This is Part 5 of a series I wrote with Ed Stetzer on Church Discipline.

After looking at the previous four parts of church discipline regarding the biblical foundation, the purpose and pattern of church discipline, and the principles of discipline in non-profit settings, one could be left thinking that church discipline is reserved only for the pastors of the flock or the leaders of an organization.

The role of the pastor has a specific role in carrying out the essential nature of church discipline. This role is to make sure those who are committing regular, egregious sins be confronted and offered a chance for restoration from the level of church leadership (Matt 18:15-20). Pastors are primarily responsible for overseeing the local flock and making sure the membership in the body of Christ is kept from those who are truly following Jesus (Gal 6:1). Yet, at the same time, each believer has the call and responsibility to correct, rebuke, and exhort fellow believers who may be in sin as this is a form of discipleship.[1]

In all of our lives, God brings along certain people where we have a place to influence (Prov 13:20), sharpen (Prov 27:17), and spur (Heb 10:24) them into the image of Christ. Some have a front-row seat to the brokenness and sinfulness in a person’s life. The temptation is to think “let the professionals” handle the sin in people’s lives. Yet, if we take Scripture seriously, where Satan “comes to kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10-29) we cannot stand idly by as our brother walks in sin. We need to roll up our sleeves and jump into the messiness of relationships. As we jump, we need to seek the highest good of our brother or sister and fight on behalf of them when sin is ruling in their life.

The question becomes, “well, what can I do if my brother is walking in sin and what role do I play?”

Scripture answers this tension for us by laying out three primary roles and “one another” commands. These primary roles are correction, rebuke, and exhortation.

1. Exhortation: Encouragement on the Road to Restoration

The level of repentance connected to the sin determines the approach in addressing our brother or sister. Simultaneously, the reality of long-term sins that plague even the most devoted believers, such as someone who is battling with sexual addiction. Or this could be the sins of “omission” where shame keeps us from doing the things we ought to in loving God or loving neighbor (Lk 10:27). Whatever the case, the believer is genuinely working to fight their sin yet still falls in the fight. This battle—which can be depicted in Romans 7, “I do what I don’t want to do”—results in discouragement and believing “I will never get better.” These individual needs someone to sit with and listen to them, while also offering grace (Matt 18:15).[2] And in the end, they need a brother or sister to ultimately point them back to the truths of the gospel.

2. Correction: Showing them a Better Way

The second tool in the life of a believer for fighting on behalf of someone else is correction. Correction has to do with “instruction in what is righteous, holy, and good” [3], ultimately leading to a flourishing life and applying the truths of Scripture, leading to wisdom. In some cases, a believer may be doing something solely because they were never taught another way of living. You find this in new believers who are zealous for Jesus but need the knowledge to go along with their zeal (Rom 10:2). Or you may find this in a believer who has a distorted view of God, his people, or a truth found in Scripture (Rom 12:2).

You see this most magnified in the life of the Pharisees in the New Testament. They had the right motives (in some ways) in trying to lead a holy life by following the letter of the Law (Matt 5:20). However, Jesus came along, correcting the Pharisees, hoping they would see the reality of the kingdom of God (Jn 18:36; Lk 17:20-21). This kingdom pointed at the insufficiency of the Law to save them (Gal 2:16) and revealed the person of Jesus to be the Son of God (1 Jn 5:20).

Correction can be a difficult pill for believers to swallow. You are essentially telling them the path they are walking down is the wrong path. And that the wrong path, regardless of how well-intended, leads to destruction and death (Matt 7:13-14).

However, correction in the long run, if heeded by a believer, will save them from further sin. This correction is loving by telling them, “hey, if you keep walking this way, you will fall off this cliff” (James 5:19-20) which promotes walking in truth and godliness. [4]

3. Rebuke: Exposing the Sin and Holding the Mirror

The last command we see is to rebuke brothers and sisters who are in sin (1 Tim 5:20; Gal 6:1; James 5:20). Rebuke is reserved for the believer who willfully engages in blatant, intentional, and rebellious (1 Cor 5:11-13).

Frequently, this is where an individual has been in repeated unrepentant sin. Such a heart refuses to change his lifestyle and in many cases continues to harden (1 Jn 1:8; 2:6; 3:8). At this point, we, as fellow believers, are called to sit down with them and bring their sin to the light—even if the individual refuses to acknowledge it as an issue. [5]

The nature of a rebuke is a call to action and an intention to follow through with consequences. This rebuke brings sin to the table and lays out for the believer the consequences of not addressing the sin.

A rebuke is a wake-up call saying, “This area is not right, and your heart is far from Jesus.” This wake-up call is necessary, especially if the effects of sin numb the heart (Rom 1:21), cloud the conscience in darkness (1 Jn 2:11), and stifle the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 5:19). Our role is to expose the sin, point out the blind spots, and speak out against the hurt the sin is causing God, themselves, and others around them. [6]

Wrestling for the Sake of the Gospel and Our Neighbor

The call of every believer is to wage war on the flesh and thus wrestle for righteousness. While this certainly applies to individuals, it also applies to the collective body of Christ. Thus, we wage war for one another—wrestling for righteousness and holiness in the life of our brothers and sisters.

Jesus models this as he continually fights on our behalf, interceding for us (Rom 8:34), and convicting us through the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:7-15). Jesus fights for our restoration, calling us into a community of believers who can expose our sin. And it’s in this gospel, Spirit-filled, Word-saturated community, we employ the moves of exhortation, correction, and rebuke as we wrestle for the sake of the Gospel at work in our faith family, so that, through them, we might declare the Gospel among the nations.

______________________

[1] Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 27.

[2] Kenneth Boa, “39. Exhortation,” Bible.org, October 4, 2005, https://bible.org/seriespage/39-exhortation.

[3] Chad Brand et al., eds., “Discipline” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2003), 426

[4] Jay E. Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Libr., 1989), 22.

[5] Marshall Segal, “Do You Know How to Rebuke?,” Desiring God, April 19, 2021, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/do-you-know-how-to-rebuke.

[6] Kevin DeYoung, “The Ministry of Rebuke (1),” The Gospel Coalition, August 17, 2010, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/the-ministry-of-rebuke-1/.

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