The following studies are hereby presented as a position paper on the subject of “Church Discipline” by the Government Study Committee. The various sections of this position paper were prepared by the various members of the Committee. No attempt has been made to provide for a smooth transition from one section to the next. However, each section has been considered by the entire Committee and changes have been made by the Committee so that this entire position paper is to be viewed as the work of the Committee.
This position paper is not legislation, but is presented to the 96th Annual Conference for adoption as a Bible Fellowship Church position paper. Legislation will then be prepared and presented by the Committee to a later Annual Conference for adoption.
The Government Study Committee urges the Annual Conference body to study this position paper. Based upon various reactions to this paper, the Government Study Committee invites comments which will be of assistance in the preparation of the ensuing legislation.
Discipline is the shaping of a life toward a goal. Part of discipline is instruction given by words and by example, part is developing behavior in the one being taught consistent with the instruction given and part is correction when behavior is not according to the instruction.
Mark 1:16-20 – Jesus’ call to Peter to –follow Him is a call to learn where Jesus was going and to go there also; this learning included following an example and receiving verbal instructions. This call is to a beginning of following.
Matthew 16:21-26 – Despite Peter’s geographical following and confession, Jesus here rebukes him strongly for thinking which was logical but not correct. His call is to continued following.
Hebrews 12:4-6 – Discipline is to correct according to instruction and is painful at times. Without discipline no individual’s claim to be a believer can be judged to be a valid claim.
Luke 14:25-35 – Men cannot be followers i.e. disciples of Christ without coming under His discipline.
Hebrews 12:7-9 – A professed follower is an illegitimate child if he does not receive discipline from his Father.
Our age is an age which despises discipline because it desires to do what it wants to do (“doing your own thing”) rather than what any instructor desires. Our age despises discipline also because it desires instant ability or success in contrast to the growth implied by discipline. Therefore we must help people realize that the presence of discipline in the life of an individual is contrary to our age and yet essential to the life of every believer.
THE MEANS OF DISCIPLINE
The means by which God exercises discipline in the Church may be viewed as twofold:
1. By Direct Divine Intervention
2. By the Agency of the Church
1. Direct Divine Intervention
Throughout the ages God has administered temporal judgment upon His people freely and directly. That is, He has acted without involving human agents in His disciplinary activity.
This means of discipline was especially true in the Old Testament economy. As early as Adam and Eve’s
banishment from the Garden of Eden we have evidence of the Lord’s determination to chasten directly those who disobey His commands. Nadab and Abihu were disciplined with fire from heaven for offering “strange fire before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2), Uzzah was put to death for touching the ark (II Sam. 6:7), David’s sin of adultery and murder moved God to take David’s infant son’s life (II Sam. 12:19) and stubborn Jonah was disciplined by means of a great fish prepared by the Lord (Jonah 1:17).
The Lord did make use of human instruments in carrying out divine judgments upon the disobedient
(eg. Ex. 32:25-28; Deut. 13:6-11), but He also acted firmly and independently of human agency whenever He deemed it necessary. The above illustrations clearly indicate that God would not tolerate disobedience in the lives of those who professed to be His people.
With the establishment of the New Testament divine discipline, directly administered, became less frequent. Yet, it was not entirely abrogated. The following incidents illustrate direct divine discipline in the early church.
(1) Acts 5:1-16
Although God did involve Peter”in the pronouncement of judgment upon Ananias and Sapphira, the discipline was administered directly from above. It is clear that the purpose of this severe action was not only to punish the guilty but also to strike fear into the hearts of all believers (Acts 5:11).
(2) I Cor. 11:30-33
The abuse of the Lord’s Supper by the Corinthians was so offensive to God He could not tolerate it. This discipline came in the form of direct, temporal afflictions such as sickness and premature death (v, 30).
The purpose of this discipline was the reclaiming of erring brethren (v.32). The only way this divine intervention could be avoided by believers was through their serious self-examination (v.28) and self-judgment (v.31) prior to the observing of the supper.
