BIBLICAL CHURCH DISCIPLINE


In our earlier article, we saw that the faithful exercise of church discipline is generally regarded as a mark of a true church. Any church that does not exercise discipline will very quickly discover that it is impossible for her to maintain purity and unity in practice and doctrine. The duty of discipline is, moreover, clearly taught in the Scriptures, both in the Old and the New Testaments.


Under the Old Covenant, the Church was the nation of Israel as the covenant people of God. Therefore, God instructed Abraham: “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant” (Gen 17:14). Circumcision was, therefore, the divinely appointed seal to mark a person as belonging to the covenant community of God (Gen 17:11; Ex 12:48). The Apostle Paul calls circumcision, the “seal of the righteousness of faith” (Rom 4:11), because the external covenant community or, in other words, the Visible Church, is the reflection of “the congregation of the righteous” (Ps 1:5), namely the Invisible Church. But the Visible Church, being in this world, will comprise wheat and tares, and when it becomes clear that a person is a tare rather than wheat, then rightly, the person ought to be excluded from the visible body of believers so as to avoid scandal and to maintain purity. Thus, we find, in addition to civil penalty for various crimes, that the Old Testament saints were instructed to excommunicate or “cut off” members who sin scandalously in various ways. So one who failed to observe the feast of the unleavened bread was to be cut off (Ex 12:15); and so anyone who ate any manner of blood was to be cut off (Lev 7:27). This cutting off often coincided with the death penalty (Ex 31:14), but not always (cf. Lev 18:29; 18:16 with 20:21). In general, one who is cut off would be regarded as an uncircumcised man—one who no longer has the privileges of a genuine believer in the covenant body. Thus, when the whole congregation of Israel was under discipline in the desert, their children were not circumcised. Only when the nation was ready to re-consecrate themselves to the Lord again,—after all those who have been excommunicated died (cf. Heb 3:19),—were they all circumcised (Jos 5:1–9).


Under the New Covenant, the covenant people of God is no longer confined within the boundaries of the nation of Israel, since the unbelieving Jews have been cut off and believing Gentiles grafted in (Rom 11:17). The covenant people of God is therefore now extended to the world and is the Church Universal as we know it today. This Church Universal, because of its geographic span, is however constituted of particular churches (WCF 25.4), and so each local church (or denomination) becomes an independent entity. Each congregation becomes an organic expression of the universal covenant body of God. And since baptism has replaced circumcision as the divine seal of membership in the covenant community, all new believers and children of believers (Acts 2:38–39) are to be baptised to be included as members in the church. Baptised members, then, are both members of the particular congregation, as well as, of the Visible Church Universal. The New Covenant Church is, therefore, a continuity of the Old Covenant Church. Such being the case there must surely be some form of church discipline in the New Covenant Church, as in the Old.


Thus, we read of Paul writing to the Corinthians to charge them to excommunicate a member of the church who was guilty of incest: “put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Cor 5:13; see verses 1–5). Thus, we read of the Lord chiding the Church in Pergamum for having among them members who “hold the doctrine of Balaam” and those who “hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes” (Rev 2:14–15). Similarly, the Lord chided the Church in Thyatira for tolerating a woman by the name of Jezebel who had taken upon herself to teach and seduce members in the congregation to commit fornication and idolatry (Rev 2:20).


From these passages, and others, we see that the purpose of discipline are several folds; firstly, it is for preserving the purity of the church (1 Cor 5:6); secondly, it is for maintaining the truth in the Church (Rom 16:17); thirdly, it is for the spiritual good of the members of the church (Gal 1:6–7; 1 Cor 15:33); fourthly, and most importantly, it is for upholding the glory of God and honour of Christ who is the Head of the Church (Rom 2:24; Jas 2:7).


But how should discipline be conducted? Our Lord gives a rather detailed guideline: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:15–18). In other words, four steps are involved:


Firstly, a member of the church, who is hurt by the sin of another member or who knows that a particular member has committed a certain immorality or heresy, should approach the guilty party privately to tell him about his fault (Lev 19:17; Prov 27:5–6), and to urge him to repent of his sins. This should be the end of the matter if the brother does confess his sin and indicates his repentance. The transgression should be, as it were, forgotten, “for charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8; Prov 10:12). In the case of immorality or private offence, if the offender should subsequently commit the same sin, then the cycle must repeat from the beginning since we are to forgive “until seventy times seven” times (Mt 18:21–22). However, if it is a case of heresy, if the same heresy is asserted again, I believe, the matter should be brought up to the elders of the church to be dealt with. Paul instructed Titus: “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” (Tit 3:10–11).


If, however, despite being approached privately, the offender refuses to acknowledge his sin, then, secondly, the cognisant or aggrieved party should take with him one or two more persons as witnesses when he approaches the erring brother again. These witnesses should preferably have themselves witnessed the offence being committed (Deut 17:6). They not only confirm the judgement of the brother who approached the offending party, but would serve as witnesses to the fact the erring brother has been approached regarding his sin. Again, if the offending brother repents, then, after praying with him, he should be forgiven (Jas 5:15) as per step one.


However, if he does not repent, then the third step would be to “tell it unto the church” (Mt 18:17). At this point, the offence, which hitherto was a private matter, becomes an ecclesiastical matter and is to be handled by the court of the church or the elders comprising the session. The elders will examine the matter, and if the offender is found to be guilty, they will call for repentance from the offender. Much care should be taken not to make the matter public knowledge unless there is real necessity of doing so. In other words, though the elders should be involved, it should only become a public if the offence was committed publicly or if the offending party remain unrepentant. Should the offending party repent, he should be restored to fellowship.


If the offending party again refused to repent despite repeated warnings and admonition, then, finally, the session, representing the church, should excommunicate the offender. In other words, he should be cut off from the visible covenant community and denied the privileges of a church membership, such as partaking the Lord’s Supper. Should excommunication be implemented, then it is of necessity that members of the church be informed.


The whole process should always be exercised with prudence and discretion, and with full dependence on the guidance of the Word and Spirit of God, together with a genuine love for the law-breaker as well as the Law-Giver. Excommunication should only be implemented when all else fails. Even then, it should be done with the hope that the offender may repent and seek re-admission to the church. Notice Paul’s statement of intent in two of his harshest statements of excommunication: “Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20); and “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5). Notice that in both cases, Paul was not only concerned about the purity of the church and the honour of God, but the final spiritual state of the offender. John Owens is surely right when he asserts: “The nature and end of this judgement or sentence [must be] corrective, not vindictive,—for healing, not destruction” (Works 16.171). Thus, an excommunicated person who demonstrates genuine evidence of repent-ance must be restored back to fellowship with love and humility (cf. 2 Cor 2:6–8).


Nevertheless, both the offender and the church should take note of the severity of excommunication. The Lord concluded His guideline on church discipline with a statement pertaining to excommunication: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). This is not to say that the church has the power to cast anyone into hell, but it does teach us that, in general, if discipline is carried out justly and faithfully, and an offending party is excommunicated, it is almost certainly the case that he is a hypocrite heading towards eternal destruction, and unless he repents, he will face condemnation at the Tribunal of God.


It should be further noted that the civil court should never be used by members of the church against one another (1 Cor 6:1–8) unless the church has dealt with the offender and excommunicated him so that he is considered a publican and heathen man. And even then, the civil court should only be used if a criminal offence is involved or if recovery of losses is absolutely necessary (1 Cor 6:7).


May the Lord grant us that we may not have to exercise formal discipline procedures, but when the necessity arises, may we be obedient to the Word of God, though it may be uncomfortable, painful and difficult for the all parties involved.


J.J. Lim