What should the church do when a member turns to strong drink to avoid a personal problem—turn the other way and hope nobody smells his breath?
What should the church do when a member is an incessant gossip, continually sowing discord? Do we retaliate and start gossiping about that person?
What should the church do when a member commits sexual immorality? Do we say, "It’s complicated and it’s none of our business. Besides, everyone is doing it these days—and we didn’t discipline so-and-so for doing it last year"?
The church must never forget that the Bible is our management manual, and that the Bible makes the church responsible for disciplining its members.
Church discipline is not a pleasant subject. It is one of the least talked about subjects within the church. Many are afraid to discuss it. We would much rather talk about the "victorious Christian life."
But we cannot lead victorious Christian lives until we understand Christian discipline. The more we learn about what God teaches on this subject, the better equipped we will be to handle crises in our personal lives, our families, and our churches.
A Problem at Corinth
The New Testament church in Corinth lacked discipline. Paul discovered that the church hadn’t properly dealt with sin in its midst. Specifically, we read in 1 Corinthians 5:1 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."
Here was a clear case of disobedience within the church, explicitly forbidden by Old Testament law (Leviticus 18:8), and a case that Paul says would disturb even the heathen. As shocking as this act of immorality was, Paul was even more shocked by the church’s complacent attitude toward the sinner. Rather than being grieved by the sin, they were proud and arrogant (1 Corinthians 5:2, 4:18).
Paul was angry! These people were his converts and disciples, and therefore he proceeded to rebuke them. "Now gather the entire church and put this man out of your fellowship," he told them. "Send this man back to Satan’s world. Don’t allow him to pervert the purity of the church."
"But that’s cruel," you say.
No, it was not cruel. It was done to humiliate the man and to point out his immorality, so that he could repent and be restored to the fellowship. Discipline is not carried out merely to punish, but to awaken people to their sin. It is not carried out in cruelty to destroy, but rather in love to produce conviction, sorrow, repentance, and restoration.
God does not enjoy having to exercise discipline any more than you or I do. We worship a God who wants us to live in victory, and who desires that we be content even in the midst of mounting pressures and problems. Love, joy, and peace are the fruit of his Spirit.
Why, then, aren’t his people filled with love, joy, and peace? Because of sin! Sin kills joy. Satan is the murderer of love, joy, and peace (John 8:44). And we are his slaves as long as we persist in making excuses for our sin, and in refusing to seek cleansing and restoration.
Disobedience leads to unhappiness! When a church steps away from the truth, when it compromises God’s holy Scriptures, a wall of darkness surrounds the congregation. But when a church is obedient, there is love among the members, praises to God our Father, and a sense of happiness in the worship.
Discipline Leads to Brokenness
How would your church have handled the situation in 1 Corinthians 5? It’s a difficult question, because few congregations know quite how to deal in a biblical way with public or known sin. As a result, usually no action is taken by the church against the sinner, and the outside observer labels the members of the church as "hypocrites."
Some churches, on the other hand, confuse threatening the sinner behind closed doors with lovingly disciplining him. This just further infuriates the person who needs to repent and seek restoration. He then changes his church membership (think of all the people you know who have played "musical chairs" with their church membership because of a problem that wasn’t handled biblically), and everyone assumes the problem is settled. But it is not!
Discipline is a tough issue for a church to deal with correctly. It’s unpleasant. Nonetheless, the Bible clearly teaches that the church is to discipline.
What is the purpose of such discipline?
Discipline for sin should be done to restore a person’s joy. One who commits sin and dishonors the name of the Lord loses his joy and his fullness in Christ, and this cannot be restored to the sinner until there is a period of discipline, brokenness, and repentance.
Again you say, "But that’s cruel!"
Is it really cruel for the church to discipline a member who has, for example, committed sexual immorality? Perhaps you know of a woman who now sits alone every Sunday in church with her hurt and embarrassed children. Their father—who claims to be a Christian—is running around with another woman. No action is being taken by the church. Instead, people begin to gossip, and rumors fly.
Which is more cruel: to permit the situation to deteriorate to gossip, allowing the wife and children to suffer; or to take action and attempt to restore the man to the fellowship through biblical discipline, leading to brokenness, repentance, and forgiveness—forgiveness from God, the wife, the children, and the congregation of Jesus Christ?
Forgiveness Follows Brokenness
Biblical discipline not only leads to brokenness, but must also bring forgiveness. Otherwise the church limits the grace of God—which would never be the church’s intention. Rather, as the church disciplines the sinner, it reminds him that he has an Advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1).
How would you like your discipline handled by the church if you were to give in to temptation? Most of us would agree with 2 Corinthians 2:7. After being disciplined we would hope to be forgiven and comforted so as not to be "overwhelmed by excessive sorrow."
In Galatians 6:1 we are told to restore our fallen brother in a spirit of gentleness, because we also could be tempted and fall. Just remind yourself that it could happen to you. We are all vulnerable.
If the sinner is prideful and resists the discipline, then obviously there is no forgiveness. As Corrie ten Boom said, "The blood of Jesus never cleansed an excuse." But it does cleanse a confessed sin (1 John 1:7-9). Therefore, a person who is broken and confesses his sin must be forgiven by the church, and the church must reaffirm its love for him.
Love is difficult sometimes, isn’t it? It’s especially difficult when we let our minds dwell on the sin that a brother has been guilty of, and on how he may have disgraced the name of Jesus. But the Lord forgives him, and tells us not to bring up the man’s sin again, because it belongs in the past. If the Lord forgives the man, then who are we to continue holding it against him?