(3) Revelation 2,3
We believe the seven churches mentioned in these two chapters were actual historic assemblies of believers in Asia Minor which experienced the direct discipline of Christ. Therefore, we must acknowledge that not only individuals but whole congregations may be the object of God’s direct discipline (eg. 2:4,5,16).
This discipline was occasioned by such sins as a loss of “first love” (2:4), false teachers (2:14,15), immorality (2:20,21), spiritual slumber (3:2,3) and religious half-heartedness (3:15-17). The discipline was not given without sufficient time for these churches to repent (2:5,16,21; 3:3,19). It came in a variety of forms. For example the dissolving of the particular church (2:5), judging of false teachers by the Word (2:16) physical sickness, trials and death (2:22,23) and rejection (3:16).
Again it is important to note that the motivating principle behind God’s disciplinary activity is His love for the Church (3:19).
Although these three passages of Scripture indicate that God may still administer discipline directly from above without human agency, it is obvious that His more customary means of discipline is through the instrumentality of the organized church.
2. The Agency of the Church
In Matthew 18:20 we read, “For where two or three have gathered together in my name, there I am in their midst.” These words of Christ were spoken in the context of a passage dealing with the disciplining of an erring brother. In other words, Christ is with His people when they faithfully exercise church discipline. As the Head of the Church He carries out His disciplinary activities through the members of the body as they obey His revealed directives (Matt. 18:15-19).
This discipline by means of the church may involve anything from a general admonition by a concerned fellow-member (Rom. 5:14, I Thess. 5:14), to formal suspension of an erring brother (II Thess. 3:6-15) to final expulsion (I Cor. 5:2,7,11,13). (cf. Chapter – “Responsibility for Discipline)”
THE PURPOSE OF DISCIPLINE
1. The Restoration of the Offender. As God’s direct discipline is always for “our profit” (Heb. 12:10), so church discipline js remedial in purpose. Christ spoke of gaining a brother (Matt. 18:15). The incestuous man was disciplined so “that the spirit may be saved” (I Cor. 5:5), and Hymenaeus and Alexander, “that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Tim. 1:20). Those in opposition are to be corrected with the motive that God may “give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (II Tim. 2:25).
2. The Maintaining of the Purity of the Church. As Achan’s sin prevented Israel from victory against her enemies (Josh. 7:13), so sin in the church gives occasion for the enemies of God to blaspheme (Rom. 2:24). The removal of sin restores the honor of God and enables the testimony of the church to shine brightly in the world. Discipline also protects the church from further decay, for sin which is allowed to remain spreads its infectious disease like a cancerous growth, and the health of the entire body is destroyed (I Cor.5:6). The execution of discipline also reminds all members of their propensity toward sin and serves as a warning of its consequences ( I Tim. 5:20). Only a pure church can minister effectively for Christ.
TYPES OF DISCIPLINE
In its more restricted sphere church discipline has to do with the execution of the laws of Christ regarding the admission and exclusion of members of the visible church. We may view this discipline from two different perspectives:
1. Formative (Preventative) Discipline and
2. Corrective Discipline
1. Formative (Preventative) Discipline
In the broadest sense of the word “discipline” means “to train” or “to cultivate according to rules”. It is a word that is closely related to “disciple”, that is “one who learns from another.”
The church is a divine institution where learning or formative discipline is constantly occurring. Christians are to be taught to observe all things commanded by our Lord (Matt. 28:19) so that they will be helped to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. (II Pet. 3:18)
This formative discipline demands not just formal instruction in God’s Word but also rebuking, reproving, correcting and admonishing (II Tim. 4:1, 2; Col. 1:28). This kind of discipline should be mutually exercised by all the brethren (Heb. 3:12, 13; Rom. 15:14; James 5:19,20) but is in a special sense the responsibility of the elders (Eph. 4:11, 12).
2. Corrective Discipline
In corrective discipline we have in mind something more restrictive than formative discipline. It has to do with those actions by which the particular church, in the name of Christ, authoritatively admonishes, suspends or, if necessary, excommunicates one of its members with a view to his eventual restoration. This type of discipline is very specific in nature as it is directed toward specific individuals who have committed specific of tenses.
