Throughout history, the concept of church discipline has been challenging to properly implement in the original intent. It is often deemed barbaric or misunderstood by the secular world and Christians alike, and as a result is often avoided at all costs in this culture. While prescribed in the Bible by Jesus and alluded to by Paul and Peter, there is not a clear model or full example to detail what constitutes a sin egregious enough to suspend mercy and how to gauge a repentant heart. Therefore, varying rules have been structured from the early church onward to answer these silent gaps; depending on the culture or varying commitment or understanding of holiness, this process has been misunderstood or misinterpreted for power or promotion of a sect. Even under the best intentions of soul restoration, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish an unrepentant heart and an overzealous religious group.
This paper will seek to review the biblical model and review the qualifications and original intent, as well as briefly review how church discipline was viewed or implemented since that time. The execution or avoidance of discipline has a strong correlation to community identity and the general opinion of the church. The Western church faces many challenges in implementing proper church discipline given the repeated history of abuses and the rise of individualistic humanism; these two extremes of corrupting power or the lack of community value are consistent foils to proper church discipline.
Scriptural Foundation for Church Discipline
The basis for church discipline arises from the New Testament which identifies a basic outline of steps for conflict resolution and sin management. Jesus laid out a process whereby someone identified as a brother in the family of God must go to another brother or member who has sinned against him. This is a private discussion to show the error that occurred in hopes of reconciliation with the person and with God. If this is unsuccessful, they are to take one or two witnesses and make a second attempt. If the offender refuses to repent, it should be taken to the church body. If he refuses to repent, treat him as a pagan. (Mt. 18:15-17). Jesus provided this authority to the church body to exclude an unrepentant person from the community of believers.
Paul expounded on this to indicate the church ought to stand against those people who are divisive or quarrelsome, or for doctrinal errors. (Rom. 16:17). Paul indicated there was a point where the unrepentant would be put out of the church assembly or avoided “so that he might feel shame.” (2 Thess. 3:14). This was done for the goal and point of reconciliation and repentance. In the Scriptures, the Church was given the authority to bind up on earth that which would be bound in heaven. (Mt. 18:18). Heaven stands behind the action steps taken by the church when done under correct motivations. There is an element of judgment and discernment believers are to have and a level of accountability that is required in the biblical church.
While there are not any clear practical models in the Bible, Paul noted the divisions occurring in the Corinthian church and one individual who was living a sexually immoral lifestyle that the church was not addressing. Paul implored them to “hand the man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed, and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:5). Paul further advised the church to dissociate with anyone who claims to be a Christian but in known for a sinful lifestyle; “expel the wicked man from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:11-13). Paul wrote “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” (1 Tim. 5:20). Paul references the man in Corinth again in 2 Corinthians, indicating that he was restored back to the faith; his punishment was sufficient, and the church body ought to receive him again fully. (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
Confusion may be linked to not fully understanding the concept of membership to a local body and what the church was intended to be. The church is translated Ekklesia in Greek, which is an ordinary term for “assembly”. However, in the Septuagint, there are two Hebrew words used for God’s people in the Old Testament. Edah is a term that refers to the permanent community into which one was born. Qahal is specific to those who have heard the call and are following it. When translating these two words into Greek, Qahal was translated as Ekklesia every time, while Edah was translated Sunagoge. Understanding these different concepts helps us see that the idea of the New Testament church involved “meaningful, covenanted church membership and the type of accountability reflected in redemptive church discipline.” Misunderstanding the spectrum and function of the church as too broad/universal or too narrow has been the cause of many issues.
The New Testament focuses on the underlying motivation of love. The gospel is not a law, and yet Jesus commanded His followers to strive for perfection or maturity. Jesus contrasted the life of sin as evidenced by evil deeds and understood the spiritual battle and temptations facing mankind. And yet His love and the gift of salvation was not meant to be performance-based or driven by acts for earning His love. As we strive to follow Christ and the lawgiver within our heart, our actions must be in line with our professed faith.
History of Church Discipline
Early Church Model
The structure and form of the church was still coming together within the first few centuries after the death of the apostles. Disparate ideas swelled to the surface and councils were formed to sort through heresy and agreement on the fundamentals. The writings of early church fathers emphasized concepts of unity, holiness, and submission to the leaders and church community in the sight of God. The writings from Clement indicated the importance of holiness in terms of moral purity and avoidance of sin, both as individual and group concept. “Let our whole body, then, be preserved in Christ Jesus; and let every one be subject to his neighbor.” The writings of the Didache advised “everyone who comes to you in the name of the Lord must be welcomed. Afterward, when you have tested him, you will find out about him, for you have insight into right and wrong.” This depicts a tight-knit community who used spiritual discernment after being fully introduced to a new member or visitor through a time of testing.
