Section 8: The Church
Week 2: The Church’s Authority and Power
Day 5: The Church Has Been Given Authority to Discipline Its Members
God is concerned about the purity of his Church. As a result, he has given the Church authority to discipline its members (Matt. 18:15-20, 1 Cor. 5, 2 Thess. 3:6-14). Jesus, himself, described what the process ought to look like.
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But, if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name there am I with them. (Matt. 18:15-20).
The Discipline Process
Jesus outlines four progressive steps of discipline:
1. Discuss the matter one-to-one: If we see that a fellow believer in the Church is involved in sin, Jesus doesn’t say we should go and tell the pastor or another leader about it. He says we have a responsibility to go to the person and talk to them about it one-to-one. The hope is that this will be enough to trigger repentance, and the matter can end right then and there.
2. Bring others to help try and persuade the person to repent: If the person doesn’t acknowledge and repent of their sin, we don’t get to wipe our hands of the situation. Jesus tells us to get a couple other believers to go and talk to the person along with us. The goal isn’t to gang up on him or her. The goal, as it was in the first stage, is to try to persuade the person to get back on the right track. Additionally, the presence of other believers allows for independent confirmation of the person’s response. As Pastor, John MacArthur, explains, “God wants two or three witnesses to confirm either the person’s repentance or impenitence. Before discipline takes place, He wants to be sure that our analysis of a person’s attitudes and actions are accurate. He doesn’t want wrong reports given about his people.”[i]
3. Bring the matter to the congregation: Because the goal is repentance, if the person doesn’t repent at the second stage, the Church is obligated to keep pressing the matter. Jesus says that the next step is to bring the matter before the entire congregation. Again, the goal isn’t to embarrass the person. The hope is that this will help them see just how serious the issue is.
4. Separate from the unrepentant person: If all this fails to bring the person to repentance, Jesus says the church is to treat the person as a tax-collector. At the time tax-collectors were viewed as “heathens.” The idea is that if the person still refuses to repent, we are no longer to treat them as a member of the church.[ii]
1. We’re talking about sin: The discipline process is reserved for genuine sin. In other words, we don’t get to go around confronting people just because they do things that rub us the wrong way or annoy us. We also have to be careful about jumping in when the issue involves something over which Christians can legitimately disagree.[iii]
2. Discipline is the responsibility of the whole congregation: Discipline isn’t just the responsibility of a certain group of leaders within the church. Individual believers are involved at every stage.
3. The process stops at whatever stage the person repents: We should never forget that repentance is the goal. Therefore, the process stops at whatever stage repentance occurs. At that point we are to welcome the person back into fellowship. In 1 Corinthians Paul was shocked that the church was tolerating someone who was involved in serious sin. So, he told the church to expel him. When the person later repented, the church was reluctant to accept him back. So, Paul wrote:
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 (2 Cor. 2:5-8).
Read Matt. 18:15-20 1 Cor. 5, and 2 Cor. 2.
Why would God want the Church to discipline its members? Is the process something believers should fear? Why or why not?
[i] John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Master’s Plan for the Church, Chicago: Moody Press (1991), 242.
[ii] Ibid., 243.
[iii] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House (1994), 897.