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A Church Discipline Primer (Pg. 2)

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How should a church practice church discipline? Jesus provides the basic outline in Matthew 18:15-17. He says to his disciplines,

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. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Notice here that the offense starts between two brothers, and the response should extend no further than it needs to go in order to produce reconciliation. Jesus describes the process in four steps.

Four Basic Steps

1. If a sin problem can be resolved between the two people by themselves, then the case is closed.

2. If it cannot be resolved, then the offended brother should bring two or three others so “that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16). Jesus takes this phrase from Deuteronomy 19, which in context is meant to protect people against false accusations. Deuteronomy in fact calls for a “thorough investigation” whenever there’s any doubt about the crime (Deut. 19:18). I take it that Jesus, likewise, means for Christians to be concerned with truth and justice, which may require due diligence. The two or three witnesses need to be able to confirm that, indeed, there is a serious and outward offense and, indeed, the offender is unrepentant. Hopefully, involving other people will either bring the offender to his senses or help the offended see that he should not be so offended. Both this step and the prior step may occur over several meetings, whatever the parties think is prudent.

3. If the intervention of the two or three does not admit of a solution, the offended party is then instructed to tell it to the church (Matt. 18:17a). In my own congregation, this is typically done through the elders, since the Lord has given the church elders to provide oversight in all the church’s affairs (1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2). The elders will announce the name of the party charged with outward, serious, and unrepentant sin. They will provide a very brief description of the sin, a description adjudged to not cause others to stumble or to bring undue embarrassment on any family members. And, typically, they will then give the congregation two months to seek out the sinner and call him or her to repentance.

4. The final step of church discipline is exclusion from the fellowship or membership of the church, which essentially means exclusion from the Lord’s Table: “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17b). He is to be treated as someone outside of God’s covenant people, someone who should not partake of Christ’s covenant meal (though he will probably be encouraged to continue attending the church's gatherings; see discussion below). Our own congregation will take this step once the two months have expired and the individual has refused to let go of the sin. Two months is an arbitrary number, of course; it simply presents a basic timeline to correspond with our church’s regularly scheduled members meetings. In any given situation, the church might deem it necessary to speed up that timeline, or slow it down.  

Why Slow Down or Speed Up the Process?

Sometimes the processes of discipline should move quite slowly. This is the case, for instance, when a sinner shows at least some interest in fighting against his sin. It’s not just the nature of the sin which needs to be considered, it’s the nature of the sinner himself. Different sinners, to put it bluntly, require different strategies. As Paul instructs, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14). Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent whether people are idle or indifferent toward their sin or if they’re genuinely weak.

I remember working with one brother involved in one kind of addiction, and for a time I wasn’t sure if he was just making excuses for his moral lapses or if his soul was truly weakened and malformed by years of sinning, making it that much harder for him to stop sinning. The answer to those kinds of questions should affect how quickly the processes of discipline move.

Sometimes the processes of discipline need to speed up, which might mean skipping one or two of the steps described by Jesus in Matthew 18. Two clear biblical warrants for speeding up the processes of discipline are (i) division in the church and (ii) public scandal (i.e., sin that will misrepresent Christ in the community beyond the church). Regarding the first category, Paul says, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10). It’s not entirely clear what kind of process Paul has in mind here. But his words do suggest that the church should respond quickly and decisively to division-makers for the sake of the body.

An even faster process is presented in 1 Corinthians 5, in which Paul calls upon the church to immediately remove an individual known to be engaged in a publicly scandalous sin, that is, a sin of which even the non-Christian community disapproves. In fact, Paul doesn’t even tell the church to warn the man in case he might be brought to repentance. He simply tells them to “deliver this man to Satan” (v. 5a).

Why skip over the question of repentance and not give the man a second chance? It’s not that Paul is uninterested in repentance or second chances. Rather, he tells the church to remove the man so that the man’s “spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (v. 5b). Surely, Paul is open to the man eventually rejoining the church should he indeed prove repentant (see 2 Cor. 2:5-8). But the point is, his sin is publicly known and makes a public statement about Christ. Therefore, the church should respond with an equally public statement before the world: “Not acceptable! Christians don’t do this!”

Having said that, it’s worth observing in 1 Corinthians 5 that there was no question about whether or not the man was engaged in sin. It was an uncontested fact. However, if there is a question about whether or not a sin has occurred, even if it’s a scandalous sin, the church should pause long enough to conduct a thorough investigation, as Jesus requires in Matthew 18. For instance, a church doesn't want to discipline someone for embezzlement (a publicly scandalous sin) based on hearsay, only to have the secular courts throw out the case three months later because of insufficient evidence.

