Church discipline is not about a witch-hunt or some investigation of rumors. Biblically, we might think in terms of two facets of church discipline:
- Formative church discipline. Continual training believers receive from the Word in the body of Christ as their lives transform into Christlikeness. We’re being disciplined every day, right? The Spirit of God and the Word of God are disciplining us. He’s training us to follow after Christ. This is happening all the time. It’s what sanctification is about—growing in discipline.
- Restorative church discipline. This is corrective care taken by the body of Christ in matters of unrepentant sin in a brother or sister’s life.
We need to see that there’s one foundation for church discipline, and it’s the grace of God. God disciplines us by grace, and Titus 2:11 talks about how grace disciplines us in godliness. So, the challenge for the church is to make sure that grace is at the center of our discipline. So, how do I bring grace and church discipline together? Well, Jesus helps us.
Approaching Church Discipline
Just before giving us the steps to take in church discipline in Matthew 18, Jesus talks about our need for childlike humility (v. 4), the danger of leading others into sin (vv. 5–6), a deep concern for holiness (vv. 7–9), and compassion for the hurting (vv. 10–14). God has designed church discipline so that the church will guard and care for every single person in the church. That’s the whole purpose. Then, in the verses that follow Christ’s instructions for church discipline, Jesus says that we need forgiving hearts (vv. 21–22).
So, in light of this background, how do we carry out church discipline? In Matthew 18:15–20 Jesus gives us the following instructions:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
This is one of the two times Jesus uses the word “church” in the Gospels, and here he gives us instructions for pursuing fellow believers who are caught in sin.
Steps for Church Discipline
Here are the four steps Jesus lays out for the church as it carries out restorative church discipline.
- Private correction. When a brother is caught in sin, we are to “go and tell him his fault” (v. 15; see also Galatians 6:1). Don’t go talk to others about it. According to Ephesians 4:29-32, you should not talk about your brother in a way that doesn’t build up his character. Gossip kills proper church discipline. So, go and talk to him and keep it between the two of you. Don’t leave your brother to wander off the cliff—go to him. And do it with childlike humility, concern for holiness, and with grace and love. if he (or she) repents, that’s great—you’ve won a brother!
- Small group clarification. If the person confronted privately is still unrepentant, continuing in sin, then we are to take “one or two” others along (v. 16). (Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 19:15). Find others who are gentle and humble and loving, remembering that the goal is not to gang up on this person. The goal is to bring a couple of other people along who love and care and have the Spirit of Christ and the grace of Christ in them. These people are saying, “We love you. We want you to turn from sin, because sin ultimately leads to destruction.”
- Church admonition. If the person refuses to repent in light of small group clarification, then the third step is church admonition. Jesus says to “tell it to the church” (v. 17). Why tell it to the whole gathering? That can seem, in some senses, cruel to some people. The point of telling it to the church is so that have a whole body of believers running after that unrepentant believer saying, “We love you, and we care for you, and we want to pull you back to Christ.” This is God setting up a way for the entire body, His people, to go get the individual and love him and bring him back.” It’s grace. It’s mercy. It’s love. It’s church admonition.
- Church excommunication. If the person continues in unrepentant sin even after church admonition, Jesus says to treat him like a “Gentile and tax collector” (v. 17). In other words, he’s no longer treated as a member of the body of Christ. This is church excommunication.
This final step may sound unloving, but it actually shows grace and a concern for godliness. We are to take this final step for the purity of the church (1 Corinthians 5:1–13), for the salvation of the individual (2 Corinthians 12:7–10), and for the glory of God (Ezekiel 36:22–23).