By the term church discipline, we understand
the discipline the local church, as a body, directs
toward its members. It is generally
used in the negative sense of the withdrawal of fellowship on
the part of the church from an individual member. While this is the
phase of church discipline which will primarily be emphasized in this
discussion, it should be pointed out that the term discipline by
no means is equivalent to punishment (whether penal or remedial), or
chastisement. The word discipline is the Anglicized form of the
Latin disciplina, which means instruction, or teaching. As can
be seen, the word discipline is closely related to the word disciple,
which denotes a pupil, or learner. Both disciple and discipline
are derived from the Latin verb disco, which means to
learn, to get to know, to receive Information, etc.
Obviously, then, discipline Is primarily positive in its nature, and consists of instructing or teaching those who are disciples, or learners. When a church is teaching its members the principles and precepts of God's Word, that church is engaged in church discipline in the best sense of the term. However, there are cases where this positive discipline seems to break down in the lives of individual church members, and it is usually then that negative church discipline must be administered. It is this negative discipline, usually involving expulsion from church membership, that we wish to consider in this article.
The New Testament is very clear as to the causes for which a church member may be excluded. In general, it may be said that a person should be excluded, not so much for what he does, as for what he is. Paul says, for example, that a man should be excluded if he is a fornicator. The term fornicator cannot rightly be applied to one who has committed merely one act of fornication; it rather denotes one whose way of life is, to a considerable degree, characterized by the practice of fornication. A man who has painted one house can hardly be called a house painter; and a man who has delivered one sermon would scarcely be referred to as a preacher. The man at Corinth (I Cor. 5:1-13), who was guilty of fornication had not committed merely one act of immorality, but was openly living in an incestuous relationship with his stepmother!
According to I Cor. 5:1-15, and II Thess. 5:6-15, the following classes of people may scrlpturally be excluded from church member-ship:
In regard to this last category, a few words of clarification
are needed; for the term disorderly has been made, without Scriptural
justification, to cover a multitude of sins. Any wrongdoing,
on the part of a member of whom the church and/or the pastor wants to
be rid, has been piously classified as a disorderly walk; and
the victim of this parody on church discipline has been promptly booted
out the back door.
The context in which the term disorderly walk is found, in II Thess. 5:6-15, reveals both its negative and positive implications. According to the above-memtioned passage, a disorderly walk, in the negative sense, was a matter of refusing to work for a living; thus having to live off the bounty of the other church members. The positive aspect of the disorderly walk was being overly officious about other people's business so as to be a busybody. In verse 11, there is a play upon words in the Greek which is difficult to express in English. Lightfoot puts it somewhat like this: "Not being busy (at their own jobs), but being busybodles." Here we have expressed both the negative and positive aspects of a disorderly walk. Any additional application or stretching of this term must come from one's imagination, for it cannot be supported by the Scriptures.
The Greek word translated disorderly, is the adverb ataktos, which, according to the Greek Lexicon of Arndt and Gingrlch, means, in idleness. In I Thess. 5;14, the adjective form of the word is found. The word is ataktos, and differs from the adverb only in that the o of the final syllable is short, rather than long. According to the above-mentioned lexicon, when applied to persons it means idle, lazy. The verb form, Greek atakteo) is used in II Thess. 3:7.
continued at top of next column
Only these three forms of the word atakteo occur in the New Testament, and they only in the two Epistles to the Thessalonlans where the false report of the imminent coming of the Lord had created the conditions described. The Expositor's Greek Testament says, loc. cit.:
"The ataktoi (disorderly
ones) of 6-12, are excitable members who break the ranks by stopping
work in view of the near advent, and thus not only disorganize social
life, but burden the church with their maintenence. The apostles had
not been idle or hare-brained enthusiasts, and their example of an orderly
self-supporting life is held up as a pattern. Insubordination of
this kind is a breach of the apostolic standard of the Christian life,
and Paul deals sharply with the first symptoms of it. He will not listen
to any pious plea for this kind of conduct."