It also is distinguished from formative discipline by the fact that it provides for the administration of some form of punishment which may vary from one kind of offense to the next (I Thess. 5:14; II Thess. 3:6-15; I Cor. 5:2,5,7,11,13). It is with the subject of corrective discipline that this paper is most greatly concerned.
THE AUTHORITY FOR DISCIPLINE
The authority for the execution of discipline rests with the elders of the local church. This authority is derived from Christ as set forth in His Word. True the people (church members) elect the elders as their representatives, but this election does not grant them the authority, that is, authority is not derived from the people, but from Christ. (Cf. Acts 15:23-29, 16:4; I Cor. 5:7, 13; 6:2-4, 12:28; Eph. 4:11-16).
The authority for the elders to function on behalf of the Church in matters of discipline is set forth by Christ in Matt. 16:19; 18:15-20 and John 10:23. Peter is granted by Christ the “Keys of the Kingdom”. Peter receives this authority as a representative of the Apostles who in turn are the representatives of the entire Church and its officers. Keys are an emblem of authority or power (cf. Isaiah 22:15-22) and this authority granted by Christ is the power to bind and to loose, which in these passages means the determination of what is forbidden and what is permitted in the Church. The judgment that is passed as implied in Matt. 16:19 is not so much on persons, but on actions. However, it is a person who commits the action of sin and Matt. 18:15-20 and John 20:23 grants the authority of judgment not only on actions but also on persons.
THE CAUSES OR OCCASIONS FOR CHURCH DISCIPLINE
The administration of church discipline is mandatory whenever there is a failure to maintain biblical standards of doctrine and behavior within the local church body.
The specific areas where church discipline is in order are as follows.
1. When Christian love is violated by serious personal offences against another Christian brother or sister, the process of church discipline becomes necessary. The offence may be either of a public or a private nature, as described in Matthew 18:15-18. When a’ brother offends another brother to the extent that a civil suit is involved, as described in I Corinthians 5:1-7, then this situation, too, becomes a matter for disciplinary action. A breakdown in the carrying out of mutual obligations in the households
of believers, such as is set forth in Colossians 3:18-4:1, also calls for disciplinary consideration.
2. The violation of Christian truth by the rejection of essential doctrines of the faith is a basis for discipline. (II John 9-11). The addition of doctrines not taught in Scripture or the distorting of the Gospel must be rejected, and its advocates disciplined. A case in point is found in Galatians 1:6-9, where “another Gospel” is condemned.
3. Persons causing divisions and disunity in the church must be confronted, rebuked, and if necessary, removed before schisms take place within the body (Acts 20:29,30; Romans 16:17; Titus 3:1,11; III John 8-11).
4. Those who break the moral laws taught in both the Old and New Testaments are fit subjects for discipline. The Ten Commandments furnish the basic patterns of morality. The principles of the moral law must be applied to contemporary mores of our culture, even though certain sinful practices may not be explicitly mentioned in Scripture (I Corinthians 5:1-3).
5. Any person who makes a profession of faith and claims membership in the church body must manifest the life of a horn-again believer. Whenever there are indications of habitual practices associated with an unregenerate life, there must be concern lest such a member be encouraged to maintain an empty profession. The works of the unregenerate are listed in-Galatians 6:19-21; Colossians 3:5-9; I Corinthians 5:11, and in other passages. Any member whose life manifests such practices should come under disciplinary surveillance.
6. Pastors, elders, deacons, and other officers appointed to carry out leadership responsibilities in the church must adhere closely to biblical standards of faith and conduct. There may be cases where a leader’s usefulness may be limited or destroyed by indiscreet actions, attitudes, and relationships. Each hurch must exercise care to maintain the standards of leadership set forth in I Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and 2.
7. The Faith and Order of the Bible Fellowship Church provides a form of covenant to which all members subscribe when admitted. The standards therein should therefore be respected and adhered to by each member, and upheld by gracious discipline in order to maintain the purity of the church.
