It is beyond the scope of these articles to go into the details of the exact procedures that churches should go through in order to ensure that restorative discipline takes place. Depending on whether your form of church government is Congregational, Presbyterian, or Episcopal, you will find that you will have different ways of processing church discipline. Some forms of church government allow a greater involvement of church members in arriving at the discipline to be meted out, while others involve only elders. Having started this series by considering formative discipline, in this third and final post I will offer a very general process for discipline in the local church, using Matthew 18.
There seem to be three stages of handling a disciplinary matter in this text.
“Jesus said, ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.'” (Matthew 18:15–17).
General Steps for the Discipline Process
There seem to be three stages of handling a disciplinary matter in this text:
- The first stage is private because it is a personal offense. You confront an offending brother and, if he accepts his fault and apologises for it, you should pardon him and close the matter.
- If he does not accept his fault, you take the matter to the second stage and bring in one or two others to listen. This is semi-private and it brings objectivity. The matter is being established by two or three witnesses. If the offender is persuaded by these witnesses and apologises, then the matter ends there.
- If he still refuses and you are still convinced that he was wrong and needs to repent of this matter, Jesus says, “Tell it to the church.” This is the third stage. It is usually at this point that churches that equally respect the authority of the Bible do not totally agree.
For some, “the church” means all the members of the church, who will then take up the matter. For others, it means the church as an institution, and so you tell it to the leaders of the church, who will then take up the matter. Finally, when this last stage is done and the person is still stubbornly hanging on to their sin and showing a lack of repentance, then “the church” treats that person with the disgust that the Jews had for Gentiles and tax collectors.
We Discipline because Sin is Deadly
Although we will never fully agree on the mechanics and process because of our different forms of church government, we must still see that it is our responsibility to ensure that those who are hanging on to sin are disciplined (whether through admonition or excommunication) in order to seek their restoration to spiritual wholeness. In the book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus Christ warned the churches that he would punish them himself if they did not discipline those in their midst who were living in stubborn sin. Often this immediate punishment by the Lord Jesus involved temporal judgments and even death.
We need to see that church discipline is an act of love and not an act of hatred.
For instance, we read: “I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:20–23).
True Discipline is Full of Love
In the light of this sobering account, we need to see that church discipline is an act of love and not an act of hatred. When we exercise church discipline, we are seeking to prevent God’s judgment upon his people. Sadly, however, many people see any such discipline as an act of hatred. They tend to sympathise with the stubborn sinner. This is often seen when a person under discipline by one church simply moves to another church. The leaders of the new church tend to hear only the offender’s side of the story. In sheltering him, they feel as if they are expressing love toward him over and against the hatred he experienced in his previous church. In the end, the sin in that person continues to grow like a cancer until he is destroyed. That is not love.
When we exercise church discipline, we are seeking to prevent God’s judgment upon his people.
Our greatest hindrance to church discipline in the African context is our sense of ubuntu. We have very strong social, tribal, family, and cultural ties, which spill over into the church. When church leaders present a case of stubborn sin, we lose sight of all that has been mentioned in these articles and our strongest emotion is that we must express solidarity with that person. In the end, we undermine church discipline because we secretly continue to have fellowship with him…until God’s judgment falls on him or on the rest of the church. We need to be biblical and ensure that both formative and restorative discipline are exercised in the church so that we can have healthy churches to the glory of God.
This article was adapted from God’s Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders, by Conrad Mbewe (p184-186) It is used with the permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, based in Wheaton, IL. You can read a review of it here, as well as a series of articles adapted from the book dealing with the church and money.