Is Church Discipline Biblical?

The Goal is Church Restoration

Church discipline is a very touchy topic to most Churches. However, it is not that touchy to the Bible. Church discipline is a very Biblical Concept directly from Jesus Christ. In fact, the first directions that Jesus gives on the Church is in regards to Church discipline (Mt. 18:15-20). It is only after he mentions Church Discipline that he discusses discipleship (Mt. 28:18-20). So how important was it to the early Church? It is the first response a Church should give to growing too big without discipleship. We see that true discipleship goes alongside of discipline in order to prevent on-going sin. Church discipline is loving one another. Thankfully, the wonderful process that Jesus gave us means that we rarely reach the fourth stage because the Spirit of God works in the person to be convicted of their sin and seek restoration. Church restoration should happen at even the smallest group setting with accountability. For instance, small group leaders should be accountable to the elders for all things, including the doctrine and practice of their small groups. Small groups should bring matters that need prayer, discipline, and help to the elders for oversight, shepherding, and restoration. The goal is Church restoration. However, it is called Church discipline because the Christian may refuse to confess their sin, repent, and restore themselves and ultimately need to be removed from fellowship (Mt. 18:17). Below are the 4 steps that we take in trying to restore a Christian before seeking discipline.

4 Steps To Practice Church Restoration

We should practice Church discipline on the following command of Jesus in Mt. 18:15-20 and also keeping in mind the goal of restoration from James 5:13-30; Gal. 6:1-5; and Psalm 51:

Church discipline is loving one another.

  • Step 1 – Reach out to the offending brother in private for a 1:1 (Mt. 18:15). This means you should give them a call and offer them coffee, lunch, or a dinner conversation. The point is that you love the person and want to help them in their progressive sanctification. You are praying before you meet and also during the conversation that they see the validity of your concern and confess the sin to God. If not, be gracious and give them time to confess the sin and seek restoration.
  • Step 2 – After a period of time, if step 1 does not work, then take one or two witnesses with you (Mt. 18:16). This is based on the principle of Dt.19:15, “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” The reason Jesus gives this step is because sometimes you can be too critical and the accusation may not be supported by other witnesses. Step 2 is a protection clause for the Church as a whole to make sure that no one is making false accusations without support. I suggest brining someone who knows both of you well from a Bible study, small group, or a saved family member. This must be another Christian who is in close fellowship of the Church you attend. Again, pray ahead of time for their immediate confession and restoration. If not, be gracious once again and give them time to confess and seek restoration.
  • Step 3 – After a period of time, if step 2 doesn’t work, we are to tell the Church (Mt. 18:17). I have seen this done on a Sunday morning in front of the entire group (attendees and members), as well as in a newsletter, and also in private membership meetings. My personal feeling is that this step is really difficult and should be privileged information of those who are in ‘close fellowship’ (i.e. official membership status). Legally, the members sign a statement saying they will submit to the Churches elders. Practically, I see it as a privilege of members to be a part of the restoration process. For example, you don’t want attendees seeking the person for restoration; you want faithful Church members who know the person seeking them for restoration and repentance. Personally, I feel this should be done in a special meeting of members with Biblical suggestions and practical ways the members should reach out to them for the purpose of restoration. Again, pray for the person’s conviction of sin as a result of the entire Church coming to light about their sin. Hopefully, they will now be moved to confession and restoration. If not, be gracious once again and give them time to confess and seek restoration.
  • Step 4 – After a period of time, if step 3 doesn’t work and the Church members cannot restore him over a period of grace (the time depends on the issue), then we will say he is no longer welcome to participate as a member and in fellowship with the Church (Mt. 18:17). This is the Church discipline step. The goal here is that God wants them to separate from fellowship in the hopes that they can find no fellowship like the Church anywhere else, and in doing so they seek restoration back to the fellowship. This means a Church should not engage in Church functions with them like nothing happened (i.e. small groups, prayer meetings, dinner parties, etc.). That would be sin. The only time members of a Church should spend time with them at this point, is if the person is coming on the basis of confession, repentance, and restoration. At this point, the Church should officially resign their membership and not let the member remove their membership. Many Christians at this point try to rush to remove their membership and join another Church. The Church should contact any Church they go to at this point and inform them that they are not in good standing at their former Church. This is the exact purpose of the Book of Philemon, where Paul commands Onesimus to return to Philemon now that he is a Christian refugee (Philemon 12-16). If they refuse to restore themselves to the Church, the person may not be a Christian. A Christian ultimately responds to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. There are exceptions where a Christian could go through step 4 and still be a believer, however that is not the rule.

2 Biblical Examples

Ananias and Sapphira – We see an extreme case of discipline happen in Acts 5:1-11 with Ananias and Sapphira. They lie to the Holy Spirit about their tithing because of their hypocrisy and desire to impress the members of the Church. They were both killed because they ‘put the Spirit of the Lord to the test’ (Acts 5:9). The result was a Church that increased their sense of reverence, ‘a great fear came over the whole church’ (Acts 5:11), which purified the Church in-gathering. Church discipline keeps the Bride pure and removes sinful practices from going un-checked. It restores the Church and is a beautiful thing that can even save a soul and cover a multitude of sins (James 5:20).

David and Nathan – Nathan confronted David 1:1 about his sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:1-15). David initially lied and then eventually confessed that he had ‘sinned against the Lord’ (2 Sam. 12:13). This confrontation resulted in the confession and restoration of David’s soul (Ps. 51) and a blessed life from David’s confessing of the sin (Ps. 32:1-5). However, it also came with an aftermath of consequences, including the death of his child with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:14).

Some Real Examples

Small Group Parties – I am reminded of a situation at a former Church where a young adult small group leader used the Church Facebook page to promote outreach events. However, the outreach events slowly turned into parties with lots of alcohol and inappropriate dancing. The group leader was approached by the young adult pastor for lunch and eventually dissolved and removed the events for the safety of the Church and the purity of the Bride of Christ.

Critical Spirit – Some people can’t help but to complain and comment every time they hear something they don’t like in a sermon. You’d be surprised the letters and emails pastors get. There was a situation where someone kept being critical of our sermons and said, ‘we need more feel good sermons and less expository preaching.’ I personally reached out to them to meet and discuss the philosophy of ministry from Scripture. I met the person expecting them to have a Biblical discussion and not to address beliefs on the basis of emotion. They refused to change their opinion initially and had no Biblical case for their argument. I asked them to take some time and look at the Bible and we’ll meet again. Myself and another pastor then offered to meet them for counsel and give them Bible lessons and books to read on the subject so we can come to a mutual understanding. The person actually began to love expository preaching because of our discussions and reading together. The critical spirit was restored to a thankful spirit. Praise God!

Adultery – Third, I am reminded of a former Church where I heard of a man committing adultery 7 times within the first year of marriage. The pastors and elders began working with the married couple through Biblical counseling and meetings to seek restoration.  However, over the course of a year and a half (period of grace), the offending party refused to submit to further counseling and didn’t want to leave the extra-marital affairs. The pastors and elders had no choice but to follow Mt. 18:17, and consider him the same as an outcast and remove his privilege of fellowship in the Church. They announced the offense to the congregation and told them to seek him only for the sake of his repentance and restoration, but not for fellowship. It was a sad day, but also a beautiful one that showed the elders put the purity of the Bride of Christ first.

In Conclusion

A lack of Biblical restoration for years (or Church discipline) will lead to spiritual compromise in the health of a Church. We shouldn’t only limit the sins to gross sensual sins, but also the small things like pride, anger, lust, greed, a lack of self-control, a bitter spirit, etc. The beautiful thing about Church restoration is that true disciples have deep relationships that feel open and honest to discuss these issues in private (i.e. 1:1). A true disciple is willing to repent and restore their sin (Ps. 51:1-12), ever before they reach the final stage of discipline (Mt. 18:17).

Soli Deo Gloria

David J. Lupinetti is the Associate Pastor at Bloomfield Hills Baptist Church in Michigan. He has a passion for Expository Preaching, Biblical Counseling, Discipleship, and Evangelism.