Reasons to Practice Church Discipline - Part Three

Paul Dean

Some time back a woman came to us for biblical counseling. Her husband had been in unrepentant adultery for some time. While she was counseled by one of our women counselors, we contacted her pastor to confront her husband. Even though the husband was a church member, the pastor refused to confront him saying that he was afraid the husband would be driven away. The problem with his stance is multi-fold. First, is being driven away worse than unrepentant adultery? Second, how does he know that the husband will be driven away? Third, the bible says that sin must be confronted, especially sin in the body of Christ. Fourth, it is clear from the Scriptures that God's means of restoration is biblical confrontation. Fifth, the pastor does not have an option. It is not his position to determine whether or not to confront this man. He is commanded to do so. Sixth, what about the poor woman's plight? Seventh, we must take God at His word and trust Him. Eighth, confrontation is part of church discipline which has as its goal restoration. Ninth, part of pastoral ministry is confronting sin. Tenth, part of being a real and biblical church is maintaining discipline. A church cannot rightly call itself a church of Jesus Christ if it is not willing to practice such. More problems with the pastor's stance could be offered here, but the point has been made. Church discipline is a biblical mandate and necessity for the spiritual well-being of the church and her individual members. In parts one and two of this article, reasons for practicing church discipline were offered. The conclusion follows.


Seventh, church discipline must be practiced in order to ensure the salvation of the sinner. In v. 5, Paul uses an infinitive verb form, "to deliver." Again, translation is never a one to one correspondence. The force of Paul’s statement is either imperative (that is a command) or a reaffirmation of how he has decided to vote (I have decided to deliver). Which interpretation is correct? Paul has made a statement regarding his judgment, that is, his vote. He has no need to repeat himself. Thus, based upon his vote, his consternation, and his apostolic authority, we take Paul to be giving a command: "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."


By this understanding, we do not mean to imply that Paul was circumventing "church" discipline and asserting "apostolic" discipline. He cannot put anyone out of the church, even by apostolic authority. It is the responsibility of the church to do so. Thus, Paul is commanding the church to do the right thing. They now have a choice. They can either obey or disobey and thus, Paul can then come to them as a Father or with the rod of correction (4:21).


Now, what does Paul mean by "deliver such an one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh?" He means that the offender should be put out of the church and treated as an unbeliever (Matt. 18:17). He will be outside of the protective umbrella of God's blessing upon the church; he will be denied the fellowship of the church; and he will be confronted with his sin as he comes in contact with church members. God will allow Satan to buffet him as He so chooses. God may allow Satan to bring about bodily illness. Satan does not have absolute power over anyone. He only has power to do what God allows him to do. God may or may not use Satan to carry out certain purposes. Paul does indicate here that to be apart from the fellowship of the church is indeed a dangerous place in which to find oneself as God may allow Satan or even send Satan to destroy his flesh. Another text that supports this truth is Matt. 18:34. God can use Satan for other purposes in the believer's life (2 Cor. 12:7; Job 1). God may or may not use Satan to bring about physical death upon a believer (1 Cor. 11:30; 1 Jn. 5:16; Jas. 5:14-15 [if he fails to repent]). While we do not know when God is using Satan or not, we do know God is in control of all things. Sometimes we fall into physical illness because of the sin-sick world in which we live; sometimes we are being disciplined by God; sometimes we are being prepared by God for something great; sometimes we are being kept humble; sometimes we are being buffeted by Satan at God's discretion that we might repent.


Paul affirms the above argument when he gives the purpose for commanding that the offender in the Corinthian church be turned over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh: "that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." Paul is hoping for complete restoration. If the offender is disciplined by God, and, if he is a believer, he will be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Two facts should be pointed out here. In the first place, when Paul says that the destruction of this man's flesh will cause him to be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus, he most likely means that if this man is saved, and he ends up dying at the disciplinary hand of God, he will still be saved and judged righteous on that great day. The question arises, would God allow a believer to die in unrepentance? He would for two reasons. First, God would do so that no further reproach be brought upon the name of Christ. Second, God would allow such that the offender might not fully and finally apostatize (see 1 Cor. 11:28-32 and 1 Jn. 5:16). In the second place, when Paul speaks of being saved on the day of the Lord Jesus, he does not preclude the possibility that the offender may repent, be restored to the fellowship, and restored to health (Jas. 5:14-15). He is simply concerned about this individual in an ultimate sense.


Having said the above, it is possible that Paul had in mind another dynamic when he commanded the church to turn this individual over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. Paul may have been thinking of "flesh" in terms of sin rather than in terms of body. In other words, Paul may have advocated this course that the sin that the individual was committing might be destroyed, that is, that this individual might repent. No doubt exists that Paul wanted this individual to repent. The problem lies in the dynamic of turning someone over to Satan in order that Satan might do a work that would cause someone to repent. This result would not be Satan's desire! However, Satan does not have exhaustive knowledge. He only knows what God is doing if God reveals what He is doing. Satan is going to follow his own evil nature regardless of what God does as a result. God can and does overcome Satan's evil desires and activities. A case in point is the apostle himself. Paul said, "And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me-- to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:7-10)." Paul confirms that God had used Satan to do a good work in his life. We do not know the nature of the thorn in the flesh of which Paul speaks. It could have been any number of things including persecution or a physical handicap. It could have been something related to his physical flesh or something that was to be a thorn in the fleshly attitude of pride. The point is that Paul, in regard to turning the offender at Corinth over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, could have been thinking along physical or attitudinal/spiritual lines or a combination thereof.


Now, we must comment upon the phrase "the day of the Lord Jesus." This phrase is synonymous with "the day of the Lord," "the day of Christ," "the great and terrible day of the Lord," "that day," "the day of God," etc. It refers to Jesus' second coming at which time He will glorify His church in resurrection power, pour His wrath upon the wicked, and mete out judgment to all. Salvation is a present reality and a future hope. However, the all important issue is that we be saved now that we indeed might be saved on that day.


In these verses, and especially in v. 5, Paul has pointed out the serious nature of sin and church purity. His concern is that individual members of the church be holy and humble before God, that the church as a whole be pure, and that the name of Christ be exalted. He wants the church to have power in the world, he wants individuals to stand in the judgement, and he wants Christ to be glorified in His church. Thus, church discipline should be practiced for the sake of the erring brother. In the midst of discipline, the prelude to salvation is destruction of the flesh. This destruction could be in the form of illness or even death. The reality of salvation is release for the soul (that his spirit may be saved). The offending party may be lost and saved as a result of discipline, or, he/she may be saved and restored as a result of discipline, or, he/she may be saved and taken as a result of discipline. But, the glory of salvation is righteousness for the sinner (saved in the day of the Lord Jesus). One who is saved will be clothed by the righteousness of Christ on that day. He/she will be judged by the righteousness of Christ and saved by the righteousness of Christ on that day. That dynamic makes church discipline a necessity.


[Scroll Down for Parts One and Two]