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The basics of church discipline – Part 1

The basics of church discipline – Part 1
Posted on September 6, 2019  - By Dr. Danny L. Akin

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.”

Church discipline is a loving and necessary biblical process of confrontation and correction that is carried out by individual Christians, leaders of the church, and sometimes the whole community when a member of the body is in public, continuous, unrepentant and serious sin, with the goal of reclaiming and restoring that brother or sister to fellowship with Christians and His Church. 

The New Testament has a great deal to say about church discipline. Jesus addresses it in Matthew 18:15-20, and Paul does so repeatedly in passages like Romans 16:17-18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 13:1-3; Galatians 6:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12; and Titus 3:9-15. This fact alone makes it all the more remarkable that no aspect of church life in our day is more neglected than this one. And, it is a dangerous neglect. As theologian John Dagg warned in A Treatise on Church Order, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” 

Carl Laney, Professor at Western Seminary adds, “The church that neglects to confront and correct its members lovingly is not being kind, forgiving or gracious. Such a church is really hindering the Lord’s work and the advance of the gospel. The church without discipline is a church without purity (Ephesians 5:25-27) and power (cf. Joshua 7:11-12a). By neglecting church discipline, a church endangers not only its spiritual effectiveness but also its very existence. God snuffed out the candle of the church at Thyatira because of moral compromise (Revelation 2:20-24). Churches today are in danger of following this first-century precedent.”

By neglecting church discipline, a church endangers not only its spiritual effectiveness but also its very existence

1 Corinthians 5 reminds us that avoiding and neglecting church discipline is not new. It also provides for us theological and practical guidance for the recovery of this “missing jewel” in the life of too many churches. Alistair Begg is right when he says, “Church discipline brings glory to God as His people obey His Word.” How then do we move down the road in glorifying God through obedience to His Word in the ministry of church discipline, what I like to call “the ministry of loving confrontation”? Let us look at seven considerations from 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. 

I. To neglect church discipline invites the ridicule of the world (5:1)

Paul receives a report that has already gone viral in Corinth. Perhaps he received the bad news from Chloe’s people (1 Corinthians 1:11) or from Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Corinthians 16:17). It is a case of porneia, of “sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 5:1). Specifically, it is a case of incest: “a man has his father’s wife”, almost certainly his stepmother, not his biological mother. The use of the present tense seems to indicate, “an ongoing, habitual relationship, not a one-time affair”. In The New American Commentary, Mark Taylor notes that “Paul makes no mention about taking action against the woman, indicating she that she is not a believer” (1 Corinthians 5:12).  

It is not surprising to find incest condemned repeatedly in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:8; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20). However, even the pagan Romans found such behaviour scandalous. The Roman orator Cicero said incest was virtually unheard of in Roman society. Amazingly, what Hebrews and Romans alike found inconceivable, the Corinthians condoned. The church ‘out-tolerated’ the tolerance of a debaucherous Roman culture and, in the process, invited the criticism and ridicule of the lost. The gospel then changes nothing. If anything, at least in this instance, it appears simply to extend sexual liberation to worlds yet unknown. The pagan Romans did not applaud; they mocked. They did not cheer; they jeered.  

An impure church will soon be a powerless church. The tolerance of habitual, unrepentant and public sin will rob the gospel of its beauty and the church of its witness. Perhaps, for a season, she will be celebrated. In time, however, she will be lampooned and scorned. Eventually, the church will be ignored all together. A church that looks and acts like the world is of the world. There is no difference. Why would anybody take notice? Why would anyone care? 

An impure church will soon be a powerless church. The tolerance of unrepentant, public sin robs the gospel of its beauty and the church of its witness

II. Pride, not sorrow, leads us to ignore church discipline (5:2)

My friend and colleague at Southeastern Seminary, Chuck Lawless, wrote a fine article entitled, “12 Reasons Churches Don’t Practice Church Discipline”. They are: 

  1. They don’t know the Bible’s teaching on discipline. 
  2. They have never seen it done before. 
  3. They don’t want to appear judgmental. 
  4. The church has a wide-open front door. 
  5. They have had a bad experience with discipline in the past. 
  6. The church is afraid to open ‘Pandora’s box’. 
  7. They have no guidelines for discipline. 
  8. They fear losing members (or dollars). 
  9. Their Christianity is individualistic and privatised. 
  10. They fear being ‘legalistic’. 
  11. They hope church transfer growth (that is, growth through Christians transferring from one church to another) will fix the problem. 
  12. Leaders are sometimes dealing with their own sin.  

There is merit and truth in each of these observations. However, Paul adds an additional reason that certainly undergirds many noted by Lawless: pride. The Corinthians were “arrogant”. The verb is in the perfect tense. They are settled and abiding in their pride. Paul has already and repeatedly confronted the Corinthians about their spiritual pride (1 Corinthians 1:31; 3:21; 4:6, 18-19). In 4:21 of the same chapter, he warned them that their response to his letter would determine whether he would come to them “with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness”. 

Whether the Corinthians suffered from a false dualism that said “the spiritual” no longer should concern themselves with the issues of the physical (Platonism) or a heretical understanding of Christian liberty resulting from a misunderstanding of grace, we cannot be sure. What is certain is that they took great pride in their tolerance of ‘sin in the camp’, when the proper response should have been “mourning”. In the spirit of Ezra who mourned over the sins of the nation, the church should mourn over the sins of its members.  

A sin-sick church will boast, “We are affirming and accepting.” A gospel-intoxicated church will mourn, “We are sinful and undone.” It will readily acknowledge that we are a community of repenting sinners. What God calls sin, we call sin. What God fights against, we fight against. The issue is not one of perfection. It is an issue of purity.  

A gospel-intoxicated church will readily acknowledge that we are a community of repenting sinners

Daniel Wray is right. In his book Biblical Church Discipline, he says, “We shall never be able to keep the visible church in perfect purity since we are but fallible men. Our inability to achieve perfection in this matter, however, is no excuse for giving up the attempt. We must maintain the purity of Christ’s visible church to the full extent of our knowledge and power. This is all the more evident once we recognise that false doctrine and bad conduct are infectious. If these are tolerated in the church, all members will receive hurt.” 

Given the seriousness of the situation, Paul’s directive is simple and straightforward at the end of 1 Corinthians 5:2: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” The details of this action of excommunication are further expounded in verses 3-5, which we shall look at in the coming weeks.

Dr. Danny L. Akin

About Dr. Danny L. Akin

Danny L Akin currently serves as the President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina and is a professor of preaching and theology. He is well known for his heart for missions, and is the author of several books, including Engaging Exposition and Ten Who Changed the World.



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