February 3, 2017

The Difficult Duty of Discipline

by Mike Riccardi

DisciplineOver the past couple of weeks, we’ve been examining what the New Testament says about dealing with sin in the church. To learn how the church is to deal with sin in its midst, we’ve turned principally to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11. There, Paul discusses his dealings with a sinning member of the Corinthian church who has now repentant and seeking restoration to the fellowship of the church at Corinth. However, the church is struggling to accept this repentant brother because of the severity of his sin and the way it has affected Paul himself. Paul writes to encourage the church to restore him. In that passage, Paul outlines five stages of successful church discipline (or perhaps better termed, church restoration). Two weeks ago, we took a look at the first stage, which was the harmful sin that makes discipline necessary. This week, we look to stage number two, which is corporate discipline.

2 Corinthians 2:6 says, “Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority.”

The word that gets translated “punishment,” is epitimía. It’s a technical, legal term that in secular Greek refers to an official disciplinary act. And this official act of discipline was carried out “by the majority.” That is to say, the church had a formal gathering, and deliberated upon this matter, and rendered a verdict. This is none other than the outworking of the process of formal, organized, official church discipline.

The New Testament Doctrine of Church Discipline

There are a number of texts in the New Testament that shed light on the church’s duty to discipline sin. Matthew 18:15–20 is sort of the “ground-zero” text for this. There is an offense, followed by a private rebuke, followed by a plural rebuke, followed by a public rebuke. After these three steps, if the person refuses to listen to the church and remains unrepentant, Matthew 18:17 says, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, consider him as one who is outside the fellowship of the people of God. This is excommunication.

And there are some cases that are so serious that this four-step process is expedited. This is especially the case for those who are advocating different doctrine, as would have been the case in this situation in Corinth—since to reject Paul’s apostleship would have amounted to rejecting his Gospel. Titus 3:10 says, “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.” For someone who causes division and creates factions by drawing others away to believe false teaching, it’s not necessary to go to him privately because his error is by nature a public offense. And so Paul says, “There doesn’t need to be private, plural, and public rebuke; there simply needs to be a first and second warning. If he refuses to repent, you must reject him.” The word translated “reject,” paraitéomai, connotes this same concept of excommunication. The ESV translates it, “Have nothing more to do with him.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6 says, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.” And then in verse 14: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.” Danger 2He needs to be made to feel the error of his ways, and though it may be painful, excluding him from the life of the church may be the only way to induce that godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Cor 7:10). In 1 Corinthians 5:13, Paul quotes the Old Testament as he deals with the case of the incestuous man. He commands them, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”

And so this punishment that is inflicted by the majority is excommunication. The sinner who refuses to repent after repeated confrontation is not permitted to associate with the church. In a form of spiritual tough love, they would not be admitted to the Lord’s Table, and they would be excluded from social relations with other church members. It may be that conversation is limited to little more than, “Have you repented yet?” Not shooting the breeze, or “Hey, how are you doing?” But a solemn, grieved, “Have you repented yet? Has the Lord Jesus Christ made His hand heavy upon you yet?” The gravity of unrepentant sin must not be overlooked.

On Earth as It Is in Heaven

Back in Matthew 18, in verse 18, Jesus explains how serious these issues are. He says, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Similarly, He says in John 20:23, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

This means that when the people of God follow this process of confrontation of sin and plead with sinners to repent, their deliberation on earth reflects the reality of things in heaven. If the sinner repents, the church can say with confidence, “Praise God! Your sins have been loosed. You are not bound in them or to them. You are forgiven. Welcome back to the fellowship.” And those pronouncements reflect the reality that God sees from heaven. Because He knows the heart, He knows that repentance has taken place. And when repentance has taken place, there is forgiveness in heaven. When evidence of that repentance is shown on earth, the church is given the authority to ratify what has been done in heaven. On the other hand, when a sinner does not repent, and is removed from the fellowship of the church, the church can say with confidence in that moment to that person, “You are bound in your sin. You are not forgiven, but your sin remains with you.” And those pronouncements reflect the reality that God sees from heaven just as well. He knows that there hasn’t been true repentance in the heart. And so the church, seeing the evidence of that lack of repentance, ratifies what has been done in heaven.

An Organized Organism

Batman and Robin - Church DisciplineThose are really amazing statements. God Himself is working through the deliberations of His churches. So many today speak about the church as if it’s just an informal gathering of believers. They think “church” is just the plural word for “Christian.” You hear it all the time: “The church is not an organization, it’s an organism.” But that’s a false dichotomy. The church is an organism; it is a body of believers bound together by the divine life that flows through their spiritual veins. But it is also an organization. It is also an institution.

