Church Discipline 1: Matt. 18:15-20: When to administer


When is church a true church? The doctrine of the church was something that was wrestled with at the time of the Reformation when Luther broke with Rome. It emerged at the end of the Reformation a doctrine of the church that had three marks. A church is a biblical church when it has these 3 basic ingredients, the proclamation of the true gospel, the faithful administration of the baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the church discipline. If you had these 3 you were considered a church. Whether you met in a building or a home, whether you had a band or an organ, whether the gifts were exercised or not, these were all peripheral to the central 3 marks. Today I would like us to focus on church discipline. We are going to take a short break from Romans to talk about the importance of church discipline and the holiness of the church. We will be reflecting on the various tests that speak to this issue, but I would also like to bring in the 1689, the confessional statement of our church to show that what we are saying today is not innovative but the historical position of Christians in the past. The confession reflects the biblical picture of the church that commitment to a local church is not optional but compulsory. That the church is not a preaching centre where people can come and hear good preaching like a form of entertainment but have no other attachments to the local church. The local church is something that every Christian must be a part of and that includes being submitted to the censures of the church. In other words joining the church with a view to allowing the church to rebuke and discipline us for sin if necessary. Paragraph 12 in the chapter on the church says, ‘As all believers are bound to join themselves to particular churches, when and where they have opportunity to do so; so all that are admitted unto the privileges of a church, are also under the censures and government thereof, according to the rule of Christ.’ Scriptures offered in support of the whole church being involved in such activity are 1 Thess. 5:14, ‘And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.’ And 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15, ‘Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.’ ‘As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.’ It is important to note that the congregation is given the task of dealing out the penalty as the OT people of Israel were commanded to do when stoning someone to death. This means that when you join a church you are not only submitting yourself to the elders but to the church, and that you will receive rebuke and discipline not only from the leadership, but from the congregation as well. This is one of the reasons why we have membership, so that we can ensure as best we can that those who are inflicting any discipline are doing it as Christians and in a Christian spirit, we dare not put this sword of Christ into the hands of an unbeliever, the devil is looking for such openings in the church. The principles behind all church discipline are these, God is holy sinners must be saved and sin must be judged. The church exists to glorify God through the conversion of sinners and their holiness and sin is naturally destructive and leavens the whole lump. The nature of God and the purpose of the church are the grounds theological grounds for church discipline. God calls upon us first and foremost to judge ourselves. 1 Cor. 11:28-32, ‘Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.’ We see in these verses that the failure to take responsibility for our own sins brings God in as the doctor who deals with our sins with radical amputation, not in order to simply let off some steam and vent His wrath but in order that we would be saved and not condemned. God’s motives in discipline set the tone for the way we seek to go about this potentially explosive responsibility.

Church discipline is like putting a shotgun into the hands of an ex-murderer but God has equipped us with His Spirit and His word and calls us to man up in order to bear these heavy responsibilities. These duties force us to throw off all immaturity, all self-seeking and orient us for life as a responsible member of a family. We must stress from the word go that church discipline is not an invitation to a witch hunt. It is not the time for our inner critics to come out and have an occasion to pour all the scorn we have for others. No, it is to be carried out in a spirit of gentleness and humility and towards the goal of reconciliation and restoration, Gal. 6:1-2, ‘Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.’ The Gospel must guide all our actions in church discipline. In the gospel we learn that we are all sinners who are deserving of hell, that there is no one who is truly sinless. This means that when others sin we cannot get on our high horse but must in humility minister to the erring brother. I always think of the words that George Whitfield quoted, ‘but for grace of God, there go I.’ Contrary to popular belief Jesus is not against all forms of judging but hypocritical judging (Matt. 7:1-6); likewise Paul calls upon us to judge those who are within the church (1 Cor. 5:12).

The next paragraph of the confession puts forward a certain scenario and how we should act in it. Let’s say you are an offended party, you have done all that you can do to be at peace with your brother, and you have put the issue before the church, listen to what it says, ‘No church members, upon any offence taken by them, having performed their duty required of them towards the person they are offended at, ought to disturb any churchorder, or absent themselves from the assemblies of the church, or administration of any ordinances, upon the account of such offence at any of their fellow members, but to wait upon Christ, in the further proceedings of the church.’ Here the confession is alerting us to certain attitudes that we should not have when discipline is being enacted. We do not belong to a volunteer organisation where we can leave it whenever we have been offended, nor do we disrupt the unity of the church by making a ruckus demanding discipline, but we wait patiently and upon Christ to act through the administrations of church discipline. The concern here is to address the heat that often attends righteous anger and not allow one’s personal grievances to overtake the peace of the church.

That said let’s look then at the instances when church discipline should be administered.