As we conclude our study of church discipline which has taken place over the past two editorials, let us turn our attention to some questions submitted by readers concerning this topic.
It seems that church discipline is not practiced today in the Lord’s church as much as it has been in previous generations and in New Testament times. Can you discuss some reasons as to why this might be so?
My own observations over the years have seen church discipline, ranging from the first step of correction and instruction given in either sermons or classes or in private discussion to the final step of withdrawing fellowship, happening more times than is commonly supposed. This is encouraging because it shows that more within the church understand the need for this than we might think. Still, it must also be pointed out that there are many churches which have gone for generations without practicing discipline, if they have ever practiced it at all.
Several reasons could account for this. Some brethren simply do not want to get involved in the lives of others, especially if it involves correcting others of wrongdoing. However, as part of God’s family and members of his Son’s church, we must be involved. As Paul said, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Rom. 14:7). Each of us has the divinely-given responsibility of living as God would have us to live and doing all within our power to keep his church pure.
Along these lines, another reason could be because leaders of the church are not confident that the church would follow their lead concerning discipline, and thus decide to abstain from practicing it. Over the years, I’ve seen several elders and preachers express this concern while discussing church discipline at gatherings such as lectureships, seminars, and elder/preacher get-togethers. Yet this points to other reasons as to why these fears may be justified.
For one, if discipline has been overlooked for years in a particular congregation, it is possible—indeed, probable—that there is a lot of sin within that congregation which is known by many or all. Elders and preachers might be at a loss to know where, or even how, to begin church discipline in any sort of consistent manner. Additionally, few if any within that church would have seen it practiced, especially in the right way. We fear that which we do not know, and we fear the “horror stories” about church discipline which are easily spread throughout the brotherhood. Thus, it is easier to give into the temptation to simply ignore the need for church discipline if we have little to no experience with it; it is also easy to dismiss the need to practice it if we are swayed by reports of lawsuits, negative media coverage, and being called unloving and hypocritical by both the world and weak brethren who either do not understand church discipline or who are trying to get attention away from their own sins.
In the end, however, church discipline and all of its facets are commands given to us by God, and we ignore them to our peril (Heb. 5:9; 10:26-31). I exhort preachers to preach the Word and do so in love and with authority, and I urge elders to back them when they do so both publicly and privately. This in itself in many ways is the first step of church discipline; continuing to do this in a balanced and consistent way will likely go a long way towards getting the church where it needs to be. I also encourage elders to take the lead in practicing further discipline when needed, and to do so with humility, patience, love, and consistency. Look for those in the brotherhood who have experience in practicing church discipline in the right way, and go to them for counsel for the most expeditious ways to follow the scriptural guidelines. Sound brotherhood seminars such as Polishing The Pulpit would be a great place to find wisdom along these lines. Above all, seek wisdom from God in prayer (James 1:5ff), and do not allow yourself to depart from this path. In the end, church discipline done for the right reasons and in the right way will pay many positive dividends for the brethren where you worship, and for yourselves as well.
We are wanting to start the process of church discipline, and want to be prepared for any objections to it which might come our way. What might we expect?
Two come to mind, although I’m sure there are more. One might be, “We’re all sinners, so are you going to withdraw from all of us?” We all do in fact sin (Rom. 3:23). I’m sure Jesus and Paul understood that. In fact, when I think of the church in Corinth and the numerous sins within their ranks about which Paul wrote to rebuke them—sins such as sectarianism, worldliness, strife, envy, suing each other over trivial matters, divisiveness, selfishness, mishandling the Lord’s Supper, mishandling spiritual gifts, doubting even the resurrection of the dead—I wonder if Paul understood that he was basically asking an assembly of Christians who were far from perfect to withdraw fellowship from a fellow Christian who was also caught up in sin. I think he did, and I also believe that his divinely-inspired directives to withdraw fellowship from the fornicator among them prompted many more of them to repent of their own misdeeds (cf. 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Cor. 7:8-13). Point being, God has always required Christians who sin to discipline each other. Doing so with love and humility helps all involved to grow in the areas in which they need to grow. Not doing so is counterproductive and will do nothing but lead to more sin.
Another might be, “The commands to withdraw fellowship in the New Testament were for particular situations that took place in different churches long ago, and therefore are not meant for us.” To which I would reply that all Scripture is given by inspiration to completely equip the man of God for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). If that means just the man of God who lived in the first century, then consistency would demand that the entire New Testament—indeed, the entire Bible—be dismissed as completely irrelevant for anyone today. If that is the case, then why are we Christians? In reality, the commands and examples of church discipline found in Scripture are there to guide us and thus be relevant for the church universally and for all time. As was pointed out in previous editorials, the purpose of church discipline, up to and including the withdrawing of fellowship, is two-fold: to motivate the erring brother or sister in Christ to repent (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 2 Thess. 3:14), and to keep sin from spreading within the church (1 Cor. 5:6-8; 1 Tim. 5:20). This was a need during Paul’s day, and it is still a need today. There is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9-10).
Could you explain 2 Thessalonians 3:15? How can we admonish him as a brother if we are to have nothing to do with him?
Picture this scenario. Within your congregation is a fellow Christian who is known to be unrepentantly involved in what the Bible unmistakably calls sin. You and others, ultimately the whole church, have privately studied with him and pleaded with him to repent…all to no avail. Finally, with sorrow you have withdrawn fellowship from him, all while urging him again to repent. Time passes. One day you find yourself in line at the store right next to him. What do you do?
“Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” Therefore, you don’t act as if he doesn’t exist. You don’t snub him or glare at him. Instead, you greet him with a smile. However, you also don’t act as if the disfellowship never happened. This brother in Christ is caught in Satan’s trap, and that is all that matters. So don’t talk about the game last night or the weather or how the kids are doing. Instead, tell him he is missed and plead with him to repent and come back. If he refuses, then tell him sincerely that you’re praying for him regularly and hope he changes his mind, and move on.
I pray this study has been beneficial for you.