E. G. T., Vol. IV, page 52.
Note the reference to II Thess 3:7 where Paul states for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you. The comment on verse 15 by the same authority is worthy of sober consideration:
"Disapproval, as a means of moral discipline, loses all its effect if the offender does not realise its object and reason, or if it is tainted with personal hostility. Compare the fine saying of Rabbi Chanina Ben Gamaliel on Deut. 25:3, that after the punishment the offender is expressly called brother, not sinner."
See also the
Pulpit Commentary, Vincent's Word Pictures in the New Testament, Robertson's
Word Pictures in the New Testament and Alford's New Testament;
In addition to the above-mentioned passages, there are three others which are often regarded as having to do with church discipline. These passages are Matt. 18:15-17, Rom. 16:17, and Titus 3:10. The writer has omitted them from consideration because he considers their application to the matter of church discipline to be extremely doubtful. Romans 16:17 reads:
"Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them."
The crux of the matter is in the Greek word
translated avoid. The word is ekklino, which properly means to
lean away from. (Note the stem klino which is found in our words
incline, decline, recline, etc. The root means to bend, to
bow, to lean). The commentaries seem to be in almost unaminous
agreement that this exhortation is addressed, not to the church, but
to the individual members. They, as individuals, not as a
body, are to lean away from those who cause divisions, etc.
Titus 3:10 reads:
"A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject."
This passage does not say, in Greek, exactly
what it appears to say in English. The principal difference
is in the meaning of the word heretic. To us, this word now denotes
one who holds to beliefs or tenets which are divergent from the orthodox
or majority-held views. The passage is therefore taken to mean
that such a person, after having been admonished twice without result,
should be excluded from the church. However, although the Greek word
translated heretic is the very word from which it is derived, the
Greek hairetikos, the two words are by no means synonymous. The word
hairetikos denotes factious, tending to bring about divisions.
Again the commentaries take the view that the heretics in question
are already outside the church; and ought to be rejected, in the sense
of having nothing to do with them nor with their schismatic teachings.
Its most natural and probable meaning is that we need not persist
indefinitely in trying to persuade heretics or schismatic persons to
renounce the error of their ways. After two attempts, we are justified
in leaving them alone.
As to Matt. 18:15-17, many commentators do believe that it refers to matters of church discipline, but the writer is compelled to respectfully disagree with them. The passage reads as follows:
"Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man (Gentile) and a publican (tax collector)."
Note that Jesus, speaking to the hypothetically wronged brother, said:
Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
continued at top of next column
As a concrete
illustration, let us suppose that Brother Brown and Brother Smith are
members of the same local church. Brother Smith feels that Brother
Brown has offended him and begins to seek satisfaction. According to
this passage, Brother Smith should first try to bring about a settlement
between the two of them. If this approach does not work, Brother
Smith should take one or more brethren with him on his second visit to
Brother Brown. If satisfaction still cannot be attained, then Brother
Smith should bring the matter to the attention of the church. The
church should hear the testimony of Brother Smith and the committee
who went with him; as well as that of Brother Brown, if he cares to
testify. The church should then, by a majority vote, express an opinion
as to the relative merits of the cases of the disputants. Then,
if Brother Brown, assuming that the verdict has gone against him,
refuses to accept the verdict of the church, Brother Smith, and
Brother Smith alone, is justified in regarding Brother Brown as a Gentile
and a tax collector -- or an object of contempt. No authority is
given for excluding Brother Brown from the church merely because he
refuses to accept the decision of the church in a personal dispute.
