Most societies operate within set structures, rules are drawn up and the consequences of breaking the rules are clearly stated. So it is with a local church. The basic proposition is that ‘An Assembly is … a people among whom discipline is exercised’. My objective is to establish that this is true from the New Testament.
As most of our readers will understand what is meant by the term ‘an assembly’, I will not take up time defining this save to say that ‘an assembly’ is simply a regular gathering of Christians who meet, in the name of the Lord Jesus, in the same place on a consistent basis, otherwise known as ‘a church’.
If you do a bit of research or have a bit of knowledge of ‘churches’ you will gather very quickly that there are many types of churches who all have different approaches to how they should be structured, led, meet, etc.
There are a few questions we need to address at this stage:
Let me answer the questions from what I understand to be a biblical perspective:
So what should the structure of a biblical church look like and how is discipline to be applied scripturally if people or churches are disobedient?
I would like to make two points at this stage. First, please remember that the teaching in this article is not about why a church might cease to exist, as in point 3 above, but I am explaining and describing the discipline that a local church would be expected to exercise and apply to maintain purity and obedience to the word of God. Second, while the idea of punishment and discipline is not popular currently, it is still in the Bible.
As I read the New Testament, I struggle to find examples of one man heading up a church, as is often the norm in churches today. All of the churches we read about in the New Testament are led and guided by a group of elders. The word ‘elder’ indicates that they should be men of maturity, 1 Tim. 3. 6. Elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit, Acts 20. 28, and recognized by the members of each local church, 1 Thess. 5. 12, 13; Heb. 13. 7, 17. They answer to God for how they care for the people of God, v. 17. They are also described as shepherds, 1 Pet. 5. 1-4, as part of their role is to care, feed and protect God’s people, and as overseers, as those that watch over God’s people. This group of men in each local church answers to the Chief Shepherd who is the Lord Jesus Christ, v. 4.
Discipline in a local church is only implemented as a last resort. Teaching and shepherding the Lord’s people is the primary responsibility of elders, 1 Tim. 3. 2. Some of the elders will make the teaching of God’s word their life’s work, 1 Tim. 5. 17. If false doctrine is taught in a local church the elders should have the capability to identify it and correct it. When Paul met with the elders from the church in Ephesus, as recorded in Acts chapter 20, he pointed out that they were responsible to feed the believers, v. 28. He also implies that when the church is attacked by false teachers, elders should be capable of handling the situation and protecting the believers. A quick reading of the passage makes it clear that they had been well equipped to handle these problems through the apostle’s teaching and their knowledge of the word of God. Elders are ultimately responsible for the local church.
Elders are not exempt from discipline. However, 1 Timothy chapter 5 states that an accusation cannot be made against an elder unless there are at least two witnesses. The principle of multiple witnesses is carried over from the Old Testament, Deut. 19. 15, and is also applied to individuals by the Lord Jesus in Matthew chapter 18 verse 16. If it has been proven that an elder has sinned then he should be rebuked so that the other elders will learn from his mistake, 1 Tim. 5. 20. As elders are an example to the flock, what happens to them should, in principle, be applied to all of the Lord’s people.
We have already addressed the responsibility of elders to preserve and protect the church. This most primary act of discipline, refuting false doctrine and false teachers, will protect and preserve the ‘church of God’ from error that would otherwise need to be dealt with at a later stage if left unaddressed, as false teaching will always have a detrimental effect on a believer’s beliefs and lifestyle.
Paul gives another example of this type of ‘pre-emptive strike’ when he writes to Titus that an elder should be able to ‘exhort [the believers]’ and ‘convince the gainsayers [those who contradict]’ by sound doctrine, Titus 1. 9. He instructs the elders to rebuke the false teachers so that the believers will be sound in the faith.
A third example is given in 2 Timothy chapter 2 when Paul warns about the false teaching being spread by two men, Hymenaeus and Philetus, which was severely damaging the faith of some of the Christians. Again, immediate action is advised.
Discipline in a local church reflects errors in two main areas of life – what you believe and how you behave. We have dealt with ‘what you believe’ in the previous section about handling false teaching. In 1 Corinthians chapter 5, we have an incident where a man had to be disciplined for moral sin. The believers in Corinth seemed to have ignored the sin, v. 1, and had to be reminded by Paul that disciplinary action needed to be taken.
It is important to note that disciplinary action has two objectives:
Sin that is unconfessed eats away at the individual, Ps. 32. 3, 4, and contaminates the assembly where they are in fellowship, 1 Cor. 3. 16, 17. If it is not dealt with, the long-term effect for the individual and local church will be devastating. In the church in Corinth the situation was eventually handled properly and the brother who had sinned was restored to the fellowship of the church, 2 Cor. 2. 1-11. Dealing with this type of situation should never be avoided, but it should be handled biblically and sensitively so that God is honoured, and individuals are eventually restored. 1 Corinthians chapter 5 verse 11 outlines a list of sins that must be dealt with if they are committed by believers in fellowship in a local assembly. Please note that this list is not limited to moral sin. There is a tendency to ignore sins that we consider to be lesser sins, e.g., covetousness, but this should not be the case.
Please note that there are different phases of guidance and discipline in a local church. If action is taken early and the person who is wrong responds, then no further action should be taken. If, however, there is no repentance or change of behaviour then the process of discipline will continue. These actions are not to be taken lightly or on a whim, but in the presence of God and as directed by elders in a local assembly. Allow me to take you through the scriptures that I am basing this on. Be aware that level 3 of the process should always be applied immediately where moral sin or severe doctrinal error is clearly in view.
Level 1 – Warn, admonish and create awareness.
At this level the elder is making the person aware of their behaviour. They must be warned that their behaviour is out of order. The shepherd must also identify and support those who are vulnerable and weak. Patience and wisdom are key to any decisions that are made.
Key passage: 1 Thess. 5. 12-14.
Level 2 – Avoid, purge, separate, withdraw and have no company with.
This is not ex-communication but withdrawing from the individual so that they understand the seriousness of their sin in disobeying the word. In other words, they are still in fellowship but will feel the distance caused by their sin.
Key passages: Rom. 16. 17, 18; 2 Thess. 3. 6, 14, 15; 2 Tim. 2. 16, 18, 21.
Level 3 – Put away or deliver unto Satan.
At this stage the individual is being put out of assembly fellowship. Examples of moral sin and heretical thinking are given in the passages below. A heretic is someone who is refusing the truth. The discipline for them is to be rejected. Both moral sin and doctrinal sin must be dealt with as, left unaddressed, they damage the local church, 1 Cor. 3. 17. These are sad scenarios but, as we have discussed earlier, action has to be taken to teach the person and to preserve the local assembly.
Key passages: 1 Cor. 5; 1 Tim. 1. 18-20; Titus 3. 8-11.