Waging the Good Warfare of Church Discipline
Last night I was privileged to preach a sermon on 1 Timothy 1:18-20 at Friendship Baptist Church in Aberdeen, MS. As some of you readers already know, I have been preaching through 1 Timothy—you can view my blog posts for my prior two 1 Timothy sermons here and here—and last night I came to 1 Timothy 1:18-20. Those are three short verses that are packed with meaning, for in those verses, Paul both commands and models church discipline.
As I have with my previous two 1 Timothy sermons, I post an outline below. If at anytime you’d like to listen to this sermon, you may do so by visiting my podcast at mypodcast.com.
Vance Havner, 20th century preacher, once remarked: “Too many church members are starched and ironed, but not washed.” By this, he means that some church members, though morally upright, are not really saved. Mr. Havner rightly noted that there are goats mixed in with the sheep, tares growing with the wheat, unsaved people who wrongly believe they are saved. Unsaved church members, however, usually show their true colors; somehow, they get involved with some manner of sin and are unrepentant about it. In such cases, church discipline is needed.
Until the 19th century, church discipline was the norm in most churches. But in the past century particularly, church discipline has been lost in favor of a laissez-faire rule of individualism. “If you’re not hurting me,” such thinking argues, “then I won’t bother with it.” “It’s not my problem, it’s yours.” But such thinking is foreign to Scripture. Many Christians nowadays object to this idea of church discipline, calling it unloving or unbiblical. They readily affirm Matthew 7:1 (judge not lest you be judged), but they take it out of context and blow it out of proportion. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul clarifies what Jesus means in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13. There, he writes: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
Others may argue that church discipline is wrong because it seems to doubt another’s salvation. But God’s Word tells us that Christians, who still sin occasionally, nevertheless are conflicted about their sin. Paul models this in Romans 7. Or consider David, who though he committed both adultery and murder, repented of his sin once confronted about it. True Christians, though they sin sometimes, will not revel in their sin but rather repent of it when confronted. If there’s no confrontation (of church discipline), however, the sinning brother may not be a brother at all. When we fail to exercise church discipline, it is inevitable that we are sending someone at the least, if not more people than that, to hell in a hand basket.
I give you one recent example. While a graduate student at the University of Virginia, Gina Welch joined Thomas Road Baptist Church. She, however, was no Christian, but an atheist. She faked conversion and was a member at TRBC for two years before she ousted herself and admitted that she was an atheist and faked conversion so she could write a book about evangelical Christians. When an atheist becomes a baptized church member for two years before outing herself, something is wrong. Granted, the situation is not quite so severe in most churches, but in all churches there are those members who are not really saved. What should we the Church do when such false Christians (or even true Christians) sin, and we know about it? Paul both commands and models church discipline as our course of action in 1 Timothy 1:18-20.
I. Wage the good warfare, vv. 18-19a.
A. Paul reiterates his charge of v. 3 to Timothy in v. 18.
B. Paul motivates Timothy by reminding him that others had prophesied about his ministry and affirmed his calling as the Ephesian pastor. It is Timothy’s duty as a pastor to confront false teaching. Of course, all Christians must be involved in church discipline, not just pastors, as we shall see shortly.
C. Paul refers to this confrontation of false teaching as being part of waging the good warfare. This warfare is not against people, though, it is against “spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12). We must remember that church discipline is not an attack on the sinning brother, but an attack on Satan. Waging this good warfare involves “holding faith and a good conscience.”
1. “holding faith” means to adhere to the faith. To “wage the good warfare” against the spiritual forces of evil, we must cling to our faith; we must lay hold of and claim the promises of God in Scripture. Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:4 that God “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” In his sermon on 2 Peter 1:4, John Piper summarizes helpfully that “God’s power, through the channel of promises, produces new practice, and that leads to the prospect of eternal life and godliness.” In other words, we “wage the good warfare” in our own lives by claiming God’s promises in Scripture.
2. “a good conscience” refers to a specifically Christian mindset whereby believers make biblically based moral decisions. The Bible must be the Christian’s moral compass, so to speak. Christians exercise “a good conscience” by making biblically-based decisions. The actions performed by a person with “a good conscience” adhere to Scripture and do not break God’s commands therein.
