Along with noticing the function of each local church in the areas of benevolence, edification, and evangelism, God has also commanded a local church to act in the area of discipline. This is one area that many do not want have to get involved in or accomplish. It is a difficult work that often is avoided so that the work does not get done. In this lesson we will notice the authority for local church discipline, the purpose for local church discipline, and who is to receive this discipline.
This is probably the first passage that many of us think of when we speak about the topic of local church discipline. Here Jesus gives us very important directions as to how to go about saving the soul of the one who was straying. Jesus begins by telling us that if someone sins against us, the first thing we need to do is tell it to that person alone. This is too many times a failed step in a Christian’s life. Instead, we may want to wait and see if the person apologizes later and we allow time to pass on. And as time passes, resentment, anger, and bitterness build because they have wronged us. But Jesus does not teach us to wait for them to do something. We are to take the initiative and go to the person alone.
If the person does not hear us, we then are instructed to take one or two more with us so the person who has stumbled will hear us. If this fails, then the matter is to be taken before the congregation. If the person will not hear the congregation, this one is to be like a heathen and a tax collector. Thus, we are to withdraw from the one, as we will see on other scriptures.
What is the purpose of doing these things? Understanding the purpose of the action is very important to fulfill what the Lord has commanded. Notice carefully verse 15. We are trying to gain a brother. This is the reason we are to go through these steps. This is not an act of vengeance. The purpose is not because of what you have done to me, I am going to try to get you thrown out of the congregation. If there is any other motive besides trying to gain our brother or sister back, then what we are doing is wrong. There is nothing punitive in this command.
Who receives this discipline?
How long should we wait for these actions to take place? What seems to be the understood teaching of how long we should wait to start this process? Is the one who have been sinned against to wait for months. No, this needs to be done right away. How long should we wait to take one or two with us to try to get the person to hear us? A year or more? No, again, it is implied that these things are to be done quickly. How long before it is brought to the church and they act upon it? Quickly. Why should this be done quickly? Because we are trying to save a person soul. As Jesus said we are trying to gain a brother. Further, notice that certain sins are not listed by Jesus. If we are sinned against, then we need to immediately take care of it. This is not something to wait around for the big sins. This will help remove the anger and troubled feelings that Christians can often have against each other by doing as Jesus prescribes right away.
1 Corinthians 5:1-13
In 1 Corinthians 5 we see that the congregation there had someone in their midst who was clearly sexually immoral. A man has his father’s wife. Paul now gives the Corinthians instructions for what they are supposed to do to this one. The first thing that we assume from the text is that Corinth has already done these other steps as recorded by Jesus in Matthew 18. But the man will not repent. Therefore we now have details as to exactly how a local congregation is to go about in the work of discipline.
Verse 4 tells us that the church is to be assembled together. This is not a backroom deal or an assembly of a few people. This matter was to be brought before the whole congregation. Verse 5 says they are to “deliver this man to Satan.” I understand Paul saying that it is to be shown that what the person is doing is a sin and therefore is being withdrawn from because of his works of the flesh. Paul used this phrase in 1 Timothy 1:20 in speaking about Hymenaeus and Alexander, “whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
To make this withdrawing more clear, Paul explains what they should and should not be doing in verses 9-13. In verse 11 Paul teaches that withdrawal includes not keeping company with such a one, in fact not to even eat with them. Here Paul tells us that the things that we may share with this person in the social area is to be severed. Withdrawal is not telling someone to not come back to our worship services. We want sinners and saved at our worship services. We will keep no one out. Withdrawal is saying that if I error, you are not going to go golfing with me anymore, you are not going to come to my house for dinner or I to yours, and the such like. It is a breaking of fellowship.
Verse 13 points this out even further when Paul says to put away from yourselves that wicked person. This is similar to the words Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “for what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” It is a rhetorical question and the obvious answer is that there is no fellowship with righteousness and lawlessness, nor with light and darkness.
What is the purpose of the Corinthians withdrawing from this sexually immoral person? Verse 5 tells us one of the purposes, “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” This is what Jesus taught us in Matthew 18. Our purpose is to save the person’s soul. How hard it is for us to destroy the flesh to save the spirit. We want to usually do the opposite. We will sacrifice the spirit so that we can remain in connection with the person in the flesh. We must see the importance of saving the soul. There is also a second stated purpose for the withdrawal of the unrepentant sinner. Verses 6-7 warns against a little leaven leavening the whole lump of dough. The point being is that sin can be contagious. You do not want others thinking that the actions of this person are acceptable in the sight of God. Therefore, for this reason the unrepentant must also be withdrawn from. Is there any punitive action given here? Was it the purpose of the church in Corinth to punish the sexual immoral one? No, that was not the purpose. Again, this was not vengeance. It was not to try to show that person a thing or two. It is an action done out of love for the person’s soul.
Who receives this discipline?
Paul gives a rather broad list of people who are to be withdrawn from in verse 11. We are not to keep company with anyone named a brother who is a fornicator, covetous, idolater, reviler, drunkard, or an extortioner. This helps us validate the point we made in Matthew 18 that all unrepentant sins are included in the realm of discipline, not just what we classify as major sins. We probably would not withdraw from the covetous one because it is a person sin and would likely argue that he is not hurting anyone anyway. Another question we need to ask before we leave this passage is this: how long was Corinth to wait to exercise this discipline? Weeks? Months? A year? It is again clear by the force of the command that these things we to be immediately taken care of. There was not a waiting period of time to go by.
2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15
Here Paul gives the command to withdraw from anyone who walks disorderly. Disorderly is a broad command that simply means walking out of step. Thus we are talking about those who walk out of step of God’s law. This is born out by the rest of the verse for he is not walking “according to the tradition which he received from us.”
