Church Discipline: The Way of Forgiveness

by | Jan 7, 2020 | Church Discipline, Ecclesiology, Practical Theology, Preaching, Worship

The Bible teaches us that holiness is one of the major marks of a true church. The church’s holiness is based off the great command found in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” And the church’s holiness is the result of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus has saved the church by giving Himself up for her. He saved her by spilling His own precious blood on the cross. And as a result, the church has become the body and bride of Jesus Christ. It belongs to Him. He is her Head and her Husband. And Jesus didn’t die to purchase a sick body and an ugly bride. He died for the church to be holy and without blemish. He died so she would reflect His holy character. He died so that she would be holy as He is holy! Holy in her profession of the truth and holy in her practice of living out the truth.

But in saying this, a problem should arise in our minds. A big problem. And it’s this: the church is not perfect. At least not yet. If you have but a faint understanding of your own heart, hopefully that’s not a surprise. The church is full of saints but saints who are still sinners. Sadly, saints who still break God’s commandments. And saints who still hurt one another with their words and their actions.

Therefore, it must be the priority of every true church to carry out what is called church discipline. This simply means the church must have in place a way of dealing with and correcting sin when it rears its ugly head.

If we are thinking of the church as the body of Christ, church discipline is like undergoing surgery in order to cut out cancerous tumors from the body so that the body would be healthy again. Or if we are thinking of the church as the bride of Christ, church discipline is like getting a top-of-the-line spa treatment in order for the dirt and filth and warts and lumps to all be removed so that the bride would be beautiful again.  

Church discipline may not feel good, but it is absolutely necessary. Church discipline must be enforced if any church wants to remain pure, and holy, and undefiled before her Lord. If we let the tumors grow and do nothing about them, the body will eventually die. And if we let the filth build up without ever cleaning ourselves, the husband may become so disgusted with his bride that he eventually leaves her!

The classic passage on church discipline is found in Matthew 18:15-20.

[15] “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. [16] But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. [17] 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. [18] Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [19] Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. [20] For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (ESV)

In future posts, we will consider these verses in greater detail. But for the present, consider six introductory remarks concerning Jesus’ teaching on church discipline.

Introductory Remarks

1.) Jesus’ teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18:15-20 must never be severed from its context.

The context of this passage is very important. Sometimes Jesus’ overall teaching in this section is not emphasized enough when we think about and talk about church discipline. This teaching on church discipline comes in the midst of Jesus’ teaching on how His disciples should love each other, especially how they should love the least of His disciples. Remember, in Matthew 18, Jesus teaches His disciples what it means to live as a citizen in His kingdom. More than that, He teaches them what it means to be great in His kingdom – and it has nothing to do with how the world defines greatness. Greatness for Christ is not about popularity or power or riches or fame or attractiveness or anything else the world is impressed with. Instead, greatness in Christ’s kingdom is shown through humble service & brotherly love.

Jesus teaches this in Matthew 18 in four different ways: First, His disciples are to show humility to one another (vv. 1-4). Second, His disciples are to protect each other specifically from sin (vv. 5-9). Third, His disciples are to highly esteem each other (vv. 10-14). And finally, His disciples are to continually forgive each other (vv. 15-35). This teaching on church discipline, then, makes up the first part in the fourth and final section in this chapter, which deals with forgiveness.

What does this mean then? It means that church discipline and forgiveness and true Christian love are all vitally connected. We may be tempted to think that church discipline and forgiveness have little or nothing to do with each other. We may be tempted to think that church discipline is all law while forgiveness is all grace, that church discipline is enslaving while forgiveness is freeing, that church discipline makes me feel bad while forgiveness makes me feel good!

Well, this dichotomy, this separation of church discipline and forgiveness, is nowhere in Jesus’ teaching. In fact, the exact opposite occurs. Jesus’ teaching on love and forgiveness includes church discipline!

Jesus teaches us here that church discipline is the means of forgiveness. It is the way of bringing about forgiveness and reconciliation and restoration! And the goal of church discipline is forgiveness. Why are members disciplined? So that forgiveness would occur. When forgiveness is not reached between two people, discipline must be administered so that forgiveness might become a reality!

