Church Discipline

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A long time ago and a long way from here, I was once a member of a church that faced a really painful issue. The unadorned facts are these. There was a believer of many years standing, a long-term and respected member of the fellowship, heavily involved in leadership within the congregation, and a married man. There was also a young woman who had not been a Christian very long, but who nonetheless had made a clear profession of faith and was involved in areas of service in the life of the church. She too was married. These two began an affair, and left their respective spouses. What had happened could not have been kept secret even if they had wanted it to be. Representatives of the leaders of the church spoke to them, over a period of time, urging them to see that what they were doing was quite contrary to their commitment to Christ, and urging them to abandon their course of action. They would not accept that what they were doing was wrong, nor would they end their relationship. They were required to leave the church, which they did, and to my knowledge, we had nothing more to do with them after that.

From my point of view, it was a steep learning curve. I saw in practice the destructive power of such events. I saw the responsibilities and burdens of Christian leadership with new clarity. I learned a lot about how such situations need to be handled. Not least, I understood with new force the relevance and wisdom of the Bible's teaching about how the church should deal with sin. Some of that teaching is what we're going to look at this morning.

It's teaching that's reflected in Article 33 of the 39 Articles of the Church of England – our doctrinal basis, which we've been working our way through on winter mornings for the last few years. We've come to the last few, and today it's Article 33. In sixteenth-century English, this is what it says:

Of excommunicate Persons, how they are to be avoided
That person which by open denunciation of the Church is rightly cut off from the unity of the Church, and excommunicated, ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publican [that is, as 'a pagan or a tax-collector', as Jesus said], until he be openly reconciled by penance, and received into the Church by a Judge that hath authority thereunto.

We'll come back to the particular point that Article makes later on, but I want us to consider the Biblical teaching that underlies it. So one of the sections of Scripture that Article reflects is in the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 5. My title is 'Church Discipline'. In this chapter Paul talks about a particular case of discipline within the church at Corinth. At least, it should have been a case of discipline, but to Paul's horror it isn't, and that's what he's urging them to put right.

My outline on the back of the service sheet has the text of Article 33, and then simply four questions. They relate to the 'What?', the 'Why?', the 'Who?' and the 'How?' of church discipline.

1. What is Church Discipline?

What we are talking about is the action that the church takes in response to continuing and unrepented sin in the life of its members.

By 'the church', I mean the body of believers – the fellowship, with the elders or pastors taking the leadership which is their role. The discipline that the church should exercise will start private and informal, and ultimately, if necessary become public and formal. The ultimate sanction that the church has is to exclude someone from the fellowship. That is obviously a very serious step to take.

So that's what we're talking about, and that is what the apostle Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul has become aware of a situation in the church in Corinth that should have given rise to disciplinary measures, but instead no action has been taken. So he is talking about a very specific set of circumstances. But in doing so, he gives substantial guidance about discipline in the life of the church.

He summarises the situation in verses 1-2:

"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. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you."

We don't know the sordid details, and we don't need to. But it seems a man is sleeping with his step-mother and the church is tolerant, even supportive of what is going on.

That this is 'reported' means that it is common knowledge. This is not merely gossip or a rumour. It is well known. The facts are not in dispute.

And when Paul describes what is going on as sexual immorality 'of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans', he means that this is behaviour that would be a scandal even in the immoral world of the first-century Roman empire. This would cause widespread revulsion and disapproval even among the pagan population – and the church is tolerating it. It should not. The man who is doing this should be excluded from the fellowship of the church.

So to the next question.

2. Why Should the Church Exercise Discipline?

One answer to that is simply that God requires it in his Word, the Bible. This chapter is one example of a number of places in the New Testament where appropriate discipline in the life of the church is urged. In Matthew 18.15-17 we have such teaching direct from the lips of Jesus. You might like to turn to that passage for a moment. It's on p 823. This is what Jesus says there, speaking to the disciples. Notice the movement from private and informal measures through to the more public and formal:

"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. [Jesus is quoting there from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament law] 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 [which for a Jew at that time would have meant excluding him from fellowship]."

