I once read a viral post on Facebook that read:
“Church folk this is NOT the way…. Nope. It’s things like this that hinders our witness. I’m having a hard time finding the “love” in this. We’ve got to do better.”
Below these words was an image of a letter that a church member received from her elders urging her to repent after multiple attempts to discuss her failure to attend the assembly of the Church and her engagement in a sinful living arrangement.
The authors of the letter emphasized their obligation as shepherds to watch for her soul (Hebrews 13:17) and protect the congregation by keeping them away from every brother or sister who walks in idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6). If a church member did not repent, the elders noted that her membership would be withdrawn.
This is called church discipline, and it is biblical.
Jesus Himself lays out the standard for this process in Matthew 18:15-20:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence 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, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”
The Church has been given authority by God to call its members to repentance if they are in sin. The purpose is to restore fellowship with God and other believers. For the Christ follower, biblical rebuke leads to repentance which ultimately leads to restoration, and this is crucial for both the believer and the Church as a whole.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is writing to the church of Corinth to discipline them for their sexual immorality. This resulted in excommunication, or “purging the evil person,” from the church. Paul explains that sin is like yeast: If it is allowed to exist in the church, it spreads as “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” If a little unrepentant sin goes without correction, it will spread throughout and infect the entire church body. For the sake of Christ’s bride, it must be confronted and corrected.
Churches are called to discipline their members if they are found to be continuously guilty of sin and refuse to repent. The goal is not to humiliate, peer pressure, or ostracize a church member, but to bring them to repentance in order that they may be reconciled to Christ and the rest of the church body. If they refuse, they can no longer be a part of the body of Christ because their refusal to repent is evidence that they are not saved. Only the one who is truly saved will be drawn to repentance because only the one in whom the Holy Spirit dwells will be given a pure and contrite heart.
Pastors, like the authors of the letter cited in the Facebook post, are responsible for the spiritual well-being of their flock. In fact, they are held to a higher standard for this reason and are judged more harshly (James 3:1). They have been entrusted by God to steward and shepherd the souls of those who are in Christ and belong to the church body, and it is their obligation to rebuke and correct where they are able to maintain the purity of the congregation.
This is what biblical love looks like. It requires discipline. It requires calling one another to repentance. To stand by in silence while a brother or sister is wandering astray, living in sin for which they will one day be judged, is the most unloving thing we could do. We wander astray because we are like sheep, and we desperately need a shepherd to steer us in the right direction. Thankfully, the Good Shepherd has raised up faithful men of God to shepherd us in the Church — to point us to truth, to rebuke us when we are in sin, and to call us to repentance so that we may be reconciled to Christ and Christ’s bride may remain pure and holy before Him.
“And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”–Hebrews 12:5-8
About this passage, missionary and preacher Paul Washer said:
“If you can live in sin, live in the world, with all your worldly friends doing all your worldly things, and you can get away with it with no conviction of the Spirit and there is no discipline from God, it is evidence that you are an illegitimate child; you are not a child of God.”
For far too long, American churches have strayed away from practicing church discipline, and the product of that has been sexual assault allegations, greed, heresy from the pulpit, normalization of divorce and premarital sex, cowardice when it comes to confronting sin in our culture, biblical illiteracy, and more. Because a little leaven has been allowed within these churches, the whole lump has been leavened, and illegitimate children of God have maintained fellowship with true Christ followers, tainting the purity of the Church.
So, yes, the Church should practice church discipline. It is never enjoyable or desired to do so, but it is absolutely necessary, it is loving, and it is commanded by God. For this reason, for the sake of the believer, the Church, and her purity, we must prioritize biblically calling our brothers and sisters to repentance.
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