Jesus & Church Discipline
Jesus addresses the local church (Greek: ekklēsia) only 1 time in His entire earthly ministry: Matt. 18:17. The context is church discipline (see Matt. 18:15-20).
Thus, a fundamental (and heartbreaking) job of the church is addressing and disciplining sin. The goal is removing sin at the source, using only as much “force” (i.e. other people) as the situation calls for, with the ultimate goal of “gaining your brother,” (Matt. 18:15).
When To Discipline
Church discipline applies to
- Unrepentantly bad doctrine (namely concerning Jesus/God, or the gospel):
- “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” (Rom. 16:17; see also 2 Tim. 3:5)
- “Charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…By rejecting this [the faith and good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith…whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme,” (1 Tim. 1:3-20)
- “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.” (2 John 1:10-11)
- See also Rev. 2:20
- Unrepentantly bad conduct:
- “hand this man over to Satan…you must not associate…do not even eat with such people,” (1 Cor. 5:5-11)
- “keep away from…have nothing to do with him…warn him as a brother,” (2 Thes. 3:6-15)
- “I have this against you, that you tolerate [someone who is leading others in sexual immorality and idolatry]…” (Rev. 2:20)
- Includes any form of active, ongoing disobedience (2 Thes. 3:14). Specifically naming things like: “sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 5:11; Rev. 2:21); “idleness” (2 Thes. 3:6); “drunkard” (1 Cor. 5:11); etc.
- Unrepentant divisiveness:
- “Avoid,” (Rom. 16:17)
- “after warning him…have nothing more to do with him,” (Titus 3:10)
How To Discipline
There is not a set formula for how to discipline. Matthew 18 talks of going with 1, then 2-3, then the whole church. 1 Cor. 5 is a call for the whole church to immediately expel the sexually immoral man. And Titus 3:10 speaks of warning 2 times, then breaking fellowship.
It’s best to keep in mind the goal: to gain (back) your brother/sister (Matt. 18:15). Similarly, 2 Thes. 3 says to not, “regard him [the offender] as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” This is not meant to be abusive, but truly loving to the person, with the ultimate goal of restoration (think of it like a loving father spanking his child for character development). We are not aiming to crush, but discipline the offenders unto repentance (cf. 2 Cor. 4:8).
Paul speaks in 2 places of discipline as, “delivering,” someone to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 2:20). This is, “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord,” (1 Cor. 5:5). Again, like a spanking, it must sting to be effective, but the goal is the saving of that person’s spirit.
More practically, we read later in 1 Cor. 5 that such discipline is a total break of fellowship: “not to associate…not even to eat with such a one,” (v. 11). Jesus tells the church that they should, “let him [the offender] be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” (Matt. 18:17). Thus, they do not stop all relations with them (since Jews still related with Gentiles and tax collectors), but they are treated as an outsider and not welcomed in during the disciplinary time.
Some regular principles of discipline:
- There is a process to ensure that offense is truly happening (In Matt. 18 it talks of meeting with escalating amounts of people to help determine the case; in 1 Tim. 5:19 it tells them to not entertain charges unless there are 2-3 [independent] witnesses to establish the matter)
- When the offense is clearly happening, there is typically a warning before the discipline happens, and space is given, to see if any change occurs.
- Then, the church (likely through leadership) clearly communicates this to the person(s) under discipline and the rest of the church who is doing the discipline.
- At that point, the church enacts a rigid break from communing with the offender (even to the point of sharing meals and associating as if they are a brother or sister).
But, again, it doesn’t always follow this clean formula. The point is to address sin quickly and clearly, and when there is clearly no repentance, enact discipline in love.
Discipline is meant to be temporary.
In 2 Cor. 2, Paul tells the Corinthians, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” (vv. 6-8).
I think of it like the father in the Prodigal Son story. He did not wait with arms crossed for the son to retrace every step. Instead, “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him,” (Luke 15:20). In other words, he saw some signs of a changed heart, and met him with grace. Note that the father didn’t chase him down when his heart was turned away from him. But he does run to meet him when the heart is changed; when there are signs of the “fruit” of repentance (Matt. 3:8).
The purposes of discipline are:
- To bring the offender to repentance, sparing his soul from eternal judgment (Matt. 18:15; 1 Cor. 5:5; etc.)
- To remove the infection of sin from spreading to others in the church (1 Cor. 5:6; Heb. 12:15)
- To honor the name and reputation of Christ by purifying His bride (1 Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:26-27)
What if We Don’t Discipline?
In 1 Cor. 11, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church: “In the following directives I have no praise for you,” (v. 17). The problem was that there were divisions and factions that were running unchecked. As a result, their meeting together and sharing communion while tolerating this sin was actually bringing judgment on themselves: “those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep,” (vv. 29-30).
Notice that here, in lieu of them not properly judging themselves and dealing with sin, God brings sickness and even death. If we look with temporal eyes, this might seem harsh of God. But consider the reason why God does this: “But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world,” (vv. 31-32). In other words, God is thinking of our soul. He commissions the church to do the disciplining, but where they fail, He disciplines directly. And even though it meant sickness and death in some, He had an eye on the entire Corinthian church, seeking to spare their souls from following in this same wickedness, to ultimate judgment where there will be no escape.
Similarly, in Revelation 2:20, Jesus says He is upset with the church in Thyatira because, “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” In other words, like Corinth, they tolerated sin and sinfulness in their midst. Jesus was unhappy about this, because they forsook their duty of church discipline.
Again, like Corinth, this meant that Jesus took up the discipline on His own: “I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead,” (Rev. 2:21-23). And again, He brings sickness and death (after giving time to repent) to those who tolerate sin among His, “servants,” (Rev. 2:20).
At both Thyatira and Corinth, Jesus disciplined where the churches failed. This failure to discipline is itself sin on the part of the church (see 2 Thes. 3:6). But His ultimate goal is for the church to discipline (which, as you will recall, is the only time He uses the word, “church” in terms of a local church, in His entire recorded ministry, see Matt. 18:17).