In the event that there are disagreements in areas that are non-essential to salvation, channels should be open to address these problems through orderly scriptural procedures. There may arise situations where a leader or member may have to examine his own motives and integrity and determine whether it is ethical for him to maintain his personal views and his membership at the same time.
THE PERVADING SPIRIT IN DISCIPLINE
The spirit in which corrective discipline is administered is of crucial importance. It is possible to do the right thing in the wrong way; to have honorable motives but sinful attitudes.
At every point in the disciplinary process, therefore, we must carefully examine our attitudes and motives to be sure they are pleasing to the Lord. The Word of God indicates that the following characteristics ought to be manifested in those who administer correction and discipline to others:
1. A Spirit of Servanthood
The exercise of church discipline is never to be done in an independent fashion. It is always to be administered ministerially, that is, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ ( I Cor. 5:4). When the church acts in accordance with the will of Christ, its actions are confirmed in heaven (Matt. 18:18; John 20:23).
As the church is merely the servant of Christ in applying discipline, it does not have the right to expect more from its members than Christ has required in His Word nor does it have the authority to discipline for reasons other than those set forth by the head of the church.
Those who are directly involved in the exercise of discipline therefore, must have the servant spirit. If not, the whole process will be undermined from the start.
2. A Spirit of Gentleness
“Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a SPIRIT OF GENTLENESS; looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal, 6:1).
Corrective discipline, must be done in a “spirit of gentleness” (pneumati praotetas). In referring to a spirit of “gentleness” (praotetos) the Apostle Paul uses a word which in its root form (praus) means “gentle, pleasant, soothing, mild.” This gentle spirit is an outgrowth of Christian love (agape). Hence, the Apostle asks the arrogant Corinthian believers, “shall I come to you with a rod or with love (agape) and a spirit of gentleness (praotetos)?” (l Cor. 4:21). Their sins were serious, yet Paul maintained an attitude of meekness in dealing with the guilty ones. In so doing, he reflected the spirit of his Master and the head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ (II Cor. 10:1). It is this same “gentle” spirit which those who are “spiritual” must exhibit when they seek to heal the wounded brother.
3. A Spirit of Humility
The Apostle Paul’s directive to those who are involved in restoring a sinning brother is “looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted”, (Gal. 6:1). The implication is clear. We must always approach our erring brother with a mind to our own failures and inconsistencies. We must never forget our own likelihood to fall into temptation and our own continuing weaknesses.
Discipline cannot be successful if it is carried on in a spirit of arrogant self-righteousness and superiority. The man who thinks he is standing should all the more take heed lest he fall (I Cor. 10:12,13).
4. A Spirit of Patience
The series of steps mentioned in Matt. 18:15-17 for the disciplining of an unrepentant member imply that he will be treated with much patience and longsuffering. At each of the various stages sufficient time ought to be given for the offender to repent before advancing to the next step. Such is the way God deals with us (Rom. 2:4). How long one tolerates an unrepentant attitude must be determined on the basis of the various factors involved in each individual case.
5. A Spirit of Flexibility
In saying we must be “flexible” we do not mean to imply that any of God’s directives for discipline may be set aside. The flexibility comes in the manner in which the directives are carried out. We need to take into account when rebuking an erring brother such things as his temperament, his Christian maturity, his family circumstances, his intellectual grasp and many other factors. Discipline can never be a cut and dry procedure. Our purpose is to gain the brother, not to punish him. Therefore, in carrying out the disciplinary measures we must seek to be as flexible as we can within the biblical
boundaries. We cannot treat every brother exactly alike. This action is not showing “favoritism” nor “partiality” but rather is a demonstration of discernment and sensitivity in an unpleasant situation.
6. A Spirit of Persistence
While it is necessary to maintain a spirit of servanthood, gentleness, humility, patience and flexibility toward those who are being disciplined, we must never grow weary or lax in seeing the whole process through to the end.