A little reflection should make it clear to the reader why only the allegedly wronged party, and not the entire church, is to treat the offender with the contempt usually reserved by the Jews for Gentiles and tax collectors. In the first place, only the brother making the complaint, and the one against whom the complaint is made, know what the facts really are. The other members of the church knew only what they have been told, No element of infallibility is promised to the church in such cases; it is just as much subject to error in its judgment as any other body composed of fallible human beings would be. Thus, Brother Smith's injury at the hands of Brother Brown may be entirely a figment of Brother Smith's imagination- he actually may be a borderline paranoic. Yet he may state his case so cleverly that the committee who went with him, and eventually the church itself, is convinced that he has been wronged; and brings a verdict in his favor. Should Brother Brown then be required to accept and confess the truth of a verdict that he has wronged Brother Smith, when his heart, mind and conscience tell him that he is not guilty? Would it not then be a gross injustice for Brother Brown to be excluded from the church for not accepting its verdict that he is guilty when he knows positively that he is not guilty? On the other hand, the permission for Brother Smith to treat Brother Brown as an outcast would actually work to Brother Brown's profit, for he would be rid of the paranoic accusations of a brother whose possibly disordered mind tells him that Brother Brown has offended him.
On the other hand, if Brother Brown is guilty, and if he is a Christian, it is more than probable that, though he might persist in his denial until the matter is brought before the church; once the church has heard the evidence and decided against him, he will then acknowledge his guilt and make whatever amends may be necessary. However, even if he is guilty and does not confess it even when the church's verdict goes against him, there are no grounds for the church's excluding him; for, not having infallibility in such matters, the church cannot be certain of Brother Brown's guilt. The church therefore sits as a sort of jury in such a personal dispute, and renders a verdict. However, since that verdict could be wrong, the church has no authority to enforce it, or to penalize the parties who refuse to accept it. The brother in whose favor the church has decided has won a moral victory and is given justification in continuing to treat the other brother as an untouchable, provided of course that the offending (?) brother does not accept the verdict of the church.
Some may wish to argue that the church is given infallibility in such matters, on the strength of v. 18:
"Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, "
That this passage
was not intended to state that the church was given infallible judgment
in such cases may easily be proved by referring to the sixth chapter
of I Corinthians, in which passage Paul is criticizing the Christians
at Corinth for not doing what Jesus advised them to do in the text we
have been considering. Paul argues that believers should have their
disputes judged by the church instead of by unbelievers; not because
of any infallibility which has been given to the church, but simply
because it makes good sense to be judged by your own people rather than
Had Jesus, in Matt. 18:18, intended to bestow infallible judgment upon the church when judging between one brother and another, you may be sure that Paul would have been aware of such a unique power in the hands of the church; and you may be equally sure that he would have made such infallibility his main argument in trying to get the Corinthian Christians to take their disputes to the church Instead of to the civil courts.
The passage in question is actually almost a verbatim repetition of the latter part of Matt. 16:19. The difference is that Matt 16:19 was addressed to Peter, and the pronouns are therefore thee and thou. Matt. 18:18 is addressed to all of the apostles, so that the pronouns are you and ye. It is obvious that Matt. 18:18 was spoken for the purpose of bestowing upon all of the apostles the power of binding and loosing, which at first seemed to have been given to Peter alone. Let us put with these two passages a third one found In John 20:5:
"Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained unto them."
A study of the context in which the
first mention of binding and loosing is found, namely Matt. 16:19,
will reveal that it is mentioned in connection with the use of the
keys of the kingdom of heaven. Briefly, when the keys of the kingdom
are used -- that is, when the Gospel is preached, the result Is that men
are loosed from their bonds of sin; their sins are remitted. Where
the Gospel is not preached, men are left bound in their sins; their
sins are retained. For further details, reference:
Binding And Loosing
To recapitulate, a church member may be excluded if he is:
Note that the sins here listed are such as would bring extreme reproach upon the church, were they practiced openly; or such as would interfere with and seriously hinder the progress of the church, (e.g. Nos. 4 & 7). Note also that it is not for isolated or single instances of sin that a member is excluded, but for the habitual practice of such sin; so that the person may justifiably be called a fornlcator, a covetous person, etc. A person is excluded therefore, not so much for what he does as for what he is. The man at Corinth was not excluded for having committed one act of fornication, but because he was a fornicator; i. e., he was regularly and openly commiting fornication. The rule to be followed in cases of single, or isolated acts of sin, is found in Gal. 6:1:
"Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit pf meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted."