Reasons to Practice Church Discipline - Part Two

Paul Dean

Controversy erupted a couple of months ago when a Baptist church in Waynesville, North Carolina allegedly expelled some forty members because they voted for John Kerry as opposed to George Bush in the last presidential election. In the aftermath, the pastor resigned saying, "For me to remain now would only cause more hurt for me and my family." No doubt the entire story is yet to be told. Whether or not church discipline is an appropriate measure in this instance regarding a vote for Kerry or Bush is an issue that would require much analysis and critical thinking. Some would argue that a principled vote for Bush could not have been cast. Again, the issue is complex in light of Scripture and beyond the scope of this piece. But, the incident in Waynesville does raise the question of church discipline. Should the church practice discipline at all? An affirmative argument was set forth in part one of this article. Further support for the biblical practice follows.


Third, church discipline must be practiced in order to feel the weight of the sin. We should grieve over sin, not laugh at it, ignore it, justify it, exalt it, or condone it. Paul goes on to say (v. 2) that their grief should have led them to remove the offender from their midst.


A question must be raised at this point. Is Paul telling the church to remove this offender from the church without a fair trial, that is, without the due process of church discipline? Is Paul advocating removal without allowing an opportunity for restoration? The answer to these questions is an emphatic "no" for two reasons. First, in light of Scripture as a whole (we must let Scripture interpret Scripture), and in light of a proper doctrine of inspiration, Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could not have advocated that the church violate the clear process and purpose of church discipline as outlined in Scripture (Matthew 18). Second, in v. 5, Paul holds out hope for restoration of this sinning individual. In holding out such hope, Paul would not circumvent the biblical process of restoration, nor would he remove an individual from the church that he might be given over to Satan if he did not have to endure such hardship for the sake of his soul.


The question remains, "what is Paul doing?" It could be that he is advocating that they go through the process. However, in light of vv. 3-5, it seems as if the process of church discipline has already gone through two stages. That is, the sinning brother has been confronted by one or more individuals and has refused to repent. Moreover, he has been confronted with two or three witnesses and has refused to repent. The third stage of church discipline, that is, being brought before the church and being removed from the church if necessary, has not been brought to bear upon his sin that he might be restored.


Now, the question arises, "why would the church not proceed to stage three if they had in fact proceeded through stages one and two?" We can only speculate. Three possibilities exist. First, it may be that a minority group within the church had proceeded through the first two stages of discipline. Because the rest of the church did not agree with church discipline for whatever reason (see above), no one was going to be excommunicated no matter what the sin involved. Second, it may be that the arrogant leadership talked the church out of going forward with stage three. Third, it may be that the arrogant leadership did not allow the discipline to proceed to stage three. In any case, the situation was such that the sinning individual needed to be brought before the church for his sake, the church's sake, and the Lord's sake. The problem was that he had not been brought before the church and things were getting worse on all fronts.


Fourth, church discipline must be practiced in order to protect the purity of the church. One can only conclude from Paul's statement in v. 2 is that he wanted this individual removed that God might be glorified, that the church might be pure, and that the wayward sinner might be restored. Focusing on the second dynamic, church purity must be maintained so that the church can be spiritually strong (5:6f). Moreover, church purity must be maintained so that the church can be evangelistically strong (Acts 5:1-14).


Fifth, church discipline must be practiced in order to judge the truth of the situation. In v. 3, based on the situation and what Paul has heard, he is in fact appealing to the church to come together for the purpose of disciplining this individual. Paul says,  "for I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present." In this short sentence, Paul makes two important statements. First, even though Paul is absent from the church in body, he is present in spirit. That is, he is one in Christ with them, knows them, loves them, and has apostolic authority over them. He is part of the body of Christ as a whole and as an apostle, he is part of that local body as well. What he says in this letter carries the same weight as if he were he physically present. Second, he has already judged this individual as though he were present. He has heard the facts, most likely from more than one source. Because he has heard the facts, he is ready to make a judgment. This individual is indeed guilty of serious sin and is refusing to repent.


