The Theology of Church Discipline

Much of what I have written here in the past focuses on the formative work of discipline in the church – discipleship.  Within Scripture, however, we also find another form of corrective discipline, commonly called “church discipline”.  This series forms the basics for a primer I wrote for The Austin Stone to understand church discipline.


The Theology of Church Discipline

Throughout the pages of the New Testament, God is seeking to instruct us about His character, our sin and rebellion, the magnificence of Jesus and His atoning work, and how we are to walk in accordance with the will of God. The primary context for us to receive and obey His Word is in the church, among and alongside the people of God.

The biblical model for a church presents a redeemed people who have heard the good news of the gospel, responded in repentance in faith, gather together to worship, appoint qualified elders and deacons, and faithfully engage in the proclamation and demonstration of the good news of the gospel.

The church also has some specific instructions as to how it should operate. From Jesus’ direct teaching to His disciples, we find a particular set of commands for the church on how to approach a brother who is persisting in open sin:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mt. 18:15-20)

In this teaching Jesus lays out a clear pattern as to how we are to love a wayward brother or sister:

  1. We first lovingly confront an individual alone with evidence of the sin.
  2. If the offending brother or sister is clearly in sin and will not repent, we are instructed to take two or three together to establish the charge of the offense.
  3. If the wayward brother or sister still will not repent, we are to tell it to the church.
  4. Finally, if all the previous steps have been faithfully pursued, we are to remove that person from fellowship with the body.

This basic process is also underscored and enumerated in several other passages, including 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Galatians 6:1-5, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, and 1 Timothy 5:19-21. At the Austin Stone, we believe in the authority and goodness of all of God’s Scriptures. That means even with an issue as difficult and painstaking as church discipline, we have sought to put Jesus’ commands into practice with all love and wisdom.

All of us have fallen into sin and struggle every day against the world, our flesh and Satan. The expectation of the Scripture, therefore, is not that believers walk in perfection but rather live lives marked by repentance. When we harden ourselves against repentance, church discipline is often God’s gracious means to bring us to an awareness of our sin and our need to turn from it (Rom. 2:4). In sum, then, the clear message from Scripture with regards to committed church members who fall into the snare of sin is that God will use His community to discipline and restore them with God and His people, if at all. Church discipline is a gift!


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