Monroe Presbyterian Church
The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline
As new members of Monroe Presbyterian formally enter into covenant with the church, they are asked to give assent to five membership vows. The fifth of these vows asks: “Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?” (The Book of Church Order, 57-5)
The purpose of this paper is to help new members understand the meaning of church discipline that they might take this particular vow with cheerful confidence that they are doing a good thing. As will be shown, church discipline is a biblical practice which all Christians should embrace as a valuable benefit of church membership and an essential element of a healthy church body.
What is church discipline?
Church discipline is the use of instruction and correction to promote purity of doctrine and morals in the church. By it the spiritual authority of the church is brought against the enemy of sin that continually rises up to threaten the health of the body of Christ.
Who are the subjects of church discipline?
The subjects of church discipline are all of the members of the church including the church officers. Everyone in the church is capable of being deceived by and falling into sin, and so all need to be instructed and corrected at times to fight against this unfortunate tendency.
Why practice church discipline?
The most obvious reason for the church to practice discipline is because God commands it in the Bible.
“Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2)
“If anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)
“But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.” (I Corinthians 5:11)
“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.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Furthermore, the wisdom of church discipline is appreciated when we consider the good which comes by its right use.
1. Church discipline glorifies Jesus Christ. The enemy of sin brings weakness and disgrace upon the church, and the name of Christ is blasphemed among the world as a result. How shall the honor of Christ be defended against this attack? Where sin arises, church discipline vindicates the honor of Christ by condemning the sin in the church's midst and taking real steps to remove it as an unwelcome foe among the holy people of God.
2. Church discipline purifies the church. The Bible teaches that where the enemy of sin arises in the church, it has the ability to spread and infect all of its members. (See I Cor. 5:1-13) False doctrine can move like wildfire through a congregation, and immoral behavior left to its own devices will lead many astray. Therefore it is the responsibility of the church to protect itself and its members by responding to sin with the weapon of church discipline which the Spirit uses to root out and destroy the offending corruption.
3. Church discipline leads sinners to Christ. The reason that the church disciplines sinners is because the church loves people and hates to see them hurt by sin. Its aim in instructing is to help people walk in the way of truth that leads to happiness and eternal life. Its goal in correcting is to bring sinners to repentance before the cross of Jesus Christ that they may be forgiven of their sin and healed. For this reason church discipline should always be practiced with humility, gentleness, and patience. As the Apostle Paul said:
“A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:24-25)
Like parental discipline, church discipline can be hard and unpleasant at times, both for the person administering the correction and the person being corrected. Yet if we truly love one another, we will be ready and willing to confront the enemy of sin and refuse to let it have its way with us. Here especially, we see that church discipline is a great benefit to believers by which the church fights for them when they lack the good sense or strength to fight for themselves. As the Bible observes:
“Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)
So for all of these reasons the church of Jesus Christ absolutely must practice church discipline, and all the members of the church should willingly submit themselves to this practice. If they will not, then sin will have its way among us unto the dishonor of Christ, the corruption of the church which is His body, and the sorrowful ruin of many souls.
How is church discipline carried out?
At Monroe Presbyterian Church, we seek to follow the biblical guidelines for church discipline which are outlined in our Book of Church Order (27-5):
1. Christians are instructed in the Word of God (Matt. 28:19-20). In an important sense, the church is always practicing church discipline in that it is always opening up the Bible and teaching its members the will of God. By that teaching, we distinguish right from wrong and truth from error, and thus become responsible to live and believe accordingly.
2. Where sin arises in the church, Christians are to admonish one another (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1). All the members of the church have a responsibility to confront sin through church discipline. Brothers in Christ who love each other should gently talk to each other where unrepentant sin manifests itself and threatens to hurt people. Wisdom teaches us to let some sinful moments pass, but where sin is either habitual, scandalous, or disruptive to the unity and peace of the church, it must be addressed for the good of all. As the Lord has taught us, it is important that a person repent of his own sins before calling for the repentance of another, and a Christian should always be careful that his admonitions are based on confirmed facts and the clear teaching of God’s word.
3. Where a Christian refuses to repent of his sin, another should be called upon to serve as a witness (Matt. 18:16). Those who are called upon to serve as witnesses on such occasions should be wise, trustworthy people who are capable of weighing the matter in the balance of Scripture. Hopefully, this third party can either successfully urge the accused towards repentance or show the accuser where he is mistaken.
4. If the Christian refuses to repent of his sin, then the issue should be brought to the church (Matt. 18:17). At Monroe Presbyterian Church, this would mean bringing the matter to the elders of the church as its ordained leaders. The elders would then hear from all the parties involved and proceed with formal discipline where they find that there is indeed refusal to repent from sin.
Where guilt is confirmed, the church can censure or punish its members in one or more of these ways:
a. Admonition – a formal reprimand and warning
b. Suspension from sacraments – temporary exclusion from the Lord’s Table
c. Deposition – removal of a deacon or elder from office
d. Excommunication – formal exclusion from the fellowship of the church until such time as the offender repents of his sin and seeks reconciliation
At the discretion of the elders, the congregation may be informed concerning the discipline of a member who has been found guilty of sin and refuses to repent. According to the Bible, it is the congregation’s responsibility to withhold the benefit of Christian fellowship from members under formal church discipline except to counsel and call them to repentance. (2 Thes. 3:14-15) For this reason, it may be necessary for the elders to explain to the congregation something of the nature of the offense that has been committed by their brother. This allows the members of the church to offer meaningful advice to the offender and also serves as a warning to others who might be tempted to fall into the same sin.
In all discipline cases where the accused feels that he has been treated unfairly by the local church, he does have the option of appealing his case to higher church courts in the denomination known as the presbytery and the general assembly.
It is important to emphasize that the goal of each step in church discipline is to bring a sinning brother to repentance. Sin that is allowed to exist undisturbed will prove to be damaging to the individual, his family, the church, and the honor of Christ, and thus love compels us to confront sin for the good of all. Church discipline begins informally and proceeds step by step toward formal discipline, with more and more people being brought into the process as needed to help the sinner see the error of his ways. Wherever repentance and restoration occur in this process, church discipline has achieved its goal and does not normally need to proceed further. In most cases, a simple word of correction issued in private from a concerned brother is all that is needed to bring about conviction of sin and repentance. It is only in cases of extreme rebellion that formal discipline is ever necessary.
The biblical practice of church discipline has been called one of the marks of a true church of Jesus Christ because without it there is no meaningful fight against sin. As has been shown, church discipline rightly administered proceeds to the glory of Christ, the purity of the church, and the well-being of its members. For that reason, it is good and necessary for every local church to practice discipline according to the word of God and for all the members of that church to do their part in promoting its success.