In the church, we affirm a covenant with one another by God’s grace, for our good, and ultimately for God’s glory. We will humbly and gently confront one another and receive correction from one another in accordance with a New Testament understanding of church discipline and restoration. In this message on 1 Corinthians 5:1–6:11, Pastor David Platt helps us to see that church discipline is a loving act of God’s grace.
- Why do churches not practice church discipline?
- What is the purpose of church discipline?
- How do we practice church discipline?
- Why do we practice church discipline?
If you have Bible, and I hope you do, turn with me to 1 Corinthians 5. I invite you to pull out the notes in your Worship Guide. I put at the top of those notes an excerpt from our church covenant, our expression of what it means for us to be a faith family in Christ. I want to remind you what it says there.
It starts by saying, “As members of The Church at Brook Hills, we affirm this covenant with one another by God’s grace, for our good, and ultimately for God’s glory….” Then, you get farther down in the covenant, almost to the end of it, and in our commitment to one another as a church, we tell one another that, “We will humbly and gently confront one another and receive correction from one another in accordance with a New Testament understanding of church discipline and restoration.”
And so today, we come to 1 Corinthians 5, where we see this kind of discipline in the church at work. In the passage we’re about to read, Paul commands the church to banish a member from the church because of that member’s sin. Listen to this. First Corinthians 5:1,
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:1–13)
There are so many things that cause so many questions in this passage, particularly in our culture today. “Remove a sinner from the church? I thought the church was supposed to welcome sinners. Deliver him over to Satan? Is that right? Don’t associate with sexually immoral people? Don’t even associate with them in the church? Don’t even have a meal with a sexually immoral man? Purge evil people from among you?”
Why Not Church Discipline?
This passage goes against the grain of so much of the way we often think—even as Christians—about the church. As a result, this passage and others like it are practically ignored in present-day church culture. Church discipline is virtually absent in most churches in our culture today for a variety of reasons. I put some of them at the top of your notes under the heading of “Why not church discipline? This is just a summary of reasons why passages like 1 Corinthians 5 are either not preached or not practiced in churches today.
“Church discipline is legalistic.”
First, people say, “Church discipline is legalistic. Church discipline contradicts the grace and love of God. Telling people they should obey God, and that if they don’t obey the commands of Christ, they’re not followers of Christ.” As soon as you start talking about church discipline, you open yourself up immediately to charges of being legalistic. Now, I want to
come back and look at responses to each of these thoughts, but let’s just survey the reasons why churches have practically ignored discipline. It’s legalistic.
“What about Matthew 7:1?”
Second, others have said, “What about Matthew 7:1? Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Judge not, that you be not judged.’ (Matthew 7:1) You should not be judgmental, judging other people in their sin when you have sin of your own. Don’t you know Matthew 7:1? Or what about John 8:7, where Jesus said, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone…’? (John 8:7) Who are you to point out sin in someone else’s life when you have sin in your own life?”
“People will leave.”
Church discipline is legalistic, it’s judgmental (just look at Matthew 7:1). The third reason why we don’t practice church discipline is because people will leave the church if we do. Let me tell you what’s not at the top of the charts in church growth magazines: “We’re a church that disciplines sinners!” You’re not putting that on a mail out for high attendance Sunday.
You see all kinds of catchphrases for churches today: “A church that cares…”, “A church that loves…”, “A church of joy…”, “A church that meets your needs…” How about “a church where you can experience discipline”? Has kind of a ring to it, you know. You start talking about church discipline, and people will leave the church.
“We don’t know how to practice church discipline.”
Maybe one more reason we don’t practice church discipline is because we don’t know how to practice church discipline. How do you do this, particularly in a large church like Brook Hills? With four to five thousand people, how can you keep track of every single member and carry out this process with any single member? I have been told before, “It won’t work. You cannot practice church discipline in a church like the one you pastor. You can try, but it won’t work, which is why many larger churches like ours indeed ignore church discipline altogether.”
Now, here’s the deal. I actually believe every one of these objections to church discipline have some validity to them. But they’re valid, I’m convinced, because we don’t understand what church discipline really is. When we think of church discipline, we have all kinds of abuses running through our minds—images of holy police on the prowl looking for sinners who get out of line. Our misunderstandings and misperceptions have kept us from carrying out one of the things that we’re going to see Jesus said was most important for His church.
I’m convinced that this is one of those facets of what it means to be a faith family that desperately needs to be recovered and redeemed in our church culture. These words— “church discipline”—evoke all kinds of negative imagery in our minds. They need to be understood in the good and positive light that Scripture presents them in.
Church discipline is loving.
So, we think, “Church discipline is legalistic,” but the biblical reality is exactly the opposite. Follow in your notes here. We think church discipline is legalistic, but the Bible says that church discipline is loving, that discipline is one of the most loving things we can do as a church.
Think about it. Christ has given us His commands for us to follow for our good, right? Following Christ’s commands is good for us; it is what is best for us. So when we see a brother or sister wandering away from those commands, if we love that brother, if we love that sister, we will call them back to the commands of Christ. It’s simple enough, but we have so missed it. We are so confused, and we don’t even realize it.
