Vol. 3, No. 10
(Gospel Advocate, Nashville, TN, Vol.142, No. 10, October 2000, pp. 24-25.)
First, discipline will help by turning sinning Christians back to the Lord. What problem is more common in the church? Yet, most church leaders feel helpless to deal with it. According to Matthew 18:15-18, 1 Corinthians 5:5 and Galatians 6:1, this is the primary goal of discipline. God has given us a tool that we are not using!
What usually happens when a member of a church sins in some serious1 or obvious way? Most often, nothing -- at least nothing that will help correct the situation. Talking behind the person's back, developing hard feelings against him or simply striking his name from the church roll -- the most serious form of discipline for most churches -- is not likely to do anything to bring the person back.
What should happen, according to Matthew 18:15-18, is an all-out effort to get the person to repent. If he listens, Jesus says, you have gained your brother.
There are no guarantees that every sinner so confronted will repent. But, contrary to popular belief, some do. It usually takes some time, but people have come back to the Lord, confessing their sins, after being disciplined as Matthew 18 teaches. I have no statistics on this, but even if only one in 100 returns to the Lord, isn't that worth the trouble? Do we really mean what we say about the value of a soul? Practicing discipline will prevent many from being needlessly lost to the kingdom.
Second, discipline will help by minimizing the effects of sinful behavior. In admonishing the Corinthians concerning the incestuous brother, Paul warns them about the effects of leaven (1 Corinthians 5:6-11). He draws on the imagery of the Passover to make his point about the danger of evil influence. If something isn't done about this shocking situation of which the whole church is obviously aware, more sin is bound to result.
This helps explain why Paul does not tell the Corinthians to go through the “steps" of Matthew 18; everyone already knows. What he is describing is an emergency situation that requires radical surgery. The primary goal is to save the spirit of the sinner. Failing that, the secondary goal is to protect the church from his corrupting influence.
We are fooling ourselves if we don't think a little leaven will, in fact, leaven the whole lump. Evil has a pervasive effect, and if flagrant sin is present in a church and nothing is done about it, you can be sure it will lead to more sin. Through discipline, however, the negative effects can be minimized.
Third, discipline will help by discouraging sinful behavior. If a church practices discipline consistently, it will prevent some people from doing some things they would otherwise do.
In 1 Timothy 5:20, Paul says that a public rebuke of an elder who persistently sins will cause “the rest to stand in fear.” Public discipline has a powerful effect on any group of people, as the extreme example in Acts 5:1-11 shows.
Here is a modern example. In a church that practices discipline, the elders had met regularly with a young man who was persisting in sin, but he had declined to get his life straight. Finally, he sensed that the elders were about to conclude that another course of action would be necessary, although nothing had been said about public discipline. He repented the next Sunday. He later confided in a friend, “I knew that they would disfellowship me, and I couldn't stand it." He would never have reached that conclusion and possibly never have ceased his sinful behavior had he not witnessed discipline lovingly and consistently applied.
Fourth, discipline will help by showing the world that the church takes sin seriously. Many people want to know God and to find a place where they can worship and serve him in righteousness. But they are completely turned off by the hypocrisy of churches that do nothing about sin except talk.
There is little question that we are suffering from a serious deficiency of holiness, which is the reason God disciplines us and why we need to discipline each other: “that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10, RSV).
One man informed me that one of the leaders of a church he formerly attended was widely known in the community as an adulterer, yet the church never did anything about it and continued to allow him to have a leading role. As a result, many people in the community refused to even visit that church. When such things happen, no wonder outsiders do not respect us! Who can blame them?
Church discipline will give us a credibility that we can otherwise never have because some situations can only rightly be dealt with by discipline -- and even non-Christians know that.
The fear that practicing discipline will hamper growth is simply unfounded. The world knows that the church that stands for anything stands for nothing. They will never be drawn to a church like that, but they will be drawn to a church that takes sin seriously.
Fifth, discipline will help by protecting the church from misguided people. Every church leader knows that people come along from time to time who can single-handedly strangle a congregation if something isn't done about them. They may not even intend any harm, but they do it nevertheless. In these cases, discipline is a form of damage control. There are three categories of misguided people mentioned in Scripture:
Divisive people. Titus 3:10-11 says that a divisive man is to be rejected after being warned no more than two times. The King James Version calls these people “hereticks,” but this is misleading. “Heretic” now suggests someone who holds to false doctrine. But the Greek word hairetikos means someone who creates division. So, a divisive person is not necessarily someone who believes or teaches something false, but a person who is divisive about something.
For example, several years ago, a man started attending our congregation who insisted that it was wrong to refer to the Lord's Supper as “communion." He discussed this with everyone who would talk with him and was causing considerable confusion about it. Finally, one of the elders told him that he was free to think as he like about the matter, but not to cause dissension over it. Rather than comply, he left, and the church was spared further confusion.
Domineering people. If you have been in the church any time at all, no doubt you have run into a “Diotrephes.” He was the man in 3 John 9 who opposed John's authority, refused to welcome traveling evangelists and dechurched others who did. Why? Because he “liked to put himself first,” i.e., he wanted his own way and would stop at nothing to get it.
The first church where I preached full time had a Diotrephes. If anyone did anything he did not like, he threatened to create trouble over it and to label others as “liberal” for disagreeing with him. Even the elders were intimidated by him, which resulted in the whole church being dominated by this one misguided man. When he was finally confronted, he left. Once the church was free of his evil influence, it made great progress.
Notice that in 3 John 10, John says that when he comes, he will confront Diotrephes. Sometimes that's all it takes.
False teachers. Romans 16:17-18; 1 Timothy 1:3-7 and Titus 1:10-11 talk about people who spread false doctrines. Titus says, “[T]hey must be silenced.” Discipline is the way to silence them. As long as a false teacher can find an audience, he will continue his work. Once the audience disappears, so does the false teacher. That is why the Scriptures teach us to avoid and reject such people.
Discipline isn't simply a way to handle misguided people; it is often the only way that will do any good, and that's why the Bible teaches it. It is wrong to see misguided people creating havoc in the church and do nothing. But, if we will act in faith, the church will be protected.
Discipline is nothing less than a tool that God has given us for dealing with some problems that cannot be dealt with any other way. It will not solve every church problem, but it will solve many of them. Why not use it?
1 This terminology is not meant to suggest that some sin isn't serious; it just acknowledges that not all sin requires discipline.