As valuable as they may be, your Bible study, your men’s group or women’s group, your Sunday School, your parachurch ministry—none of those is the church. The church is a body of believers who are submitting to a plurality of qualified, God-ordained elders, who faithfully teach the Word of God, who administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Table, and—based on these texts—who practice church discipline, who sit in the weighty seat in the binding and loosing of things on earth.

You say, “Wait, I thought that where two are three are gathered, there Christ is also in their midst.” Yes, exactly! That’s Matthew 18:20, conveniently located immediately after this text on church discipline that requires everything be confirmed by two or three witnesses (cf. Matt 18:16)! Jesus is saying, “When the church binds or looses the sins of its members after having established the facts on the basis of two or three witnesses, according to this process of church discipline, then there I am in their midst, ratifying that decision.” That’s why Paul says “But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also” (2 Cor 2:10). Even he, as an Apostle, submits to the church’s ruling regarding church discipline. Now of course in his heart, he has a settled disposition that he’s already chosen not to hold this sin against this man. But what he’s saying is, “Even I, as the Apostle of Christ, don’t have authority to make the pronouncements of binding and loosing. That is relegated to the autonomy of the local church. So I plead with you: I’ve forgiven him, now you also forgive him.”

The Loving Duty of Discipline

So do you see the responsibility that falls to you as the people of God? The church that fails to carry out its duty with respect to dealing with sin in the body is unworthy to be called a church. Paul made it an issue of obedience with the Corinthians. He says in verse 9, “For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things.” That is, “In my severe letter, I instructed you to discipline this man who was unrepentant. I know it was a difficult command, and that it would make you uneasy to have to do something so uncomfortable. But that’s why I wrote! To test whether you are obedient—not only in the convenient things, not only in the things that the world looks upon with approval—but to test whether you are obedient in all things!”

The church that fails to obey the commands of Christ to properly confront and deal with sin in its congregation—especially in the name of love—has absolutely no idea what love means. In 2 Corinthians 2:4, Paul says it was out of his overabundance of love for the Corinthians that he wrote his severe letter rebuking them for their folly! It is not love to pretend that someone who is dying of cancer is doing just fine, because it will be unpleasant for them to hear they need surgery or chemotherapy! That’s more aptly described as hate than love! And worse yet: it’s a hatred born out of cowardice! Sure, it’s easier to avoid conflict. It’s easier to ignore sin. But it is not loving. Love is willing to suffer whatever consequences necessary in order to bring the greatest benefit to the object of our love. That means that love is willing to confront sin, because our greatest benefit is to have our communion with Christ be unhindered by unrepentant sin in our lives.

And so churches who fail to lovingly confront sin in the lives of their members are unworthy to be called churches. The true church cares for the purity of the church, and protects that purity by biblically dealing with sin in its midst. You ought to hold your leaders accountable to faithfully exercising church discipline.

Doing Our Part

But as individual members of the church, you also must be faithful to do your part in this process. You need to deal with sin in your own lives, and in the lives of your brothers and sisters. And the order there is important.

You Lack DisciplineThere’s nothing more repugnant than someone who is outwardly zealous for the purity of the church and prides himself on being the agent of correction in his congregation, but who is nowhere nearly as engaged in fighting sin in his own life. So often a man or woman in this situation is so keen to rebuke others for their sin precisely because they feel guilty over their own sin, but refuse to deal with it biblically. It may be that we’ve heard Jesus’ word picture in Matthew 7:3 so often that it’s lost its shock value, but zealously pursuing the sin in others’ lives while ignoring your own really is as bizarre as trying to remove a speck of sawdust from your brother’s eye while not even noticing that you have a Redwood growing out of your own. That’s why Paul, as he gives instruction about how to restore a man caught in a trespass says, “. . . each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” (Gal 6:1). In other words, as you propose to deal with sin in others’ lives, be constantly looking to yourself—be constantly reminded of your own sinfulness—so that you don’t become puffed up and treat that man with an undue severity, and so that you don’t become a hypocrite by focusing on his sin and ignoring your own. Be faithful to check your own heart and deal with your own sin before the Lord.

