The Necessity of Church Discipline

The Necessity of Church Discipline
Robert Wurtz II

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Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:15–20 NKJV)

It is unfortunate that our passage has been the object of many books on the subject of spiritual warfare, and yet it’s actual context has been largely ignored. In fact, this passage has been applied to everything from demons to sickness, none of which are within radar range of this passage. The Lord is addressing the matter of offenses within the churches and how they are to be handled. He is providing the churches with the means by which people can be dealt with who are causing harm to the churches or themselves (or both). Believers can gather together under the conscious authority of Christ; deal with individuals as the circumstances dictate; seek the Lord for His guidance; agree together with the mind of Christ as to the recourse; and heaven will bind or loose according to the action taken. Indeed, this passage is about church discipline. Sadly, demons are often rebuked when it’s people that need rebuked. 

Church Discipline in Action

This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18–20 NKJV)

There are two specific examples of Paul employing Church Discipline found in his writings that I wish to examine; one was the fornicator in 1 Corinthians that we will come back to later, and the other is these men whom Paul delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. This measure was designed, according to the text, to cause them to learn something that was essential to both their salvation as well as others they influenced. They were blasphemers who did much evil to Paul and the cause of Christ. In fact, the message of Hymenaeus was spreading like gangrene — insomuch that they added another man to their ranks by the name of Philetus. (2 Timothy 2:17) 

Paul had hoped to save all three of these blasphemers and the people whose faith they were trying to overthrow. Unfortunately, even the extreme measure of “delivering them unto Satan” did not work, because we read in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he greatly opposed our words.” (2 Timothy 4:14–15) Paul identified Alexander as a metalworker so that Timothy could be on the lookout for him. Imagine having someone going around opposing your message as you preached the Gospel. These men were agents of Satan who sought to steal away God’s word from the hearts of people that it had been sown into. They preached “another gospel” and were facing the judgment of God as a consequence. Nevertheless, it is not as though they were not given opportunities to repent and mend their ways. They not only did not agree with Paul, but they greatly opposed his words. 

The Leaven of Iniquity

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 5:1–5 NKJV)

The church at Corinth had an attitude towards this situation that Paul characterized as being “puffed up” or “proud” of what was happening. Whereas they should have been mourning for the deed, they were actually condoning or even celebrating the act. This seems unconscionable, but it was happening. There is sometimes a perverse mindset that can effect people in which they celebrate a maverick among them who tests the boundaries of acceptability. Carnal minded people risk secretly admiring those who behave badly. They are blind to the danger the church is in and are devoid of the foresight to see the long term effects of the sins they are strangely proud of.

Paul’s attitude was one of absolute concern and urgency. He does not hesitate to deal with the sin no matter who the person was. He could have been an elders son or the wealthiest man in the church, Paul never bothered to ask. It didn’t matter who he was. Paul’s attitude was universally, But from those who seemed to be something—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man.” (Galatians 2:6a NKJV) This is important to Point out in an age where the spirit of Eli rules in may circles. No person should ever be allowed to destroy a church simply because of their position or assumed importance. 

Here is a man who is called a brother and is also a fornicator (sexually immoral). We know from Paul’s instruction on fornication in the churches that fornication is like leaven — it permeates everything. If is goes unchecked it will destroy the church. Paul’s love for both the church and the persons involved, drives him to action. He gives direction, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” This is in connection with Matthew 18:15-20 that we addressed earlier. When they gather together as the assembly they are to carry out prophetically the instruction Paul gives. This will put this man out from under the protection and benefits of the church and into the hands of Satan for the purpose of seeing him come to godly sorrow and repentance. 

This is almost the exact opposite of how most people use the “binding and losing” passage above. Paul turned these men under the power of the devil. Satan is God’s tester. Undoubtedly this man would come under some kind of physical distress — up to and including the destruction of his body. It would all depend on how he responded to the discipline. Fortunately, we know that this man did come to godly sorrow and repentance and was restored back to fellowship. 

This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. (2 Corinthians 2:6–8 NKJV)

The “punishment” was sufficient. They received the man back as soon as he repented lest Satan get the advantage and destroy the man. This is one of his devices — to cause a person to sorrow too much during church discipline. The saints have to be very sensitive during these times so as not to over extend the discipline and to receive the person back into fellowship confirmed in love once the discipline has done the work.

Neglected Discipline

Many Evangelicals laud the doctrine of the authority of the scripture; and yet when it comes to difficult subjects, they shrink back into doing something different than what God has commanded. However, we cannot improve on God’s word. In fact, any time we substitute our methods for God’s revealed word there will be dire consequences. It may not happen immediately; but it will eventually. Neglecting proper church discipline opens a pandoras box of all kinds of crazy things. Most of the time these consequences are unforseen and non-repairable.

Neglected and botched attempts at church discipline can have a perpetual and profound destructive effect on the churches of God. The Puritans used to say that a church was no church that did not practice church discipline. It is not an optional extra; it is a fundamental part of the New Covenant. Sin will destroy a church — especially when it is not properly dealt with. 

When fornicators are not properly dealt with all parties involved risk pride. Any person taken in such sin must display a brokenness for having done the sins. If there is a defiance in the person — they have not mourned and need to be dealt with; not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of the church. Otherwise a “slap on the wrist” will typically embolden the person to act more defiantly and destructively. This could go on for decades until whole churches are destroyed. God’s solution? Church discipline. We cannot improve on His design and we must not feign love by sweeping things under the rug. They must be dealt with. It is God’s will and design. We ignore this rule to our own destruction. 

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