A couple of years ago, our church had the privilege of hosting a number of law enforcement officers from our community for morning services. More than 100 police officers who patrol the city of Los Angeles responded to John MacArthur’s invitation to join us for a Sunday morning that, in part, honored their commitment to protecting our society and gave them the opportunity to hear what the Word of God has to say about them: the civil authorities. Pastor John preached on the various institutions that God has raised up for the sake of restraining evil and maintaining order in a society: the conscience, the family, the government, and the church. Each of these God-ordained institutions, he explained, serves to restrain evil and maintain order in a society.
As would be expected, Pastor John focused on the institution of government that morning. But there’s reason to focus on the fourth of those institutions as well. Just as there is a great need for law and order to keep the peace in a civil society, so also is there a need for such law and order in the church. A civil society that has no laws, or that has no system of order to enforce those laws—no system to punish and rehabilitate offenders—is doomed to chaos. So severe is the nature of human depravity that a society of depraved human beings unrestrained by law and order is just unthinkable.
And the same is true of the church. Now, it’s true that our depravity has been overcome by the work of Christ on the cross. It’s true that we who are believers in Christ have the Holy Spirit of God dwelling inside of us, directing our desires and causing us to strive against the flesh, and leading us to walk in righteousness. But those realities are not true for all who enter through the doors of the church on Sunday. Even within the visible church, there are those who believe that they’re saved, but who have not yet turned from their sins and put their trust in Christ alone for their righteousness. And for those who have been born again—even though we have been set free from the penalty and power of sin through the Gospel—we have not yet been set free from the presence of sin in our flesh. Galatians 5:17 reminds us: “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Paul says elsewhere, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:21–23).
And so even though we who belong to Christ have been declared righteous in God’s sight on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, we nevertheless strive against the presence of remaining sin in our flesh. It is unhappy but all too familiar reality: Christians sin. And that means that the church needs to know how to deal with sin in its midst. There needs to be law and order in the church—a process for identifying, disciplining, and rehabilitating sinners.
Law and Order in the Church
And the Lord Jesus Christ has provided that law and order for His church. The rule of law in the church is the Word of God. The standard for conducting oneself as a citizen of the kingdom of God is laid out in the New Testament Scriptures. This Bible is, in a manner of speaking, our rule of law. But Christ didn’t only provide “law” for His church; He also provided “order.” He instituted a system to be followed when the law was broken, in order to restrain sin in the church. And we have that system of order laid out for us in Matthew 18:15–18. If there is sin in the church, there is first to be private rebuke: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” If he does not repent, but persists in his sin, there is to be plural rebuke: “Take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.” If he still doesn’t repent, there is to be public rebuke: his sin is made known to the church, and the church is to pursue him. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, then he is to be put out of the church and regarded as unbeliever—because in refusing to let go of his sin he’s acting like an unbeliever, and may even be showing himself to truly be an unbeliever, despite his profession of faith.
This is the system of order that the Lord Jesus Himself instituted for the sake of dealing with sin in the church. We often call it “church discipline.” And as long as there are sinful people in the church—which is to say, always, on this side of heaven—the church needs to be equipped to deal with sin in the church, according to the instructions the Lord Jesus left us.
The Controversy in Corinth
And the situation that was going on between the Apostle Paul, the false apostles, and the Corinthians provides a prime example of how church discipline is to be carried out. You see, false teachers claiming to be apostles had infiltrated the church at Corinth and began doing everything they could to discredit Paul in the eyes of the believers there. The controversy led Paul to visit the Corinthians ahead of schedule, as he hoped his personal presence would help to quell the rebellion that had arisen. But this turned out to be a sorrowful visit. While he was there, one of the men who belonged to the church of Corinth, but who was led astray by the false apostles, openly defied Paul and publicly insulted him before the church. This is the “offender” he speaks of in 2 Corinthians 7:12. But worse than that open insult, the rest of the Corinthian church failed to take disciplinary action against this man. Rather than coming to Paul’s defense and defending the Gospel that Paul preached, the Corinthians were taken in by this false teaching, and allowed this man’s sin to go unchecked.
Paul then returned to Ephesus and wrote the severe letter (cf. 2 Cor 2:4), rebuking them for failing to deal with sin in the church properly. And we learn in chapter 7 that God had worked through that letter, such that the majority of the Corinthians repented of their attitude toward Paul. Paul says that Titus “reported to me your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me” (2 Cor 7:7). They were made sorrowful according to the will of God, and that godly sorrow brought about repentance, and their love and affection for Paul was once again made manifest (2 Cor 7:9–12). They even had such a change of heart that they disciplined the offender. They carried out the process that the Lord Jesus laid out in Matthew 18 and put this man out of the church.
And God graciously worked through this discipline process! Just like the majority of the church, the offender repented. He owned his defiance as sin, repudiated it, and wished to be restored to the fellowship of the church. This man was so captivated by his sin that he refused the rebuke of a single person, of a group of people, and then of the whole church. And yet now God has so worked in his heart to humble him that he’s let go of his sin and is ready to rejoin the church. The grace of God is to be celebrated!
But there was a problem. Even though this man had brought forth the fruits of repentance, there were some in the church who were hesitant to welcome him back. The Corinthians realized what a terrible sin it was to side against Christ’s Apostle. They realized the damage this man had caused to the church, and knew of the pain it had caused Paul. And yet here is a man who has come to the very same realization and repented just as they had, and they are unwilling to forgive him and receive him back into fellowship.
Dealing with Sin in the Church
So in 2 Corinthians 2, verses 5 to 11, Paul instructs the church as to how they are to restore this man who has been disciplined out of the church, but who is now repentant:
But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree—in order not to say too much—to all of you. 6Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, 7so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. 10But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ, 11so that no advantage would be taken of us by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his schemes.
If we as the church are going to properly deal with sin in our midst—if chaos is to be avoided and there is to be law and order within the church—we must follow the principles that Scripture lays out for us as we seek to faithfully practice church discipline. And contrary to what we might assume, the church discipline process does not end at excommunication. The goal of all correction, all rebuke, all discipline, is that our sinning brother might be brought to repentance, would forsake his sin, and would be restored to fellowship. And in matters such as these—which are so sensitive, so delicate, and often so painful—we need an extra measure of divine wisdom in order to carry out our responsibilities faithfully, unto the glory of God. And in this text, the Apostle Paul gives us an example of how to do just that by outlining five stages of faithful and successful church discipline: harmful sin, corporate discipline, genuine repentance, comforting forgiveness, and loving reaffirmation.
We’ll take the next several weeks to examine each of those stages. And as we do, I think you’ll be impressed with the large-heartedness of the Apostle Paul as one who is eager to forgive a wrong suffered for the sake of the spiritual benefit of God’s people. The church deals with sin not only by reproof and correction and confrontation, but also by forgiveness. Stay tuned.