Once you’ve done that, be faithful in carrying out steps one and two of Matthew 18. Love your brothers and sisters in Christ enough to have a difficult conversation with them. I’m not advocating that you put on your heresy-hunter hat and go around meddling in everyone’s lives. But I am saying that you ought to cultivate the kind of relationships with your brothers and sisters in which you’re vulnerable enough with one another that you know each other’s character. And when you discover something in their lives that they may not see, despite the awkwardness and despite the fear of being thought arrogant or judgmental, gently bring that issue to their attention so they can confess it and forsake it. I don’t know about you, but I want somebody to tell me. I really do. My biggest concern is not to be making a good show of things before people; my biggest concern is that I’m right before God. And if somebody else has to give me a harsh word—even if it’s not entirely correct—for me to see just a little something that’s true about my character that needs revision, I’m going to treasure that. Because I need to see Christ clearly. I need to be in communion with Him. I need to not have sin blocking and clouding my vision of Him.

Notice what it says in Matthew 18:15: “If your brother sins,” go and tell the pastor. No. “If your brother sins,” go and “get counsel” from three other friends before discussing it with the person. No. “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private.” Before discussing it with anyone else, you are to go to that person, face-to-face, and do your best to demonstrate to him from Scripture where you believe he’s sinned. And by the grace of God, if you can be gentle in giving correction, and if your brother can be humble in receiving it, church discipline succeeds at step one, before any more than two people know about the issue. In a healthy church, step one is happening all the time, and hardly anybody knows about it.

Final Words of Wisdom

Let me give you a few passages from Proverbs to meditate on with regard to this duty. In terms of our responsibility to do the hard work of correcting our brothers and sisters, note Proverbs 27:6: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of the enemy,” and Proverbs 28:23: “He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with the tongue.”

And in terms of our responsibility to humbly receive correction, hear Proverbs 15:32: “He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding.” You see, to despise discipline is to hate your own self, because you are inoculating yourself against the correction that would expose and remove sin in your life. And probably my favorite proverb in all of Scripture is Proverbs 12:1, which says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” Dear reader, in all seriousness, don’t be stupid. Invite the watchful, caring gaze of your brothers and sisters into your life.

This passage teaches us that, when it comes to steps three and four, your elders must be faithful to their responsibility to carry out church discipline on those whose unwillingness to repent casts a shame upon Christ’s name and damages the purity of the church. And when it comes to steps one and two, you must be faithful to your responsibility: to deal with sin in your own life, and to labor alongside one another to help each other put off sin and put on righteousness.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • wiseopinion

    I have been hearing this for over 30 years (since I became a believer) and I’ve only seen it put in practice twice…yet there is carnality and secularism in most churches today. What is sin anymore, when everything is so covered in “nonjudgmental” love and tolerance? What about that couple living together? What about the guy viewing porn? What about a homosexual “married” couple? Teen pregnancy (or any unwanted) and abortion? What do we do with the sins that the world thinks is perfectly fine and the church in some aspects has followed suit? How does a church get disciplined for allowing such things to slide? Good grief, I applaud the fact that you are even writing such a clear and concise blog about this…when it seems that just mentioning any kind of discipline in the church is considered hateful, bigoted and offensive. What does one do that is plugged into a church that does not practice these steps in scripture?

    • Good questions, all, wiseopinion. Your last question really is the key question. As I mentioned in the post, it’s my contention that

      churches who fail to lovingly confront sin in the lives of their members are unworthy to be called churches. The true church cares for the purity of the church, and protects that purity by biblically dealing with sin in its midst.

      So, a church that fails to shepherd its people by ignoring Scripture’s commands on dealing with sin, I’d say, is not a true church. Also from the post:

      The church is a body of believers who are submitting to a plurality of qualified, God-ordained elders, who faithfully teach the Word of God, who administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Table, and—based on these texts—who practice church discipline . . . .

      If you’re in a so-called “church” that doesn’t exhibit those characteristics, my advice would be to prayerfully organize your thoughts, support them with Scripture, and gently and lovingly make your concerns known to your pastors and elders. Patiently show them the biblical standard, and submissively exhort them to faithfulness in these areas. Give it time. Pray for the Spirit to convict them and bring repentance. If there is change, rejoice! And if there isn’t, check in with them again. If after several interactions they show no sign of submitting to Scripture’s mandates, I would counsel you to peacefully withdraw your membership and seek fellowship and accountability in another church that meets the qualifications of a true church.

