When one steps back and looks at the present practice of the visible church in respect to the matter of discipline, it becomes immediately clear that there is a wide divergence of opinion regarding it. The total lack of such practice by many indicates that they do not see it as viable for the church today. The outspoken opposition by some indicates an aggressive stance against the viability of the practice.
Among those that attempt some level of practice, there are some who control the entire process at the leadership level (so that the actual body never really gets involved1. There are others who see the issue as only involving formal membership (all that is involved in discipline is the revocation of membership privileges). There are others who see it as extending to the actual imposition of discipline, but not to the extent of turning the offender over to Satan. And, there are those who see the process as incomplete unless deliverance to Satan is accomplished.
Obviously, with this wide a range of opinion, setting forth a practical standard is no small task.The Purpose of the Paper
In spite of the wide range of opinion, it is the goal of this paper to establish the parameters of the exercise of church discipline through an examination of the biblical data.The Procedure of the Paper
The first step of this study will be the examination of whether the church ought to exercise discipline.
The second step will be to raise the question of practicality: Can the church exercise discipline?
The third step will be to examine the biblical text for procedural instruction.
As stated in the introduction, there is a wide range of opinion regarding this subject. Obviously, if the answer to the question of this section is "no", the rest of the issue is moot. And, there are many who say that the church should not attempt to exercise discipline for various reasons.
First, there are those who see the exercise as a contradiction of the biblical injunction to 'judge not, lest ye be judged' (Matthew 7:1)2. It is granted that, at the academic level, this objection is rarely, if ever, voiced--because it hangs on a very obvious fallacy. But, at the pew-level (where all effective discipline will take place), the academically recognized fallacy is often overlooked. The fallacy, briefly stated, is this: one of the major passages which enjoins church discipline is Matthew 18:15-35 which is in the same book as the injunction to "judge not"--thus eliminating the possibility of contradiction in the two injunctions. Both of the sets of instruction (Matthew 7 and Matthew 18) can be obeyed (indeed, must be). Thus, the objection at this level springs from some other motivation than the desire to be in harmony with the truth of the Word of God. The injunction to "judge not lest ye be judged" is simply a command to refrain from hypocritical speck-picking while a log is tolerated in one's own circumstances. In fact, it is not even a command against judging. It should be obvious from the following command ("...cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye") that what Jesus was condemning was the criticism of a brother for a fault that is less serious than one in the life of the critical one. And, what Jesus is requiring is not letting the brother continue with the speck in his eye but, rather, that both beam and speck be removed. Therefore, his command is not contrary to Matthew 18.
Secondly, at the academic level there are objections raised to the exercise of local church discipline. These objections are basically three: a) we are too far removed from the first century setting to understand the process or procedure3; b) our cultural circumstances are too different from those of the early church to make the practice viable4; and c) Jesus was addressing a different economy in Matthew which cannot be brought over into the economy of the Church5.
The first objection might have some credibility if the practice and procedure were only taught in one or two isolated texts which were themselves ambiguous. But, this is not the case. There are at least twenty texts which address the issue to some extent. They are: Matthew 18:15-35; John 13; Acts 5, 11, and 15; I Corinthians 4:21, 5:1-13, and 6:5; II Corinthians 2:5-11 and 13:1-10; Galatians 4:30 and 6:1-5; II Thessalonians 3:6 and 14-15; I Timothy 1:20, 3:5 and 5:19-20; Titus 1:5 and 10; James 5:13-20; I Peter 5:1-4; I John 5:16-17; II John 10; III John 10; and Revelation 2:14-15 and 2:20. This abundance of information means that some study will have to precede the process, but it also indicates that God did not intend that we be in the dark about it.
The second objection is made on the assumption that since there are so many local churches in competition with one another for warm bodies, excommunication would be ineffective--the one put out could just go down the street to another church. That might actually occur, but since when do cultural probabilities alleviate the call for obedience to specific instruction? If I think it fruitless to witness to my neighbor because someone else may tell him my gospel is a lie, am I therefore not to tell him anyway? And, besides this, church discipline is simply divine discipline that is manifested through the visible body--and if one goes down the street to escape from one church, he/she certainly does not escape God by so doing.
