Church Discipline

By: Pastor Vincent Nicotra

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The Premise of Discipline
     The writer of the Book of Hebrews makes it abundantly clear that God disciplines His children on the basis of His own fatherly love for them (Hebrews 12:4-13). As the church wrestles with the important questions related to the discipline of its members it must consider the truth that love and discipline are inextricably linked together (Revelation 3:19). God disciplines His children because of His infinite love for them. When a believer is experiencing divine discipline it is because their heavenly Father is treating them as “sons.” It is the evidence of a true relationship with God.

     Historically, certain confessions of the church have posited three characteristics which identify a church as a true church. These characteristics include the preaching of pure doctrine, the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the exercise of church discipline.1 Unfortunately, the church at large has either given itself over to libertine doctrines or legalism, and in doing so, have either abandoned the third mark by foregoing church discipline altogether or they have gone completely overboard, disciplining their members unnecessarily. Disciplining for the wrong reasons has led one writer to charge, “The church is the only army that shoots its wounded.”2

     The process and purpose of discipline must necessarily be defined lest the church be torn apart in its dealings with the sins of its people. With the ever increasing problem of lawsuits and litigation it is incumbent upon the church to understand clearly what her role is in this area. Why should we discipline? What offenses should we discipline for? How far should we go in the process?

The Purpose of Discipline
          Both Jesus (Matthew 18:15-17) and the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1-13) commanded the discipline of sinning members within the church, because foremost in their minds was the purity of the church of God which is the very bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-27).

     In his writings, the great figure of the protestant reformation, John Calvin, referred to church discipline as the “sinews of the body of Christ,”3 without which the body would not hold together. In other words, without the chords of discipline holding the churches together, its cohesiveness and its purity could not be ensured. Ironically, the Reformed church of which Calvin was a part has difficulty enforcing this truth because one’s profession of faith is not part of being a member.

     Within the church, discipline is designed to restore to the community of believers one who has fallen into heresy, gross immorality, or a habitual pattern of sin in their life. The word “restore” in the Greek language contains the idea of “mending,” as one would do to a fishing net in order to return it to its functional use (Cf. Matthew 4:21; Mark 1:19). Church discipline was never intended to drive a sinning saint away or to execute judgment on fallen saints. Instead, inherent within its purpose, is the idea of restoring such individuals to the body of Christ in a spirit of gentleness, through repentance and forgiveness, thereby mending the relationships that have been torn within the community of believers. The apostle Paul made this purpose clearly evident when he said to the churches of Galatia,

            “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
     In this very letter Paul, through divine inspiration, included a list of sins which can be divided into sub-categories (Galatians 5:19-20). A summary may provide clarity in understanding which types of sins require intervention from individuals or the church. These include, but are not limited to, sexual sins (v. 19), false doctrine and worship (20a), sins of anger and related acts (20b), factiousness (20b-21a), and sins related to self-control (21a). These categories are not exhaustive as indicated by the phrase which follows, “and things like these” (21b).4

The Process of Discipline

     Our Lord left little ambiguity as to the process which He desired the church to follow in restoring a lost sheep to the fold (Matthew 18:12-18). The first step in the process of discipline should involve a private reproof of the offender from an individual (15a). If the offender continues in the sin then the second step should involve a private conference with two or three witnesses (16). This second step mirrors the Old Testament requirement for multiple witnesses for the conviction of a crime (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). At this point the sinning saint should recognize the seriousness of their offense. If, after this step, repentance is not demonstrated by the offender, then the third step requires that a public announcement be made to inform the church (17). The church body is then to purse that individual, attempting to convince them to turn from their sin. The church in this context is best understood to mean the local assembly. Finally, if the offender even refuses to listen to the church, the next step is to treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector, placing them outside the circle of God’s people (17). This fourth step involves removal from the membership roster of the church, and discontinuation of fellowship and communion celebrations. Communication with the wayward sheep should only occur in attempts to call the individual to repentance. Ex-communication may seem harsh and severe on the surface however, the ultimate goal of the process is to bring about such a sense of loss in the sinning individual that they are brought to their senses and led to a desire to walk in fellowship again. The church’s leadership must pray earnestly for the wisdom to know how long to wait in between these four steps as there is no defined protocol. Adequate time should be allowed for repentance and change, knowing that the Lord Himself is slow to anger and patient, abounding in lovingkindess (Exodus 34:6; Numbers14:18). If at any point in the process the offender repents the Scripture says, “You have won him,” and the process should be discontinued (15b).

     In summary, the premise of church discipline is founded upon the eternal love of God for His children and His desire that they share in His holiness. The purpose for corrective discipline is the restoration of individuals who have strayed from following Christ and have fallen into such sins as those listed in Galatians 5:19-20. The ultimate goal in corrective discipline is always the restoration of the individual who is entangled in sin, both to God and the church, thereby mending the body of Christ. The process of discipline which the church should follow involves the four steps which our Lord Himself outlined in (Matthew 18:12-18).

     These are indeed sobering and serious matters and these waters should not be entered into lightly. However, for the purity of the church and the good of the sinning saint, if the situation calls for it, discipline should be administered without reservation.

This article is copyright 2006  by Vincent Nicotra. This article may be quoted, in part or in whole, without permission.

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  1. Laney, J. Carl, A Guide to Church Discipline, Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985, 11.
  2. Laney, J. Carl, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” BSac 143:572(1986), 355-364.
  3. Johnson, Stephen M. “The Sinews of the Body of Christ: Calvin’s Concept of Church Discipline,” WTJ 59:1 (Spring 1997), 87-100.
  4. Kitchens, Ted G. “Perimeters of Corrective Church Discipline,” BSac 148:590 (April 1991), 201-213

For further study we recommend the following:

  1. Handbook of Church Discipline – Jay Adams
  2. Church Discipline and the Courts – Lynn R. Buzzard & Thomas S. Brandon, Jr.
  3. Healing the Wounded – John White & Ken Blue
  4. The Master’s Plan for the Church – John F. MacArthur, Jr. 



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