      • Jonathan Stricklin

        Mike,
        Thank you for the post. This is a very important doctrine that is essential for the health of a local church.
        I am hesitant to agree that we should not consider a church that fails to obey this teaching a “true church.” I agree that a church is not a healthy church, but to say it is not a church is a judgment I would be afraid to make. Even the congregation in Corinth was still recognized as a church when Paul first wrote them to rebuke their lack of discipline in 1 Cor. 5. They certainly needed to repent, but they were still a church.

        There are many local churches today that are not healthy, but need to move toward healthy doctrine and practice. Faithful pastors need to carefully shepherd them toward greater obedience. But there will be times when a true church is not doing all they should do. I have appreciated this article by Dever which points a church to move towards church discipline, but to be cautious when the local congregation is not quite ready.

        I doubt you will disagree with this, but I think we should be careful to not call a congregation of God’s people to be a false or not true church.

        Jon

        Here is Devers article: https://9marks.org/article/dont-do-it-why-you-shouldnt-practice-church-discipline/

        • Hey Jon. Thanks for your comment.

          I appreciate your caution, and I agree that we shouldn’t recklessly declare churches to be false churches, but I’m not sure I’m totally on board with where you’re going. I guess it comes down to how we define what a local church is. I think the genuine marks of the true church are that it is a gathering of redeemed people, led and shepherded by a plurality of called men of God, who faithfully preach sound doctrine, administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and who faithfully practice church discipline. I believe those are biblical requirements, and they also enjoy historical support in the form of the Reformation doctrine of the “marks of the church” (cf. Belgic Confession, Article 29).

          I’m sure you’d agree that genuine churches faithfully administer the ordinances. So my question would be, would you consider a gathering a church if they weren’t baptizing those who professed faith nor remembering the Lord’s work at the table? Or, if a church had no elders, is it rightfully called a church? I’d say no in each case. And because I believe that the faithful administration of church discipline is a proper mark of a genuine church, if a gathering was refusing to practice it then I’d be constrained to say they’re not a true church.

          But perhaps one caveat offers some clarification. Much like I don’t believe that a professing believer has to be able to articulate a nuanced doctrine of the Trinity before I’d consider him to be genuinely saved, but I wouldn’t consider him a true brother if he knowledgably denied key tenets of Trinitarianism, ::deep breath:: in the same way, I wouldn’t condemn the church in Dever’s article who realizes that they’ve been unfaithful and whose elders are shepherding the congregation toward the faithful practice of church discipline, but I would hesitate to consider as a true church a gathering who knowledgably refused to shepherd its congregation by dealing with sin in its midst.

          It’s true that Corinth wasn’t dealing with that particular sin issue the way it ought to have; but considering that very little of the New Testament was available to them (and some relevant passages on church discipline not even written yet; e.g., Titus 3:10), that’s precisely why Paul wrote to them and instructed them as he had. Had they refused to heed his directives, they’d have been moving in the direction of Thyatira who had tolerated sin and faced the threat of having their lampstand removed — i.e., the threat of being exposed as not a true church at all. Given that churches today do have the entirety of the New Testament’s teaching on the matter, refusal to practice church discipline — the unrepentant toleration of sin in its midst without dealing with it according to Scriptural directives — casts their genuineness as a true church in serious doubt. In light of that, I’d have to stand by my counsel to wiseopinion above.

  • Chris Watson

    I attend a very liberal Lutheran church. My wife grew up in the church and really doesn’t want to leave. We also split time with a Calvary Chapel (my leaning). Neither of us are liberal, especially in regard to our faith in Christ and His word. But since they give me the opportunity to teach Sunday School and other youth related activities, I feel that this is where God wants me right now as I can have a positive and different impact on the kids I mentor. I have the same concerns as wiseopinion. As I read this, I was thinking of a “conversation” that I am in right now with the Deaconess at our church. She advised us last week that they will be showing a Rob Bell video followed by discussion. I pretty much disagree with most everything I’ve ever heard him say and I am trying to help the Deaconess see the errors in his tehology, but so far she doesn’t see anything wrong with his theology. Would anyone think that the tendency of members of a church like this to see every issue from a liberal and often non-Biblical perspective as sin? Am I handling it correctly by trying to engage this individual? Would you even consider staying in a church like this where you love the people and hope you can influence them, or does it seem like a lost cause?

    • Hi Chris. Thanks for your question.

      When you say your church is “very liberal,” do you mean theologically? Is this a church that denies the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, penal substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, justification by faith alone, or any other cardinal doctrine of the faith once for all delivered to the saints? If so, just on the basis of their doctrinal commitments alone they have disqualified themselves from being called a true church, and I would counsel you to leave immediately.