The third objection ignores the fact that Matthew wrote his record for the economy of the Church. What Jesus is teaching in Matthew 18 is a truth that transcends dispensational distinctives because it is dealing with human realities (which dispensational changes do not alter6) and a procedurally effective means for creating a sense of necessity for repentance (which also remains unaltered by dispensational changes). That this is true is clear from Paul's use of the Matthew principles in his treatment of the circumstances in Corinth (II Corinthians 13:1).Arguments for the Exercise of Discipline
There are a great host of reasons for the exercise of discipline by the church. The following are simply a sampling of them.
Since love is the greatest virtue, and its absence in any activity renders the activity fruitless in function, status, and personal profit (I Corinthians 13:1-3), it stands to reason that is must be the first court of appeal for the institution of any activity by those who call themselves by the name of Christ.
The issue of love in discipline is well attested by Scripture. The parent who does not discipline his child "hates" him (Proverbs 13:24). One of the key requirements of those who would be elders in the local church is that they have to demonstrate their qualifications by having their own children under control because taking care of the church is similar to taking care of one's own household (I Timothy 3:4-5). Since discipline is one aspect of establishing that control7, and love is the root, where there is no discipline (either at home or in the church), there is no love.
It should be granted at this point that discipline does not guarantee love's presence. Much of what goes on today that is called discipline is sponsored by ego-related problems (vindictiveness, self-righteous condemnation, etc.). That does not, however, nullify the fact that where there is no discipline, there is no love. Discipline does not prove the presence of love, but its absence does prove the absence of love.
It is also necessary to note that genuine love always takes the eternal perspective on issues. Thus, it is willing to impose temporal pain for eternal profit. This does not justify excessive use of pain-producing techniques, but is does justify some use of them. Legitimate use of the rod, and child abuse, are two different things. But the apostle was willing to use the rod for necessary, love-induced, discipline (I Corinthians 4:21).
Next, there is the above-mentioned multiplicity of Biblical texts to support the argument for discipline. the church which does not practice discipline is not simply ignoring an isolated text in a debated dispensational setting. It is, rather, refusing to obey the multiplied instructions of its Lord to love one another enough to demand accountability and to love Him enough to practice His word.
Third, there is the well know fact that, as Barret says it:
Any community inculcating moral standards...is bound to recognize a degree beyond which transgression of its code becomes intolerable because destructive of the foundations on which the community itself rests, so that exclusion becomes necessary8.
This is simply the recognition of the truism that the church cannot function as a church if it has no means to mark itself apart from the world. If everything is tolerated under the guise of love, the church has become worse than the world9 (because even the world can see at least some steps must be taken to keep chaos at bay). Love for one another and for our Lord ought to make discipline obsolete, but we live in a real world of imperfect saints who do not love as they ought. When that love gets too cold, discipline must be applied to regenerate some heat10.
Fourth, the very description of the function of the leadership of the church requires disciplinary power and will. Paul says that the elders must "manage" and "take care of" the church of God (I Timothy 3:5). Both of these terms are set within the context of "managing" and "keeping under control" the children of a household. Both of these tasks are fundamentally impossible without the ultimate authority of the rod.
Finally, there is the very pointed condemnation by Jesus of the church leadership of the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who "tolerated" those who put forth stumbling blocks to the faithful (Revelation 2:14 and 20). This criticism by Him indicates that He had given to them both the power and responsibility of "intolerance", which would put those outside of the church who were guilty.
Thus, love for the stumbling brother, love for the Lord, love for the church, love for the immature, and love for the spiritual health of those willing to receive instruction, combine together to make a powerful argument for the exercise of discipline by the church. It is for those who reject the practice to show how their rejection constitutes the exercise of the love of God.
It is one thing to say that the church should love enough to exercise discipline. It is altogether another thing to ask whether, given the present state of affairs in the churches, it can exercise discipline.The Problems
Every local church has a real power-core. For some it rests in one central personality. For others it resides in a small oligarchy. For others it resides in a larger, but yet minority, group. For yet others it resides in the congregation as a whole. And, for yet others, it resides in authorities beyond the local level. It should be obvious that the answer to our question of possibility rests, in part, with the spiritual condition of that power-core.
On the other hand, the exercise of church discipline is something that only the whole church can exercise11. This means that, even if the power-core is amenable to the doctrine, it may yet have an obstacle: the spiritual condition of the body as a whole. If that body is too immature, unbelieving, carnal, or ignorant to see discipline as a work of love, the question of possibility already has an answer.The Options
What does the individual believer do if he finds himself in the unhappy position of being in need of pursuing the process of discipline--and his local assembly will not (for whatever reason)?