No true servant of Christ enjoys confronting another brother with his sin. Even less appealing is the enforcement of ultimate disciplinary measures (cf. Matt. 18:17; Rom. 16:17; II Thess. 3:6, 14; Titus 3:10). Misunderstanding, wounding of sensitive spirits, criticism and outright opposition may very well accompany the exercise of church discipline. One may be tempted many times to give up. But, if one perseveres in faith, the ultimate end will be a joyful one. God will honor the church which honors His Word.
7. A Spirit of Prayer
Obedience to the admonitions of Scripture concerning church discipline is not enough in and of itself. All our labors are utterly fruitless without the blessing of God. The discipline process therefore must be carried out with much prayer. We must pray that the sinning brother repent and be restored, that the church be kept pure and that other believers learn to fear God.
One writer comments:
“We ought to pray for guidance and direction because discipline is a weighty matter. We ought to pray BEFORE we undertake discipline that Christ would keep us from mistakes. We ought to pray AS we administer discipline that Christ would make it effectual for the church and for the sinful person. We ought to pray AFTER we administer it that the offender would be humbled and brought to repentance. Prayer is an absolute essential for proper administration of church discipline.” (Wayne Mack, The Biblical Concept of Church Discipline Cherry Hill: Mack Publishing Company, 1974, p. 20.)
RESPONSIBILITY FOR DISCIPLINE
RESPONSIBILITY OF THE INDIVIDUAL FOR SELF DISCIPLINE
The place where the responsibility for discipline begins is in the individual’s relationship to Christ. Early in Christ’s relationship to Peter our Lord called Peter to “follow me” (Mk. 1:17). This included different geography and vocation. At a turning point in Christ’s relationship to Peter and after Peter gave a remarkable testimony, Christ strongly rebukes Peter and again calls him to continual following ( Mt. 16:21-26). This following included thinking contrary to Peter’s natural thinking. At the close of Christ’s earthly relationship to Peter, Christ again calls Peter to continued obedience. This included a commitment to follow Christ’s plan for Peter despite the shape of Christ’s plan for John.
These and other passages teach that each individual who seeks to follow Christ must continually be under the instruction and correction of Christ. Our world despises instruction and correction. But even instruction and correction of thinking and behavior alone are not enough. Christian discipline is instruction and correction of thinking and behavior according to the Lord Jesus Christ.
INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR DISCIPLINE OF OTHERS
Scripture teaches that each believer bears also a responsibility to discipline other believers. Matthew 18:15-18 teaches that each believer is responsible to point out the disobedience of other believers. The standard to determine what obedience is is the law of God not the ideas of either of the individuals. The individual who observes another commit an act may correctly judge that act to be wrong only if it breaks the law of God. The individual who commits an act must acknowledge the correctness of the charge of a fellow believer if the charge states accurately that the act is contrary to the law of God. Because of the deceitfulness of sin each believer can be easily blind to his own sin or he can be offended at the actions of another which are not contrary to the law of God.
That there may be times when two brethren may not interpret a given act in the same manner (both
seeing it as sin or neither seeing it as sin) is the reason for our Lord instructing believers in such circumstances how to establish that wrong has been done. Others are to participate in making a correct decision between the plaintiff and the defendant. Under no circumstances is it possible to escape the responsiblity for discipline between believers.
RESPONSIBILITY OF ELDERS FOR DISCIPLINE BETWEEN BELIEVERS
After elders have executed their responsibility for instruction by example (“take heed to yourselves”)
and in words (“and to your teaching”), they are responsible to exercise correction aimed at restoration among the people of God.
The elders are charged with this responsibility in Acts 20. They are to instruct, and to guard the flock from wrong teaching. Some individuals (which may be assumed to be elders from the instructions given in Acts 20 and from passages in the Pastoral Epistles defining their duties) Paul told in clear terms to discipline the immoral man in I Corinthians 5. Paul charged the leaders at Corinth to exercise discipline: “when you are assembled…deliver such an one to Satan…” (vv. 4,5) “Your (plural) boasting is not good. Do you (plural) not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (v. 6) “Clean imperative plural) out the old leaven.”(v.7)
Note that Paul, despite his apostolic authority (I Thess. 5:27; II Thess. 3:14), was calling the leaders of the Corinthian assembly to bear the responsibility for discipline. Also notice that he did this with enough knowledge of the circumstances to venture a verdict (“I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him …” (v.3).
