I get it. I really do.
Awkwardness…uncomfortable situations…the probability that someone will get upset at you…the potential loss of friendship…all of that and more is part of the package you unwrap when you go to a brother or sister in Christ who is “caught in any transgression” and tell them, no matter how lovingly and kindly you try to do say it, that they are sinning and they need to repent (Gal. 6:1; cf. Matt. 18:15; James 5:19-20). And when was the last time you got up in the morning and said, “Today is going to be a great day, because I’m going to purposefully put myself in a situation where I will get someone mad at me”? We don’t like to put ourselves in these kinds of situations. We would rather do almost anything else.
Of course, none of the above holds a candle to the difficulty that comes with that brother or sister rejecting your pleas to repent, and so you have to go back to them and try again…only this time with “one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16; cf. Tit. 3:10a; 2 Cor. 13:1). Not to mention the even harder task of “tell(ing) it to the church” if they prove to still be unrepentant, resulting in the whole church reaching out to them and urging them to repent…and you just know that’s probably not going to go over that well with them (Matt. 18:17a).
And all of that is nothing compared to the final step if they prove to stay unrepentant…the withdrawing of fellowship. The final step of church discipline, described by our Lord to his Jewish listeners as “let(ting) him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17b), described by Paul as “deliver(ing) this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” and “purg(ing) the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:5, 13; cf. 1 Tim. 1:20). The command that requires Christians to “not to associate” with the unrepentant brother or sister from whom fellowship is withdrawn, “not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:11; cf. 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Tit. 3:10-11; 2 John 9-11; Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 3:1-5). Who among us has not wondered — no, knew without any doubt — that the church’s reputation, as well as our own, would surely be tarnished irreparably if we followed these commands? Who among us has not thought of those outside the church who, seeing Christians refusing to have anything to do with other Christians, would then immediately conclude that such was unbecoming of how Christians should act and thus be forever turned off to Christianity? Who of the older generation among us has not forgotten the Phil Donahue Show when those who had practiced church discipline came on his show and defended it…and were mocked and lambasted for it? And let’s not forget about the possibility of legal action against the church…or the news media swarming in with their smear narratives…
So I get it. I really do. I get the uncomfortable feeling we get whenever we read these passages. I get why so many of us sweep these verses under the rug and pretend they don’t exist. I even understand, from a human perspective at least, why preaching sermons on this topic turns out to be, for many preachers, a “moving” sermon if you catch my drift. I understand the dread, the fear, the uncertainty.
However, I also understand something else.
I understand, more as a matter of faith than of actual comprehension, that the Almighty’s “thoughts are not (our) thoughts, neither are (his) ways (our) ways” (Is. 55:8-9). I understand that the wisdom of God has “made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 1:18ff; cf. 2:6; 3:19; Is. 44:25). I understand from personal experience that every time I’ve thought God’s ways to be the wrong way to go, I was ultimately proven wrong.
I also understand that you and I, Christians, have God-given responsibilities concerning these matters. Like the Ephesian elders and Timothy, we have the responsibility to “pay careful attention to” and “keep a close watch on” ourselves (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 4:16; cf. Lk. 17:3a; 2 Cor. 13:5). Why? Because we’re part of the church, God’s temple, and we are building upon the foundation of Jesus…and each of us must “take care how he builds upon” that foundation (1 Cor. 3:10ff). Because we have the responsibility to be godly examples to others (1 Tim. 4:12). Because we have the responsibility to practice self-control in order to be effective in God’s kingdom and get to heaven (2 Pet. 1:5-11; cf. Gal. 5:22-23). Indeed, church discipline would not need to go further than within ourselves if each of us would practice self-control like we should.
Yet that is not the case (1 Cor. 11:31-32), which is why we also all have another responsibility…a responsibility towards our brethren in Christ when sin enters the picture. Christ said, “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” (Matt. 18:15). And if we know that a brother or sister “has something against” us, we must “go” to them and “be reconciled to” them before coming to worship God (Matt. 5:23-24). In either case, God wants us to go to them. There is no mention of talking (i.e., complaining and gossiping) about them to others like the preacher and the elders. No, we are to go to them.
