This is part two of two. Part one looked at the need for, nature of, and context for church discipline. Part two examines the specifics of when and how to apply church discipline.
8. Matters which Require Discipline
There appear to be three areas for discipline in the New Testament church, with an ascending order of seriousness:
1. There are practical matters of disobedience that bring discredit on the church, like the refusal to work. Paul tells us that we are not to share our food with an idle brother, that we are to command such a one to settle down and work, that we are not to associate with him to shame him, yet that we are to warn him as a brother rather than to regard him as an enemy.
2. There is the issue of divisiveness in the church, where legalists bring havoc to the unity of the church by seeking to impose their own views on all other believers. Such men, says Paul, are always arguing about the law and raising controversies. If we are plagued by such people in our churches, we are to warn them once, warn them a second time, and then have nothing to do with them. They are to be silenced.
3. Then, there are flagrant doctrinal and moral issues that call for full discipline. In the doctrinal area, we are commanded to discipline those who are false teachers with regard to the central tenets of the faith once delivered to the saints:
- The existence, nature and character of God.
- The person of Christ, his Messiahship, his divinity, and his humanity.
- The work of Christ, his substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection from the dead.
- Justification through faith alone.
- The teaching of idolatry, sexual immorality, or the denial of marriage.
In the moral area, the New Testament appears to follow the second table of the law:
- The sanctity of human life and the protection of the physical body (therefore, the rejection of drunkenness as well as murder and slave-trading).
- The sanctity of the marriage bond (therefore, the rejection of sexual immorality: fornication, adultery, incest, and homosexual practice).
- The protection of property (therefore, the rejection of theft, of avarice, and of dishonest business practice).
- The protection of reputation (therefore, the rejection of malicious gossip and perjury).
There is one additional area taken from the first table of the law:
- The protection of the glory of God (therefore, the rejection of idolatry).
What is meant by homosexual practice in these New Testament passages on discipline? The context of all such statements is the creation ordinance of marriage: that is, the exclusive commitment of one man and one woman for life to each other so that these two become one.
Therefore, when Paul makes a summary statement about what sexual behavior must be disciplined in the church, he uses the word “pornos,” “the sexually immoral person,” to stand for all sexual intercourse outside the marriage bond. In other passages, Paul expands this summary statement to include (so that there can be no misunderstanding) the following:
- Fornication — pre-marital intercourse
- Adultery (“moichos”) — intercourse with someone else’s wife or husband, or intercourse by a married person with someone other than his or her own wife or husband
- Effeminacy (“malakos”) — a male who allows other men to have sexual intercourse with him
- Homosexual offenders (“arsenokoiteis”) — men who have sexual intercourse with other men
- Elsewhere Paul gives a similar rejection of lesbian practice.
If it is responded that Paul rejects only homosexual practice by heterosexual men or women, or that Paul rejects only cultic homosexuality, our response is that Paul’s words are a straightforward condemnation of all homosexual practice. Any other reading of the texts is just as out of bounds of normal textual understanding and of the whole tradition of the church’s understanding of the Scriptures, as is the denial of the physical resurrection of Christ.
If it is responded that Paul knew nothing of homosexual nature, our reply must be that all of us have fallen natures, and that we all have to wrestle against what seems natural to us in our brokenness.
9. The Steps of Discipline
The first step is to go to the individual “one on one,” within the guidelines of what was said above about the context of discipline: in humility, out of love, as a caring and already committed brother or sister in the Lord, with clear evidence, in prayer, and with a desire to provide personal, practical, and pastoral help. The purpose of such a visit is to win the person over, to restore the person to righteousness, to call the person from the error of his or her ways.
This step should be taken by someone who truly has been a “brother” or “sister” to the person involved in disciplinable sin. Therefore, we would suggest that as this “visit” should be part of an ongoing relationship, there should be a second personal visit to see if there is repentance. In other words, time must be given for the Word, for the Spirit, for the love demonstrated by the “visitor” to work in the heart.
If there is no response but rather a refusal to listen, then we have to move to step two. We are to go to our brother or sister who is unrepentant with one or two others. Again, these ought to be members of the church who know the individual well, who have been close to him or her, who are spiritually mature, and who will go in love, in concern, in prayer. We suggest that again time be given for God to do his work in the heart.
If there is still no sign of repentance, but a stubborn hardening of the heart, then the third step must be taken. The session should give the individual a formal warning that his or her behavior is unacceptable in one who professes to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is precisely because there has been a profession of faith that the church has received as genuine that discipline is to be practiced. We do not discipline unbelievers. Nor do we conclude of openly professed believers who have strayed into flagrant sin that they are therefore no longer believers. Rather, for the honor of Christ, for the sake of the church, and for their own spiritual well-being, we take their faith and their sin seriously and institute formal discipline. Again, we suggest that time should be given for conviction of sin to come, with perhaps a date set for response.
If there should still be refusal to respond then discipline must proceed to its most serious level. The New Testament expresses this in various ways: “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector”; “do not associate with such a person . . . do not even eat with them”; “expel the wicked man from among you”; “put him out of your fellowship”; “hand this man over to Satan.”
These are hard statements, and their practice will cause much grief to the church, but the church ought, says the apostle, to be already grieving because it finds the sin that needs the discipline so distressing. This “dis-fellowshipping” may include refusal to the unrepentant one to participate in the Lord’s Supper, the withdrawal of hospitality by members of the church, the removal of the communal love and life of the local body. God will do what discipline he wills, including, perhaps, the hiding of his face of love and protection, as the discipline involves the handing of the member over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.
To institute this kind of discipline will mean involving the whole church in the process. We suggest that the members of the session should, between them, visit every member or family in the congregation personally to talk with them about the discipline and what it is to involve. This must not become a gossip session where the details of sin are to be spelled out or talked through. Rather, such conversations must take place in an atmosphere of confidentiality and of trust in the wisdom of the session as the elders seek to obey the call of Scripture. In most cases, of course, flagrant sin is common knowledge, but even if it is not there should be confidentiality wherever possible.
Our advice would be that for as long as the discipline endures one member of the session (the man with the closest relationship to the person under discipline), and perhaps one other spiritually mature member of the congregation who is close to the person, should be encouraged to keep up regular contact with the individual to urge repentance and to assure him or her that there is a way back and a warm welcome awaiting upon restoration.
If at any time a genuinely repentant spirit is shown, then every effort must be made to reincorporate the individual into the full life of the congregation. It is very easy for such a person to be overwhelmed with sorrow just as with a child who has been disciplined by loving parents and who has realized the need to apologize and to change his behavior.
This whole process of discipline needs to be surrounded and under-girded by the faithful prayers of the church that the Lord might be pleased to bring his healing quickly to the unrepentant one and to the grieving church.
Prof. Jerram Barrs is professor of Christian Studies and contemporary culture and senior resident scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary.
This is adapted from a report Prof. Barrs originally wrote for Missouri Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).