Church Discipline and Church Growth

(October 2004 – Volume 10, Issue 10) 

Undoubtedly the most neglected and misunderstood activity that any church can undertake is that of disciplining its members. Our society equates love with tolerance. “Live and let live” is its mantra; “What right do you have to judge me?” is our challenge. These attitudes, of course, have infiltrated the minds of Christians. Couple that with the fact that most Christians have never witnessed biblically-based church discipline and we can readily understand why even solid believers are unnerved at the mere mention of the “D” word. Nor am I aware of any church growth seminars espousing discipline as a means to draw the masses. As a matter of fact, church discipline is antithetical to the seeker-sensitive movement since a goal of church discipline is purity, which is not an attractive feature to most unbelievers and even many Christians. It should, therefore, give us serious reason for reflection when we realize that past generations considered church discipline one of the marks of the true church. Certainly discipline has been abused in the past and biblical guidelines often ignored, but discipline has always been a characteristic of the church. It is our generation that is out of step with both the historic church and with the teachings of Scripture. What has brought about this alteration in the modern church? There are two culprits, as I see it: lack of biblical instruction concerning church discipline and a modified view of sin.

Whatever Happened to Sin?

When the mayor of Washington, D.C., is arrested for cocaine possession, he immediately checks into a treatment center, thereby suggesting that he is not guilty so much as sick. When one of baseball’s greatest stars is charged with gambling on the sport, he tells the nation that he has “a problem,” compulsive gambling, a sickness. When a gunman kills three children on a school ground, rather than call the ministers of the nearest churches, the principal calls professional therapists to assist the children in dealing with their fears of the killer. When the press reveals that a minister has been arrested for an indecent act in a public place, he immediately enters a therapeutic center in a distant state for the treatment of stress, while his superiors in the church explain the burdens he has been carrying in ministry. [1]

Sin has been airbrushed out of the minds and hearts of Western society, and the church. Unfortunately however, this is in harmony with the culture. What the Bible calls sin we now call sickness, disorders, phobias and syndromes. This is more than semantics; it is a fundamental change in the understanding of human nature and the human condition. According to Scripture mankind’s great problem is that they are fallen creatures; they are totally depraved — incapable, unwilling and unable to please God and live holy lives (Romans 3:10-18; Ephesians 2:1-3). What sinners need is not to feel better about themselves, they need to be born again (2 Corinthians 5:17). They need their sins forgiven (Ephesians 1:7), the righteousness of God placed on their account (2 Corinthians 5:21) and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in their lives (Galatians 5:16, 22-25). New believers now find themselves (hopefully) in a nurturing local body of Christ; they have at their disposal the very words of God in the Bible and the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in their hearts. Still the battle with the flesh rages (Galatians 5:17-21), the devil seeks to devour (1 Peter 5:8) and the world ever calls to conformity (1 John 2:15-17). Under such conditions casualties of war are to be expected, so no one is shocked to hear that Christians sin. God made provision for regular forgiveness through the confession of those sins (1 John 1:9) and repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9, 10). In addition, means for victory over sin is found in laying aside our old self, with its sinful practices, renewal in the spirit of our mind and putting on the new self (Ephesians 5:22-24). Contrary to popular opinion the message of Scripture, in all of its simplicity and directness, is quite positive: we are sinners, but sinners can be forgiven, and through the power of the Word and the Holy Spirit they can live in a manner “worthy of [their] calling” (Ephesians 4:1).

All of this changes, however, when mankind’s great problem is misdiagnosed. If we are sick we don’t need forgiveness we need medical attention. If we are victims of disorders we don’t need forgiveness, we need behavioral modification. If we are a mass of unmet emotional needs we don’t need forgiveness we need someone or something to meet our needs. The packaging of the gospel, as well as our Christian lives, largely depends upon our understanding of the human condition. Having drank at the well of secular psychology for decades now, many Christians and churches have lost the concept of man as sinner, and have embraced the concept of man as victim. If we are victims we don’t need to confess sin because we are not at fault. Instead the blame is passed elsewhere. Anna Russell’s “Psychiatric Folk Song” captures this concept well:

I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat and blacked my husband’s eye.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find,
And here’s what he dredged up, from my subconscious mind.
When I was one, my mummy hid my dolly in a trunk
And so it follows, naturally, that I am always drunk.
When I was two, I saw my father kiss the maid one day,
And that is why I suffer from kleptomania.
At three I had a feeling of ambivalence towards my brothers.
And so it follows naturally I poisoned all my lovers.
But I am happy now I have learned the lessons this has taught:
Everything I do that’s wrong, is someone else’s fault! [2]

It is no wonder that one observer lamented, “Sin really has disappeared from the pulpit. It’s too much of a downer, I’m afraid.”

