God has laid out a clear mandate and plan the universal church to call people to repentance because He cares for the souls of men and their reconciliation unto Himself. Many people over the years of church history have avoided the commands to discipline people for the sake of repentance. Some church congregations have made excuses as to why not to perform church discipline, claiming that it is unloving to do so, the biblical expectation is not defined, or in fear of getting sued by the disciplined member.
Nonetheless, the Scriptures are clear that church discipline is an important part of edification for the Saints within the Church. Because the Bible is the infallible, inerrant and the authoritative Word of God, it should be our sincere desire to apply the teachings of the Bible as it relates to church discipline to the individuals within our church. The attitude of those administering Church should be Christ-like and God glorifying. By all means possible, the example of humility, grace, justice and holiness should be exemplified, as Christ displayed in His work to restore sinners while on earth.
The primary biblical reasons for church discipline are to restore the straying member to Christ and to the church (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 Timothy 2:25; Matthew 18:15) as well as maintain the public testimony for Christ that the church upholds (Romans 2:24; 1 Corinthians 5:6). There are many types of offenses that could constitute an occasion for someone to be disciplined. In its simplest form, the standard should be that the church should discipline any unrepentant offense against another believer. This could include, but is not limited to, things such as murder, adultery, gossip, embezzlement, insubordination to church eldership, and many other sins that would cause disturbance within the body of Christ.
Many Scripture verses such as Luke 17:3-4 and Pauline passages make it clear that we are to discipline as a church. However, Matthew 18:15-20 gives us the clearest explanation of how we are to exercise church discipline over a brother or sister in Christ who is acting in willful and unrepentant sin. In the following outline I will summarize the three steps that are to be fulfilled according to Matthew 18, concluding with the final result of dismissal from fellowship. This process should make it clear as to how we should continue to pursue the unrepentant person for the sake of restoration. It is important to note that each step is only necessary if the person continues to refuse the correction of the church and does not acknowledge his or her own wrongdoing before God.
1. A Personal and Private Setting for Pursuit of Repentance
Once an offense has been made, a person from the body should pursue the offender in an individual conversation. The purpose of this initial contact is to allow the person in a private setting to hear the rebuke of a brother or sister in Christ and choose to change their course of action and pursue forgiveness for what has already been done. The person who approaches them must have an attitude that is humble yet willing to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). He or she must rebuke and admonish the things that need to be addressed in the person’s life. It would then not only be necessary but also Christ-like for them to encourage the believer to take the right steps to reconciliation, offer them words of advice, counsel and support if needed and accepted (Galatians 6:1-9).
It is important to consider the spiritual state of the person who is addressing the unrepentant sinner. In accordance with what the Bible portrays in Matthew 18, this is a believer who is doing the confronting should be firmly rooted in the Word of God and use scripture (Hebrews 4:12) in order to point out the necessary change. According to Matthew 18 verse 15 it is appropriate and biblical for this meeting to be done in private. If in the end, the person who has willfully sinned does not show sorrow, godly repentance, and does not listen to the counselor’s rebuke, it would then be necessary to move to the next step.
2. A Group Setting For Pursuit of Repentance
Once a believer has been pursued and given a private admonition but refuses to turn from his or her sin, it would be appropriate then for this person to be approached by several other people according to Matthew 18:16, 1 Timothy 5:20, or 2 Thessalonians 3:16. All of these passages make it clear that there is a necessity for plurality in pursuing a person for the sake of calling him or her back to a right standing before Christ by rebuking his or her sin. This could be done by two or three individuals who are witnesses to what has taken place in the sinner’s life and can attest to the fact the person is remaining unrepentant. The witnesses are there to confirm the facts of the offense and attest to the fact that it is indeed wrong in the eyes of God according to the Bible (Matthew 18:16). In this step it is important to consider the relationship that the accusers have with the unrepentant sinner; this could be close personal friends, family members, or those in spiritual oversight of the church that this person attends. Even though this step includes multiple people it is still something that should be kept private in hopes that the person will turn from their sin before having to approach the entire church body. However, if the person remains unrepentant it would be important to go to the third step.
3. The Entire Church Group Engaged in Pursuit for the Sake of Repentance
According to Matthew 18 verse 17, the third step is to tell the entire church about the unrepentant attitude and behavior in an effort to call every relationship the person has within the church to be used by God to persuade the person toward repentance. By no means is this third step purposed to cause embarrassment or shame for the unrepentant person, though that may happen unintentionally. Rather, because of the body’s intense love for this person, his or her sin is made known to all in hopes that everyone in the church will strive to restore the sinning brother or sister to a right relationship with Christ and His bride. Obviously at this point it would be important for the church overseers, namely the elders, to manage the organizational details of how this will be shared and how the relationship will be handled once it has been shared. If the person does not respond to the pursuit of the entire church, the Bible makes it clear that the final them step is to treat them as an outsider to the faith.
Result: Intentional Exclusion for the Sake of Restoration
For a person to be asked to break fellowship with the church means that they no longer have social contact with anyone inside the body. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 5:11 make it clear that were “not even to eat with such a person.” This doesn’t mean we should all together ignore them or stop praying for their souls. Rather, we keep a missional mindset toward them and treat them as we would an unbeliever in hopes that one day they will come to saving relationship with Christ. Since they have denied the Lord who they once declared to love by remaining obstinate in their sin, we must be careful. The Bible prescribes that we keep our distance and do not interact frequently or share in deep relationships with them in order to ensure that they do not draw anyone away from the flock of God by their poor example. In the end, the biblical hope should be that this person’s sin and lack of relationship with God would leave them empty and broken longing for Christ and ultimately drive them to faith and repentance (2 Corinthians 2:5-8). When a person does repent of their sin and seek the Lord for forgiveness, the body must forgive them in return so that their “Sorrow will not increase” (2 Corinthians 2:7). The goal of the body is to reconcile with the Lord and reconcile, one with the other, by doing so we will proclaim the love of Christ (1 John 4:11).
Conclusion: All For the Glory of God
Several places within the New Testament, especially within Pauline literature, we are able to see that the purity of Christ’s church is important for preserving his glory among men on earth. Perhaps one of the clearest of all passages is 1 Corinthians 5:1–13 where we can understand that those who willfully disregard God’s teaching will make a negative and lasting impression upon the community of God and the people outside it to who we are trying to reach. It is important that we dispel sinful conduct in order to ensure the body of Christ does not get infected with their defiance against God and his Word. We must remember that the church is established on earth to maintain the glory of God’s presence among men, and to uphold the high calling of church discipline which is not unloving, but rather it is one of the most loving things the church can do. As a parent loves a child (Hebrews 12:7–8), so Christ loves his adopted children enough to discipline them in order to make them more like Him.