Biblical Church Discipline

Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

The seventh mark of a healthy church is the regular practice of church discipline. A biblical practice of church discipline gives meaning to being a member of the church. Though it has been commonly practiced by churches since Christ, it has now faded out of regular, evangelical church life in the last few generations.

God Demands Holiness

We humans were originally made to bear God’s image, to be witnesses of God’s character to His creation (Genesis 1:27). So it is no surprise that throughout the Old Testament, as God fashioned a people for Himself, he instructed them in holiness, that their character might better approximate His own (see Leviticus 19:2; Proverbs 24:1, 25). This was the basis for correcting and even excluding some from the community in the Old Testament (as in Numbers 15:30-31), and it is the basis for shaping the New Testament church as well (see II Corinthians 6:14-7:1; 13:2; I Timothy 6:3-5; II Timothy 3:1-5).

Judging

Yet this whole idea seems very negative to people today. After all, didn’t our Lord Jesus forbid judging in Matthew 7:1? Certainly Jesus did forbid judging in one sense in Matthew 7:1; but in that same gospel, Jesus also very clearly called us to rebuke others for sin, even to the extent of rebuking them publicly (Matthew 18:15-17; cf. Luke 17:3). So whatever Jesus meant by forbidding judging in Matthew 7:1, He certainly did not mean to rule out everything conveyed by the English word “judging.”

God Himself is a judge. He was in the Garden of Eden, and we remain under His just judgment as long as we remain in our sins. In the Old Testament, God judged both nations and individuals, and in the New Testament we Christians are warned that our works will be judged (see I Corinthians 3). In love God disciplines His children, and in wrath He will condemn the ungodly (see Hebrews 12). Of course, on the final day, God will reveal Himself as the ultimate Judge (see Revelation 20). In all of this judging, God is never wrong, He is always righteous (see Joshua 7; Matthew 23; Luke 2; Acts 5; Romans 9).

God Expects the Church to Judge

It comes as a surprise to many today to learn that God intends others to judge as well. The state is given responsibility to judge (see Romans 13). We are told to judge ourselves (see I Corinthians 11:28; Hebrews 4; II Peter 1:5). We are also told to judge one another in the church (though not in the final way God judges). Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, Paul’s in I Corinthians 5-6, and many other passages clearly show that the church is to exercise judgment within itself and that this judgment is for redemptive, not revengeful purposes (Romans 12:19). In the case of the adulterous man in Corinth, and of the false teachers in Ephesus, Paul said that they should be excluded from the church and handed over to Satan so that they might be taught better and so that their souls might be saved (see I Corinthians 5; I Timothy 1).

It’s not surprising that we should be instructed to judge. After all, if we cannot say how a Christian does not live, how can we say how he or she does live? One of my concerns about many churches’ discipleship programs is that they are like pouring water into leaking buckets–all the attention is given to what is poured in, with no thought for how it is received and kept.

Close Front Door, Open Back Door

One church growth writer has recently summed up his advice on helping a church to grow: “Open the front door and close the back door.” By this, he means that we should work to make the church more accessible to people and do a better job of follow-up. Both of these goals are good. Yet, most pastors today already aspire to have churches with such front doors open and back doors closed. Instead, attempting to follow a biblical model should lead us to this strategy: “Close the front door and open the back door.” In other words, make it more difficult to join on the one hand, and easier to be excluded on the other. Such actions will help the church to recover its divinely intended, winsome distinction from the world.

Bringing in New Members

This discipline should be first reflected in the way we as churches take in new members. Do we ask that those becoming members be known to us to be living Christ-honoring lives? Do we understand the seriousness of the commitment that we are making to them and that they are making to us? If we are more careful about how we recognize and receive new members, we will have less occasion to practice corrective church discipline later.

Doing Discipline Responsibly

Of course, any kind of church discipline can be done badly. In the New Testament, we are taught not to judge others for the motives which we impute to them (see Matthew 7:1), or to judge each other about matters which are not essential (see Romans 14-15). This issue is fraught with problems in pastoral application, but we must remember that the whole of the Christian life is difficult, and open to abuse. Our difficulties should not be used as an excuse to leave either unpracticed. Each local church has a responsibility to judge the life and teaching of its leaders, and even of its members, particularly in so far as either could compromise the church’s witness to the gospel (see Acts 17; I Corinthians 5; I Timothy 3; James 3:1; II Peter 3; II John).

Five Reasons for Corrective Discipline

Biblical church discipline is simple obedience to God and a simple confession that we need help. Here are five positive reasons for such corrective church discipline. Its purpose is positive (1) for the individual disciplined, (2) for other Christians as they see the danger of sin, (3) for the health of the church as a whole and (4) for the corporate witness of the church. Most of all, (5) our holiness is to reflect the holiness of God. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride’s sake, but for God’s name’s sake. Biblical church discipline is another mark of a healthy church.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Read John 5:27-30. To whom has the Father granted authority to judge? Now read Matthew 18:15-17. To whom has Jesus delegated the authority to judge in this world? Has the church faithfully administered this charge that our Lord has given us?
  2. Read I Corinthians 5:1-2. What action does Paul say the Corinthian church should have taken regarding this sinful church member? Now read verse 3-5. By whose authority (in whose name) is the church to act? What is the ultimate hope of such action? Do you think Paul thought of church discipline as a heartless and cruel action, or a loving action that would benefit a person’s soul?
  3. One writer has said that Christians should “Open the front door of the church and close the back door.” What does that statement mean? The author says that instead we should “Close the front door and open the back door.” Which do you think is the more biblical idea? Which idea do you think would more readily tend toward a healthy church membership?
  4. Read Romans 14:1-4. What are some ways that church discipline could be open to abuse? Spend some time thinking about how your church could faithfully and carefully fulfill our Lord’s charge in Matthew 18:15-17 while guarding against abuses.