The elders are responsible to determine what disciplinary action is needed and to execute it.
RESPONSIBLITY OF THE CONGREGATION IN DISCIPLINE
In Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5 the whole church is mentioned in the discussion of discipline. Some interpret these passages as to imply that the congregation participates in making the decision on what the discipline is to be, but consideration of the importance placed by the New Testament on the responsibility of elders to rule among the people of God eliminates this interpretation. Careful
distinctions on the basis of full information shared among mature men is the only adequate base for correct spiritual judgment. Majority vote of a body including many immature and imperfectly informed albeit sincere believers will not bring correct decisions even if such methods appeal to “democratic minded” men.
These passages rather teach that the congregation participates in discipline by executing the decision of the leaders rather than by participating in making that decision.
This is more clear in I Cor. 5 where the people are not to socialize with the man being disciplined. The judgment of the leaders to refuse association with the offender would have no practical value if the congregation was not told the decision and did not participate in executing the action.
The Mt. 18 passage is not as explicit, but it does speak of the church treating the offender as an unbeliever.
The congregation also participates in the execution of the restoration when the discipline has had its effect on the offender (II Cor. 2:5-8).
But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree – in order not to say too much – to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that son the contrary you should rather forgive overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.
Individual believers and groups of believers are responsible to exercise discipline on themselves individually, between individuals and by the group as a whole. Elders are responsible to administer justice and discipline between individuals and for the body of believers. Because the goal of such activity is life in conformity to the Word of God, this discipline must always be on the basis of the written Word of God. Action by individuals and by the body of believers must support both the correctional and restorative aspects of discipline. Only in accepting these responsibilities do the lives of individuals and bodies of believers develop spiritual maturity.
STAGES IN THE PROCESS OF DISCIPLINE
The scriptural evidence for the enactment of discipline shows that there is a process of development. Discipline is enacted over a period of time from the less severe to the more severe when repentance is not attained. Discipline also moves from the private to the public scene as the process develops.
The responsibility to discipline falls upon all the members of the church and not upon the leadership alone. This can be seen in that the first aspect of discipline in the life of the body is personal confrontation. Jesus instructs us in Matthew 18:15, “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.”
This parallels the instructions of our Lord in Matthew 5:23,24. In Matthew 5:23,24 we are responsible to seek reconciliation from those we have wronged so that they may forgive us; while in Matthew 18:15 we are responsible to confront those who have wronged us in order to bring them to repentance so
that we may forgive them. That the obligation to confront and rebuke rests on all Christians can also be
seen in such passages as: Luke 3:19; Ephesians 5:11; II Timothy 4:2; Titus 1:13 and 2:15.
In the Old Testament the Book of Proverbs teaches in many passages that it is the characteristic of
wise men to listen to instruction, admonition and rebuke. Cf. Proverbs 9:8; 13:1; 15:31; 27:5. In
these and similar passages in Proverbs the emphasis is upon giving rebuke. However, passages that instruct on the need to receive rebuke imply that there is also the need and the responsibility to give it. This responsibility falls upon the whole church. In its initial stage it is personal and private. Matthew 18:15 instructs us, “Tell him his fault between thee and him alone.” In Luke 17:3 Jesus says, “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” The implication of this verse is that forgiveness is granted only if there is repentance. Biblical forgiveness is not “cheap” forgiveness that overlooks the offense, but “real” forgiveness that is based on “real” repentance where in there is not only the forgiving of the “act” but also the restoration to the fullness of fellowship. Therefore if failure to bring repentance from personal, private confrontation results, then no forgiveness is granted and a new development in the process of discipline begins.
The next stage in the process of discipline can be seen in Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:16, “But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.”