Verses 14-15 continue to strengthen our understanding of the passages we have already read. In verse 14 we read that anyone who does not obey their word, note that person and do not keep company with them. Noting that person, I believe, parallels what we read in 1 Corinthians 5 of having the whole assembly together, repudiating the sin, and withdrawing from the unrepentant person. Further, we are told again to not keep company with such a one. We must remove our fellowship with the person and no longer participate in social aspects together.
Is the purpose of withdrawal punitive? No, in verse 14 we read that we are to note the person and not keep company with him, “that he may be ashamed.” We are trying to bring shame upon the sin that they are so adamant to maintain and unwilling to repent from. Instead of glorying in their sin, they will be ashamed of what they are doing, and we will gain our brother or sister back. Verse 15 bears this out again. We do not withdraw as an act like the person is an enemy. This is done in order to warn our brother or sister that if they continue on the path they are on, that they are in danger of risking their soul to hell. Again, we must notice that the process of saving the brother’s soul was not to wait for months or years. The force of the command tells us that this is what must be done immediately. There is urgency to save someone’s soul.
1 Timothy 6:5 & Romans 16:17-20
Instructions for Timothy
At the end of verse 5, Paul gives the command to withdraw from such people. The context will tell us what kind of people we are to withdraw ourselves from. Verse 3 begins the description. We see we are to withdraw from anyone who teaches against the words of God and does not consent to wholesome words. Notice the characteristics of this person: proud, obsessed with disputes and arguments over words which causes envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, and useless wranglings. From these kinds of people we are not to keep company with either, for such tear at the unity of a congregation.
Instructions to the Romans
The Romans account is very similar to what we read in the Timothy account. In verse 17 we are told to take note of these people and “avoid them.” Let us notice who we are to avoid. Verse 17 says that we are note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned. Those who cause disharmony and disrupt the work of the church and the lives of other Christians are to be noted and avoided as well. Let us again understand that these commands were not to be carried out years later. A soul is too far lost by then. These commands were to be fulfilled quickly to prevent the problem from worsen, saving disputes and divisions.
Why Discipline Does Not “Work” Today
Some want to argue that discipline does not work, so we should not even bother. But we should know that it is our failure that make discipline not work, not that God has given us a faulty plan.
Wait too long
One reason why many churches do not act upon the commands that we have read is because it is easier to wait a long time and see what happens. Congregations allow so much time to pass by that discipline has absolutely no meaning for the person any more. We ought to see a similarity to disciplining our children. If my child does something wrong and I spank her a week later for it, has she learned the lesson? No, it is too late and they do not understand. We cannot expect withdrawal to work upon someone who has been allowed to remain in their sins for months or years. It is not going to work. It is so much more difficult to save the soul that has committing sins for a long time with a seared conscience than some one who has slipped recently and needs correcting.
Too often the other reason why withdrawal does not work is because the person is already withdrawn from us. They are not brought into the family here and feel connected. Thus, if we withdraw, there is not a feeling of loss or separation. Their life is completely unchanged. We must strive to be close to our brother and sister here so that we can have an effect upon one another. Our withdrawing from someone can have no power to save their soul when they are already withdrawn.
Done punitively and not out of love
Withdrawal will not work if we are trying to punish the person. Paul said not to treat them like an enemy, but warn them as a brother. We cannot think that we are punishing people in what we are doing. It is entirely the wrong attitude. We must remember that we are looking to gain a brother and to save his or her spirit from the day of the Lord. Any other focus and purpose will not work.
Why Discipline is Not Done
There are many reasons why congregations do not choose to work in discipline the actions that God has commanded them to do. One reason is rather obvious and that is laziness. It is much easier to do nothing and not worry about it than it is to take a course of action. We often would rather pretend that nothing is wrong and nothing is going on than put in the time required to go after the person’s soul and try to bring it back.
Do not want to hurt feelings
Many times we just do not want to hurt people’s feelings and so we are unwilling to say or do anything. But how valuable will it be that we spared someone their feelings but did not spare their soul? We must look past the physical and worry about the soul of each person. I can imagine on judgment day that people will thank us for hurting their feelings but saving their souls. But the same token, will we look at the faces of those lost and say that we would have done something but did not want to hurt their feelings?
Not a matter of attendance
Sometimes the only reason a congregation is ready to withdraw is when a person stops attending. While this certainly falls in the category of walking disorderly, we must understand that it is usually other sins that cause a person to quit coming. If we wait for people to quit coming, many times we have waited too long because the sins have been going on for some time. Further, when they quit coming they have withdrawn from us and our influence is obviously greatly diminished.
Long time member
Sometimes we do not want to withdraw from a long time member. I have heard of congregations tolerating a lot because the particular member was a big contributor each Sunday. We cannot allow external and physical things to get in the way of what God has commanded us to do. All Christians are included in the command of withdrawal, not just newer or weaker Christians.
I have also heard that a congregation needs to have elders to withdraw. But I did not see that command anywhere. I do not read that a local church is to withdraw unless it does not have elders. That is not brought up by Jesus or Paul. Having elders is not a factor in the work that we are to accomplish. Each of us must take a personal responsibility to look out for the souls of others. We do not wait for elders to do that work. It is our job. Thus, Jesus did not address Matthew 18 to elders, but to all Christians.
We must see that this is an important work that is commanded to us, just as much as evangelism, edification, and benevolence are important, commanded works. We must be sure to do our part so that we are not held responsible for allow one of the Lord’s lost sheep to wander away. Let us understand the work that we must do and the reason why we must do it. Paul said in Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”