18 Apr Church Discipline: The Principle
Published April 18, 2020
By Stephen Davey, STM
Paul instructed Timothy to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) which means we must engage in an active defense of the faith. That battle for truth begins in the local church where truth and holiness must be defended. And of necessity that involves church discipline.
But what exactly is church discipline?
Church discipline can be broadly defined as the “confrontive [sic] and corrective measures taken by an individual, church leaders, or the congregation regarding a matter of sin in the life of a believer.”1 Discipline and discipling are actually interconnected actions with similar goals in mind.
Discipling: activity geared toward the growth of those who are walking in obedience.
Discipline: activity geared toward the restoration of those who are walking in disobedience.
Without a doubt, the discipline and restoration of sinning, unrepentant believers is a difficult, time-consuming, awkward task. Little wonder the Church is short of volunteers. Even though:
- the Bible commands it (1 Corinthians 5:1-13);
- our Lord models it (Hebrews 12:6);
- the Church loses credibility and effective witness without it (Revelation 2, 3; 1 Peter 2:11-12).
What Is the Main Objective of Church Discipline?
Contrary to the common notion, the objective of discipline is not punitive, but restorative. While punishment may be observed as one of the consequences of church discipline (2 Corinthians 2:6), it is never the motive or the objective for exercising it. Condemnation is not the goal; restoration is.
When parents discipline their children, the mind of their child might be convinced that “my parents don’t love me . . . they’re being too hard on me . . . I don’t deserve this . . . ouch, that really hurts!” I cannot remember thanking my mother for a spanking and being overwhelmed with gratitude for her obvious love for me. That came years later.
The mind of the parent, however, is focused on delivering a consequence to her child’s sinful action in some corporeal form of discomfort in order to motivate her child to turn – to come back to the safe, productive path of wise living. The pain of a disciplinary moment actually protects children from a lifetime of consequences that bring far greater pain and suffering.
Similarly, the main objective of church discipline is the restoration of the unrepentant believer to the blessed, productive lifestyle of godly obedience and intimacy with Jesus Christ. Keep in mind, this also means you will never have an unrepentant saint thanking you for your obvious love for him as he feels the pain of your discipline and rebuke. That will come later, too.
What Gives the Church or Individual Believers the Right to Judge Someone Else?
A popular question hurled in the face of the biblical church is “Who gave the Church the right to call somebody a sinner in the first place? Didn’t Jesus say, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged’?”
Yes, He did say that (Matthew 7:1). Does this mean that a church should never call a sinner a sinner? Is a church never to point a finger and call sin a sin?
That verse is the first gun pulled from the holster of those who believe the Church should wear moral blinders around people who are blatantly, openly sinning: “Jesus said we should never judge anybody, and that’s that!”
Let’s respond by asking a different question: is it ever right to judge? Yes. In fact, the New Testament gives several examples.
When Is It Right to Judge?
1. It is right to judge ourselves as we evaluate our own walk with God.
Chapter eleven of 1 Corinthians carries the repeated exhortation for judging our own lives as we approach the Lord’s table. No less than five times in three verses, Paul commanded a form of self-discipline as he admonishes that “a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28).
This is nothing less than holding ourselves accountable to the standard of God’s Word for holy living, confessing our sins as we approach the communion table. In a very real way – which the Church needs to revive – the ordinance of communion becomes a regular event of self-discipline, self-examination, and repentance in the life of the believer; this is another reason to give more than three minutes at the end of the service to the practice of this ordinance.
Self-discipline is actually a qualifier for disciplining someone else. Paul wrote: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
Why would that matter? Simply because those who render judgment upon the sinful activity of another will find their own lives opened to inspection to a degree they cannot imagine. The pot can never get away with calling the kettle black.
So we begin with ourselves, and even more so, as we approach a prodigal. Prodigals already know the names of the other hypocrites in church.
Unfortunately, our own Christian culture considers self-discipline and self-evaluation which leads to repentance and confession far too depressing. Besides, they say, God would want us happy rather than holy.
For a fact, the pursuit of holiness on the part of the growing believer will consistently bring about self-judgment of personal sin, resulting in confession and repentance before Christ (1 John 1:9).