The fundamental principle by which we seek to order the life of this church is that the Bible is indeed God's Word written. If we accept that, then appropriate discipline is not an option for us. It is a matter of obedience to our Lord.

Secondly, discipline is for the sake of the sinner. Every parent knows that the opposite of love is not discipline but neglect. Good discipline is an expression of love. The same must be true within the life of the church. The purpose of discipline is the restoration and reconciliation of the one being disciplined.

"If he listens to you [says Jesus], you have gained your brother."

In 1 Corinthians 5.5, Paul says the same thing in this way:

"you are to deliver this man to Satan [by which he means exclude him – the non-Christian world to which the man will return is where Satan rules] for the destruction of the flesh [that is the part of him that is in rebellion against God], so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord [in other words, on the Day of Judgement]."

Unrepented sin is like a cancer in someone's life. It may require radical and painful spiritual surgery. Leaving it to develop may seem easier and less painful in the short term. But such a course of action is potentially fatal.

Thirdly, discipline is for the sake of the church. It prevents sin spreading like a cancer not only in the life of the individual concerned, but through the fellowship. Here, Paul uses yeast as a metaphor for sin and its capacity to spread virulently if it is allowed house room. Verse 6:

"Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened."

If obvious, unrepented, consistent sin is tolerated in the church, then others will also be lead into sin. And if we are responsible for leading vulnerable believers into sin – well Jesus says it would be better for us to have a large millstone hung around our necks and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. That's in Matthew 18.6.

Fourthly, discipline is for the sake of God. If behaviour that scandalises the non-Christian world is tolerated among Christians, then God's name is dragged in the dirt. Contempt for the church becomes contempt for God. God's honour is at stake.

Why should the church exercise discipline? For the sake of God, the church and the individual concerned. No wonder God's Word requires it of us.

That's the 'What?' and the 'Why?' Now the 'Who?'

3. Who Should Be Subject to Church Discipline?

Answer: all believers in general; and in particular those whose sin is public, persistent, scandalous, unapologetic and unrepentant. Let me expand on that.

Church discipline is for those who profess faith – those who call themselves Christians, who say that they believe and that Jesus is their Saviour and their Lord. It is not for unbelievers.

Paul here refers to an earlier letter that he had written to the Corinthians (lost to us now). They seem to have got the wrong end of the stick, and used what he said as an excuse to isolate themselves from the pagan world around them. It seems they thought they were morally and spiritually superior to the pagans, and that being involved with non-Christians would contaminate them. How wrong they were. Verses 9-10:

"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 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."

God's purpose for them and for us is that we are salt and light in the world, holding out the Word of life to those who have not yet heard and responded to the good news of Jesus.

It is not for Christians to condemn unbelievers. That doesn't mean condoning what is wrong – far from it. But, as Paul puts it in verses 12-13:

"For what have I to do with judging outsiders? … God judges those outside."

The Corinthians seem to have managed the worst of all worlds. They were both remote from the world and also lax about sin. We very easily become expert at that sort of spiritual double wammy.

So church discipline is for those who profess faith. And there is a general sense in which every one of us who is a believer is subject to this discipline. We should know that if we fall into sin then under God we are accountable to the church, and we should anticipate that we will not be left to wallow. I for one welcome that. We need one another if we are to keep on the narrow road that leads to eternal life.

But the disciplinary process shifts into gear in particular in relation to those whose sin is public, persistent, scandalous, unapologetic and unrepented. That is the nature of the sin in this case study in the church in Corinth.

Now you might ask, 'Why only public sin? Couldn't there be a lot of private sin that is just as serious?' And the answer to that is 'Yes, there could.' As Paul says in 1 Timothy 5.24:

"The sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgement, but the sins of others appear later."

I imagine that there are numbers of us who are engaged in persistent and unrepented sin that is not evident to our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we are behaving in that way, we are placing ourselves in grave spiritual danger and we need to stop. It is the nature of the case that such sin cannot be subject to discipline, precisely because it is unknown to others. But persistent public sin should not simply be ignored.