Hopefully you see that church discipline and forgiveness should not be pitted against each other but should work hand-in-hand to glorify God, to keep the church pure and holy, and to bring about much peace and happiness in the lives of God’s people. When we think about church discipline, we should think about seeking forgiveness. The first is the means of obtaining the second.

2.) Jesus’ teaching on church discipline concerns professing Christians.

What Jesus says here concerns those who are brothers and sisters in Christ. They are those who have made credible professions of faith, have been baptized, and are members of a local church of Jesus Christ. In other words, this teaching is for church members, for those who have been publicly recognized as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is not, however, for unbelievers. How would it make any sense to take your grievances to the church if the person who has sinned against you is not even in the church to begin with? What can the church do about it? If your unbelieving coworker sins against you, the only things we can do is preach the gospel to him and pray for his salvation, but we can’t discipline him. He has never been a part of this holy society we call the church. He is an unbeliever outside of the kingdom of God. So we can’t put him out of an organization he has never joined in the first place!

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek forgiveness with people in other areas of life; it simply means this step-by-step process that Jesus teaches us is given specifically to the church and for the church to use with its own members. It was not given to families or to schools or to society as a whole.

There are good principles there for anyone to follow, but it is given specifically for the body and bride of Christ.

3.) Jesus’ teaching on church discipline deals with private sins committed against another brother or sister in Christ.

This is important to note. The character of the kind of sin Jesus is describing is private, not public. And it is against an individual, not a group. Since it is private, certain measures are put in place by our Lord to try to keep things as private as possible.

John Calvin spends much time distinguishing between private sins and public sins in his section on church discipline in the Institutes. For sins that have been committed more openly, sins that affect more than just one or two people but sins done in public where everyone knows about them and where the whole church is immediately scandalized by them, Calvin argues that these types of sin don’t fall within the instructions of Christ here in Matthew 18. People who sin in a public, grievous way are to be swiftly, solemnly, and immediately rebuked in public, meaning something needs to be said to the church when they gather together to worship God. We have examples of this happening in the New Testament. Just think about Peter’s scandalous sin of distorting the gospel of grace when he refused to eat with Gentile believers and how Paul openly rebuked him to his face before the believers in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14). This was no private meeting between the two apostles. The sin was so grievous and so public that Paul was forced to rebuke Peter before the church. And then he writes about it for all to read!

But for sins that have been committed more privately where very few people know about it and very few people have been offended by it, the steps laid down by Christ here in Matthew 18 must be followed.

There are always exceptions to the rule.

There are certain private sins that are so grievous that immediate public church discipline must be enforced. Some of these sins might include things that would put a person behind bars for a long time. Even if the crime was committed in private, sometimes it must be exposed by the light for all to see and abhor, including the civil authorities.

There are also certain people who commit private sins that must be made public. Here I am thinking about church officers. If a church officer commits a particular sin that disqualifies him from the office of either elder or deacon, something needs to be said to the church to give them the reason why he has stepped down.

But the private sins I am talking about might include the following: theft of some small amount, deliberately lying to another brother’s face for your own personal advantage, unrighteous anger directed at another believer, a complete lack of respect and honor for an older member of the church, gossiping and slandering the good name of a Christian, a divisive spirit that tries to stir up trouble in the church, and being a stumbling block to one of Christ’s little ones. These may be small offenses in the eyes of our society but let me tell you this: they are grave offenses in the sight of our holy God who commands us to love one another as Christ loves us.

So, all public sin should at all times be publicly rebuked; some private sins should also at all times be publicly rebuked; but most private sins should at first be privately rebuked. (but of course, it should lead to a public rebuke in the presence of all if the person persists in sin).

4.) Jesus’ teaching on church discipline gives us a methodical, step-by-step process to deal with unrepentant sin.

