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A Church Discipline Primer

By Jonathan Leeman

What would you think of a coach who instructs his players but never drills them? Or a math teacher who explains the lesson but never corrects her students’ mistakes? Or a doctor who talks about health but ignores cancer?

You would probably say that all of them are doing half their job. Athletic training requires instructing and drilling. Teaching requires explaining and correcting. Doctoring requires encouraging health and fighting disease. Right?

Okay, what would you think about a church that teaches and disciples but doesn’t practice church discipline? Does that make sense to you? I assume it makes sense to many churches, because every church teaches and disciples, but so few practice church discipline. The problem is, making disciples without discipline makes as much sense as a doctor who ignores tumors.

I understand the reluctance to practice church discipline. It’s a difficult matter for any number of reasons. Still, this reluctance to practice church discipline, a reluctance that many of us probably feel, may suggest that we believe ourselves to be wiser and more loving than God. God, after all, “disciplines those he loves”; and “he punishes everyone he accepts as a son” (Heb. 12:6). Do we know better than God?

God disciplines his children for the sake of their life, growth, and health: God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). Yes, it’s painful, but it pays off: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11). A harvest of righteousness and peace! That’s a beautiful picture.

Church discipline ultimately leads to church growth, just as pruning a rose bush leads to more roses. Said another way, church discipline is one aspect of Christian discipleship. Notice that the words “disciple” and “discipline” are etymological cousins. Both words are taken from the realm of education, which involves teaching and correction. Not surprisingly, there’s a centuries-old practice of referring to “formative discipline” and “corrective discipline.”

My goal in this primer is to introduce the reader to the basics of corrective church discipline—the “what,” the “when,” the “how,” and a few more words on the “why.”

What is corrective church discipline? Church discipline is the process of correcting sin in the life of the congregation and its members. This can mean correcting sin through a private word of admonition. And it can mean correcting sin by formally removing an individual from membership. Church discipline can be done in any number of ways, but the goal is always to correct transgressions of God’s law among God’s people.

Not Retributive, but Remedial, Prophetic, and Proleptic

This correction of sin is not a retributive action; it’s not enacting God’s justice, per se. Rather, it’s remedial, prophetic, and proleptic. By remedial, I mean it’s meant to help the individual Christian and the congregation grow in godliness—in God-like-ness. If a member of the church is given to gossip or slander, another member should correct the sin so that the gossiper will stop gossiping and speak words of love instead. God does not use his words to wrongfully harm; neither should his people.

By saying that church discipline is prophetic, I mean it shines the light of God’s truth onto error and sin. It exposes cancer in an individual’s or the body’s life, so that the cancer might be cut out. Sin is a master of disguise. Gossip, for instance, likes to wear the mask of “pious concern.” The gossiper might think that his words are reasonable, even caring. Yet church disciple exposes the sin for what it is. It exposes the sin both to the sinner and to everyone involved, so that all may learn and benefit.

By saying the church discipline is proleptic, I mean it’s a small picture of judgment in the present that warns of an even greater judgment to come (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:5). Such a warning is nothing if not gracious. Suppose a classroom teacher gave passing grades to a student’s failing tests throughout the semester for fear of discouraging the student, only to fail her at the end of the semester. That would not be gracious! In the same way, church discipline is a loving way to say to an individual caught in sin, “Careful, an even greater penalty will result if you continue on this path. Please turn back now.”

It’s not surprising that people don’t like discipline. It’s hard. But how merciful God is to warn his people of the great judgment to come in comparatively small ways now!

Biblical-Theological Foundations

Behind church discipline is one of the grand projects of redemptive history—the project of restoring God’s fallen people to the place where they will once more image God as they extend his benevolent and life-producing rule throughout creation (Gen. 1:26-28; 3:1-6).

Adam and Eve were to image God. So was the kingdom of Israel. Yet Adam and Eve’s failure to represent God’s rule, prompted by the desire to rule on their own terms, resulted in their exile from God’s place, the Garden. Israel’s same failure to keep God’s law and reflect God’s character to the nations also resulted in an exile.

As creatures made in God’s image, our actions intrinsically speak about him, like mirrors representing the object which they face. The problem is, fallen humanity distorts the image of God, like wavy carnival mirrors. Since fallen humanity speaks lies, for instance, the world has concluded that God’s own words cannot be trusted. He, too, must be a liar. As goes a creature, so must go its creator.

Gratefully, one son of Adam, one son of Israel, did keep God’s law perfectly, the same one whom Paul would describe as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Now, those who are united to this one Son are called to bear that same “image,” which we learn to do through the life of the church “from one degree of glory to the next” (see 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; Col. 3:9-10).

Local churches should be those places on earth where the nations can go to find humans who increasingly image God truly and honestly. As the world beholds the holiness, love, and unity of local churches, they will better know what God is like and will give him praise (e.g. Matt. 5:14-16; John 13:34-35; 1 Peter 2:12). Church discipline, then, is the church’s response when one of its own fails to represent God’s holiness, love, or unity by being disobedient to God. It’s an attempt to correct false images as they rise up within the life of Christ’s body, almost like polishing smudges of dirt out of a mirror.

Specific Texts

Jesus grants local congregations the authority to discipline their own in Matthew 16:16-19 and 18:15-20. The power of the keys for binding and loosing on earth, first mentioned in Matthew 16:18, are handed to the local congregation in Matthew 18:15-20, which we’ll consider more carefully below.

Paul describes the processes of church discipline in a number of places, including 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:6, Galatians 6:1, Ephesians 5:11, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, 1 Timothy 5:19-20, 2 Timothy 3:5, and Titus 3:9-11.

John refers to a kind of discipline in 2 John 10. Jude seems to have it mind in Jude 22 and 23. More examples could be mentioned. Really, church discipline is what Jesus and the biblical authors have in mind every time they tell their listeners to correct sin in their lives together.


When should a church practice discipline? The short answer is, when someone sins. But the answer might differ depending on whether we’re talking about informal or formal church discipline, to use Jay Adams distinction between private confrontations and public church-wide confrontations.

Any sin, whether of a serious or non-serious nature, might elicit a private rebuke between two brothers or sisters in the faith. That’s not to say we should rebuke every single sin that a fellow church member commits. It’s simply to say that every sin, no matter how small, falls into the realm of what two Christians may lovingly raise with one another in a private setting, prudence depending.

When we turn to the question of which sins require formal or church-wide corrective discipline, we need to tread a little more carefully.

Biblical Lists

Some of the older theologies presented lists of when it’s appropriate to conduct formal discipline. For instance, the Congregationalist minister John Angell James said that five kinds of offenses should be disciplined: (i) all scandalous vices and immoralities (e.g. 1 Cor. 5:11-13); (ii) the denial of Christian doctrine (e.g. Gal. 1:8; 2 Tim. 2:17-21; 1 Tim. 6:35; 2 John 10f); (iii) the stirring up of division (Titus 3:10); (iv) the failure to provide for one’s near relatives when they are in need (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:8); (v) and unreconciled enmity (e.g. Matt. 18:7).[1]

These types of biblical lists can be helpful to a point. Notice that each of the sins described are both serious and have an outward manifestation. They’re not just inward sins of the heart; they can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. And in that outward manifestation they mislead both the world and other sheep about Christianity.

Yet what such lists fail to do is account for the vast multitude of sins which the Scriptures never address (what about abortion?). Plus, texts on church discipline may only mention one particular sin, such as 1 Corinthians 5 which discusses the sin of sleeping with a father’s wife; but surely Paul doesn’t mean for churches to only discipline that sin. How should churches extrapolate out from such examples to other sins?

Outward, Serious, and Unrepentant

One way to summarize the biblical data is to say that that formal church discipline is required in cases of outward, serious, and unrepentant sin. A sin must have an outward manifestation. It must be something that can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. Churches should not quickly throw the red flag of ejection every time they suspect greed or pride in someone’s heart. It’s not that sins of the heart are not serious. It’s that the Lord knows we cannot see one another’s hearts, and that real heart problems will eventually rise to the surface anyway (1 Sam. 16:7; Matt. 7:17f; Mark 7:21).

Second, a sin must be serious. For instance, I might observe a brother exaggerate the details of a story and then privately confront him over the matter. But even if he denies it, I probably wouldn’t draw him in front of the church. Why not? First, something like the sin of embellishing stories is rooted in far more significant and unseen sins like idolatry and self-justification. Those are the sins I want to spend personal time discussing with him. Second, pursuing every tiny sin a church’s life will probably induce paranoia and propel the congregation toward legalism. Third, there clearly needs to be a place for love to “cover a multitude of sins” in a congregation’s life (1 Peter 4:8). Not every sin should be pursued to the utmost. Thankfully, God has not done so with us.     

Finally, formal church discipline is the appropriate course of action when sin is unrepentant. The person involved in serious sin has been privately confronted with God’s commands in Scripture, but he or she refuses to let go of the sin. From all appearances, the person prizes the sin more than Jesus. There may be one kind of exception to this, which we’ll consider below.

All three factors were in play in my first experience with corrective church discipline. The person in question happened to be a good friend and running partner. Yet both I and the church were oblivious to the fact that he was engaged in a lifestyle of sexual sin, at least until he told me one day over lunch. Immediately I asked him whether he knew what the Bible said about such activity, which he did. Yet he said that he had made his peace with God. I urged him to repent. Others eventually did as well. But he said the same thing to all of us: “God is okay with it.” After several months of such conversations, the church formally removed him from its fellowship. His sin was serious, unrepentant, and had a clear outward manifestation. It would mislead others both inside and outside the church about what it means to be a Christian. The church spent several months pursuing this man. We loved him. We wanted him to turn away from his sin and to know that Jesus is more valuable than anything this world affords. Still, it was clear almost immediately that he had no intension of turning away. He was resolute. Given a choice between his sin and the Word of God, he chose sin. So the church formally acted.

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September/October 2009
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