What then are the two considerations that might cause a church to speed up the processes of discipline? A church might deem it wise to move more quickly when (i) there’s an immediate threat to the unity of the church body or (ii) there’s a sin which could bring great harm to the name of Christ in the community. There is no precise formula for establishing when one of these lines is crossed, and a church does well to appoint a plurality of godly elders to give oversight to such difficult matters.

Attendance and Restoration

Church members often wonder whether a person who has been excluded from membership and the Lord’s Table can continue attending the church’s weekly gatherings, as well as how they should interact with him or her throughout the week. The New Testament addresses this matter in a number of places (1 Cor. 5:9, 11; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; 2 Tim. 3:5; Titus 3:10; 2 John 10), and different circumstances may well require different responses. But the instruction given by the elders in my own church generally falls under two points:

  • Except for situations in which the unrepentant party’s presence is a physical threat to the congregation, a church should welcome the person’s attendance in the weekly gathering. There’s no better place for the person to be than sitting under the preaching of God’s Word.
  • Though the family members of a disciplined individual should certainly continue to fulfill the biblical obligations of family life (e.g. Eph. 6:1-3; 1 Tim. 5:8; 1 Peter 3:1-2), the tenor of church members’ relationships with the disciplined individual should markedly change. Interactions should not be characterized by casualness or friendliness but by deliberate conversations about repentance.

Restoration to the fellowship of the church occurs when there are signs of true repentance. What true repentance looks like depends on the nature of the sin. Sometimes repentance is a black and white matter, as with a man who has abandoned his wife. For him, repenting means returning to her, plain and simple. Yet sometimes repentance doesn’t mean conquering a sin completely so much as demonstrating a new diligence in waging war against the sin, as with a person caught in a cycle of addiction.

Clearly, the question of true repentance is a difficult one that requires much wisdom. Caution must be balanced with compassion. Some time may need to pass for repentance to be demonstrated by its fruits, but not too much time (see 2 Cor. 2:5-8). Once a church decides to restore a repenting individual to its fellowship and the Lord’s Table, there should be no talk of a probation period or second-class citizenship. Rather the church should publicly pronounce its forgiveness (John 20:23), affirm its love for the repenting individual (2 Cor. 2:8), and celebrate (Luke 15:24).      


As a church moves toward practicing church discipline, it will often find itself facing real-life situations that are complex and have no exact “case-study” in Scripture to help it sift through the various layers of circumstances. It will not always be clear whether formal church discipline is required, or how long the processes should take, or whether the guilty party is truly repentant, and so on.

As a congregation and its leaders work through these complex issues, they must remember that the church is called, above all else, to guard the name and glory of Christ. Fundamentally, church discipline is about the reputation of Christ and whether or not the church can continue to affirm the verbal profession of someone whose life egregiously mischaracterizes Christ. The sins and circumstances of sin will vary tremendously, but this one question always needs to be in the forefront of our churches’ thoughts: “How will this sinner’s sin and our response to it reflect the holy love of Christ?”

After all, to care about the reputation of Christ is to care about the good of non-Christians. When churches fail to practice church discipline, they begin to look like the world. They are like salt that has lost its saltiness, which is only good for being trampled upon (Matt. 5:13). They are no witness at all to a world lost in darkness.

Also, to care about the reputation of Christ is to care about other members of the church. Christians should want to look like Jesus, and church discipline helps to keep his holy picture clear. Members are reminded to take greater care in their own lives whenever a formal act of discipline occurs. The Congregationalist James sums it up well: “The advantages of discipline are obvious. It reclaims backsliders, detects hypocrites, circulates a salutary awe through the church, adds a further incentive to watchfulness and prayer, proves beyond question the fact and consequences of human frailty, and moreover, publicly testifies against unrighteousness.”[2]

Finally, to care about the reputation of Christ is to care about the individual caught in sin. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul knew the most loving course of action was to exclude a man from the congregation “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5).

Why should a church practice discipline? For the good of the individual, the good of non-Christians, the good of the church, and the glory of Christ.[3] Keeping these basic goals in mind will help churches and elders move from one difficult case to another, knowing that God’s wisdom and love will prevail even as ours fall short.

Jonathan Leeman, an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, is the director of communications for 9Marks and is the author of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Crossway, Jan. 2010).

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1. John Angell James, Church Fellowship or The Church Member’s Guide, excerpted from volume XI of the 10th edition of the Works of John Angell James, 53.
2. James, Christian Fellowship, 53.
3. See Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Crossway, 2004), 174-78.


September/October 2009
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