      I can say with confidence that God does not want you in any so-called “church” that does not hold to the true Gospel of Christ and teaches heresy (as Rob Bell does). Remember Jesus’ word to the church of Thyatira: they had the good deeds that perhaps Ephesus lacked (Rev 2:19; cf. 2:4-5), but they tolerated the false teaching of the woman He calls Jezebel (Rev 2:20). He is intolerant of their tolerance of error, and promises intense judgment for those who do not repent (Rev 2:21-23).

      The Lord commands His people to join themselves to a body of believers who are submitting to a plurality of qualified, God-ordained elders, who faithfully teach the Word of God, who administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Table, and—based on these texts outlined in the original post—who practice church discipline. That’s first priority, for the sake of your own spiritual health. No one can feed others when he himself is failing to be fed. The greatest example you can be for the kids you mentor is to show them the priority of being joined to a faithful, Bible-believing and Bible-teaching church.

      • Chris Watson

        The type of liberal I am speaking about approves of things like homosexuality, same sex marriage, centering prayer, praying the labyrinth, and the like. And several people endorse books like The Shack, Heaven is for Real, and Jesus Calling, etc. I’ve not known them to deny essential truths of the faith, but as this discussion continues on the Rob Bell issue, who knows?

        I sincerely appreciate your admonishing me on the scripture from Revelation – very helpful.

        As far as getting fed, I think I am doing fine there with an abundance of great podcasts to nourish me in addition to my daily time in the word. But if the teaching from the church was more than just moralism, I would certainly be benefiting more indeed.

        • If this church has abandoned God’s Word as the authority for the life of the believer — as they must do if they approve of homosexuality — then it’s definitely not a healthy place for any of Christ’s sheep. The Lord of the church has a right to be heard in His church, and He is heard through the faithful proclamation of His Word.

          Further, while sound teaching on the internet is a gift of God’s providence, it is not the means by which God intends for your soul to be fed. Your soul cannot be shepherded by the pastors on the internet, and therefore you’re not being fed as God intends, that is, through the shepherding of called men whom God has qualified to keep watch over your souls. In a very real sense, you’re functioning as if you have no church. And, since you asked, I’d counsel you to leave that place, find a true church, and invite the shepherding and oversight of men of God whom you trust to rightly divide the Word of Truth.

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  • Great article. It is sad thought that most churches who SAY they believe in this process actually do not do it. I have been around 38 years in The Way, and cannot point to a single instance of it. I suppose it feels better talk about how strongly we believe in it that it does to actually do it.

    • Yes, it’s definitely true that the overwhelming majority of those who call themselves churches have abandoned the practice of church discipline.

      However, remember that the first two steps of Matthew 18 are to be done in private and then among a small number. If a sinning brother repents after receiving private and/or plural rebuke, church discipline takes place (and succeeds) while very few people in the church know about it.

      Nevertheless, I do admit that it would be rare for no discipline case to progress beyond step 2 in 38 years. Let’s pray and labor for the health and faithfulness of Christ’s church.

      • I agree Mike 100%. Keep posting solid articles like this, keep preaching, keep teaching it. At the end of the day each one of us has a responsibility somewhere down the line to support healthy church. We must focus on that responsibility and leave the rest to God. Call it like we see it in love and keep the faith. Thanks for the post.

      • Lynn B.

        Mike, to give context to this playing out where it is consistently practiced I wonder if you can share how many years you’ve been at Grace Community Church and approximately how many times someone has been excommunicated. Also, how many times has someone been brought before the church body and repented before excommunication?

        I’ve always been part of a church that practices discipline but not with the body having opportunity to appeal to the person before excommunication. My gut is that may change the outcome.

        The closest thing to that in my personal experience is a man who left his wife and children. She of course made it a matter of prayer so the church body was aware of the situation. A couple of the men showed up on the guy’s door stoop at the girlfriend’s house and hounded him incessantly and it wasn’t very long before he returned home and they were a happy family again.

        • Good questions. I’ve been at Grace Church for 7.5 years and have been on pastoral staff for just over 5 years. In that time, I’d guess that the number of people removed from membership under church discipline has been in the neighborhood of 15, give or take a few. In the inscrutable providence of the Lord, it has become much more frequent in the last year or so. As to how many have repented between step 3 and step 4, I remember less clearly, but I would say only a few — maybe two or three. Before we ever tell the entire congregation, the elders make incessant pleas for repentance over an extended period of time, such that it’s uncommon for people to refuse the correction of the elders only to then receive it from the body. But, by God’s grace, it does happen.

