In the first article of this series we considered formative discipline, which I distinguished from restorative discipline. Now we must turn our attention to the form of discipline that we often dread to speak about. Restorative discipline, as the name suggests, is that form of discipline that seeks to restore Christians to true spiritual health. It can also be called corrective discipline. This is applied where there is stubborn sin.

Restorative discipline seeks to restore Christians to true spiritual health.

This needs further explanation, because there is the mistaken belief in the minds of many church leaders and ordinary church members that, whenever it is known that a Christian committed a sin, especially sexual or scandalous sin, he or she must be disciplined. That is a wrong view.

A Correct View of Church Discipline

That view is wrong because all of us are sinners and we sin every day. We commit sins of commission and sins of omission. We sin in thought, in word, and in deed. If we are to discipline Christians simply because we have come to know that they have sinned, then the whole church—including its eldership—would have to undergo restorative discipline all the time! If we say that it is only for some sins and not for others, we must still answer the question “Where do we draw the line?” Which passages of scripture will we use to justify, for instance, disciplining a man who commits adultery and not the man who in anger beat up his wife? Why should we discipline a young person for stealing church money and not another one for telling lies?

The aim of the church leaders is to cure their members rather than to simply punish them.

Things get complicated when we start using church discipline the way judges in law courts mete out punishment. In court, the judge simply wants to know if the accused is guilty of an offence according to the law of the land. If he is guilty, the judge then punishes him according to what is written in the penal code. Whether the person is a first-time offender or a perpetual offender will only add to or subtract from the severity of the punishment. Church leaders do not primarily function as judges but as doctors. They do not think in terms of whether a person has sinned but rather whether the person is stubbornly continuing in unrepentant sin. The aim of the church leaders is to cure their members rather than to simply punish them for what they’ve done.

Restorative Discipline is Love not Punishment

That is a very important distinction. If church leaders fail to make this distinction, their members will be afraid of coming to see them for counsel when they are struggling with sin due to their own weaknesses and failings. They will see their church leaders as policemen who will quickly drag them to the courtroom instead of seeing them as doctors who will wheel them into the operating theatre only if there is need for surgery to remove the life-threatening cancer.

We are all sinners who are in the process of being sanctified day by day.

It is crucial that church members understand that we are all sinners who are in the process of being sanctified day by day. They should see that it is only when a Christian is refusing to yield to the plain teaching of scripture about how he should live that Christ expects and demands that restorative discipline be used. In fact, restorative discipline is one of God’s tools in sanctifying his people on earth.

Strictly speaking, there are only two forms of restorative discipline that are taught in the Bible: private and public.

1. Private Admonition

This is the exhortation that is given to a member so that he repents of the sin that he wants to continue living in. It may be in the form of a rebuke or a warning. Paul wrote to Titus about both of these. He said, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:15). He also said, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:10-11).

Church leaders admonish the member to instil the fear of the Lord in his heart.

Private admonition is often the final warning before excommunication takes place. It is that private rebuke or warning in which the stubborn sinner is exhorted about the dire consequences of the sinful lifestyle that he has chosen. Sometimes, it may also be done where someone’s cycle of sin and repentance is now becoming like a circus. You want to believe that the person is again genuinely repentant but you realise that he needs some “shock treatment” so that he does not take the Lord’s pardoning grace for granted. So, the church leaders admonish the member to instil the fear of the Lord in his heart.

2. Public Rebuke

Public rebuke is often given in instances where a member’s sin has become public or has the potential of becoming public. So, although the member has confessed the sin to the church leaders and is evidently repentant, it is important that those who know or will know about the sin should be equally convinced that the church leaders have not turned their eyes the other way. Hence, the need for this public rebuke.

Public rebuke and repentance preserves the honour of the church of Christ.

An obvious example is where there has been sexual sin and a pregnancy has resulted. The pregnancy may not be evident yet, but it is only a matter of time. Although the individuals involved may be genuinely repentant, it is important for the church to know about this sin and for the individuals to be admonished publicly. That way, the church knows that the leaders do not condone this lifestyle. It also means that, when the pregnancy becomes visible, and outsiders begin to ask members about it, they can say, “Yes, we know about it. They confessed their sin to the church and our leaders admonished them about it.” This preserves the honour of the church of Christ.

