What happens when a “sheep” (a believer) in our “flock” (our church) finds himself or herself ensnared by sin, whether unintentionally or through willful disobedience? It’s going to happen from time to time for as 1 Timothy 4:1-2 says, “…in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits…” And the question begs: What do we do when it happens? Well, the Bible is very clear that when this happens it is the duty of every believer within the sinning person’s sphere of influence to use their influence to try and steer their friend to repentance. This happens through something we call “church discipline.” This is simply the name given to a process (aimed at repentance and restoration) that Jesus lays out for us in Matthew 18:15-17. In these verses, Jesus explains to us how to respond when a fellow believer finds himself in a state of unrepentant sin. I’m going to outline this process in just a minute but before getting into the process of church discipline, let’s first look into the precedent and purpose of church discipline.
I. THE PRECEDENT OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
We read in 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?…I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”
When we encounter open, outright, blatant, unrepentant sin, it becomes necessary to remove the unrepentant sinner from our fellowship. Believers who remain true to the faith are to pass the following “judgment” (yes, it’s ok for believers to judge other believers – see vv.3,12) on the unrepentant sinner. They are to excommunicate him from the church (v.2, “…put out of your fellowship the man who did this…”) and shun him (v.11, “…you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.”). This judgment is to stand until repentance takes place. Upon repentance, the individual is to be welcomed back into the church and to regular Christian fellowship. This may at first appear to be harsh, but it’s actually an act of love (as you’ll discover as you keep reading).
Now that we’ve looked at the precedent of church discipline, let’s move on to…
II. THE PURPOSE OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Why must we take such extreme measures when someone who claims to be a believer is living in unrepentant sin? The apostle Paul gives us the answer in 1 Corinthians 5:5-6 where he explains that we take such extreme measures “…so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” Paul couldn’t be more clear – the excommunication and shunning are intended to bring about repentance that leads to salvation. When someone claims to be a believer yet lives in unrepentant sin, they show themselves not to be true believers and show themselves to be in need of repentance that leads to salvation.
So as I mentioned earlier, excommunication and shunning are actually acts of love. When someone through willful disobedience walks away from God and loses their salvation (or proves by their actions that they were never actually saved in the first place), the most loving thing the community of believers can do is take action that encourages repentance that leads to salvation.
So we see that church discipline is always an act of love in that it’s done in the hope of restoring a straying brother/sister and never out of anger or revenge.
Ok, now that we’ve looked at the precedent and purpose of church discipline, let’s now look at…
III. THE PROCESS OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Through a series of grace-filled, compassionate confrontations, we are to make every effort to rescue the straying brother/sister from their self-deception and the snare of the devil. And in Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus tells us what each step of these grace-filled, compassionate confrontations ought to look like. If at any step along the way, the sinning individual repents, he/she is to be welcomed back into the community of faith.
Step One. The process of church discipline begins one on one. Jesus said in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” Each person within the sinning party’s sphere of influence ought to reach out to them, encouraging them towards repentance.
Step Two. If the sinning brother refuses to listen to the one who has rebuked him privately, the next step is to take one or two more believers along to confront him again. Jesus said in Matthew 18:16, “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'” Sometimes the sinning person might feel you’re just picking on them or that it’s not that they’re wrong, it’s just that you don’t like them and are giving them a hard time. That’s when it’s helpful to bring others along to share the same thing you shared (i.e. that what they are doing is sinful, and that repentance is the appropriate road to travel down). Ideally, their added rebuke will be sufficient to bring about a change of heart in the offending brother that the initial rebuke did not accomplish. If this change of heart does occur, that brother is forgiven and restored to fellowship with the community of faith and then the restoration process begins (if applicable).
Step Three. But if the sinning party refuses to listen even to the confrontation of the two or three witnesses, those witnesses are to then share the news of what’s going on with the leadership of the church. Jesus said in Matthew 18:17a, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…” The leadership of the church (i.e. the pastoral staff) can then communicate this news in an appropriate way to those in this person’s sphere of influence. The point of sharing this news with others is not to get other church attendees to “shun” the sinning individual, rather precisely the opposite. They are told so that they too can now reach out in love to the sinning individual, trying to steer him/her towards repentance.
Step Four. The final step in the process of church discipline is banishment from the community of faith. Jesus said in Matthew 18:17b, “…and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Pastor, theologian and Bible commentator John MacArthur writes:
“The term “Gentile” was primarily used of non-Jews who held to their traditional paganism and had no part in the covenant, worship, or social life of the Jews. On the other hand, a “tax-collector” was an outcast from the Jews by choice, having become a traitor to his own people. Jesus’ use of these terms doesn’t mean that the church is to treat these people badly. It simply means that when a professing believer refuses to repent, the church is to treat him as if he were outside of the fellowship. They are not to let him associate and participate in the blessings and benefits of the Christian assembly.”
That ostracism is what Jesus was getting at here can be clearly seen from the example previously mentioned from 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. When the man who was sleeping with his step-mother refused to repent of his sin, he was thrown out of the community of faith until he repented. Other believers were not even allowed to share a meal with him (1 Corinthians 5:11) – although I’m guessing that if the sinning individual ever wanted to go out for a meal to discuss his repentance, I’m certain that sharing a meal in those circumstances would be permitted. But the point is this: The one who is sinful yet unrepentant is to be totally excommunicated from the fellowship of the community of faith. When the people in the sinning individual’s sphere of influence have done everything within their power to turn the person to repentance, but they refuse, there is nothing left to be done except to leave that person to their sin and shame.
Maybe you’re wondering “Mike, why is this such a big deal?” Good question! That leads me nicely to my last point, which deals with…
IV. THE PRIORITY OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
Why must we prioritize dealing with sin vs sweeping it under the rug? Two reasons:
- Not confronting unrepentant sinful behavior is disobedience to the command of Christ (Matthew 18:15-20) and will ensure God’s displeasure (Revelation 2:20).
- Not confronting unrepentant sinful behavior is devastating to the spiritual health of the local church. Scripture is clear…sin is like leaven and left alone its evil effects will eventually permeate and negatively affect the whole church (1 Corinthians 5:6).
So there you have it:
- The precedent of church discipline
- The purpose of church discipline
- The process of church discipline
- The priority of church discipline
I close with this…
Engaging in the process of church discipline is never fun and is usually very uncomfortable. But that can’t become an excuse for us to turn a blind eye to sin. If we ignore Christ’s process for dealing with sin (shared above) then we become just as guilty of sin as the person who needs our loving rebuke. So if you find yourself in a situation where you need to lovingly confront someone who is living in unrepentant sin – go ahead and say a prayer, muster your courage and give them a call to set up a meeting. As Paul wrote in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should [try your best to] restore him gently…”