A Primer on Church Discipline, Pt. 1
I want to try to lay out a solid understanding of why a church must practice church discipline. In fact, I would argue that if a church does not practice this it is in sin and is not a church that is concerned with true purity nor a love for the people. I know that is rather strong but I believe it is completely defensible. Yesterday I wrote that I would give six reason for church discipline. Today I will give the first and foremost reason: it was the first thing our Lord commanded to be done when He first mentioned the Church. Yep, first thing out of His mouth when He references the Church and it is not a culturally relevant dress code, a cool band, or those neat microphones that hook on your ear. First thing He out of His mouth is what the Church is to do with those who hold onto their sin.
The key passage is Matthew 18:15-17, “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”
First let me give a very broad introduction to this text by fitting it into its greater context. In vss 12-14 He speaks of how the Father’s desire is to bring any of His sheep who are astray back into the fold. That is His will, His desire; but the question is, how does He do this? Jesus then answers that unspoken question in vss 18-20–He uses other believers. Verses 18-20 are not a separate section related to separate issues, but it is vitally connected to the power Jesus vests upon His church to remain pure.
I will ask five questions related to this passage and then answer them.
Who Receives It (15a)? The answer is clear it is a professing Christian (Brother) who has sinned. Both elements must be present for anyone to initiate church discipline. This means that we are not out looking for those who are unsaved to be like those saved. Now there are some who would say that you only deal with those who are habitually sinning, but that is not found in this text. The term, “sins” simply is a statement. It does not indicate a habit of sinning in and of itself. In fact, it is better to be stopped early on in a sin, then to allow it to take root.
This means also that we are to confront on actual sin. Now, the one confronting might be wrong on their perception of what the sin was (that is why there is the second stage) but at this point they believe their brother/sister has sinned. They cannot confront on personal points of disapproval nor on issues of liberty; rather only on those things that are clearly sinful.
Who Initiates It (15b)? It is “your” brother who has sinned, therefore, it is your responsibility to go to him. Any believer who becomes aware of another brother’s sin is now commanded to go to him and confront him. It is not your job to go tell someone else and hope they go. And this is where church discipline too often breaks down, you see the sin, you are afraid of confrontation (I mean, everybody sins, right?), you look the other way until this brother is caught up in a habitual sin that traps him. Let me explain a bit more. This ought to be done as soon as possible for two reasons: First, it turns the brother from his sin quickly, not letting it take root. Second, it does not let the sin begin to “leaven” the Body. Let sin go unaddressed and soon it is throughout the church and you are wondering what happened.
What is it that you are doing when you go to that brother? You are to literally “show him the sin for what it is.” This involves gentle, but clear rebuke, calling him to forsake the sin. It also involves trying to convince him if he does not see what is wrong with the action. This is why you need to only deal with real sin in these situations and you need to know about what you are talking. This is important for it is too easy to begin to rationalize our sin away.
What Is The Goal Of It (15)? “If he listens to you, you have won your brother.” This is the goal. Always, every time. The winning of your brother. It is not to get your pound of flesh. It is not to shame him. It is not to show your spiritual maturity. It is a sincere love of your brother and a desire to see him walk in a manner worthy of his calling. There is nothing better than to be used by God to turn another Christian away from sin and into a proper, healthy walk with God, as Proverbs 11:30 says, “he who wins souls is wise.”
What Is The Process? We have seen the first step, one on one confrontation. The second step is in verse 16–You take witnesses. The purpose of this is so that the witnesses can determine the factual nature of the claims. Is he really guilty? Are your facts valid? If he is guilty, then they are able to note if he properly repents. This again is not a time to pile on the poor guy, but it is also not a time to be vague. Clear, penetrating questions need to be asked. The pathway of repentance needs to be described. And all of this settled on the gospel.
The third and fourth steps are then given in verse 17. Notice the progression, the first time is private, the second is semi-private, but now the sin is entrenched and the confrontation becomes public. The sinning brother’s situation is brought up before the entire church to be rebuked and encouraged to repent. The congregation is not to be determining that validity of the charges, that has already been done. Note, however, that the entire congregation is responsible for this. That means you must let them know the people involved, the sin that is taking place. Let me make a point here. When you describe the sin(s) you need to use biblical words, “unfaithfulness,” “lying,” or “immorality.” You don’t need to describe details, there is no value in that and again, the motive is always to win your brother to repentance. However, if the person still holds to his sin, then he is sent out of the body of believers.
Who Authorizes It (18-20)? This passage has been often misunderstood and mistreated through the centuries. The Roman Catholic church uses it to teach that the church has the power to forgive sin. Many within charismatic churches and also what is called the “word of faith” churches use it to teach that we possess some divine ability to demand and prevent certain things from happening.
To understand this is simple, it merely requires an understanding of Jewish history. It simply means that when the church acts to send out a person who is in sin, that person is not just “bound” on earth, but in heaven. In other words, God is active in the sending out. All the church is doing is sending out a person who has already been sent out of the church by God. In the same way, when two or three agree, Christ is in their midst. Not speaking of the bare minimum for the presence of Christ to exist, or the definition of a church. Remember when we have two or three witnesses? It was in verse 16, verses 19-20 connects with verse 16 by saying that when I go to a sinning brother for the second time, along with witnesses, we are not going alone, Christ is with us.
To do or say something in the name of Christ simply means that they are doing or saying something that is in accordance to the known will of the Lord. This is very important to remember, when the church has faithfully administered church discipline it does so with the full assurance that the Lord has given it His energy, authority, and approval.
This process is NOT the only process described in the bible. I would say that it is the normative passage, but not the ONLY passage on discipline. I agree with Mark Dever who sees that this is the passage and process that is used with private sins and those committed against individuals. There are other passages that speak to unique sins.
When there is discipline taking place there is no need to for speed most of the time. If you have not let the brother continue in their sin until a crisis is upon him then there is the ability to move slowly and with care. Understand that it can be a quite lengthy process. In my church most every time has taken months as we seek to give ample room for repentance.