Sexual immorality is an important example of this kind of open rebellion against God. That, of course, is what was going on in Corinth. But sexual immorality is not the only kind of sin that should be subject to discipline. Paul makes that quite clear. Look at verse 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."

Corrupt, unjust and ungodly financial dealings; damaging and verbally violent use of the tongue; physically violent behaviour; religious activity that compromises and violates the gospel and the Word of God; regular drunkenness – all these would fall within Paul's categories here. And even those are only some examples. So, for instance, in 2 Thessalonians 3.6 Paul speaks of persistent idleness as a sin that should be disciplined.

Those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ and who engage in such sin should find ourselves subject to discipline. But how should that happen? That is the final question.

4. How Should Church Discipline Be Exercised?

With the right attitude and in the right way. That's the simple answer.

The Corinthians were arrogant in their lack of discipline and their tolerance of behaviour that God hates. Verse 1:

"… a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant!"

And verse 6:

"Your boasting is not good."

We must at all costs avoid arrogant attitudes if and when we do exercise discipline in the church.

We should grieve through our awareness of the reality of evil and the seriousness of sin, not least our own. Verse 2:

"And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?"

We should be living and acting in submission to Jesus. He is the Lord, and we are all subject to his law. He is the Judge, and all of us will one day face him. He is the Saviour. We are all hell-deserving sinners, saved only by grace through his death for us. He is the one who lives among us by his Spirit and who knows all the secrets of our hearts.

Look at how again and again Paul humbles them before Christ. Verse 4:

"When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present [and this letter, no doubt, is in their hands], with the power of our Lord Jesus, 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."

And he goes on:

"For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed."

We should have Christ always before our eyes – Christ crucified, risen, ascended, one day to return in all his glory. That's the point of the Lord's Supper in which we're participating this morning. That will keep us properly humble. And that will ensure that we act out of love, as Christ loved us. In Galatians 6.1 Paul says:

"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."

None of us, this side of heaven, is out of danger. Our attitude must be right.

And discipline should be exercised in the right way. Here are six guidelines for the church from what Paul says here.

One. Be clear about the facts. Don't act on insubstantiated rumour.

Two. Make a judgement. Don't be judgemental in the sense of condemning someone from a position of self-righteousness. But don't be afraid to assess the situation on the basis of God's Word. 'Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?' Paul asks in verse 12 – expecting the answer 'Yes'.

Three. Act corporately. The principle should be that the smallest number of people who need to know should do so. But if it comes to expelling someone, then in some way the church will need to know about it.

Four. As the ultimate sanction and the last resort, put the person involved out of fellowship. Paul asks in verse 2:

"Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you."

And in verse 13 he quotes Deuteronomy:

"Purge the evil person from among you."

Five. Apply the sanction consistently. That's really what Paul is getting at, at the end of verse 11:

"I am writing to you … not even to eat with such a one."

Asking someone to leave by the front door will be entirely useless if he or she is simply let in again through the back door. Article 33 of the 39 Articles, with which we began, makes this point. Here it is again, in its modernised form:

The excommunicated: how they are to be avoided
Any person who has openly been denounced by the church and justly cut off from its fellowship and excommunicated is to be regarded by the whole body of the faithful as a "pagan and tax-collector" until he is openly reconciled by repentance and received back into the church by a judge who has the necessary authority in such matters.

But the Article also makes the sixth and final point.

Six. Be ready to receive the person who is subject to discipline back if and when there is penitence. Maybe that's exactly the situation that Paul addresses in 2 Corinthians 2.6-8. He speaks there of someone who, it seems, has been disciplined and then repented. Possibly it's the same man we've been thinking about. I quote:

"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."

How should church discipline be exercised? In the right way, with the right attitude, and for the right reasons – for the sake of the church, for the sake of the individual concerned, and above all for sake of the honour and glory of God.

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