What is Church Discipline?

What gospel do you believe in? Do you believe in a gospel that says “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are” (Jonathan Leeman). Do you believe in that gospel? Or do you believe in a gospel that says, “God is holy. We have all sinned, separating us from God. But God sent His Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who believes in Jesus can have eternal life and be welcomed by God just as they are. But in His grace and by His Spirit He doesn’t leave us as we are. No, He slowly and surely makes us into different people. People who love Him and hate sin. People who refuse to do life alone but do it in the community of the local church. People who grow in godliness, eager to reflect His holy character and glory to this fallen world.”

Which gospel do you believe in? The first version presents Jesus as Savior, the second presents Jesus as Savior and Lord. The first version points to our new status as children of God, the second points to our new status as children of God as well as our new job description as citizens in His Kingdom. The first version has a view of God’s grace saving us, the second has a view of God’s grace not only saving us but sanctifying us as well.

Everything in the first version is true, wonderfully so. But there’s much more to be said. My guess is that most of you would say you believe in this second version of the gospel, and that’s a good thing. But I am coming to you today with a pastoral question, “Are you sure about that?” So please pay attention to not only what God is about to tell you through His Word, pay attention to how you respond to what is said in God’s Word. Why? Your response to these things reveal which version of the gospel you really believe as well as which version of the gospel you’re really living out.

 

The passage we’ll be walking through today is Matthew 18:15-20, where Matthew would have us consider three points today, all aiming at how we as fellow believers do life together when one of us wanders and how to restore such a person(s) to a right standing within the church.

Notice What’s Before Our Passage (18:10-14)

In the verses that lead up to our text today, we find Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep. In this parable Jesus says, “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of My Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (18:12-14). See here the great love of God for His people. It is so great and so vast that if one of them wanders off, He will always go after them and bring them home. Jesus shows Himself to be here in Matthew 18 what John 10 says He is, the great Shepherd of the sheep. And being the great Shepherd of the sheep, He not only has a great love for the sheep but He also sees to it that every sheep in the flock will remain in His hand until the end. None of them will perish or be snatched up by a wolf or some other intruder.

Church, since this is how God loves His people, since this is how Christ loves His Sheep, isn’t this to be how we love one another? Paul similarly, in Galatians 6:1-2 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness…Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This means when we come together and commit to one another in the membership of the local church, we commit to chasing down the wanderer, bringing back the sinner, loving one another despite our own foolishness, and pursuing the offender so that they are brought back home.

Into this context, comes one of the most detailed explanations of how to do church discipline. That this parable of the lost sheep comes before v15-20 gives us an example of the spirit in which church discipline is to be carried out. Not to punish, but always to be aiming at restoration, at winning back the wanderer.

Notice What’s In Our Passage (18:15-20)

Jesus has already told us that every one of us is to be about the business of pursuing, chasing, and bringing back the wandering sheep in our midst. But now suppose the shoe is on the other foot, what then? Did you notice the first words in v15? “If your brother sins against you…” If you’re the one sinned against, are you still to chase them down? Or does someone else do that? To see it in yet another manner, get out of your shoes altogether and get into the shoes of another and suppose you’re the one doing the sinning against another. What is supposed to happen then? What actions are you to take? What does the church do? Or the offended party? These are deep questions, loaded with all kinds of baggage, that God has not left us in the dark with. The light of His Word shines into our disobedience with all manner of grace.

Here Jesus gives us four steps that make up the whole process of church discipline.

Step One – Private Admonition (v15)

In v15 we learn that the very first step in the church discipline process is to go to the person who has sinned against you personally and privately. This means when sinned against, you don’t sound off to the whole church about how bad they really are and how they’re the worst thing that’s come into this church in years. You don’t refuse to talk to them anymore, give them the cold shoulder, or close yourself off from them. You don’t build up a bitter resentment in your heart toward them. No, you go them and bring it up privately. They may be aware of what they did, they may not. But by going to them privately you’re protecting the offender’s reputation by keeping the circle of people who know about this offense as small as possible. And you’re also protecting yourself from gossiping about them to others in the church by going to them immediately and personally.

When you go, what do you speak with them about? In v15 when it says “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” it implies that you’re intentions in going to them are to make them aware of their sin and seek repentance from them for their sin. You’re not going to condemn the person, you’re not going to tell the person off, you’re there to share what they did or what they continue to do, how it crossed the line of right and godly behavior for a Christian, and to see if they feel a godly remorse over what has happened and desire to make things right. If they listen to you, express sorrow over offending you, and repent Jesus says you’ve gained your brother back! I’ve often found that when this occurs the result of such a meeting is a much deeper relationship in the future. But if they refuse to listen, don’t acknowledge that what they’ve done or keep doing is sinful even though it’s clear in Scripture, you move onto to step two.

Before we get to step two notice something else here in step one. This initial step doesn’t involve any kind of official organization or leadership in the church. It’s simply between you and the other person, which is where Jesus intends church discipline to begin. In this light see that step one of church discipline is just a normal part of Christian discipleship where we are seek to do spiritual good to one another. I think if we got this step right more often, most of the discipline cases in churches would be solved right away. But sadly in this fallen world, rather than humbly seeking restoration and repentance with those who sin against us, we too quickly go the opposite way, wrongfully involve way too many people in what should be a private matter, and destroy relationships and reputations.

