Church Discipline?

This Sunday, our church will meet to discuss a new church constitution and covenant.  One of the additions to the constitution is the inclusion of the important and biblical, but often misunderstood, practice of church discipline.  This Sunday morning I will be preaching on 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, addressing church discipline and why it is so important for the health of Christ’s church.

In my preparation for Sunday’s message I came across many helpful comments by David Garland on Paul’s sobering instruction to the Corinthians.  In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Garland provides a summary of Paul’s teaching on church discipline.  If you are thinking through the subject, it is is worth reading.  

  1. Paul consider the purity of the congregation to be a serious matter, as it affects the congregation’s relationship to God and its witnesses to the world.  The immorality of church members not only undermines any grounds for the church’s boasting but also wrecks its witness of God’s transforming power to change lives.  Paul assumes that the church is implicated in the sins of its individual members.  There is no such thing as private morality (or immorality) for church members.  The sin of one tarnishes all.  Glossing over infamous sin implicates a congreagtion even more seriously in the sin.  In many cultures, what consenting adulats do in private is nobody’s business.  If they are Christians, however, it is very much the business of the church when it brings shame upon the believing community.
  2. Infamous sin cannot be swept under the rug.  The reason is that Paul understands the church body to be one lump.  The moral depravity of one element affects the moral condition of the whole group.  They are either leavened dough [i.e. pure] or unleavened dough [i.e. impure or corrupt with sin].  The sin must be confronted openly and decisively for the good of the individual and the good of the church body.  The only way to make sinners aware of the serious plight of their dire spiritual condition is through drastic discipline–the church’s complete renunciation of them.  Forgiveness can come only after this discipline has been imposed and the sinner has comprehended the full gravity of the sin and genuinely repented.  The church must be humbly mindful, however, that ‘only on the Last Day of the Lord will it become apparent what was decided on the ‘previous days of the Lord.'” [In other words, only when the Lord speaks on judgment day will the judgments of the church today be made fully manifest].
  3. The church walks a tightrope between being a welcoming community that accepts confessed sinners and helps the lapsed get back on their feet and being a morally lax community where anything goes.  The danger carrying out disciplinary measures is that the church can become judgmental, harsh, and exclusivistic.  Nevertheless, paul assumed ‘that the well-being of the community is primary and cannot be compromised.'” (1 Corinthians, BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 180-81)

May the Lord give his churches grace, wisdom, and power to heed his word in a culture of (in)tolerance and moral chaos.  The biblical injunction for church discipline (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-13) is not optional, but neither can it be operational apart from the guidance of God’s Word and the administration of Spirit-filled Christians.  As Garland later adds,

[Church discipline] has its dangers.  The church can degenerate into a defensive commmunity that regards everyone with suspicion and deals out harsh discipline.  It can lead to vain self-righteousness, a chilly exclusivism, and a spirit of suspicion.  The context [1 Cor 5], however, refers to glaring sin that is very public and brings disgrace upon the community.  There is a limit beyond which patience, toleration, and charity toward another’s sin ceases to be a virtue (190)

The balance of grace and truth, correction and compassion is a Spirit-led process.  Man-made decisions, manipulated in the flesh will not succeed.  We must be humble, prayerful, and hopeful that Christ himself will work in and through us.  And indeed his word promises that he will, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20).  In that promise we trust and act for the good of Christ’s church.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss