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What is church discipline?

Paul, after describing an incestuous relationship permitted in the church, tells the Corinthian believers, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:4-5, ESV)

This word from Paul bites the ears of the present-day believer. It is unimaginable to the church growth guru. It is unthinkable to the civilized, well-to-do churchgoer. It is detestable in our inclusive culture. What is Paul thinking?

Paul is thinking about church discipline. Not unlike a doctor setting a bone, the church works to keep the holiness growing. Along similar lines Mark Dever writes, “Church discipline sounds like a pretty negative topic, I admit…When we hear of discipline, we tend to think of correction or of a spanking; we think of our parents when we were little…We should all, without hesitation, admit our need for discipline, our need for shaping…Once we have come to that admission, however, notice that much of discipline is positive discipline, or as it is traditionally called, ‘formative discipline.’”[1]

Dever is absolutely correct about our aversion to church discipline. But if desire to be a healthy church (i.e., a biblical church), we do not have a choice regarding discipline. We need to understand that it is, indeed, biblical. From there we can see how churches can practice discipline. As we work through the Scriptures, please keep in mind Dever’s distinguishing remarks. We are engaging in formative discipline, which aims at restoration and growth (a biblical goal, by the way!).


In his chapter on church discipline, Dever lists the following references: Heb. 12:1-14, Matt. 8:15-17, 1 Cor. 5:1-11, Gal. 6:1, 2 Thess. 3:6-15, 1 Tim. 1:20, 5:19-20, Titus 3:9-11. We cannot look at all of these (well, I guess we could, but statistics show that you would stop reading before we were halfway through!). We will use one to demonstrate the biblical basis for church discipline.

Matthew 18:15-17 (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-11) provides the direct commandments of Messiah Jesus for handling offenses (i.e., sin) in the church context.

15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. (NET)

Several key points stand out:

· It is in the context of Christian relationship (i.e., “brother)

· It involves sin

· The goal is restoration (“If he listens to you, you have regained your brother”)

· It involves consistent refusal to repent (one on one, one plus one-to-two witnesses on one, church on one)

The other passages cited by Dever either branch off of this basic treatment or expand it. For example, for the goal of restoration, after warning against fellowshipping with an unrepentant offender, Paul tells the church “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” (2 Thess. 3:15, NET)

The Scriptures are unanimous on the need for, the goal of, and the manner in which church discipline is to be practiced.


How, then, does a church actually discipline? This is a great question, and it requires a lengthy response. To begin with, as we discuss church discipline, we must always keep in mind the restorative aspect of it (or, what Dever refers to as “formative discipline”). It is not meant to be a mace with which to bludgeon church members. If we forget this, then we risk practicing a biblical tenant in an unbiblical way.

Second, the majority of churches (well-established churches in particular) have some form of discipline written in their constitutions and/or by-laws. I have been a member at eight churches, and each church lays out the process of church discipline. This is excellent for at least two reasons. First, it provides the biblical plan for church discipline prior to the need to practice it. Second, it protects the church from potential litigation.

Third, and this is key, churches must practice church discipline. Though churches desire a growing membership and attendance, they cannot ignore the biblical need for formative discipline. The church has been commissioned by the Lord Jesus to make disciples (see Matt. 28:18-20). A failure to practice church discipline is a failure to make disciples. Of course, this is unacceptable. However, churches that fail to practice church discipline, besides disobeying their Lord, also weaken the membership. “A little yeast affects the whole batch,” Paul writes to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:6, NET). In other words, a little sin affects the whole church.

Where do we go from here? I think it would be helpful to provide teaching on the matter first. In other words, address it from the passages in which it appears, make mention of it through conversations, and ensure the leadership understands its importance and necessity. Second, begin actively discipling now. In other words, if churches were more concerned about the spiritual health of their members then many of the issues requiring discipline would be prevented. Third, actually practice it when needed.

A church that disciplines, in a biblical and healthy way, is a healthier church.

[1] Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church New Expanded Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 168-169.


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