We are living in a time when the visible Church in our day has wandered off-mission in many ways. We have Pastors who think they need to run Christ’s Church as though it were a business with themselves as CEO, we have churches whose sole aim is to entertain unbelievers without preaching Law and Gospel, and we have other churches re-writing the Law as they (or our pagan culture) sees fit, and much, much more. There are many discernment ministries popping up, calling Celebrity pastors and church communities to repentance and a return to Biblical Christianity. There are so many churches that are put together by man’s ideas rather than what is clearly written in the scriptures, that when most people talk about “Church Discipline” we immediately think of Spiritual Abuse like what we saw with Mark Driscol at Mars Hill. It is important to remember, however, that these men abused Church Discipline, they didn’t invent it. Discipline comes from the Lord God. So, let us look first at the purpose of Discipline in our Christian walk.
Jesus, Founder and Perfecter of Our Faith
We are going to begin in Hebrews, Chapter 12. A very interesting thing about the first portion of this chapter, is that it is almost always used in the “feel-good encouragement” that tells the Christian, “hey, it isn’t up to you and your works to perfect your faith”. That is absolutely, true, but it isn’t the whole message Paul was conveying. You see, He perfects our faith but it isn’t always a feel-good process.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
So you see, the writer of Hebrews is treating the Discipline of the Lord God as a form of Grace. Lack of discipline is a sign of illegitimacy. There is grace in discipline, for its purpose is to bring the son into repentance so that he might be spared final judgement. God’s word has very strong warning against leaders who abuse their position, but see here that lack of discipline condemns the sinner to judgement. The examples of the sexually immoral and Esau are powerful examples that carry much weight. The sexually immoral being left to their own demise is an easier concept to grasp for most than the unholiness of Esau, especially for those of us today who don’t have an understanding of birthright.
We’ll focus on the sexually immoral by looking at a sub plot that takes place between Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. But first, let us begin with what Jesus taught regarding rebuking a brother who has sinned against you.
Correcting a Brother in Christ
15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Jesus made a clear progression of escalation (I tried to highlight it using color of text). What we see in many present-day accounts of spiritual abuse, church leadership pronouncing public judgement on individuals who sought to follow this prescribed progression. A concerned member of the congregation goes to the pastor to point out questionable teaching in private, and then the pastor and his staff shun and isolate the one who dared question the visionary leader. Such actions serve only to protect the CEO’s reputation rather than the health of the Church or of the congregation. On the other hand, if the church fails to do its part to address open sin within the congregation, the entire body is defiled, as we see in 1 Corinthians 5.
Sexual Immorality Defiles the Church
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
What is happening in today’s progressive-liberal churches is not new… it happened in Corinth. A man had his father’s wife, and the church was arrogant in their tolerance of this fact. Paul was furious. He demanded that the individual be removed from the local church. This is upper limit of Church Discipline (though some theonomists seem to think otherwise, they are confusing the covenants).
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Paul wastes no time instructing how the discipline is to be delivered. It was to be in the assembly. The time for private rebuke was long passed. The sin was public and it was tolerated. It was then reported to Paul who pronounced judgement against the sin and the rebel.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 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. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
And this is absolutely important to understand, brothers and sisters. It is not for us to judge the outsiders, the unbelievers, those who are still dead in their sins and tresspasses, condemned by their unbelief. God judges them. Paul even said something to the effect of, “hey, when I told you not to associate with sexually immoral people, I meant among those who call themselves Christians”. We preach the gospel to the lost in the world, calling them out of their sin by the Grace of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For those who have been born again yet give themselves over to the desires of the flesh, knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, are to be corrected (Galatians 6:1 (ESV) 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) but as long as they remain unrepentant we are not to associate with them. Why? So that they might come to repentance, and that their sin might not leaven the whole congregation.
Paul is telling the Corinthians, that they were all in sin for allowing this public sin to go unchallenged, undisciplined, and possibly even celebrated in some twisted sense (I’m speculating on the brand of arrogance Paul points out twice). The individual was to be turned over to Satan. Was that because Satan is in charge? No. God is sovereign over His sons and daughters. Discipline comes from God. We live by His Grace. Therefore, when our rebellion requires discipline, He allows the enemy to take shots at us that are less restrained, so that we might repent. The goal of the excommunication isn’t to condemn the man, but to save his soul in the long-run, even if his flesh suffers damage from the enemy (See also Matthew 5:29-30 (ESV)).
Forgiveness Must Quickly Accompany Repentance
The goal of Church Discipline is not condemnation, but conviction unto repentance. We (as individuals and as a Church) must be ready to forgive, quick to love, and faithful to restore a brother who has repented of sin. Such was the case for the unnamed individual in Paul’s letters.
3 And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all.4 For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
5 Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. 6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 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, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
This is the goal of Church Discipline. It is not loving to interfere or undermine Discipline that is just. As a father, there are few things more frustrating than to have someone interrupt my correction of my children’s behavior to “spare them” from my discipline. My children are to follow my rules, because I love them and I know what is best for them. Similarly, when the Church is exercising just, biblical discipline, the congregation must honor the purpose of Biblical discipline and resist the desire to coddle sinners. Remember what we saw in Hebrews 12, the Discipline of the Lord is a form of grace.
WWUTT | Have Nothing to Do With Them? (Church Discipline)[youtube https://youtu.be/SOUJdNzwP-Q]
In Christ Jesus,