Paul sets the example for the church in Corinth by saying, "If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him" (2 Corinthians 2:10).
Forgiveness brings a tremendous sense of cleansing and purity to the church. If Christians practiced the principles outlined in 1 and 2 Corinthians more often, think how much healthier the church would be! Knowing the church would biblically discipline them, members would be more hesitant to give in to temptation. The fear of God would fall upon the congregation—the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom, and the lack of which is the beginning of immorality and corruption.
"Nothing is ever settled until it is settled right," Rudyard Kipling wrote. And the Bible tells the Christian and the church how to settle things right.
Paul goes on in 2 Corinthians to say that forgiveness keeps Satan from gaining an advantage over us (2:10-11). Forgiveness delivers us from what I call "satanic despair." Precisely when someone is repentant and broken, Satan schemes to completely destroy that person, should the church fail to forgive him and quickly restore him to fellowship. Years ago in Guatemala a man came to me who had dishonored our Lord’s name. He was truly broken and had repented. Yet he was still without joy. It was obvious that he needed to be assured that he was forgiven—otherwise Satan would have gained an advantage over him.
I did something then which until that day I had never done. I put my arm around him and said, "Brother, you’ve repented; your sins are forgiven. Let me pray with you." And this broken, humble Guatemalan said, "Oh, thank you, thank you. Now I’m free!"
With tears running down our faces, we hugged each other. He was so excited because he had been reassured by a fellow brother in Christ.
But this man should have been reassured earlier by his local church. When someone is obviously broken and repentant, the church must stand up and say, "In the name of the Lord Jesus, rejoice! He has forgiven you and we forgive you too." The assurance from such corporate forgiveness brings healing and joy to the entire congregation.
Without this forgiveness, Satan whispers to the repentant person, "You’re nothing to that church. They don’t love you. Look how broken and miserable you are because of their discipline. You’ve confessed and asked to be forgiven, but they just want to crush you." Believe me, Satan does a fantastic job of coloring the story, for he is "the father of lies" (John 8:44).
Paul spoke of sorrow that is "godly" (2 Corinthians 7:10), but excessive despair is an opportunity for Satan to bury a person in guilt. Rather than see a man or woman destroyed by Satan, the body of Christ should realize its unique opportunity to build the person up and restore him! Love demands that we allow this person to be free from his haunting past. A free, disciplined and forgiven person can raise his head and confidently move on knowing that God does not remember a sin confessed: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more" (Hebrews 10:17). This is the most exciting element of church discipline.
Disobedience Hurts All
In 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11, Paul referred to an incident of disobedience in the Corinthian church that forced him to write a severe letter of criticism, instructing them to quickly settle this problem. Paul came on strong with them, exercising his full authority as an apostle.
Paul was uncertain how the Corinthians would respond to his letter of criticism. He realized that his authority and integrity were under fire in Corinth. And until he found out how they responded, his ministry was stalled.
According to 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, Paul went during this time to Troas to preach the gospel, and found excellent opportunities there. We can imagine his excitement and enthusiasm because of the great potential to further the Lord’s work in Troas. Meanwhile, Titus was to meet Paul with a report from Corinth.
But Titus never showed up in Troas. So Paul, restless for news from Corinth, left Troas and moved on to Macedonia. He was therefore unable to take full advantage of the open door to spread the gospel in Troas.
Because of the unsettled matter in Corinth, the ministry suffered in another city hundreds of miles away. Troas is mentioned briefly in Acts 16 and 20, but there is no indication that the church flourished there. Likewise, we never learn how long the door for the gospel in Troas remained open. We do know that Paul was unable to make the most of that opportunity.
Our lives are all interwoven, and our disobedience hurts not only us, but the entire body of Christ.
Is there anything you need to confess to the Lord Jesus? Do you need to seek His forgiveness? Is there anything you need to confess to someone else (James 5:16)? Finally, is there anything you need to confess publicly to the elders of your church, to seek their forgiveness for? Our confession of sin should be as public and well-known as the sin we committed. Elders, is there public sin you are aware of within the church that you have not dealt with biblically? Don’t try to justify anyone’s disobedience. Don’t cover it up. Apply the principles of Matthew 18:15-20:
“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. 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.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
If the person doesn’t repent once these principles are applied, public discipline by the church is in order.
As Jesus said in this passage, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." There is authority in the body of Christ, and when we obey the Scriptures concerning church discipline, we are acting with and under authority. We have the sanction of heaven, according to Scripture, and we, through our obedience, allow the Holy Spirit to work with great power.
Pastors, begin to teach your elders about the importance of discipline within the church; preach about it to your congregation, and help your church begin applying biblical discipline the next time there is a case of public disobedience.
Discipline is a grim subject, isn’t it? But the Lord loves each of us and wants to cleanse and restore us to complete fellowship with others in the body of Christ whenever we disobey Him. And because He desires that the church be pure and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, He has given us instructions on how to remain pure. May the prayer of all of us be that our congregations cling to that purity.
World evangelist and author Luis Palau and his ministry, Luis Palau Association, have shared the Gospel with more than 1 billion people through evangelistic events and media. He has spoken in person to more than 25 million people in 72 countries with close to 1 million registered decisions for Jesus Christ.
Copyright © by Luis Palau. For more information please visit www.palau.org.