In continuing our discussion on church discipline which was started in the last issue, we should address a very pertinent question: who exactly should be disciplined? In answering this question, it must first be said that it must be those who sin. Jesus started his teaching about discipline within the church by stating, “If your brother sins against you…” (Matt. 18:15).
Let us now take a moment to define sin. John wrote, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). “Sin” comes from the Greek term hamartia which is defined by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon as “a failing to hit the mark, “a bad action, evil deed.” “Lawlessness” (anomia) is another way of describing the concept of “breaking the law.” Whose law is it that is broken for sin to take place? What “mark” did the one who sinned “fail to hit”? The answer is God’s law, his revealed will as found in the Scriptures. Paul spoke of this to the church in Rome when he wrote, “…if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead” (Rom. 7:7-8). While Paul was speaking contextually of the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, John’s definition in the New Testament as “lawlessness” shows that the principle discussed by Paul here applies universally. “For apart from the law” — i.e., the law of God — “sin lies dead.” If God had not decreed, “You shall not covet,” then coveting would not be a sin (cf. Rom. 3:20). Since God did give that commandment in not only the Old Law but also within the New (cf. Col. 3:5), then to break that command is to sin.
Keeping the definition of sin as the violation of the laws of God within the forefront of our minds helps us to have better understanding of who exactly should be disciplined. If the answer to this question is those who sin, and it is, then the answer would NOT be those who violate laws and standards which are NOT God’s. Thus, church discipline is not intended to be practiced against those who do not live up to Jon Mitchell’s own scruples, opinions, or personal judgments. Church discipline is not for anyone who does not meet any of our own idiosyncrasies or personal standards which are not found within Scripture.
It is very important that we understand this. Some within the church in Rome were condemning their brethren for not meeting their own laws concerning eating meat. God through the inspired apostle commanded, “…let not the one who abstains (from eating meat) pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom. 14:3), before asking this pertinent question: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls…” (v. 4). In other words, the Lord and his judgments are ultimately the ones which matter, not our own (cf. Rom. 14:10-12). While it is true that he commanded the ones who understood that eating meat was not a violation of divine law to still abstain from doing so for the sake of the conscience of their weaker brethren (Rom. 14:14b-19, 20b-21; 15:1-2), he also made sure to inform the weaker brethren that “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself…” (v. 14a), “Everything is indeed clean” (v. 20a), and “The faith (contextually, personal opinion, scruple, or idiosyncrasy) that you have, keep between yourself and God” (v. 22a). Therefore, we must be very careful when practicing any form of church discipline, including the initial preventative kind discussed in the last issue which takes place in public preaching and teaching and private, to make sure that the basis for our correcting the erring brother is based solely on rightly divided Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15; 4:1-2; cf. 1 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 22:18-19; Prov. 30:6). We will do our brethren, the church, and ourselves great harm by disciplining others because our own man-made standards weren’t being met.
We must also understand that God does not wish for church discipline to be practiced against anyone who is actually not part of the church. While directing the church at Corinth to withdraw fellowship from their brother who was involved in unrepentant fornication, Paul wrote under inspiration: “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….For what have I to do with judging outsiders?…God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:9-10, 12a, 13a). God does not wish for us to discipline those who aren’t even our brethren, those who are outside of Christ and lost in sin. God judges them himself. Our responsibility to them is to share the gospel with them (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16), let our light shine on them (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:12), and avoid participation in their evil deeds (Eph. 5:11; cf. 1 Cor. 15:33).
Instead of withdrawing from the lost outside the church, the apostle directed Corinth: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who 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…Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?…‘Purge the evil person from among you’” (vs. 11, 12b, 13b). In other words, church discipline is intended for those within the church.
Furthermore, let us also understand that church discipline is not intended for brethren who sin and yet are penitent, especially the parts of discipline that have to do with bringing witnesses and the entire church into the matter and then withdrawal of fellowship. It would do us good to never forget the words of John: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7-9).
Brethren, we all sin. God knows and expects that. What keeps us within the light, in spite of our sin, is our continual penitent acknowledgment of that sin (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10). This repentant confession of sin of which I speak is not limited to the traditional “coming forward during the invitation song,” an action which is not the only way to obey 1 John 1:9 and James 5:16 in any case. Scripture speaks of “bearing fruit” or “performing deeds” which are “in keeping with…repentance” (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20; cf. 2 Cor. 7:11). We also read of the biblical concept of giving time for the erring brother in Christ to repent of their sin (Rev. 3:21; Matt. 21:29, 32). Therefore, it would be a mishandling of church discipline to adapt a “waiting to pounce” mentality concerning any time our brethren slips and stumbles. While the other extreme where we choose to never rebuke a fellow Christian who clearly is allowing sin to reign in their life must also be avoided, let us also make sure that we are not that person who, every single time a fellow Christian slips, is ready to immediately start the entire process of discipline against them. Balance and wisdom must be practiced concerning these matters. The Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 — “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them…” — is a great guide to follow. Would you want grace and patience to be extended to you whenever you slip up…or would you want your fellow Christians to be openly calling out every single time you “miss the mark”? To ask is to answer.
Additionally, remember the biblical precept of avoiding partiality and prejudice. While directing Timothy on how to respond if someone brought an accusation of sin against an elder, Paul wrote under inspiration: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, do nothing from partiality” (1 Tim. 5:21), before also exhorting him to avoid “tak(ing) part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (v. 22b). It is easy to use church discipline as a weapon against others in the church with whom you have a grievance and desire revenge. If we aren’t careful, we can find ourselves easily caught up in the duplicitous contention some of our brethren might have against others in our congregation. God knew—and still knows—how easy it is to get caught up in other people’s wars with each other. That’s why the Spirit inspired Paul to direct Timothy to make sure that, if someone came to him with an accusation against an elder, that this person would have already followed Matthew 18:15-16 concerning that elder (cf. 1 Tim. 5:19). He was also to be completely impartial and to avoid making any judgments before knowing all of the facts. If it turned out that this attempt at church discipline was duplicitous in nature, intended to be unjustly used as a weapon against that elder, then Timothy was to “keep (himself) pure” and “take (no) part in the sins of others.”
This is a great lesson for us today, not only in regard to one’s relations with elders but also with regards to all our brethren. If someone in the church wants to get us involved in practicing discipline against someone else in the church, we must make sure that their reasons for doing so are completely honorable and solely revolving around concern for that person’s soul and the sanctity of the church as a whole. This is why church discipline is intended as a result of actual sin as defined as such by Scripture rather than one’s own standards and scruples, and is to be done under the wise and prudent parameters of Matthew 18:15-16 before any further action involving the church and disfellowship is taken.
Lord willing, we will conclude our study of this topic in the next issue.