  • Lynn B.

    “There is an offense, followed by a private rebuke, followed by a plural rebuke, followed by a public rebuke. After these three steps, if the person refuses to listen to the church and remains unrepentant, Matthew 18:17 says, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

    Would you mind to clarify the third of these three steps. My experience has been that the third step is meeting with the pastor/elders and then excommunication. There’s a public rebuke but no opportunity for the body as a whole to appeal to the person and no opportunity for repentance prior to excommunication.

    • Sure, Lynn. I see four steps outlined in Matthew 18:15-17, with the final one being excommunication, and, after each of the first three, an opportunity for repentance being given.

      Step 1: 18:15 – “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” — There’s an opportunity for the brother to “listen” to the one who shows him his fault in private. If he repents, the matter is settled. If he does not, you go to step two.

      Step 2: 18:16 – “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.'” — This is basically a repeat of step one with a second and third person encouraging repentance. If he repents, you’ve won your brother. If not, you go to step three.

      Step 3: 18:17 — “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, . . .” — This is virtually identical to the previous two steps, except now the entire church is informed. That the church ought to appeal to the sinner to repent is evident from the repetition of the idea of “if he refuses to listen even to the church.” In step one, the offender “does not listen” to the private rebuke; in step two “he refuses to listen” to the two or three; in step three, “he refuses to listen even to the church.” That means that there must be something the church is saying to him that he fails to listen to, just as in the previous steps. In that case, you go to step four.

      Step 4: 18:17 — “. . . if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” — This is excommunication.

      Some churches interpret “church” in 18:17 as a reference to the church officers or elders who represent and lead the whole assembly. Perhaps that’s the position of those whom you’ve seen exercise church discipline. But it seems best to me to take “church” as a reference to the gathered assembly — a time when his sin is made known to the whole body and they are encouraged to plead with him to repent.

      Hope that helps.

      • bs

        Mike, I have two questions which I would sincerely like you to answer on this passage. 1. What is the relevance of Peter’s question in 18:21-22 (and indeed the parable that follows in vv.23-35)?
        2. What do you understand by “let him be to you as a gentile and a tax-collector”? If it simply means “excommunicatiion” how does this align with how Jesus treated gentiles and tax-collectors?
        Thanks
        Peace

        • 1. What is the relevance of Peter’s question in 18:21-22 (and indeed the parable that follows in vv.23-35)?

          In the four-step system that Jesus just gave, the sinning brother simply needs to repent from his sins to be welcomed back. That’s what it would mean to “listen to” the correction being brought, whether privately, plurally, or publicly. But Peter realizes that that could get old. If all someone has to do is come back and say, “I repent; forgive me,” it could be that disingenuous persons could take advantage of well-meaning Christians’ compassion. Taking Matthew 18:21-22 with the parallel in Luke 17:3-4, Peter asks, “Lord, how many times does my brother have to sin against me, and then come back saying he repents, before I don’t accept his repentance as genuine and decide I’ve had enough? Seven times?” And Peter thinks that’s quite longsuffering. Jesus replies by telling him that there is no limit to our forgiveness for those who repent. The parable illustrates the folly of holding a repentant person’s sin against them, when we, having come to Christ in repentant faith, have been forgiven so much greater a debt.

          The key is repentance. Repentant sinners are “won over” through the discipline process outlined in 18:15-17. Those who do not repent must be made to feel the sting of discipline, with a view to their restoration (1 Cor 5:5).

          2. What do you understand by “let him be to you as a gentile and a tax-collector”?

          Gentiles and tax collectors were among the most despised in Israelite society. Gentiles were those who were outside of the covenant people of God, because of their unwillingness to repent and worship the God of Israel. Under the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant, the Jews were not to associate with them. Tax collectors were Jewish people who had agreed to extort money from their own people on behalf of the Roman government who had been enslaving Israel. They were the most ultimate example of traitors. So, the call to let the unrepentant one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector is the call to remove him from the fellowship — to consider him outside the fellowship of the people of God.

          If it simply means “excommunicatiion” how does this align with how Jesus treated gentiles and tax-collectors?

