By Juan R. Sanchez
The very idea of church discipline sounds antiquated, unloving, and, to some, even hateful. But I assure you: Church discipline is the most loving act you can practice for church members living in unrepentant sin.
And yet, before practicing church discipline, we must first ask and answer three questions.
1. Why should we practice church discipline?
We are to practice church discipline for the glory of God. As a church, we are to display the wisdom and glory of God (Ephesians 3:10). How? By living together as a church in unity (Ephesians 2:11-22; 4:1-16) and holiness (Ephesians 4:17-5:2).
God called us out of darkness and made us children of light. Therefore, we are to walk as children of light (Ephesians 5:3-14). We blaspheme the name of our God when we call ourselves Christians and continue living like the world.
We also practice church discipline for the testimony of the church. We are salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). God chose us out of the world and made us a holy nation to proclaim the good news of his salvation (1 Peter 2:9).
Our holy lives attest to the truth of the gospel, showing the world the power of God by our transformed lives (1 Peter 2:11-12). We lie to the world about who our God is and how he has changed us when we call ourselves Christians and continue in our sin.
Finally, we practice church discipline for the salvation of unrepentant sinners. Formal church discipline is the removal of an unrepentant sinner from membership in the church.
What does that accomplish? Consider Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians. When the church permitted a man in gross, unrepentant sexual sin to continue in membership in the church, the apostle Paul rebuked them, urging them “to hand that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
When we remove a professing Christian from our membership, our hope is that they may realize they are outside the community of faith and in danger of God’s coming judgment. Our temporal judgment is meant to lead them to repentance.
2. When should we practice church discipline?
But even when you are convinced from Scripture of the need to practice church discipline, it may still be hard to know when to practice it. Before you lead your church to discipline an unrepentant member, consider these four categories:
- When the sinner is unrepentant. Pursuing the process outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 is only necessary when a brother or sister refuses to repent. Once they repent, you’ve won your him or her, and your relationship may be restored. But if they refuse to repent, eventually, the unrepentant sinner is brought before the church for removal.
- When the sin is serious. The Christian life is a fight of faith against sin and temptation. We help one another in that fight by encouraging, teaching, and even rebuking one another. And, of course, we are reminded that love covers a multitude of sins (Proverbs 10:12; 1 Peter 4:8). But when a church member continues in significant sin, we must address it for the glory of God, the testimony of the church, and the sake of the sinner.
- When the sin is outward. Pride and selfishness are serious sins, but they are not apparent sins. We only practice church discipline for obvious, outward sins as defined by Scripture.
- When the church is mature enough to understand the why, when, and how of church discipline. So, don’t lead your church to remove an unrepentant sinner from your membership until you’ve taught clearly on it.
3. How should we practice church discipline?
The practice of church discipline is a rescue operation. In Matthew 18:10-14, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep – the faithful shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the one. Church discipline is going after the one wayward sheep to bring it back into the fold.
Additionally, in Matthew 15:19-35, Jesus answers Peter’s question of how often we are to forgive our brother who sins against us with the parable of the unforgiving servant. In other words, even as we set out to go after the wayward sheep, we go with a disposition to forgive.
That’s the context of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-20. Formal church discipline (excommunication) is a rescue operation where the church, together, goes after the one.
Why? For the glory of God, the testimony of the church, and the restoration of the repentant sinner. Church leaders must practice church discipline.
Juan is the senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church and author of The Leadership Formula: Develop the Next Generation of Leaders in the Church.