II. Discipline when necessary, vv. 19b-20.
A. Rejection of “a good conscience” results in a “shipwreck” of faith. To “wage the good warfare” and persevere, we must hold “faith and a good conscience.” If we reject this good conscience, we shipwreck our faith. In the first century (when 1 Timothy was written), if the captain of a ship ignored his compass, he would shipwreck. Even so, if a (claiming) Christian ignores the moral compass that is the Bible and disobeys it, he or she will shipwreck his or her faith. (Disclaimer: the Bible does teach that true believers will persevere to the end. A shipwrecked faith means one of two things: either a person never had faith to begin with, or he/she is struggling with sin and in need of confrontation via church discipline for them to “get back on course” so to speak.)
B. Paul mentions two men in particular who have shipwrecked their faith.
1. Hymenaeus is the first. Paul identifies Hymenaeus’ shipwreck in 2 Timothy 2:16-19.
But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
Hymenaeus’ doctrinal error was that he denied future resurrection. By denying a future resurrection, he simultaneously is denying future judgment. Hymenaeus denies that God will hold people accountable for their actions. Paul is write to note that this “will lead people into more and more ungodliness.” If God will not hold us accountable for our actions on earth, why should we follow the Bible as our moral compass? By denying future resurrection, and by rejecting the Bible thusly as his moral compass, Hymenaeus made a shipwreck of his faith.
2. Alexander is the second. We do not know his doctrinal error; we only know that he did the apostle Paul “great harm,” according to 2 Timothy 4:14. This, of course, is contrary to Scripture, for men of God should be held in high esteem. They certainly should not be greatly harmed! Alexander, like Hymenaeus, had shipwrecked his faith by rejecting Scripture as his authority.
C. In regard to these blasphemers who claim to be Christians and are prominent members of the Ephesian church, Paul writes: “I have handed them over to Satan,” in accordance with our Lord’s command in Matthew 18:15-20.
“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. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
In these verses, Jesus commands the disciples (and us) to exercise church discipline. We must not think it presumptuous to do so, for Jesus affirms that “where two or three are gathered” in His name, Jesus is there “among them.” God can certainly directly discipline His people as it is written in Hebrews 12:5-8, but God prescribes in Scripture that the normal route of discipline for Christians is at the hands of the Church. Look again in 1 Corinthians 5. The situation in Corinth is that of a Christian who is sleeping with his father’s wife. Rather than disciplining this man, the Corinthian church boasts of its tolerance. Nowadays, professing Christians don’t sleep with their father’s wives, but many of our churches are like the Corinthian church; we boast in our tolerance of sin when in reality we should exercise church discipline.
D. Ultimately, though, this severe discipline is meant to be redemptive; if Hymenaeus and Alexander would “learn not to blaspheme” (which is linked to unbelief in 1:13), they could be saved like Paul. The writer of Hebrews writes: “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.” The goal of church discipline is the salvation of those being disciplined.
A. Some of you need to claim God’s promise in Philippians 4:13. You must “wage the good warfare” in your own life personally by “holding faith and a good conscience.” You need to cultivate “faith and a good conscience” in your own life by daily reading the Bible and daily praying to God.
B. You who are waging this good warfare in your own hearts should now take courage to follow our Lord’s command in Matthew 18:15-20. If a fellow believer is in unrepentant sin, you sin by not confronting them lovingly with Scripture. As Dutch minister Brakel writes:
Take note that this key [of church discipline] has been entrusted to you by the Lord Jesus. You are, as it were, the porters of a city. Such porters are most unfaithful who permit the entrance of an approaching enemy coming to destroy the city. You would likewise be unfaithful porters if you permit those enemies to enter and to remain within, and thus destroy the congregation …
C. Some of you may realize that you haven’t been disciplined by God recently, and perhaps He’s even opened your eyes to some sin in your life that needs to be dealt with. You should claim the promise of God in 1 John 1:9 and humbly go to a trusted Christian friend. Ask for their prayers and ask for them to help hold you accountable.
D. But perhaps you’ve not even made a shipwreck of your faith because you’re drowning in sin. I urge you to look to Christ in faith and live! “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. … For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’” (John 6:37 and Romans 10:13). Jesus says that the proper response to the good news that he died for our sins, was buried, and rose the third day is to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). To repent is to go from loving sin to hating it, from hating God to loving God. To believe is to trust that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection alone is what makes you right before God and alone is what cleanses you from your sin. You who are unsaved: look to Christ and live!
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