Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 11: Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part B

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence is a series of articles by faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary that seeks to offer some definitions of what constitutes a GCR, why we believe the SBC is in need of such a movement, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life. The series will address biblical, theological, historical and practical issues related to a GCR with the hope that God will use our finite and flawed efforts for His glory and the good of the people called Southern Baptist.

Church Discipline: One Essential of a Healthy Church, Part B

Jesus spoke directly to Church Discipline in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul did so in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. Note carefully the sin we confront. It is 1) public, 2) habitual, 3) serious and 4) lacking repentance. We are not called to be spiritual garbage inspectors or theological peeping-toms. When we become aware of a sinning brother or sister we go to them first individually, second with witnesses, and finally with the whole fellowship being involved if there is no repentance. If at any point the evidence of genuine repentance comes forth, the process of discipline stops and the ministry of restoration begins. Let me add parenthetically that restoration to fellowship does not entail restoration to leadership. God’s standard for the latter is higher than His standard for the former.

My friend Mark Driscoll has led his church at Mars Hill in Seattle to carefully examine and address this issue of church discipline. His church has adopted what they call nine guiding principles from Scripture on the matter of church discipline. (Mark has a whole chapter on church discipline in a forthcoming book entitled Vintage Church. It is excellent!) What are the nine guidelines that a church should follow?

1). When sin has come between people, the goal is repentance and reconciliation, along with recompense, if needed.

2). Church leaders must always pursue the protection of the gospel’s reputation and the well-being of the entire church, not just the interests of individual people who have sinned. This explains why sometimes individuals must be put out of the church.

3). Such matters in the church are entrusted to Christian leaders who must be careful not to abuse in any way the responsibility to oversee the obedience of its members.

4). Discipline is unpleasant but, in the end, produces a holy people by distinguishing between the world and the church.

5). All matters in the church, including church discipline, are to be done in a fitting and orderly manner.

6). Because the situations causing church discipline can be incredibly frustrating, it is important that those involved don’t let their anger lead them into sin.

7). For the truth to emerge, the elders must hear first-hand reports from all sides of a dispute before a decision is reached.

8). When at all possible, multiple witnesses should be required.

9). The fellowship of the church is a regular time appointed by God when his people are to be reminded that unrepentant sin and unnecessary division in the church are unacceptable to a holy God. It is a time to look at sin in light of God’s grace and commitment to help us grow.

The ministry of Church Discipline is mandatory, if we are to be faithful to our head who is Christ. We do it for the sake of the body and for the sake of the sinning brother. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the crucial nature of this when he 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” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together – Prayer Book of the Bible, in Bonhoeffer Works vol. 5., 105).

Dealing with an individual in the manner noted above also has pastoral benefits. It will keep the issue on the level of principle and not personality. Personality battles result when we delay in taking action and are perceived to be showing favoritism. This is always a lose – lose scenario and must be avoided. We must move quickly in the initial stage when the sin is discovered. We may extend the “grace of patience” as we seek the repentance of the one living in sin. However, we must be clear, above board and timely. We cannot go once, and then walk away as if all is forgiven, if there is no change. Vigilance and steadfastness are required, all the while keeping Galatians 6:1-2 before our mind’s eye.

Now a crucial question: why must habitual, public, serious, unrepentant sinners be disciplined? Because they are dangerous. Paul describes them in Titus 3:11 as warped and sinning. Warped is in the perfect tense and means twisted, turned inside out. Sinning is in the present tense. Here is a man living life upside down and inside out. This is his settled state, heart and mind. It is his continuous habit of life. GOD FORBID THAT WE WHO LOVE THIS PERSON WOULD STAND BY AND DO NOTHING! Now an important question begs to be asked. What sin(s) require church discipline? Again I like the approach adopted at Mars Hill Church in Seattle because of their rigorously biblical commitment.

  • When a Christian sins against another Christian and it cannot be overlooked in love.
  • When a Christian who professes faith lives in sin without repentance.
  • When a Christian continually blasphemes God.
  • When someone encourages or promotes false doctrine.
  • When a Christian is a habitual doctrine debater.
  • When a Christian will only heed false teachers.
  • When a Christian is sincere but deceived.
  • When a teacher is in moral sin or doctrinal error.
  • When an elder is in moral sin or doctrinal error.
  • When a Christian appoints himself or herself to leadership.
  • When a Christian is divisive.
  • When a Christian is an idle busybody.
  • When a Christian promotes legalism.
  • When a Christian refuses to obey civil laws.
  • When an alleged offended Christian seeks legal recourse.
  • When a Christian has repeatedly rejected counsel by a church elder.
  • When a Christian is not consistently in community.
  • When a Christian leave the church to pursue sin or heresy.

Bonhoeffer was right, “When another Christian falls into obvious sin, an admonition is imperative, because God’s Word demands it” (Bonhoeffer, 105). We do neither the sinner nor ourselves any favors when we wink at or ignore. Why?

Because sin is destructive. It destroys. What it can do to a fellowship is serious. What it does to the sinner enslaved by its addiction is tragic. Sometimes a sinning brother or sister will claim the leading of the Spirit, even the providence of God, in their sinful actions. There are times when he or she may even say, “my head tells me this is wrong but my heart tells me it was never more right.”

With grief, humility, self-examination and a broken heart we must confront them and if necessary shun them and reject them. Following Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 we must turn them over to Satan with a hope and prayer that the discipline of the heavenly Father (Hebrews 12:5-13) will bring them to brokenness and repentance, and that they will give evidence that they are indeed God’s child after all. We have our duty. God has His.

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