          The implication in your question basically requires you to think that Jesus’ instruction for dealing with sin in the church is: “(1) Go to him, show him his fault. If he refuses you, (2) take others with you and urge him to repent. If he refuses the three of you, (3) tell the whole church and have them insist that he confess and forsake his sin. And if he refuses to listen to the church, (4) just forget about it, welcome him, and eat with him like nothing ever happened.” I don’t find that to be a credible interpretation in the context of this passage, nor of the rest of the New Testament which advises some form of excommunication as the end-point in the discipline process for an unrepentant person: he is to be rejected (Titus 3:10), kept away from (2 Thess 3:6), not associated with in order to be put to shame (2 Thess 3:14), handed over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5), and removed from the assembly of God’s people (1 Cor 5:13; 2 Cor 6:14ff).

        • Lynn B.

          bs: I have struggled with this also and I found this that Mike wrote in the comments on his prior article that may help us:

          “Otherwise, you’d have Bob treating Jim as an unbeliever because of a personal conflict, but then Ken treating Jim as a believer because it didn’t involve him. Is this man one of Christ’s or isn’t he? Should he be participating in the life of the body or shouldn’t he? Should he take communion, be permitted to serve in the church, etc., or shouldn’t he?
          The whole church, as represented by its elders who rule well (1 Tim 5:17) and have charge over them in the Lord (1 Thess 5:12), must be in agreement on what to do with this man, for the sake of his spiritual health and the health of the whole church.”

          Mike, is “Should he be participating in the life of the body or shouldn’t he?” key to our understanding what this passage is telling us about relationship? Is the issue privileges and responsibilities of church membership and being a familial part of the body? That then leaves the door open for us individually to pursue the person as we would any other unbeliever including being casual friends, ministering to them as opportunities arise, and even inviting them to church as a non-member. That would be quite different from shunning, which has been my experience and a concern to me. I have seen people excommunicated who then had serious needs such as transportation for chemotherapy and shunning did not allow any in the church to help. Would we treat a “gentile” or a “tax collector” in that way or would we see it as a gospel opportunity?

          My experience has been that church discipline is punitive and excommunication is the death sentence. But is that biblical or is excommunication actually saying “we conclude this person is not a believer and is lost and thus cannot be a member?”

        • Lynn B.

          bs: One additional thought to what I just wrote:

          Whether there is any church discipline or not (such as family and relationships outside the church), I think we err if we do not at some point consider that a “sinning believer” who does not repent may in fact be unregenerate.

          • Lynn, I do think the issue is privileges and responsibilities of church membership and being a familial part of the body. But I don’t think it should be just the same as any other unbeliever, because there is a sense of “shaming” that is inherent to the biblical standard (2 Thess 3:14). The “Gentile” and “tax collector” have to be read in the context in which Jesus said it, and in that context Gentiles and tax collectors were not to be associated with.

            That said, church discipline ought never to be punitive and ought always to be restorative, and I would definitely say that excommunication wouldn’t keep us from practically serving someone in dire need, as in your example of refusing to help them with their chemotherapy. In some cases, one spouse is put out of the church while the other remains in good standing. Surely that’s not grounds for the one spouse to fail to live in an understanding way with the other. There is interaction, but there is a consistent emphasis on the need for repentance. That seems to be something less than “casual friendship” but something more than total interpersonal neglect.

      • Lynn B.

        Thanks, that is helpful. I guess the comment I added above should have gone here but I’ll not repeat it again. It’s quite amazing how much time and effort Cripplegate authors put into answering questions. I know you don’t have unlimited time but it so expands our understanding. Thank you!

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  • Andrew

    Hi Mike, when you say “the church had a formal gathering, and deliberated upon this matter, and rendered a verdict. This is none other than the outworking of the process of formal, organized, official church discipline”. If I take that as a picture of the right use of the discipline process in Matthew 18, how does the binding and loosing talk then fit in? I’m struggling to get a clean understanding of the binding and loosing verses. Does that mean for example that a decision of church discipline agreed on by Godly elders, where they are together in the decision, God is there with them. As if it is saying, what the church decides, God has decided the same?
    Is this directly related to giving the church the keys of the kingdom in Matthew 16:19, as if the formal, organised church has been given this kind of authority to make or mediate judgments on behalf of God?

    • Andrew

      Sorry – after reading again, you have already answered this.
      Thanks

  • Anonymous

    Real life questions:

    1. Is there any scripture that gives guidance on what sins should be disciplined by the church?

    2. Should members be removed from membership for non-attendance without following the Matthew 18 process?

    3. What should we do if the one sinning refuses to meet with witnesses?

    4. What should we do if the one sinning and refusing to meet with witnesses is the pastor?

    5. Are Matthew 18 witnesses neutral people to observe the meeting, witnesses to the sin, or both?

    6. How should we resound to sin in the life of someone who is not part of our church? Should we break fellowship if there is no formal church discipline?