One wonders as to whether or not the accused had been given opportunity to tell his side of the story. As we assume that the first two stages of church discipline had been handled properly, we assume that the accused had told his side of the story. Moreover, the sin was open and widely known. No doubt he had not denied his sin, he had simply refused to cease from engaging in his sin. Thus, Paul has cast his vote. He wants the church to expel the offender that he might be restored.


Note that Paul says he has "judged" this individual. Many are quick to say that Christians should never judge anyone. This notion is contrary to Scripture. The Scripture is clear in this matter. While we are not to judge others improperly, we are to judge. That which constitutes improper judgment is three-fold. First, we may not judge the hearts of individuals. Only God can make that kind of judgement. Second, we are not to judge unbelievers. They are condemned already (vv. 12-13). Third, we are not to judge believers without first examining our own hearts. Once we remove the logs from our own eyes, we are then enabled to judge our brothers properly (Matt. 7:1-5). Of course, with our brothers, we are judging actions and fruit with a view toward restoration born out of love for them and God.


Thus, we conclude from the context of Scripture as a whole, that stage one of church discipline had occurred. That stage involves confrontation of the sinner by the informed parties. Stage two of church discipline had occurred. That stage involves confrontation of the sinner by some godly witnesses. They heard the case, established the facts and called for repentance. Because repentance was not forthcoming, stage three of church discipline must occur. That stage involves confrontation of the sinner by the gathered church. They hear the case, establish the facts, call for repentance, and if repentance is not forthcoming, they cast their vote. They should vote to remove the erring individual that he might be restored in the wake of repentance.


Sixth, church discipline must be practiced in order to receive the guidance of the Lord. In v. 4, Paul says, "in the name of our Lord Jesus, when your are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus. . ." This sentence is complicated in the Greek and is difficult to translate. The fact that KJV, NAS, and NIV all differ is a testimony to that fact. Compare the NAS above with NIV here: "When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present..." Compare with KJV: "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. . ." Questions abound. Is Paul telling the Corinthians something in the name of our Lord Jesus? Or, are the Corinthians assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus? Is Paul with them in the spirit and power of the Lord Jesus? Or, is Paul with them in spirit, and, is the Lord Jesus with them in power? These questions are raised by the structure of the sentence and other questions have been raised by commentators. Detailed explanation and argument is beyond the scope of this article. We believe NIV (though we normally do not prefer NIV for a variety of reasons) has the correct translation for the following reasons. First, Paul is urging the church to assemble for the purpose of discipline. It follows that they would assemble in the name of the Lord Jesus as church discipline must be done in this context. Only then is the church assured of Jesus' presence. We refer to Matt. 18:20, "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst." This statement by our Lord was made in regard to church discipline. Second, as just alluded to, when Jesus is present in the midst of his church, his power is present. What kind of power? The power to guide the church into the right decision regarding discipline. Again, we cite Matthew 18: "Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven (vv. 18-19)." Third, Paul has already said that he was with the Corinthians in spirit (v. 3). Thus, the proper translation may be rendered "When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present." Now, Paul assumes that the church will come together for the purpose of discipline. They will assemble in Jesus' name, Paul will be with them in spirit having cast his vote, and the power of Jesus will be present to guide them into the right decision. Based upon their previous position, they will have to assemble in obedience and faith. They must obey the apostle and trust that Christ will guide them into a proper decision whether they are convinced of their actions or not. Church discipline should never be easy, but grievous. At the same time, church discipline should never be shunned, but embraced in faith. The Lord is at work in His purpose and in the midst of His church. Church discipline may proceed when the church is gathered in the name of Christ and it will succeed when the church is guided by the power of Christ (Matt. 8:15-17). Paul here lays the foundation for what he is about to say in the following verse. To that point we will turn tomorrow.


[Part Three Tomorrow]