In this verse the confrontation is no longer personal, but it is still private. It is generally understood that the witnesses mentioned in this passage would most likely be elders from the leadership of the church. However, if the witnesses were not leaders from the church the principle demonstrated would remain the same. The witnesses could judge the truthfulness of the accusation being made and verify either the repentance or refusal of repentance of the person accused should the charges be judged valid. If the accusations are judged valid, the responsibility “to rebuke” the offending brother would now also fall upon the witnesses as well as the person having been offended, since the witnesses now have a knowledge of the offense. This rebuke would still be in private with the intention of producing repentance.
The involvement of the witnesses fulfills the requirements set forth in the Old Testament to “establish a charge” against a brother should this private confrontation fail to achieve the desired repentance and further disciplinary action become necessary. Deuteronomy 19:15 says, “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or’ for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.”
Jesus further states that a third stage of discipline begins when and if the involvement of witnesses fails to bring the desired repentance on the part of the offender. Then the church as a whole becomes involved in the disciplinary action. “And if he neglect to hear them, tell it to the church…” (Matthew 18:17a).
For the church as a whole to be involved in direct discipline the stages of personal and private rebuke have to have failed. The basis of discipline is now no longer a personal charge, but an offence verified by witnesses. The only time in the process of discipline that these first two stages would be by-passed and the church become directly involved in the disciplinary action from the start would be when the nature of the offense was public and/or against the church as a whole. In such a case the rebuke would be immediate and public. This seems to be implied in I Timothy 5:20: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.” In any case, when the disciplinary action reaches the “church” the rebuke is public.
The general rule of scripture seems to be that private sins require private confession and public sins require public confession. The circle of confession always corresponds to the circle of offence. In the same way, private offence requires private discipline and public offence requires public discipline. However, when private discipline fails to achieve results then the discipline becomes public. The church then becomes involved.
Matthew 18:17b further states, “…but if he neglects to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” This brings us to another stage in the disciplining process. The implication of these words are that if the public confrontation and public rebuke of the church fail to achieve the desired results then the extreme measure of excommunication from membership in the body is taken. This means that he is regarded and dealt with as a non-believer. Excommunication is an extreme form of discipline and is taken after all other measures have failed.
Other passages of the scriptures suggest that should the initial public confrontation of the offended fail to achieve the desired results then a period of time in which other disciplinary action would be taken would occur before the step of excommunication would be taken. During this stage of the disciplinary process public action would be taken to restrict the involvement and the activities of the offender. He would be rejected as a “member in good standing”, but would still be recognized as a brother and a member of the body. In II Thessalonians 3:14 we read, “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
In Titus 3:10 we are told that even a man involved in heresy is admonished at least twice before he is excommunicated. “A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject.”
Excommunication is never an action that is taken quickly, but after a period of time in which repentance is sought. In this stage of discipline it is necessary for the whole church to stand behind the disciplinary action so that the offender is clear that he is not in “full acceptance” in the body. This is reflected in such a passage as II Corinthians 2:6. “Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.”
Note that the purpose of the discipline in this passage was retributive as well as remedial and deterrent. Certainly a “disbarment” from the Lord’s table as well as other restrictions would be placed upon the offending brother as decided by the leadership of the church. That the church has a right to restrict the offender from full participation in the life of the body and to excommunicate if necessary is clear from Matthew 18:18; “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Although commentators disagree as to whether the binding and loosing refer to men or to activities, the principle would remain the same. The church not only has the right to bind, but also to declare the grounds of that binding within the framework of Biblical truth. Cf. also Matthew 16:19.
The principle seems clear that the church and its leadership have the authority to restrict the activity of those under discipline who refuse to repent and to excommunicate them from the body after due process of time without positive results. In fact, it is not only a right but a responsibility.