2. It is right to judge someone who is openly living in sin.
The Apostle Paul instructed the church in Corinth: “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you. You have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this . . .” (1 Corinthians 5:1-3).
Paul clearly announced, “I have already judged him.” It is important to note that Paul called attention to this man’s sin (sexual immorality) in the presence of the congregation.
It is also ironic, in respect to our own culture today within mainline denominationalism, that Paul considered the church to be arrogant for refusing to condemn sin. He did not applaud them for being tolerant of other viewpoints regarding sexual activity. Instead, he publicly judged the church in Corinth by calling them what they truly had become – arrogant. They had become superior to God’s Word; they were smarter than God’s design for relationships and more sophisticated than God’s created order for sexual relations.
Even so, they were probably surprised by the verdict. Paul judged the church as defiantly arrogant in their tolerance of sinful, immoral behavior. He then challenged them to deal with the sinning man by removing him from their fellowship.
This process would be, of course, time consuming, painful, awkward, and difficult – not to mention the fact that the church would probably lose a few key families who thought it had become a bastion of legalism with Neanderthal leaders. Just who gave the church the right to stick its collective nose into someone’s private behavior – the bedroom, no less?!
Paul evidently believed that God had, for he wrote: “In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus . . . deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).
In other words, Paul believed the unrepentant man to be a Christian but in need of the church delivering him over to the full consequences of his immoral behavior, so he could feel the full penalties of his immorality as he stubbornly pursued his sin and, effectively, Satan. Instead of emotionally subsidizing the man, he was to be put out of the fellowship to fully illustrate that he had lost fellowship with Christ – and Christ’s church. The judgment of the church became the visible demonstration of the invisible judgment of God.
3. It is right to judge someone who denies biblical doctrine.
Increasingly, our culture and the Church are resisting the idea of theological absolutes. Doctrine is considered too dogmatic – too black and white – too divisive. The siren song to the Church today is lay aside doctrine and unite in love. The church which mirrors biblical integrity must keep in mind that popular perspectives can be unbiblical messages. “Politically correct” most often means “biblically corrupt.”
The Bible actually delivers a far different message. “Now I urge you brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Romans 16:17). “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 1:10).
Sounds pretty dogmatic, doesn’t it? Paul and John don’t sound loving at all. We can only wonder how popular these early church leaders would be today with the average church which mindlessly repeats, “Let’s abandon doctrinal differences for the sake of unity.”
The leader who wanted his denomination to stick together even though they were dividing over the issue of homosexual leaders said, “If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy.”2 Seriously? Unfortunately, yes. He was actually saying it is better for the denomination or church to be united and heretical than divided over anything – including heresy.
Paul would have a few words to say as he further warned the Galatians, “if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). This is a nicer way of saying “let him be dedicated for everlasting destruction.”3
Imagine the implications: the minister who calls sin acceptable is self-condemned; the church that chooses to ignore or rewrite what the Apostles taught is effectively voting to rename their church Ichabod. That church might still hold services; it may light candles and robe choirs, but it is virtually under the abiding anathema of Christ until it repents and returns to the Gospel.
Judging wrong doctrine is evidently not an optional activity for genuine believers. In essence Paul is saying, “If the church must choose between heresy and division it must always choose division.” Keep that in mind when a few people leave to shop for a less divisive church, having written you off for obeying the Scriptures.
4. It is right to judge our culture in light of Scripture.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “But he who is spiritual appraises all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15). That about covers everything else.
Paul is endorsing critical thinking and critical judgment on the part of alert, discerning Christians. A spiritually discerning Christian actually judges “all things” – that is, he examines, investigates, inquires into, questions, and discerns all things. He doesn’t mindlessly follow the crowd . . . pagan or Christian.
We made up an exercise with our children as they were growing up; it was called “Spot the Lie.” Following a TV commercial or program they were allowed to watch, we’d ask them to tell us the subtle lies wrapped inside the program or commercial. Even at a young age they were able to develop critical thinking ability and became fairly adept at the exercise.
Spot the lies: smart people have this model cell phone; stylish clothes make men and women successful; good moms feed their children this brand; dads are unnecessary because moms (or the kids) come to the rescue; sex can be safe regardless of who you’re with; your dog actually wants to eat food that contains vegetables; it’s up to the human race to save the planet, etc.