What about Excommunication?

This is the exclusion of a member from the fellowship of believers in the church. It is the withdrawal of all the privileges that the person was enjoying as a church member. It certainly includes an exclusion from the Lord’s Supper, though the person may still be welcome to attend worship services if he is not being disruptive.

We see the apostle Paul exhorting the church in Corinth to use this form of discipline when he wrote, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:11-13).

Excommunication is not for those who merely attend church but for those who claim to be Christians but are living a sinful life.

We see from this text that excommunication is not for those who merely attend church but for those who claim to be Christians but are living a sinful life. Paul speaks about a person “who bears the name of brother.” Later, he says that God will judge those who are outside the church; it is the business of those who are in the church to “purge the evil person” from within the church. This is particularly important to stress because of the popular belief that Christians should not judge. Since we are all sinners, why should we condemn other people and even ask them to leave the church?

We do not discipline people because they have sinned. Rather, we discipline them because they are stubbornly continuing in sin. We want to help them start fighting sin in their lives, which is what every Christian should be doing, instead of embracing sin and nursing it in their hearts and lives.

We also see from 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 that it is those whose way of life can be described as being sinful who should be disciplined with excommunication. Paul does not say that everyone who has committed any sexual sin or who has stolen money or who has gotten drunk must be excommunicated. If he had said that, it would mean that as long as someone was guilty of any of those offenses they would need to be excommunicated.

Rather, he uses words that suggest a way of life. He says, “if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler.” As you can see, it is sin as a lifestyle. It is such individuals who should be excommunicated. And the goal of excommunication is that such people will come to see that the head of the church, Jesus Christ, wants them to seek to be holy because he is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16).

Even Severe Church Discipline Aims at Restoration

For how long should a person remain under excommunication? It should be only for as long as the person stubbornly continues in sin. Therefore, it is wrong to set a definite period. You cannot say that you are excommunicating someone for one year or two years. What if the person becomes repentant before that period is over? Or what if the person continues in stubborn sin well beyond that period? When the case of excommunication mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 took place and the individual being disciplined truly repented of his misdeeds, the apostle Paul immediately asked the church in Corinth to restore that individual to the full rights of membership.

Excommunication should be only for as long as the person stubbornly continues in sin.

Read what he wrote: “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it…to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive…Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:5-8, 10-11).

This is a Work of the Entire Church

The message will be very clear to them.

What causes people to come to repentance when they are under excommunication is when their fellow church members withdraw their fellowship from them. A few may still want to associate with the excommunicated person. Others who are related to them either in the family or in the school or workplace will still have to continue associating with them, but purely for the purpose of that relationship and not by fraternising with them. But they will notice that the majority of the members who were dear to them will have withdrawn their fellowship from them and they will feel the pain keenly.

The message will be very clear to them. They cannot dance with the devil all week and expect to be welcomed among God’s people on the Lord’s Day, or on any other day for that matter. The people of God are grieved by this stubborn, sinful lifestyle. The excommunicated person must choose to either continue in sin and be denied fellowship with God’s dear people, or deny the sin and be restored to fellowship. Excommunication keeps them at this T-junction. If they turn to the left, they remain outside the church. If they finally turn to the right, the church is willing to receive them back.

Be Quick to Restore

The restoration should not only be an announcement of the lifting of excommunication. It should be real.

When a person has become genuinely repentant of a sinful way of life, they can be under a lot of grief. They realise that they not only have wronged specific individuals in the church but, above all, they have wronged the great head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is vital not to delay their restoration because they can be overwhelmed with this grief and Satan can use it to destroy them even further by causing them to become bitter toward God’s people. The restoration should not only be an announcement of the lifting of excommunication. It should be real. Those who were once close to the individual should go the extra mile to reassure the person of their love and desire to restore fellowship. Paul wrote, “I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:8).

This article was adapted from God’s Design for the Church: A Guide for African Pastors and Ministry Leaders, by Conrad Mbewe (p179-184) 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.