Twice in the scriptures “consignment to Satan” is used in a disciplinary context. Cf. I Corinthians 5:15 and I Timothy 1:20. Frequently commentators identify this as being the same as excommunication. The reasoning in this interpretation is that the “Church is the sphere of Christ’s rule” and outside the church is “the dominion of darkness.” Cf. Colossians 1:13. Whether the consignment to Satan
is synonymous with excommunication or some more extreme form of discipline is not certain. It is clear that its purpose is the ultimate salvation of the offender.
We therefore conclude that the scriptures portray a progression of stages in the process of discipline that follows the general pattern of:
- Private Censure
- Public Censure
- Restrictions and rejection of “good standing in the body”
THE POSSIBILITY FOR APPEAL
That a matter to be judged, or already judged, can be appealed is not directly set forth in Scripture but it is implied. We are aware of the Cities of Refuge and the Horns of the Altar as a place of refuge. The two examples indicate at the least that in the Old Testament economy a proper hearing was to be given to an accused party. Also in Genesis 4:13-14 Cain appeals to God relative to God’s judgment upon Cain for the slaying of his brother. These examples are perhaps extreme as to the matters which are adjudicated by the Church, but they serve to illustrate the principle of appeal.
The New Testament again implies that appeals can be made and heard. In Paul’s letters to the Corinthians he instructs in I Corinthians 6 that the members of the church are to avoid going to courts of law in matters against a brother. These instructions were made in the milieu of Roman law with its system of appeals. Also, in I Corinthians 5:1-3 Paul reproves the Corinthian Church for not acting in judgment against a man for immorality, and in I Corinthians 5:4-5 he pronounces the judgment. However, in II Corinthians 2:1-11 he again chides this Church regarding this same man, but this time it is for the church’s failure to restore this man. How did Paul learn of this man’s position and the church’s failure? One can only assume that an appeal was made to Paul relative to this matter.
Basically in dealing with the matter of appeal it would be a “reverse” process as set forth in Matthew 18:15-20 in that the appeal would begin with the highest level at which the matter has been heard. To explain:
If the matter has been heard by the Church, the appeal would begin at that level.
If the matter has been heard by one or two brothers as witnesses, then the appeal would begin there.
And, if the matter has only been heard on a one-to-one basis, then the appeal would be at that point.
However, if an appeal has been made at any given level and a proper hearing has not been granted, then the person making the appeal would employ the procedure as outlined in Matthew 18:15-20.
At this point there is no official “court” to hear an appeal in the event the church has heard the matter and made a judgment (Cf. Matthew 18:17) and the “defendant” claims that he has not had a proper hearing. It must decide if such an “appeals court” should be established by Annual Conference and also devise the apparatus by which such appeals would be heard.
RESTORATION OF THE PERSON DISCIPLINED
When a brother recognized his guilt and desires restoration, what are the steps to be taken?
A. Responsibility of the offender
1. Confession and Repentance toward God.
He shall confess his sin to God, seeking His forgiveness and cleansing (I Jn. 1:9), and determine in His strength to forsake his sin ( I Cor. 10:13).
2. Private Confession.
He shall seek the forgiveness of the person or persons offended, and they shall grant forgiveness (Lk. 17:4).
Where the offended party has suffered some loss as the result of the offense, restitution shall be made. The offender must not enjoy any advantage as the result of his offense (Ex, 22:1,4,7; Lev. 6:5; I Sam. 12:3; II Sam. 12:6; Lk. 19:8).
4. Public Confession Where Warranted.
When the offense has been open and has brought reproach on the Church, confession of the offense shall be made in public before the Church and their forgiveness and restoration sought ( I Cor. 5:1-13; II Cor. 2:4-11).
B. Responsibility of the Church
1. Receive the confession.
When the offense and the disciplinary measure involve the Church as a body, they shall hear the confession of the offender.
2. Grant Forgiveness and Restore the Offender to Fellowship.
Confession having been heard, the Church shall grant forgiveness and restore the offender to the fellowship of the Church (II Cor. 2:4-11; Matt. 18:18).
3. Comfort and Encourage.
The Church shall seek to give support, comfort and encouragement to the restored offender lest sorrow for his offense overwhelm him ( II Cor. 2:7,8).