One of the commands which is easiest to understand is this one: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness…” (Gal. 6:1)…but most of us neglect it all the time. By doing so, we are making the light within us and our brethren become darkness (Lk. 11:35). After all, “those who are spiritual” are the ones who restore sinning brethren. If we refuse to talk to others about their sin in a loving, kind, and firm way (Eph. 4:15; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; Tit. 2:15), we aren’t acting like God wants spiritual people to act. Therefore, how can we say that heaven is waiting for us? Heaven is for spiritual people, after all.
Instead of being content to “let someone else” do this, we must take it upon ourselves. Yes, it is true that elders as the leaders, overseers and shepherds of the flock must take the lead in this. In fact, one major reason church discipline has fallen through the cracks for so long is because too many elderships have not taken the lead in these matters. With that said, church discipline is not something God intended for the elders to practice by themselves. Jesus did not specify that it must be elders only who accompany us if we have to go back to the unrepentant brother with “one or two more,” although there certainly wouldn’t be anything wrong with elders being involved in such a scenario (Matt. 18:16). He likewise did not limit us to telling only the elders if further discipline was needed, but rather told us to “tell it to the church,” after which the entire church was to plead with the sinning brother (Matt. 18:17a). The letter to Corinth was written to the whole church (1 Cor. 1:2), not just to the elders of that church (if they even had elders at the time, which is not known). And in that letter, the church was commanded, “When you are assembled…you are to deliver (the fornicating brother) to Satan for the destruction of the flesh…” (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Likewise, it was the church at Thessalonica (2 Thess. 1:1) who was commanded to “keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” (3:6; cf. vs. 14-15).
Basically, it is the responsibility of each of us to continually examine ourselves and choose to continually repent of our sins and shortcomings (1 John 1:5-9). It is the responsibility of each of us to go to each other when we see each other sin unrepentantly and “bring them back,” resulting in “sav(ing) his soul from death and…cover(ing) a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). And if they persistently prove to not be willing to repent, it is the responsibility of the entire church to withdraw fellowship from them (1 Cor. 5:1-13).
Shepherds, you are responsible for leading the flock and directing them in the right way and on the right path (Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Heb. 13:17). This responsibility includes the arena of church discipline. You must both allow and encourage — indeed, insist — that the whole counsel of God be preached from the pulpit and taught in the Bible classes (cf. Acts 20:27; Ps. 119:160a; 2 Tim. 4:1-5). That in itself is a form of discipline, the kind which if continually practiced will prove to be preventative in nature. You must take the lead in all forms of church discipline.
Church, it is your responsibility to follow their lead…and especially the lead of the Chief Shepherd whose commands these are. The elders could pronounce the withdrawal of fellowship from an unrepentant brother or sister, but if the church does not practice disfellowship then in the end there will be no withdrawal.
Such would be a tragedy for both the unrepentant Christian and the church as a whole. This is because there are two reasons for church discipline. The first reason is to save the soul of the one being disciplined. The result Christians are to strive towards when they “correct…with gentleness” is the repentance of the sinning brother or sister and their subsequent escape from Satan’s trap (2 Tim. 2:24-26; cf. James 5:19-20). The purpose behind withdrawing fellowship is “the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5a), i.e., their worldliness which is reigning within them (cf. Rom. 8:5-6, 8-9), “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5b; cf. 1 Tim. 1:20). God’s plan is for the church to truly be a family (1 Tim. 5:1-2). If we have the closeness held by a loving family, correction and withdrawing of fellowship can more easily bring the shame and motivation needed for the erring brother or sister to repent and subsequently be forgiven and still keep their salvation (2 Thess. 3:14-15; cf. Heb. 10:26-31).
Yet even if they do not repent and are restored, church discipline is still needed for the second reason God requires it: to save the church. The leaven of sin, if allowed to remain within the lump of dough which is the church, will end up contaminating the whole church (1 Cor. 5:6-8). Such is the power of influence. If spiritually weaker brethren see that brother or sister so-and-so continually sins openly and no one says a word, then it will be both easy and natural for them to conclude that it is okay for them to sin in either the same way or in a different way. This will happen easily and continually, and before you know it the entire church is caught up in sin and error.
For these reasons we must strive to move past the fear that comes when we contemplate all forms of church discipline, and work to obey God fully in these matters. Lord willing, we will continue this study in the next issue.