Simply because the Christian community has renamed or reclassified sin as something more docile does not mean that the essence of sin has actually changed. If your doctor diagnosed you with cancer, but in order not to alarm you he tells you your problem is indigestion and prescribes Pepto-Bismol, he has done you a disservice. As uncomfortable as it might be, identifying your illness is the first step toward treatment. We can rename sin but ultimately we are only fooling ourselves and pandering to our own self-deception, leaving us vulnerable to sin’s destructive power.

The importance of a proper knowledge of sin is illustrated by a story told of Martin Luther and a man who was seeking an opportunity to stab the Reformer. Luther had received a portrait of the would-be murderer, so that, wherever he went, he was on his guard against the assassin. Using this as an illustration, Luther said, “God knows that there are sins that would destroy us, and he has therefore given us portraits of them in his Word, so that, wherever we see them, we may say, ‘That is a sin that would stab me; I must beware of that evil thing, and keep out of its way.’” [3]

What the modern church is having a hard time grasping these days is that people really are sinners. And because we are sinners, despite the work of the Spirit and the Scriptures, even saints are drawn to the deeds of the flesh. Renaming those deeds something more palpable does not solve the problem. D. A. Carson warns, “People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith and delight in the Lord. We drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.” [4]

Church Discipline

What desperately needs to be reclaimed by Christ’s church today is a biblical concept of sin and sin’s potential power in a believer’s life. When it is once again recognized that the flesh, which houses the principle of sin, is our great enemy we will once again be ready to do battle with the weapons that God has provided. One of those weapons is church discipline. To be sure this is not the first step in dealing with sin – it is the last. Normally our sin issues are handled on a personal and private level as we confess our sins to God and seek forgiveness from others. It is very rare for the local church to have to step forward and deal publicly with the sins of God’s people. Unfortunately, there will be occasions when this action will be necessary, so our Lord has provided us with guidelines for those situations. The Scriptures clearly outline the goals, reasons and steps related to church discipline.

Goals of Church Discipline

There are a number of purposes for church discipline, but it must first be stated the aim is not to inflict punishment on the offender. The church is not seeking vengeance, that is God’s prerogative (Romans 12:19); it is not spitefully trying to teach a lesson. Discipline should not spring from angry, mean-spirited hearts. As a matter of fact, unless a church is deeply grieved and sorrowful over a fallen brother or sister I do not believe that that church is in a spiritual position to deal with sin within its ranks. Discipline must spring from hearts of love and compassion.

This being the case, what are the biblical goals of discipline? First, the goal of all church discipline should be the restoration of the sinner. Galatians 6:1 says it best, Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted. When an individual is removed from the church it is for the purpose of reclaiming them for Christ. The objective is not to rid ourselves of a troublesome person – to wash our hands of a tough situation and move on. It is to so impress upon this Christian the gravity of their sin as to cause them to fall on their knees before the Lord in heart-felt repentance. This is the first step toward restoring this individual to godly fellowship with the Lord.

Not only has sin resulted in broken joyful fellowship with the Lord, it has also resulted in alienation with God’s people. Therefore, reconciliation to the body is the next goal of church discipline. It is interesting to find that in Matthew 18, in one of the most important passages on this subject, the motivation for reproving a brother in sin is that if he listens, you have won your brother (v. 15).

While restoration and reconciliation is the desired result for the one in sin, purity of the local body of Christ and its protection from contamination is equally important. When the apostle Paul called for church discipline of the immoral man in 1 Corinthians 5 he rebuked the church for allowing this man to remain in their fellowship. He asked them, Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Then he commanded them to clean out the old leaven. They had apparently congratulated themselves on their loving tolerance of this sinful situation, but Paul was not impressed. They had allowed this adulterous relationship to continue within their fellowship not realizing that pollution of the body was the result. When sin is ignored or tolerated, even in the name of love, it sends the message that sin is not of any great significance. The result is an impure church and a watered-down message.

Reasons for Church Discipline

In the New Testament we are given examples and commands to discipline unrepentant Christians for a number of specific sins. The best known example is the immorality found in 1 Corinthians 5. Concerning this professed Christian man Paul tells the church to remove him from the fellowship (v. 2). This involved more than a paper transaction – more than a simple removal of his name from the membership roles, or even from the times of worship and fellowship. Church discipline would involve a powerful spiritual transaction in which this man living in open unconfessed sin would actually be delivered… to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. By removing the individual from the body he was now placed in the world system, the domain of Satan himself. Here, outside of the protection of the church he was fair game for the devil. The goal of this action being that the man would see his sin and turn to Christ.

