This is Part 2 of the Church Discipline series that I wrote with Ed Stetzer.
As we noted in Part 1, God compares himself to a shepherd and promises to seek the lost, heal the broken, judge between his sheep (Ezekiel 34:10–22). Despite thwarting God’s authority as Shepherd and harming other sheep around them (Ezekiel 34:17–22), God earnestly seeks out sheep who’ve strayed from his flock and desires to restore them to his care (Ezekiel 34:11, 22).
We see the culmination of this promise to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) in Jesus Christ, who is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11–16) and will leave the ninety-nine sheep to bring one lost sheep back into his care (Luke 15:1–7).
We also noted in Part 1 that God appoints leaders over his people and expects them to shepherd his people as he does and under his authority (Ezekiel 34:1–10; 1 Peter 5:2–4). To shepherd the people of God well, leaders need to “judge” between sheep—or in New Testament wording, practice church discipline. Therefore, we want to highlight the New Testament purpose, pattern, and practice of church discipline. For those churches that embrace the purpose, follow the pattern, and implement the practice of church discipline, they will do their bodies good.
Church Discipline: Purposeful and Merciful
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul exhorts the church in Corinth to expel the wicked man (5:12) who had been sleeping with his father’s wife (5:1). In this passage, Paul writes, “So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of the Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh…” (5:4,5).
Paul also, in writing to Timothy, alludes to two people he handed over to Satan. Paul shared that he handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan because they had rejected and thus shipwrecked their faith (1 Timothy 1:19–20).
Both passages speak of church discipline in the context of those who claim to be part of the church’s fellowship, those who claim to follow Jesus, but who in some way publicly deny or disobey Jesus. As members of the same body of Christ, “if one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26a). Therefore, acting as a shepherd under God’s authority, Paul has identified sheep that significantly hindered and threatened gospel work in these flocks. Paul then instructs the release of the unrepentant for the sake of the flock, the body of Christ.
By handing these members “over to Satan,” the church turns their unrepentant members over to the mercy of their own destructive sin. Jude 12 depicts these people as unanchored and inherently contradictory to their own identity: they are shepherds feeding themselves, empty clouds swept along, unearthed fruit trees at harvest time, treacherous and unpassable waves of the ocean, and drifting stars that thwart navigation. A Christian living in sin turns against their very identity as one of his sheep, or as a member of Christ’s body.
Restoration: The Heart of Church Discipline
Therefore, it’s vital to understand that the primary goal in church discipline is not punitive but restorative. Jonathan Leeman defines church discipline as “the process of correcting sin in the life of the congregation and its members.” Citing the 1 Corinthians 5 passage, he observes the goal of discipline is redemption (v. 5), protecting other believers (v. 6), and honoring Christ (v. 1). Additionally, Jude 22-23 exhorts the church to show mercy and attempt to rescue those under discipline from destruction.
Brad Hambrick notes the two possible outcomes from church discipline:
There are two possible outcomes for church discipline. The first, and most desirable, outcome is restoration. Restoration happens when the members agree with God about the nature of their sin, turn from their sin emotionally (remorse) and volitionally (choices), embrace the support of fellow believers offering accountability and encouragement, and are grateful for the way their church family pursued them during a season of waywardness.
This is always our hope that the sinner will see the error of his or her ways and turn to God for grace and mercy. Hambrick gives the sorrowful but real alternative:
The second possible outcome is removal from membership. This is a statement by the church that the fruit of conversion cannot be found in the church member. This step is intended as a warning and “tough love” call to change.
When confronting a member, the church hopes that the response will be brokenness for and repentance from sin. When this person refuses to do so, church discipline is the response. In Part 3, we will lay out the pattern for this process.
While no person can speak with 100% authority on whether an individual is genuinely converted or not, in the case of blatant disregard for the faith, church discipline offers the means to confront the possibility of unbelievers holding membership in the body of Christ, the church.
Purification and the Holiness of Christ’s Bride
John Hammett argues that church discipline is the provision that anticipates the possibility of false members creeping into the church and disrupting the purity and holiness that should be characteristic of believers and churches. This provision is church discipline and “is applied to ‘anyone who calls himself a brother’ but denies that claim by his life. He (or she) is put out of the church, both in the hope that he will repent and keep the church pure.”
Discipline isn’t for forming a perfect body or a perfect believer, but a sanctified one. While believers are positionally perfect in their relationship with God, they find themselves in the process of being conformed into the image of their King, their Savior—Jesus—as they experience the inner war.
Therefore, those who claim to know Jesus but blatantly deny or disobey him publicly should expect to be disciplined by the church and its leaders. Or in other words, as stated by John Leeman, “Broadly speaking, discipline is necessary whenever a disciple departs from the way of Christ by sinning. It’s necessary whenever a gap opens up between a Christian’s profession and life, and the so-called representative of Jesus fails to represent Jesus.”
In doing so, churches seek to uphold the standard of Jesus to sanctify and purify the church. At the same time, just as Jesus seeks the sheep who strays, the pastor seeks to bring the disciplined back to his flock through repentance and the binding of wounds.
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