Satan is crafty and sin is deceptive. The book of Proverbs teaches that “there is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way to death” (14:12, 16:25). Like putting makeup on a pig, sin disguises itself so we don’t see its true nature. It slowly lures us to its desired end while making sure the dark path looks clean and pretty. As far as we can tell, everything looks right so we continue moving forward not realizing the trap is laid and we will soon be caught.
The blinding nature of sin is one of the many reasons God has given us the local church. As we do life together, we have an obligation to look out for our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Someone may not be able to see the trap ahead, but it’s clear to those around them. Do we love them enough to warn them?
We continue look at marks of a healthy church that are seldom emphasized today. Using 9 Marks of a Healthy Church as our guide, we’ve examined expository preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, a Biblical understanding of conversion, evangelism, and the value of church membership. Today, we’ll look at the next mark: biblical church discipline.
What is Church Discipline?
We must begin with the basic understanding that we all need discipline. None of us are perfect, and all of us have weaknesses, struggles, and blind spots. We tend to think of discipline purely in a negative matter, such as correcting a wrong behavior. However, there is also a positive aspect to discipline that is typically called “formative discipline” (169). To use parenting as an illustration, I must correct my children’s behavior when they sin through discipline; but, more of my time is spent teaching and forming them before they make mistakes. I don’t just wait until my son punches his brother before I teach him about kindness, I try to get him see the importance of kindness before that moment comes to prepare him to make the best decision. In the church, this formative discipline is something we all need and it comes through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, prayer, personal discipleship, reading, accountability, etc.
While formative discipline can prevent some sinful mistakes, due to our sinful nature it won’t prevent them all. The good news of the gospel is that Christ has paid the penalty for our sin. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). If we confess our sins, the Bible teaches he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). A believer who has been convicted by the Holy Spirit and broken over their sin will confess and repent. We confess our sin, then repent by turning from that sin completely. Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery, but tells her to “go and sin no more” (John 8). We never use God’s grace as a reason to continue in our sin (Romans 6:1-2).
But, what do we do when a fellow believer is in sin but we don’t see confession and repentance? What if they know they are in sin but don’t care? Or, what if they are in sin but seem to be blinded to it?
This is where the church needs to do what God has called her to do. God gives us each other to fight for one other’s holiness. Our individualistic society says we can do it on our own and we don’t need others, but God’s word tells us that we do need each other. Confrontation isn’t easy and it never feels good, but it is the way of love. This seems to be a theme in Proverbs 27: “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (v.5-6). “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (v. 17). The most loving thing I can do to a brother or sister in unrepentant sin is to confront it. It might wound them, but it is for their good and wounds from a friend can be trusted. It is the enemy who continues to flatter.
Where Is Church Discipline in the Bible?
Does the Bible command us to be in each other’s lives this way? Shouldn’t we all just mind our own business? There are several places in Scripture where the Lord makes clear the need for church discipline:
- Hebrews 12:1-14– This passage reminds us that discipline isn’t God’s condemnation of us, instead it is something he does as a loving father. Any loving father is going to discipline his child, both formative and corrective discipline.
- Matthew 18:15-17– “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Doing this seems shocking to us in our day, but it is the standard set by God’s Word.
- First Corinthians 5:1-11– In this passage, a man is living immorally by having an inappropriate relationship with his step-mom. The church was sweeping the issue under the rug so Paul corrected them: “Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?” (v.2). He warns them that a little bit of yeast works through the whole batch of dough. A “little” sin tolerated in the church affects the whole church (see Joshua 7). Many in our day would say that Paul is being judgmental and harsh. However, Paul didn’t hate this man, he wanted him to be restored, but first this man needed to see his sin.
- Galatians 6:1– “Brothers, if someone is caught in sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”
- Second Thessalonians 3:6-15– There were some in the church who were being idle. Paul warns them and then says, “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
- First Timothy 1:20– Some had shipwrecked their faith, so Paul deals with them: “Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
- First Timothy 5:19-20– “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.”
- Titus 3:10-11– “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.”
It’s clear that God cares about the holiness of his church and there is action required if someone persists in their sin. Some will try to argue that confronting sin is unloving or judgmental, however Scripture tells us to do so in the case of unrepentant sin. In fact, it can be the most loving thing we can do to someone going down a dark and dangerous path. The goal isn’t to condemn or punish, but rather to restore and heal that person by getting them to see their need for repentance. James 5:19-20 says, “If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
Let us not call judgmental what the Lord calls loving. Let us not call harsh what the Lord says is needed. Let us not be so driven by numbers that we quietly sweep sin under the rug. May God’s church always be ready and willing to do what it takes to turn a sinner from the error of his way for his own good, the good of the church, and the glory of God!