Our problem isn’t that the Church thinks too critically – it’s that the Church isn’t thinking at all as she absorbs the lies of her culture. Prodigals are people who’ve simply abandoned themselves to the lies.
Keep in mind that being a critical thinker doesn’t mean you have the right to become a critical person. Those are two different animals. Critical people complain about everything without any biblical reason. They were simply born in the accusative case. They are not models of discerning Christianity.
There is a difference between being critical and thinking critically. There is a difference between being judgmental too – which is unacceptable – and wisely judging all things, which is commanded.
Today believers are barraged and challenged by a vast array of conflicting advice, differing religious perspectives, and prating pseudo-spiritual leaders.
We are living in a day when spiritual discernment is of paramount importance. The Church must be capable of judging experiences, trends, and beliefs in light of Scripture. Can we spot the lie?
William Tyndale, in 1526, judged the religious sentiment of his day to be a lie. The Church had declared the Bible as a book only to be owned, read, and interpreted by the priests. Bibles were chained to pulpits and off limits to the populace. Tyndale rejected this politically and religiously correct notion of his day and gave his countrymen an English translation of the Scriptures. He paid for his judgment on the Church with his own life.
Clearly, there are reasons and times when it is right to judge. But someone might ask, “Aren’t there times when it is wrong to judge someone?” The answer to that is absolutely.
When Is It Wrong to Judge?
1. It is wrong to judge someone before you know all the facts in the case.
The Apostle John wrote, “Our law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing” (John 7:51).
In other words, the believer should never judge on a whim, an impression, a rumor. The facts are necessary, and the believer should be quick to hear and slow to speak.
2. It is wrong to judge when judging is based on a person’s convictions and/or preferences.
Romans 14 makes it clear that personal decisions can direct activities in areas where the Scriptures are silent. For instance, the Bible doesn’t specifically address credit cards, dating practices, plastic surgery, watching television, using electric guitars in church, ad infinitum.
If our judgment of another believer is based on differences of opinion regarding issues such as these, to name a few, it becomes judgmentalism.
And don’t ignore the fact that this kind of judgmentalism can travel in both directions. Those who condemn others for allowing certain things in their lives are not right; neither are those who scoff at believers who choose stricter guidelines by which to govern their choices.
Judging preferences isn’t the same as judging a biblical violation because they are simply different opinions or personal choices. And in these matters of preference and personal conviction, we must not be judgmental.
It’s a difficult lesson to learn that God often blesses people we disagree with.
3. It is wrong to judge someone by attacking his motives.
Paul wrote, “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
This text certainly instructs us to leave off judgment that relates to motives. It implies that only the Lord is capable of judging motives and intentions, since He alone can see the heart. Therefore, we should confine our judgment to observable actions and leave hidden motives for the Lord to evaluate at the coming judgment.
We must be careful to give people the benefit of the doubt. If all we have to rely on is our perception of another person’s motives, our judgments will be skewed.
One of the reasons the Bible requires two or more witnesses to agree on charges brought against another believer is because one person can too easily misread or misinterpret the motives of someone else. One person alone can rush to judgment. Thus, taking the time to gather additional counsel will often slow the process enough to carefully arrive at the truth.
In the meantime, we would do well to remember something Jewish rabbis taught centuries ago – what they considered to be the six greatest works a person could do:
- study the Scriptures
- visit the sick
- show kindness to strangers
- teach children the Scriptures
- think the best of people
Giving someone the benefit of the doubt may be the first step in avoiding the pitfall of rendering wrong judgment.
4. It is wrong to judge when the act of judging becomes a display of self-righteousness.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge lest you be judged.”
We’re back to that verse again!
Jesus can’t be prohibiting all the other forms of judgment we have just seen validated in Scripture – there were several occasions we were commanded to judge. What we need to understand is that the Lord is referring to a type of judgmentalism typical of the religious leaders. The Lord was speaking to Pharisees (Jewish leaders) who were well known for their censorious, pietistic, critical attitudes of judgmentalism which loved to expose and embarrass the sinner. They enjoyed pouncing on the sinner without ever proposing a solution. To them, and anyone with their attitude, our Lord warned in that same verse, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged” (Matthew 7:2).
