This is a much-neglected area of teaching today. It is little surprise, therefore, that there have been so many examples over the years of disciplinary matters that have been either ignored or inappropriately handled, resulting in spiritual damage to individual believers and the overall testimony of the assembly.
The reader might be tempted to think that this article is purely for elders, who have a key role to play when matters of discipline arise; however, it will be seen that all believers in fellowship in a local assembly have their part to play. The fact that ‘whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth’, Heb. 12. 6, does not absolve us from the part that we have to play in maintaining scriptural order in the assembly. It is true, of course, that the word ‘discipline’ does not appear in the scriptures; however, the truth that ‘God is not the author of confusion, but of peace … in all churches of the saints’ runs like a thread throughout the New Testament, and requires that ‘all things be done decently and in order’, 1 Cor. 14. 33, 40. Inevitably, human nature being what it is, it will be necessary for discipline to be employed to achieve this end.
It is important for all believers in a local assembly to understand. This will encourage them to ensure that it happens, if needed, and also that it leads them to be more accepting of it if they should happen to be on the receiving end. First, the local assembly (the people, not the building) is described in exalted terms in the New Testament, e.g., it is ‘temple of the living God’, ‘an habitation of God through the Spirit’, and ‘house of God, which is … church of the living God … pillar and ground of the truth’.1 Clearly, therefore, those in fellowship with any given assembly have a responsibility to meet together in the light of these great truths, and, without doubt, discipline will need to be administered from time to time to ensure that God’s name is not dishonoured in any way. Second, individual believers must be taught that it is important to live in obedience to the word of God; otherwise, a state of anarchy will soon exist and order will be absent. Third, all discipline should be motivated by a great desire to bring about the restoration of repentant offenders, no matter how serious their offences have been, 2 Cor 2. 6-8. Fourth, discipline should have a wide audience of onlookers in mind. Unbelievers, angels, principalities and powers look on and expect to see in the assembly, ‘the manifold wisdom of God’, Eph. 3. 10. Discipline, therefore, must be brought to bear upon any who mar the testimony. Fifth, discipline protects an assembly, 1 Cor. 5. 6-7. If sin goes unchecked, the entire assembly is affected. Once those in fellowship grasp these truths, they will appreciate the magnitude of what is at stake and accept the necessity for discipline.
If local church discipline is to be administered in an effective way, it must be understood that not all offences by believers fall into the same category; therefore, they do not all require the same response. As in any natural family, there must be degrees of discipline that are commensurate with the offence committed. If an offence is dealt with too harshly or too leniently, it can have a detrimental effect upon individuals and the assembly. Offences in an assembly can range from minor errors of judgement that can easily be put right, to wilful doctrinal and gross moral errors that will call for excommunication from the fellowship. Discipline must be brought to bear in all cases, but elders and the assembly need to exercise wisdom as to what is appropriate in each case and also pray for the restoration of the offender.
For example, Paul spoke of a man being ‘overtaken in a fault’. Clearly, his error is not wilful or habitual, but a temporary lapse; therefore, it would be unwise to use the ‘heavy hand’ of discipline in such a case. Indeed, the emphasis from the outset should be on restoration, not retribution: ‘Ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted’, Gal 6. 1. In contrast, his instructions were much more stringent when he spoke of the unruly and disorderly.2 The discipline to be imposed upon them ranges from warning them and rebuking them sharply, to having no company with them.
Sadly, many problems that call for discipline in local assemblies arise from a clash of personalities, rather than doctrinal issues. These are often left unresolved and hinder the spiritual health of the assembly for many years. They are not always dealt with objectively, especially when friendships and family relationships are involved. The principles for dealing with such matters were clearly set out by the Lord Jesus Himself; yet, in spite of this, they are seldom followed. The onus is placed on the offended brother to resolve the issue, personally, with his brother, Matt. 18. 15. If this fails, he should seek to resolve it in the presence of one or two witnesses. If this proves unsuccessful, he should take it to the whole church. If his brother fails to hear them, it will lead to his excommunication, v. 17. It is unlikely that many readers will have witnessed these procedures being carried out to their conclusion when one brother has offended another. However, there have been far too many unresolved cases of this nature that have been allowed to fester and stifle the spiritual growth of an assembly, when simply following the clear steps outlined by the Lord would have nipped the matter in the bud and avoided much heartache.
