that we always forgive them, even if they must ask forgiveness over and over. Nevertheless, if others continue to sin, if they are broken over this sin and genuinely seek forgiveness and restoration, we must grant it to them.
It must now be noted that church discipline is not penal; it is corrective/redemptive. Church discipline doesn’t seek to cast others out; rather, it seeks to restore a sinning Christian to a forgiven and restored relationship with the Church. Proper church discipline seeks to restore sinning members, not hastily cast them out! Nevertheless, proper church discipline does cast those out of fellowship who refuse to repent, who refuse to seek forgiveness after admitting their sin, who refuse to see their sin for what it is—rebellion against God—and to be broken and contrite over it. That is the fine line of biblical church discipline, and it must be walked. Without church discipline, the church herself deteriorates. This is where the American Church by and large is, a shell of her former self. Easy believism has led to the proliferation of non-fruitful Christians in our churches, which our Lord says are actually not Christians (Matthew 3:10). Church discipline, however, helps Christians to better grow in faith. Rather than regressing into old sin, the believer can press onward “for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” under church discipline (Philippians 3:15). I give you the argument of Hebrews 12:4-11. God disciplines us for our good.
In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 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.
But not only does God discipline us; sometimes He disciplines us through His Church. As the Hebrew writer addresses believers in Hebrews 12:15, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled”. Since it is God who disciplines us as sons, the Church should discipline her sinning brothers. That is the argument of the writer of Hebrews, and that is what I leave you with. Church discipline is not a matter of “do and do not.” No, church discipline is a matter of obeying the Bible and living out the Great Commission.
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