By the fourth century, early leaders appeared to have strict systems in place and policies whereby sinners received varying degrees of public punishment based on their public sins. All church discipline was under the authority of the local bishop; restoration was not simple and only with consent of the bishop. The early church dismissed those in a publicly sinful lifestyle or those who promoted heresy or refused to follow church doctrine; repentant sinners were not allowed to partake in the sacraments and begged for mercy outside the church. Tertullian wrote on sin and penance and believed there was but one chance after baptism to remain sinless. He was concerned about the growing laxity in mainstream church at that time, and wrote to combat those ideas of a universal church where accountability was not appropriate. He named seven sins of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, fornication, false-witness and fraud that required action and full compliance for a member of the church. He described Christians who committed sin and strayed from “the rule of our teaching” cease to be counted Christians among us… it is a notable foretaste of judgment to come, if any man has so sinned as to be banished from all share in our prayer, our assembly, and all holy intercourse.” Unfortunately during this timeframe, many schisms occurred and crises for the church to combat. The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD was the first ecumenical council that came together to settle matters of doctrine as a group, called together by Constantine who held only secular interests in this proceeding. They deemed Arianism to be a heresy, condemning and exiling Arius and his followers. Only 300 years after Christ, the churches were struggling with the practical and theological questions that still grasp the church today.
The Middle Ages brought about the merging power of church and state. In this corrupted union, there were forced conversions that brought people into the church who were not invested in developing their faith. Laypersons were uninformed and the church was corrupted by power. Discipline or ex-communication was offered freely to those who threatened the power, not based on biblical principles. Christianity “was no longer an ecclesia pura, a sect of the holy and the elect, but a corpus permixtum, a ‘catholic’ Church geared to mass conversions and institutionally endowed with extensive powers of sacramental grace and redemption.” By the end of the Middle Ages, membership in the church was nearly always Orthodox or Catholic, though some sects outside of that existed. The church was shifting toward use of private discipline and hearing of private confessions. The sacrament of penance became “perpetual rather than a one-time channel of forgiveness.” This turned into a money grab as the corrupt church promised forgiveness or lessened punishments based on monetary exchanges. This sale of indulgences was a primary factor in Martin Luther’s stand against the catholic Church, opening the way for Protestantism.
Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other leaders during this era reevaluated what God intended for His church and all wrote that an emphasis on church discipline and true repentance was necessary. During this time of revitalization, adherence to sacraments was a priority; discipline involved disallowing fellowship in those sacraments and sometimes civil fines. From this period of division came the Anabaptists and other groups who sought to return to the models in Scripture for purifying the church and striving for holiness. These reformed churches were given local authority to impose church discipline on its members; in this era, societies and churches were closely bonded and societies often shared common interests of purity. Puritans created a “Half-Way Covenant” to allow visitors to attend services, learn more without full membership judgment or benefits. This is closely aligned to a modern concept of the church whereby services are viewed primarily as an outreach to the lost.
Rise of Individualism and Modern Age
While the church was returning to its roots, a new age of technology and scientific advancement was also dawning. The Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries promoted human secularism and would begin the separation of church and state. Continuing forward to the modern era, science or intellectualism would be pitted against traditional religion as advancement theories were promoted in schools with purposeful intention of removing God from the equation. Relativism would reign with religious activity deemed archaic, especially the idea of shaming or excommunicating someone for their personal beliefs. Western culture deemed the individual conscience as superior to the collective. The churches by mid-twentieth century had lost the concept of church covenants and church discipline “virtually disappeared” with few exceptions. As the church seeks to win the lost and spread new revival experiences, church discipline became a hindrance to these new goals. As technology advances, people are further isolated from true community and have a farther gap to bridge to return to the Bible. Pride and lawsuits or slander are prevalent for those who feel they have been “wronged” by the church. The church culture is varied, with many different brands and organizations with no consistent idea on grace and proper church discipline. True biblical communities are not viewed positively by standards of the wisdom of man, and God’s grace and mercy are often the extent of what people hear in the pews of those seeking quantity of their flock.
We are on a path of separation from the original intent that cannot be resolved
easily or quickly, although church discipline has never been easy or without struggles. In a post-modern era that values tolerance, subjective truth, and questioning authority, it is a challenge to call people back to the Bible and to true community. Damage remains from the past through the events in history that joined the institution of the church with the state and culture to bring atrocities and evil to the world. The compromises and errors of the pastchurch and the advancement of Western society created a fracture and split to the churchstill seen today. Power and pride are consistent human issues that will always collide withthe fundamentals of Christianity and the gospel. The whole of Christendom will not be able or willing to implement church discipline, but the Spirit stirs the hearts and minds of those who are drawn to Christ. Those individuals are more likely to be receptive to the feedback of fellow believers and respected leaders. This requires a return to the basic law of love as we develop relationships with other Christians built on love, humility and unity with the Spirit and Word.
Additionally, the rise of individualism and loss of value in community has caused great loss to the church that God intended. When church members do not commit their lives to each other in efforts of accountability, there is loss to the kingdom efforts and holiness of the church. In an era where matters of dispute are settled in court or the court of public secular opinion, the steps taken for discipline are fewer and far between. The church’s God-given authority to “bind or loosen” on earth and in heaven is completely overlooked or diminished. (Matt. 18:18). A new era of true revival and repentance is needed in this culture to return to the practices of discipline and to live in holy reverent fear of the Almighty. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Prov. 9:10).