    7. What happens in family relationships when a spouse or child is disciplined by the church?

    8. What would you suggest to someone who was falsely accused and excommunicated from the church without opportunity to meet with the accuser?

    • These are really excellent questions. The rest of the series may answer some of them. And I’ll try to take a stab at some of them here, before the thread closes (the seven day time limit is fast approaching). But if by the end of the series (there are a few more posts coming) you feel like these haven’t been appropriately answered, feel free to ask them again.

      1. Is there any scripture that gives guidance on what sins should be disciplined by the church?

      Certain passages speak of certain sins. Titus 3:10 speaks of factiousness or divisiveness, with respect to doctrinal and/or relational division. 2 Thessalonians 3:6 speaks of an “unruly life,” refusing to work (3:10), and mooching off of others (3:11). 2 Thess 3:14 seems to extend the discipline issue to disobedience to any of Paul’s letter, which, by implication I’d think would extend to whatever else he’s written. Matthew 18:15 doesn’t specify the sin, but simply says, “If your brother sins,” which, to me, indicates that this is the pattern for dealing with all sin in the church.

      On a practical level, the key issue in the entire process is repentance. If your brother “listens to you” — which, as I’ve demonstrated in this and previous comment threads, speaks of his repenting of his sin — then the discipline process has been successful and goes no further. So the issue is, how can we measure genuine repentance? There needs to be fruits (Luke 3:8). If the elders of a church can’t tell a person, “This is what your repentance will look like,” and then examine that objectively, then they probably ought not to pursue discipline, because there’s no objective way to measure repentance. This becomes difficult with sins that are primarily internal, like lust, covetousness, bitterness, etc. Unless they manifest themselves in some way, repentance from them is almost impossible to measure objectively. Wisdom is needed.

      2. Should members be removed from membership for non-attendance without following the Matthew 18 process?

      I think so, because attendance is the very baseline implication of membership. If you’re not even attending, you’re not fulfilling your obligations as a member. This would mean that a church’s membership process and bylaws (which the member would sign off on as a part of their application) would have to make clear that what we mean by becoming a member includes attendance, along with a number of other things.

      3. What should we do if the one sinning refuses to meet with witnesses?

      That happens more frequently than any of us want it to. I think you pray, be patient, continue to ask for a meeting. If he still refuses, I think two or three (with at least one elder) should show up at his house unannounced and ask to speak with him.

      4. What should we do if the one sinning and refusing to meet with witnesses is the pastor?

      If the rest of the elder board is in agreement, the whole elders, after prayer, patience, and pleading, should plan to show up at his house and try to speak with him there.

      5. Are Matthew 18 witnesses neutral people to observe the meeting, witnesses to the sin, or both?

      I think either. Obviously, it helps for the witnesses to have personally witnessed the sin in question. But I don’t think the “witnesses” of Matt 18:16 refer to witnesses of the sin, but witnesses of the interaction and the presence or absence of repentance after correction. So, either one.

      6. How should we respond to sin in the life of someone who is not part of our church? Should we break fellowship if there is no formal church discipline?

      I think there are times when this would be appropriate and times when it wouldn’t be.

      7. What happens in family relationships when a spouse or child is disciplined by the church?

      These are always just heartbreaking situations. Elders should definitely make themselves available to counsel members in good standing as to how to relate to family members who have been put out of the church. In general, we can say that they shouldn’t fail to dwell with them in an understanding way (1 Pet 3:1, 7). Discipline is not, in and of itself, grounds for divorce, so the spouse should remain married to the person in question and do his or her best to demonstrate the love of Christ to their wife/husband while also continuing to patiently and lovingly call for their repentance.

      8. What would you suggest to someone who was falsely accused and excommunicated from the church without opportunity to meet with the accuser?

      It depends on the situation. In general, I’d counsel them to contact the elders who were closest to their case and insist that they desire reconciliation. If the church refuses to deal with that person, they should attempt to be joined to another church in membership and explain why they were not a member in good standing when leaving the previous church, that they’ve done everything they know how to reconcile, but that the church refuses. At that point, the new church leadership should contact the previous church leadership and attempt to mediate. If the new church thinks the member should have done something differently, it should refuse to accept him into membership until he has followed their counsel. If the new church thinks the old is not acting biblically, it should tell them so, and ask the church if they would release the member into their care.