Step Two – Group Admonition (v16)

In v16 we learn that the second step in the church discipline process is not to give up but to again revisit the offender, with one or two others. Now, there is no timeline given here as to the exact amount of time required between these two visits. Patience, love, and grace should allow at least some time between the first and second visit to let the private admonition sink in. But if in time it is clear that the offending member is remaining unrepentant the one who went by themselves now must carefully choose one or two others, probably ones that know and love this person, or an elder, and go back to give another admonition. That a few others go back echoes Deut. 19:15 which says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” That additional witnesses must be involved at this point encourages the one doing the sinning to come out of their sinful isolation, and encourages the individual sinned against to think deeply about whether or not this case is serious enough to warrant the sound judgment of a few others, or if they’re just making a bigger deal of this than is necessary. If they do deem it worthy of another visit, though the circle is still intentionally kept small here, a small group’s plea with the wanderer to return does make the admonition a bit weightier as well as harder to ignore.

Hope remains, for the offender could hear and heed the second warning, and if they do, you’ve won them back and will rejoice to bring them home! But if they do not, step 3 comes into view.

Step Three – Church Admonition (v17a)

In v17 we learn that the third step in the church discipline process is again, not to give up, but to tell it to the church. As we’ve seen throughout these steps, here also we do not receive a time requirement between step two and three, so patience, grace, and love should allow at least some time between the second step and the third step. When it’s clear that the offending member is still remaining unrepentant Jesus is clear, the matter now comes to the entire church. This is not strictly just telling it to the elders, not strictly just telling it to the pastor, but it really does seem to be the whole body or the entire local congregation in view here. Of course the elders need to take the lead here, they need to be the ones who decide how and when the church is to be told about it to ensure this is done orderly and graciously, but through them the matter is to come to the whole of the assembly. Do you think this is unloving or embarrassing? Remember the parable of the lost sheep. When the first two steps have been employed and the wandering member has refused to listen we’re not to give up, but in this third step we’re to enlist the whole of the congregation to go and gain back the wanderer. David Platt, in his commentary on Matthew says of this third step, “God loves us so much that if we are caught in sin, He will send an entire army of believers to us as a demonstration of His love and mercy.” In this step the circle is no longer small. It is intentionally large. Large enough, by God’s grace, to wake the wanderer out of his or her sin.

So again hope remains, the offending member who has not repented could hear and heed the warnings when they see the whole church pursuing them, and if they do, they are won back! But if they do not listen to the whole church, the final step, step 4 becomes a necessity.

Step Four – Excommunication (v17b-20)

Look at v17b, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” What does this mean? It means that when the offending member refuses to listen and repent after these first three steps, Jesus now commands one thing – excommunication. Though probably stirred quite a bit from the whole sermon up to now, our modern sensibilities are now in full shock. ‘Isn’t the church supposed to be welcoming to sinners? Isn’t the church a where sinners find hope? Isn’t the church where sinners find rest? Yes, of course. The Church of Christ is a very safe place for sinners, but it is not ever to be a safe place for sin. To excommunicate someone isn’t to forsake them or to forget about them, no. To excommunicate someone is a public declaration from the church of which they are a member, that this church no longer believes their profession of faith is true. So by excommunication, they cease to be a member of that church and cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper any longer.

In 1 Cor. 5 we see an example of this when Paul instructs the Corinthians to excommunicate a certain man (who had sinned grievously) so that he would be delivered “…to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). See it is restoration in view even here at this last step not punishment. So when this happens we should never forsake the person, but in treating them like an unbeliever we ought to pursue them with the gospel urgently. And just in case anyone is thinking ‘Who gives you the right to do such a thing?’ see v18-20. Here we receive the promise of authority in v18, that the church holds the keys of the Kingdom so that whatever is bound or loosed on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven. Here we also receive the promise of support in v19, that the Father will give His full support to what we agree about in prayer concerning these difficult matters of discipline. Here lastly we receive the promise of presence in v20. This is not a blanket statement about God dwelling in the midst of His people’s prayer, it’s specifically about God dwelling in the midst of His people’s prayer about excommunicating a wayward brother or sister. So when we do the tough work of church discipline, God encourages us with His authority, His support, and His presence.

Notice What’s After Our Passage (18:21-35)

We’ve seen what’s before and in our passage, now see what’s after it. In v21-35 we find the parable of the unforgiving servant, which asks “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? (18:21). No, Jesus says, “…not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (18:22). Lesson? That the passage describing how church discipline is done is surrounded before and behind, shows us church discipline must be carried out with gospel grace. How often will God forgive us for our sin? His grace never ends. Ours shouldn’t either.

In an age where this topic is as popular as a parent publicly spanking their child…

-We must remember that not all discipline is bad.

-We must remember that the exercise of pastoral authority is not the same as the abuse of pastoral authority.

-We must reject the belief that church discipline is a bad thing, and come to embrace the belief presented to us in the text, that the neglect of church discipline is a bad thing.

-And we must reject the critical/judgmental spirit that we’re all prone to, remembering that because we’ve received extravagant grace in the gospel, we now must extend extravagant grace with the gospel as well. These things are commanded by Christ for the wanderer’s good, for the purity of the church, and ultimately for the glory of God.

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