Recently, I preached a sermon on church discipline. No, it was not because the elders asked me to, nor because the congregation was preparing to withdraw fellowship from anyone (at least, not so far as I know). Instead, it was to remind people of the context in which Jesus famously stated, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20).
That’s right. It wasn’t in the context of worshiping in a hotel room while on vacation. It was about those difficult conversations that must take place with erring brothers and sisters.
However, when we consider the process of church discipline, it is easy to look at the “step-by-step” process and forget that there is a step that should be in place before the process ever begins.
Jesus made it clear in Matthew 18:15-20 what the process should look like. Paul would reiterate it in 1 Corinthians 5 and elsewhere. We know this is a Biblical subject, even if it is one that is often overlooked.
Basically, the process is to go to one who has sinned against you one-on-one, seeking to restore him or her. If that does not work, you take witnesses (notice: not “yes-men!”) with the same intention: that of restoration.
If that difficult step does not work, then–and only then–should the church assembly be made aware of the situation, and it should seek restoration as a body of believers.
All along the way, the goal is restoration. The constant prayer should be that the “next step” never has to be taken, because the one who has sin in his or her life has repented and returned to the Lord.
But, should these steps not work, Jesus said, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). Paul added that are “not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11). In other words, any contact we have with this person should be toward restoration; never mere social activities that express brotherhood or open fellowship.
That’s the process. It is difficult, but it is straightforward.
The Too-Often Missing Step
In all of this, though, there is a first step that should take place before the process ever begins.
In reality, it is not a “first step,” because it is something that must be in place for church discipline to be effective.
What is it?
The church must be such a strong and loving fellowship that the one who has sinned has something to miss!
If the church is filled with fussing, feuding, and infighting, why would anyone want to return to that?
When these conversations occur with one who has sinned, if they are filled with rancor and cruelty, instead of love and clear Bible teaching, why would someone wish to return?
If no one tried to welcome that “one new guy” who looks a little different, why would he return when efforts are made?
Church discipline works, when we follow God’s plan, that is. It is not out-dated. It is not a relic of past days. It is a Biblical command, just as much as baptism and the Lord’s supper are commands to be obeyed.
But step one of the process begins long before a willful sin is committed. It starts with every member seeking to make the congregation a loving family, so that no one would ever want to fall away or leave.
It Really Is about Love
When sin does occur, and the process of church discipline must take place, love overflows. That’s right: church discipline is a loving act when done properly.
There is a love for God and His Word that is expressed in obedience to His plan for church discipline. Is following this plan easy? Of course not! (Which is why, by the way, Jesus promised to be with those who are in these conversations in Matthew 18:20). But we love God so much that we will follow His plan, no matter what.
There is a love for the one who has sinned. Love does not excuse nor overlook sin. Instead, love reaches out and seeks to restore and correct through Biblical instruction and encouragement.
And there is love among the whole congregation. We must support one another through the process, and we must be such a loving place that the one who is in the wrong desires that fellowship and family atmosphere again.
That…not a one-on-one conversation…is step one in church discipline. Because it is what should be in place before the process ever starts.
Is it found where you are?
AUTHOR: Adam Faughn