From the first century onward, doctrinal issues blighted the history of the Christian church, e.g., Paul refers to ‘heretics (hereticks in the KJV)’, those who ‘pervert the gospel of Christ’, and others who ‘resist the truth’3 Peter describes false teachers as ‘natural brute beasts’ and ‘wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest’, 2 Pet. 2. 12, 17. Although false teaching must be dealt with immediately and decisively, there is a clear principle set down in the scriptures: ‘A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject’, Titus 3. 10. Our thoughts should not turn immediately to retributive judgement. Nevertheless, if the false teachers refuse to repent, the discipline must be severe. Paul employs expressions such as ‘accursed’, ‘cut off’, ‘reject’, and ‘condemned<’4 Simply stated, such teachers should be disciplined and put out of the local fellowship. False doctrines regarding the fundamentals of the Christian faith must not be permitted to flourish. Once they take root, they will be very difficult to remove, and wrong doctrine leads very quickly to wrong practice.
Sadly, moral issues arise from time to time in local fellowships. They can do great damage to the testimony, because they are often open and known to all, including unbelievers in the immediate neighbourhood. This was particularly true in the local church at Corinth in the first century. Mention is made in Paul’s letter to them of fornication, covetousness, idolatry, railing, drunkenness, and extortion, 1 Cor. 5. 11. We are left in no doubt that such offences demand the excommunication of the person(s) concerned. This is typified in Paul’s words concerning the man
who had committed fornication: ‘Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person’, v. 13. All social contact was also to be shunned: ‘with such an one no not to eat’, v. 11. Such decisive and severe discipline does not mean, of course, that there is no road back for the truly repentant moral offender. Later on, Paul writes to the local church concerning this same man: ‘Sufficient to such a man is this punishment …
forgive him, and comfort him … confirm your love toward him’, 2 Cor. 2. 6-8. No matter how low a fellow believer may sink, they should never be out of our affections.
As was mentioned earlier, we might be tempted to divorce ourselves from the issues raised in this article, believing that they are the concern only of elders (overseers) in local assemblies. Clearly, the elders have a key role to play in providing teaching and spiritual guidance as far as disciplinary procedures are concerned. Indeed, they are not above facing discipline themselves, 1 Tim. 5. 20. However, once again, clear guidelines are laid down should this become necessary, v. 19.
While elders (overseers) have a major responsibility as far as leadership is concerned in matters of discipline, the entire assembly also has a key role to play.5 Indeed, it is the assembly, not the elders, that receive a believer into fellowship and, if necessary, excommunicates him/her. Unity of this nature will emphasize to offenders that they are not only out of step with the elders, but also with their fellow believers. When Paul gives instructions as to the various disciplinary actions to be taken, he does not often address the elders specifically, but all believers forming the local assemblies concerned. This is clearly seen when he addresses the serious issue of fornication in the assembly at Corinth. His expression, ‘when ye are gathered together’, highlights the corporate responsibility of all the believers in the assembly to deal with the offending brother, 1 Cor. 5. 4. If the discipline was to be effective, it was important for all the believers to abide by the decision to excommunicate the offender and to shun social contact with him. To ‘break rank’ would lead to confusion and make it difficult to restore the repentant brother later on.
We are living in challenging times when there is a break down in law and order worldwide. There is a lack of restraint and men do what is right in their own eyes. Local assemblies ought to be beacons of light in the midst of this increasingly dark world. They must display godly order and a desire to adhere to God’s word. They should promote an atmosphere of genuine love and concern for all men; however, this must never be at the expense of
upholding divine standards and disciplining those who fail to adhere to them. Problems must be confronted and dealt with, not swept under the carpet. Sound government is vital if unity is to be preserved and anarchy kept at bay. If Satan fails in his attempts to destroy an assembly from without, he will seek to do so from within.