(by Rich P, an elder at FCBC)
A review on Church Discipline, by Jonathan Leeman
We are told every good article requires the answers to 7 basic questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? And most importantly, So? Intentionally or not, these questions about church discipline are answered in Jonathan Leeman’s book. The real question is; are they answered Biblically? Well, I hope this short synopsis will help you to decide for yourself.
What is church discipline and how is it applied? The short answer is church discipline is a form of discipleship. Discipleship has 2 main components, instruction and correction. It stands to reason that before one can be corrected they must first be taught. Church discipline is a corrective process, Jesus outlined it in Matt 18: 15-17; If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 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. The process involves confronting a brother in sin, with as small a group as needed to bring about repentance. The process is never public until all private attempts have failed. If an individual is not brought to repentance after a public pronouncement of the church, they are to be treated as an unbeliever, and on this point Mr. Leeman strongly insists that the church in its pronouncement. is simply declaring that the person’s standing with Christ is in doubt, the Church cannot “vouch” for their belonging to God’s family and as such are removed from membership and barred from participation in the Lord’s Table, per the warning of 1 Cor 11:27-30, but that is all. Family members are still required to fulfill all Biblical duties owed to an unbelieving spouse, parent, or child. And while relationships in the church are certainly changed, they are not a brother or sister, but a visitor, they should not be banned from church attendance nor ignored, but deliberate conversations for repentance had, and prayers both private and public for repentance made.
Who is subject to church discipline? All church members. The church only affirms its own members as part of God’s family. So, while the church is called and able to correct and disciple all true Christians among us, following the steps in Matthew 18, the church could not pronounce them as outside God’s family having never pronounced them in, and removing a non-member from membership could prove a difficulty as well. But beyond just being a member, church discipline is reserved without exception for the knowing and unrepentant. Christians while home to the Holy Spirit are still fallible and fallen beings, and as such can be ignorant and even deceived by the sin in their lives. The old man and the new man are in a constant struggle, we should only expect to see a battle and not complete victory over sin. There is no flow chart for sin in dealing with church discipline, God left some things unclear so that we would cry out to Him for wisdom. He describes a broad framework for discipline in His Word, that when coupled with prayer and wisdom gleaned from His word, make for a fair and just process. Thankfully our faith is not in ourselves or the process to bring perfect justice, but in our God, who will put all things right at the end of time.
Why must we use discipline? God commanded it in His Word. We’ve seen Matthew 18, but also see 1 Cor 5:12-13; Eph 5:11; Titus 3:10; 2 Thess 3:14-15; and 2 John 9-10. The goal is always to bring repentance of sin, bring restoration of the relationship with the church which ultimately brings glory to God. Discipline should be a loving act that through God’s grace brings people to repentance, strengthens the local church, demonstrates forgiveness, and brings holiness to Christians. When discipline is applied with Godly wisdom and prayer it will demonstrate God’s love to the world.
When should the discipline process be applied? The speed of the process will vary from case to case, but Jesus spoke of bringing 2 or 3 witnesses in Matthew 18, a legal requirement from the Jewish Law. And being a type of legal proceeding at each level, normally; to slow is better than to quick. Time may be needed for repentance or for the fruit of repentance to bloom. And as in American law, innocence should be assumed until guilt is established. Perfection in adjudication can never be met in any human “court”, but time for much prayer and seeking of God’s wisdom is essential for a proper process.
Where does the church’s authority extend to? In discipline situations it extends out to the local church’s members. So theoretically it can span the globe, yet is unable to cross the threshold of the church across town. Even if a person has lost their membership through the discipline process, if another church chooses to hold up and profess the person as a member of God’s family, it is well within their right, although perhaps not their better judgment, to do so. The important thing to remember is that each church is accountable to God for its own actions.
So? As we just read, each church is accountable to God for its own actions. We have been taught, through reading this book if nothing else, about the requirement for church discipline. God left no room in His Word for ignoring the unrepentant sins of our brothers and sisters. We need to stand together to aid and admonish one another. As fellow Christians, we should expect to see the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in one another, producing visible fruit. We must encourage each other to represent Christ to this dying world. And we need to humbly submit to one another in love, as Jesus said in John 13:35 “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another”