Understanding Church Discipline

by Gami Ortiz

 

This blog post is an edited version of what was shared verbally during the family gathering on March 6, 2022, when a church discipline situation was presented to the church. Due to not having a quorum present at that gathering, this situation will be revisited at the next family gathering on April 3.

 

Our church constitution includes this section on church discipline:

 

If any member should persist in conduct that is not becoming to a member of the body of Christ, the elders shall meet with the member according to Galatians 6:1, Matthew 18:15-18, 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, and 2 Corinthians 2:5-11.  If the member continues a pattern of ungodly conduct, the elders may recommend, at a regularly scheduled business meeting, that he or she be removed from church membership under discipline.  Upon affirmative vote of the congregation, the member shall be removed from membership and notified in writing of this disciplinary action.

 

Our desire is not simply to state that a person has violated their membership covenant, say we are abiding by our constitution, ask for a vote to remove them from membership, and move on. This is the first time in a number of years that we have had to practice church discipline, so we want to take the time to grow as a church in understanding what church discipline is and the motivation behind it.

 

First, look at what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2:

 

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

 

Many people today would ask if this is really necessary and even label it as archaic or harsh. So let’s consider what Paul says a few sentences later in verses 6-8:

 

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

 

What does it mean that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”? Sin, if left unchecked, will permeate the whole assembly. Unchallenged sin indicates acceptance. The reality is that when sin is not confronted, it become normal and common-place—even in the church.

 

As a result, church discipline is in large part about reflecting the holiness of God.

 

Second, this isn’t the knee-jerk reaction to sin in the body. If that were the case, there isn’t a single one of us who would still be part of the church! Matthew 18:15-17 is perhaps the most instructive passage of Scripture regarding church discipline:

 

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.

 

Jesus gives the church explicit instructions that we are to hold one another accountable. At the same time, his instructions don’t jump straight to removing someone from the church. Rather, he outlines a process. The first step is in private, one to one. The subsequent steps involve others in confronting someone with an unrepentant heart. Only after giving them every opportunity, due diligence, and persistence does the issue of removing a wayward individual come up: Jesus says we should treat them “as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

 

Just as church discipline centers on God’s holiness; it also majors on another aspect of His character: love. And encompassed in His love are his grace, benevolence, mercy, and persistence.

 

God, who is love, stopped at nothing in order to provide a way for us to be restored to Him. The church has to echo that same character in how we discipline our members. Removing an individual from membership is still based in love! Not only is it an act of love for the body itself, to remove the influence of sin as we saw earlier, it is also an expression of love for the individual in not ignoring the greater need in their life.

 

Discipline for the church is grounded in the desire for loving reconciliation and restoration: to reconcile the person to a right relationship with God and restore them to fellowship with the body of Christ.

 

That’s actually what treating someone “as a Gentile and a tax-collector” is all about. Let’s not forget that Jesus was the friend of sinners and tax-collectors. Even in church discipline, the church is still more concerned with the individual than with the sin issue in question. The goal of restoration is never abandoned, even in this last extreme step. If anything, it is accentuated! In reality, to continue to treat this person as a believer and member of the body is to ignore the fact that there is a need in that person’s life. A church without this kind of discipline is not gracious or kind. It ignores the need for healing by allowing sin to run rampant and uncontested.

 

This all points to Love as the ultimate motivation for church discipline. Love for God leads to a desire to reflect His holiness. Love for people leads to a desire to see them enjoying a fruitful relationship w/ God.

 

People might argue that church discipline is an invasion of privacy and that it alienates people. But the reality is that it is sin that alienates. It alienates us from God and each other. Proper church discipline aims at restoration in its desire to bring them back into true communion. That’s a far cry from alienation. 

 

It is far easier to allow people to do as they please and accommodate sin. People are not offended, and there are no awkward conversations. But the church cannot afford to neglect the purity of the body of Christ nor neglect to help facilitate people’s restoration to the Father.

 

Removing someone from membership does not remove them from our prayers and concern. Quite the contrary! Rather, it is motivated by our love and care for that person and our desire to see them come to full restoration before God and the church.