He can do what most today do: Nothing. He can always face his Lord with the excuse that his hands were tied by others.
He can adopt the long-range Joshua-tactic: divide and conquer. By that I mean that he can seek to become a part of the real power-core so that he can initiate the positive changes that need to be adopted. The exercise of this option must be determined by whether the problem is spiritual rebellion or spiritual ignorance. He can affect the latter. The former will bring him to the unhappy position of beating his head against an impossible rock.
He can determine that the local body which refuses to exercise discipline is not really a church12 ("Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?"), and withdraw from it to seek out one which will.
He can seek to be God's instrument for the establishment of a legitimate church that is committed to love for God and for one another.
If the church should exercise discipline; if the church can exercise discipline; how should it go about the process? There are many texts of Scripture that address particular parts of that process. There are no texts which deal with the issue exhaustively. In this section of the paper we will attempt to present a theology of the process of church discipline.The Process
Obviously, the beginning of the process is the wrong action of one believer against another. Once this occurs, the one wronged must make a decision as to the seriousness of the wrong. There are many texts which exhort the patient, compassionate, overlooking of some wrongs. For example, there is James 3:2 (we all stumble in many ways), I Thessalonians 5:14 (be patient with all men), Colossians 3:13 (bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone), and Ephesians 4:32 (be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving...).
If, however, the wrong done is of grave enough consequence that it cannot be overlooked without damage to either involved party, there are texts which address this circumstance. The procedure at this point is private confrontation. Matthew 18:15 (if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private), Luke 17:3 (if your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him), and James 5:19 (if one among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back...) are examples of such texts.
If the confrontation proves fruitless, the next step is a second confrontation with witnesses whose task is to establish the words. This step is taught in such texts as Matthew 18:16 (if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you), II Corinthians 13:1 (every fact is to be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses), and Galatians 6:1 (if a man is caught in a trespass, ye [plural] who are spiritual, restore such a one...).
If the second confrontation proves fruitless, the issue is to be decided by the church body13. This is taught by Matthew 18:17 (tell it to the church), I Corinthians 5:4-5 (when you are assembled [as a church body]), and II Thessalonians 3:14 (take ye [plural] note of that man).
If he refuses to hear the church's determination, the next step must be decided by the church body as a whole. The reason for this is that there are several levels of severity involved. II Thessalonians 3:14-15 speaks of not associating so as to shame, followed by admonishment "as a brother". Matthew 18:17 speaks of counting him as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer (formal excommunication). And I Corinthians 5:5 speaks of actually turning the offender over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh14.
At this point, the issue that the church must take into account is the objective and what it will take to accomplish it. The objective must be, in every case, to regain the fallen one. Legitimate retribution, the purity of the church, and the testimony of the church are all important but not equally important. The real objective (not just the stated one) must be reclamation. With this in mind, the church must decide whether a minor slap on the wrist (disassociation with admonishment) will work, or whether major catastrophe (destruction by Satan) is demanded, or something in between (formal excommunication). The church was given this authority and instruction in Matthew 18:18-20.The Follow-Through
Once church discipline has been exercised, what should be done next?
If the process results in repentance on the part of the fallen one, there is but one thing the church can do: forgive without qualification (II Corinthians 2:7-8). This forgiveness must be followed by the reaffirmation of love by the church for the brother who now is forgiven. This will aid him in future battles against temptation -- to know that he is loved enough to be held accountable.
If the process results in further rebellion, the church is remiss if it does not continue to seek God's discipline until it comes. When it comes, it will be in the form of progressively severe losses (up to, and including, physical life). James 5:14-16 and I John 5:16 teach that, at this point, the church must await the impenitent one's call for the elders of the assembly. If he repents, he will be restored, both to health and fellowship with the church, when those elders pray for him.
We have seen that there are many texts of Scripture that either teach outright that the church should exercise loving discipline, or that teach things that can only be done if the church is exercising that authority. We have attempted to squarely face the difficulties that are involved in a societal setting where disobedience has been the norm for so long that this teaching sounds like something heretical. And, we have noted the theology of discipline. It is our hope that the church will reclaim its authority to love enough to discipline.