In other words, self-righteous, condemning judgment builds its own gallows – especially when self-righteous individuals refuse to deal with their own sinful behavior.
Jesus illustrated this principle when men brought before Him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. These proud judges with private sinful lives had come not only to condemn the adulterer but to corner the Savior.
After seemingly ignoring these men and their captured prey, our Lord stooped down and began to write in the dirt. Then John records, “But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Then once again He wrote – twice we read that the Lord wrote on the ground.
There are some who speculate that Jesus was scribbling in the sand because he was embarrassed to be stuck in such a dilemma. Others have speculated that Jesus stooped down and wrote in the sand because He didn’t know what to say. The actual answer to this strange behavior from our Lord is revealed in the text itself. This is the only event in the New Testament where Jesus is shown to be writing something.
What’s even more revealing is that the usual Greek verb for writing isn’t used. Instead, the word that is used means “to write down a record against”: kategraphen.4 The same word appears in the Septuagint in Job 13:26: “For you write (kategraphen) bitter things against me.”
In the stillness of that temple court, Jesus is revealing the hypocrisy of judging others while at the same time hiding a prodigal heart.
What did Jesus record in the sand? He was writing a record against these men . . . a record of sins they had hidden in the dark shadows of their private lives.
Peter Marshall once imagined: Jesus Christ saw into their very hearts, and that moving finger wrote: idolater, liar, drunkard, murderer, adulterer. The thud of stone after stone falling on the pavement [was heard] as one by one, they crept away, slinking into the shadows, shuffling off into the crowded streets to lose themselves in the multitude.
John chronicles that very thing: “And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman where she was, in the center of the court” (John 8:9).
What happened next has often been misinterpreted as tolerance to sin. John writes, “Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ And she said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you either. Go. From now on sin no more’” (John 8:10-11).
Imagine this scene: the temple courtyard is now deserted because of the disappearance of her accusers. Jesus alone has the right to cast the first stone, but He looks at her and basically says He isn’t going to do that. Isn’t this the opposite action of discipline? Did Jesus overlook her sin? Wouldn’t His failure to stone her be proof enough that we should never judge or condemn someone in sin? Not quite.
There are two very important things you should understand about Christ’s response:
Jesus Christ did not dismiss her sin; He told her to stop sinning.
The human judges only wanted one thing: they longed to condemn. Jesus, the Righteous Judge, wanted one thing as well: He longed to forgive.
Any true church involved in rebuking, challenging, and judging sinful behavior longs to do the same thing – forgive – if that person turns from sin.
Our Lord told her to go and stop sinning. He confronted her lifestyle of immorality. He did not say, “The coast is clear . . . go on back to that man you were with . . . just try to remember to lock the door the next time.” Hardly! He said, “Go, and stop sinning.” In other words, the Lord said to her, “Your actions are wrong. Stop living the sinful life of an adulterous woman.”
Jesus Christ not only forgave her past, He issued a challenge for her future.
This was no easy forgiveness. This wasn’t tolerance of sinful immorality. Jesus confronted the woman with a choice that day: either go back to her old ways or live in the light of God’s grace as a forgiven woman. She was challenged by God incarnate to live an entirely new way of life.
We have every reason to believe that she did. Her humble response to Christ implied as much. I can’t imagine she ever forgot that afternoon of grace and challenge that came from the lips of the Lord.
This article is an adaptation from Stephen Davey’s book In Pursuit of Prodigals. It originally appeared in the book as the chapter entitled “The Principle.” It was published by Kress Biblical Resources (The Woodlands, TX, 2010) and is used by permission.
1 Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek Testament (Regency, 1976), p. 237.
2. “Episcopal Bishop: Tolerance of Heresy Better Than Schism” Christian Headlines.com, February 3, 2004. www.crosswalk.com/1244430 accessed November 11, 2014.
3 Rienecker and Rogers, p. 500.
4 John Armstrong, The Compromised Church (Crossway Books, 1998), p. 175.
Stephen Davey has served as the president of Shepherds Theological Seminary since its inception in 2003. Stephen also serves as the pastor/teacher of The Shepherd’s Church (www.shepherdschurch.com) as well as the principal Bible teacher for Wisdom International (www.wisdomonline.org).