Similar action is to be taken for doctrinal heresy. In 1 Timothy 1:10 we find Paul delivering Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan in order to teach them not to blaspheme, which in the context had reference to rejection of the faith. Later in 2 Timothy 2:18 the particular doctrinal heresy of these men has to do with false teaching concerning the resurrection. Unless such men are publicly rebuked their false doctrines will spread like gangrene (2:17). Of course Paul is not referencing minor theological differences among Christians, but when the cardinal doctrines of the faith are under attack there can be no compromise.

Removal from the church is also espoused for repeated divisiveness. In Titus 3:10 we are told to reject a factious man after a first and second warning. In passages such as 2 Thessalonians 3 the causes for church discipline are broadened to include public, unconfessed, willful sins of any type. Verse six calls on us to keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the traditions which you received from us. Then after a discussion of Christians who refused to work for their living, Paul concludes, And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (vv. 14-15). 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 sums it up well, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler – not even to eat with such a one…. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.

It should be understood that the Scripture is not calling for sanctified witch-hunts where everyone lives in mortal fear of slipping up and facing removal from the church. Those who are disciplined are not the ones who struggle with the flesh, losing some battles, confessing their sin and moving on for Christ. That is a description of all believers. Discipline is reserved for those who have chosen to sin, are living an ungodly lifestyle, refusing to confess and truly repent, and live lives that evidence repentance. These are individuals who claim to be Christians but thumb their noses at their Lord with their actions. After repeated attempts to call them to walk with Christ they have refused, and now live what Paul calls an unruly life.

Steps to Church Discipline

Most consider Matthew 18:15-20 the best explanation of the steps that need to be taken when dealing with a person in sin. This is probably wise, but it should be noted that when these words of our Lord were spoken to the church, as a New Testament body of Christ, the church had not yet been formed although His words anticipate that it soon would be. In addition, the epistles, which explain New Testament living, never repeat these steps although Titus 3:10 comes very close. It should also be noted in the examples given above we have no indication that the Matthew 18 formula was followed. This may be because Jesus appears to be dealing with private sins against an individual rather than known public sins although this cannot be dogmatically stated. There is no necessity for me to go privately to discuss the moral failure of a Christian who is openly living with someone who is not his wife. The first step of Matthew 18 could be skipped in this case and step 2 or 3 initiated. We see this pattern in Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2, and in his public pronouncement of the man in immorality in 1 Corinthians 5. Still, as a general rule Matthew serves us well, for when we see a brother in sin (whether they have sinned against us or not), as concerned Christians we should personally, or with others, approach the errant fellow believer and reprove him (v. 15). By God’s grace your brother may listen to this kind rebuke, taking appropriate action to deal with his sin. Fortunately, the vast majority of sin issues are solved on this level, but occasionally it becomes necessary to go to the next stage in which two or more “witnesses” get involved. This step is for “confirming the fact” of the sin. It is possible that at this juncture the witnesses will see the situation differently. Perhaps the one reproving has his facts twisted. Possibly there is a misunderstanding rather than a sin. The witnesses, who should be godly people, are to sort all of this out and determine the facts of the matter. If it is determined that the individual is indeed in sin they are to call him to repentance. If this call is rejected the small group is to tell it to the church. There is some difference of opinion at this point as to what this means. Is the whole church informed or just the spiritual leadership? Either way the church is now to call this brother to repentance. It is only after the church has been spurned that the final step of church discipline takes place. Jesus said that such a one is now to be to you as a Gentile, and tax-gatherer (v. 17). When we compare this statement with 1 Corinthians 5:11 – I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother…, and 2 Thessalonians 3:14b-15 – Do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother, and Galatians 6:1 – You who are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness, we come away with a clearer picture of what Jesus is demanding. We are not to shun, deprecate or treat unkindly those under discipline. But we must not fellowship, worship or socialize (not even eat with such a one) with them. The goal is not to inflict harm but to impress upon them the gravity of their sin and consequences of rebellion against their God and maintain the purity of the church. The objective, once again, is restoration.


In the growth-at-any-cost mindset of the modern Christian, church discipline is foreign and distasteful. “Churches have become hospitals where sin-sick souls are given aspirin and entertainment to distract them from the diseases of their souls. God forgive us, we are more concerned with numbers than with holiness.” [5] Christians determined to please God will see the value and importance of church discipline in our efforts to shepherd God’s people.


[1] Bruce Shelley and Marshall Shelley, Consumer Church, (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity Press , 1992), p. 126

[2] Taken from Alistair Begg, What Angels Wish They Knew (Chicago,: Moody Press, 1998), pp. 151-152

[3] C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students (Grand Rapids,: Associated Publishers and Authors, 1971), Volume 3, p. 58.

[4] D.A. Carson, For the Love of God, Volume 1 (Good News Publishers, 1998)

[5] John White and Ken Blue, Healing the Wounded (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1985) p. 34.


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