Seeking forgiveness and reconciliation may be a process. I wish it wasn’t the case. I wish that when someone sinned against another he or she would immediately seek forgiveness. But sadly, while we live in this fallen world, that is not always the case. And if forgiveness does not immediately occur, there are distinct steps that must be taken in order to secure it. In fact, there are four steps listed here in Matthew 18 that must be taken in order to bring about forgiveness from an unrepentant Christian.

So, we should not be trigger happy to discipline, and even more than that, to excommunicate unrepentant members who have sinned in a private way. As William Hendriksen says, “Church discipline, when viewed negatively, is a matter of last resort” (699, Gospel of Matthew). None of this should be rushed. Each step takes time to complete. Careful attention must be taken and certain measures must be exhausted before moving on to the next step.

Maybe an illustration might be helpful. Instead of thinking of these steps as little stair steps like the ones before me which only take a second to climb (and easy to skip if you have some jumping abilities), think of these steps to secure forgiveness like riding escalators from floor to floor at the Mall of America. The Mall of America has four floors. And it has escalators that will take you up to each floor. But it takes some time to go from one floor to the next. And it takes a lot of time to go from the bottom floor to the very top. You have to slowly but surely move from one to the next. Well, in a similar way, each escalator of church discipline must be ascended before one moves on to the next. Getting from step one to step four should not be instantaneous.

5.) Jesus’ teaching on church discipline has, as its goal, the gaining or winning back of a professing Christian who has gone astray.

This step-by-step process of church discipline is redemptive. The unrepentant professing Christian is like a sheep that has gone astray. He or she has left the fold of Christ. He or she has sinned and turned from the Highway of Holiness. And if that person keeps living in unrepentant sin, if that person keeps walking down crooked, dark paths, he or she will not reach the Celestial City. He or she will be attacked by deadly predators and will be completely destroyed.

So seeking forgiveness in the way prescribed by Christ gets them back on the right track. It brings them back to the fold of God. It displays the very heart of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who leaves the 99 sheep on the mountains in order to search and find the one that went astray. As James says in James 5:19-20:

“[19] My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, [20] 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.” (ESV)

So, in this area of church discipline, we need to check our hearts. We need to make sure that if we want to walk up these steps, we are doing so for the glory of God and for the ultimate good of the straying Christian. It must not be our desire to seek vengeance or to get even with someone who has wronged us. We also must not revel in another person’s downfall. Instead, we must show brotherly love and tender affection to those who have wronged us. We must remember how wicked our own hearts are, how much we daily offend our Lord, and how much He has mercy on us. We have to keep ever before us the goal of church discipline, which is repentance and forgiveness and restoration, not condemnation and damnation. We want to win our brother and sister back; not destroy them.

6.) Jesus’ teaching on church discipline is steeped in OT laws and principles.

Jesus was not one who wanted to unhitch the Old Testament from the New Testament. There have been teachers throughout church history who have taught that New Testament believers should move on from the Old Testament and leave that baggage behind as they follow Christ.

Well, certainly there are some things in the Old Testament that shouldn’t be practiced any more in light of the coming of Christ, animal sacrifices being one of them, but we should never dishonor or take lightly the teaching of the Old Testament.

Why? Because Jesus didn’t. Jesus had a high view of the Scriptures. And He saw a lot of use for the Old Testament in the New Testament church. In fact, His step-by-step procedure for dealing with sin is based on teaching from the Mosaic law! Yes, parts of the OT law were to inform and structure the way the church of Jesus Christ governs itself and functions in this world. Every step finds its roots in laws given to the nation of Israel.

This makes us think that Jesus may have considered the church as the New Israel. And it also makes us think that there were more than just temporary, ceremonial laws in the OT. Some of the laws in the Old Testament transcend OT Israel and have direct application to the church of Jesus Christ today.

So, the Old Testament wasn’t to be thrown out or seen as irrelevant for Christians. Instead, it was to be studied and examined and applied to various situations which crop up in the church today. We will see this as we go through the steps of church discipline.

This is how I believe we should look at these steps: Two of them occur privately, and two of them occur publicly, in that order. So in future posts, we will look at the two private steps of seeking forgiveness, and then we will look at the two public steps of seeking forgiveness.

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