We think it’s loving to see a brother or sister wandering into sin and to sit back and say, “That’s their life, their decision, their responsibility. What somebody else does is between them and the Lord.” That may sound spiritual on the surface, but that is sentimental cowardice hiding behind false humility and virtual hatred to watch a brother or sister give themselves to destructive sin, all the while sitting back and saying, “That’s his problem.”
Aren’t we glad this is not how God responds to us? Discipline is His idea in the first place, and it’s driven by His love. Hebrews 12:6, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves…” (Hebrews 12:6) Now, obviously, we can become legalistic if we point out a brother’s sin according to the wrong standard—our standards instead of God’s standards—or according to the wrong spirit. There is a way to point out a brother’s sin with the wrong spirit or the wrong attitude, which we’ll talk about.
The reality is biblical discipline is never legalistic and is always loving. If we love each other, we will not be indifferent to sin in each other’s lives. We will do everything we can to help each other avoid sin. That is love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Nothing is so cruel as the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.” God, help us to love one another. Church discipline is legalistic? No, church discipline is loving.
Keep going to Matthew 7:5.
“What about Matthew 7:1,” people ask. Well, keep going to Matthew 7:5. Yes, Jesus gives us warnings about judgment in Matthew 7:1, but when you keep you keep reading, you hear Jesus say, “Why do you see the speck [of sin] that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log [of sin] that is in your own eye? … first, take the log out of your own eye, and then…” Follow this! “…you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3, 5). The whole implication is that you need to look inward first and humbly examine your own purity, so that you can help a brother or sister become pure.
People say, “Well, it’s not my place to judge you, and it’s not your place to judge me.” But we just read in 1 Corinthians 5, church, that it is our place to judge. Look at 1 Corinthians 5:12. “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12)
We’ll see this even clearer next week in 1 Corinthians 6. We are supposed to judge one another. The question is, how? We’re going to talk about how in a moment, but suffice to say at this moment that we don’t hide behind phrases like, “It’s not my place to judge,” or, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone. So since I still sin, I can’t say anything.” Brother or sister, if you see me walking into sin, caught in sin, being pulled into sin, please don’t use super-spiritual jargon like that. Pull me back. And let God use the whole deal to sanctify you in the process, too! That’s what Matthew 7:1–5 is all about; it’s what 1 Corinthians 5 is all about.
1 Corinthians 5:1–6:11 reminds us that this is God’s church to grow, not ours.
People say, “Well, if we start talking about and implementing church discipline, members will leave.” There’s no question that based upon this text that we are looking at today and next week and its implementation in this church, there will be many people–many members–who will be tempted to leave this church. But this is where we must remind ourselves as a faith family that this is God’s church to grow, not ours.
You know, it’s interesting. I want you to hold your place in 1 Corinthians, and I want you to turn back with to Matthew 18. There are only two times in the entire book of Matthew–and actually in all four of the Gospels, only two times–when Jesus mentions the church specifically; two times. The first time the church is mentioned is in Matthew 16, when Jesus establishes the foundational confession of the church, which we’ll talk about in a minute.
Then, the second time is here in Matthew 18 when Jesus gives specific instructions to the church. I want you to hear the first and really the only specific instructions we have to the church about the church from Jesus. Listen to what He says:
“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.” (Matthew 18:15–17)
Did you see the “church” mentioned there? This is Jesus’ initial instruction to the church in the New Testament, and that initial instruction is about church discipline. That ought to jump off the pages of Scripture in front of us. This is important stuff. This is not number 100 on a list of 101 things Jesus says we should address in the church; this is at the top of the list, which means, if this is not taught and emphasized and made significant in the context of the church today, then we are missing Christ’s design for His church, and we are ignoring Christ’s commands for His church. This is not supplemental stuff we’re talking about here; this is fundamental truth. This is not an optional principle; this is essential practice. Church discipline is extremely important, and it is lamentable that we have disregarded it as not important enough to address and to deal with in the context of the church today.
Then let’s learn how to practice church discipline.
People say, “But we don’t know how to practice church discipline.” Then let’s learn how to practice church discipline. Richard Baxter wrote one of the classics on pastoral ministry in the 17th century entitled The Reformed Pastor, and he said at one point:
My second request to the ministers in these kingdoms is that they would at last, without any more delay, unanimously set themselves to the practice of those parts of church discipline which are unquestionably necessary, and part of their work. It is a sad case, that good men should settle themselves so long in the constant neglect of so great a duty. The common cry is, “Our people are not ready for it; they will not bear it.”
And then, he looked at pastors in the eye, so to speak, and he said, “But is not the fact rather that you will not bear the trouble and hatred [that church discipline] will occasion?” So together, faith family, let’s learn how to do this, and let’s do this.
What Is Church Discipline?
Do what exactly? What is church discipline? Well, let me be clear: Church discipline is not holy police on the prowl; it is not a witch hunt; it is not a selective calling out of sinners to shame them in front of everyone else in the church. No.
A Threefold Framework for Church Discipline…
This is where I want to give you a threefold framework for understanding church discipline, so that when you think of church discipline, you will think of love, and you will think of careful judgment in the church in the fear of God, and that you will think of something that is not just good for the church, but good for your life. We have to realize the framework that surrounds a passage like 1 Corinthians 5 in the Bible. We could talk about so much here, but I’ve tried to sum it up in your notes.
In order to understand church discipline rightly, we need, first and foremost, a biblical understanding of the gospel. We need a biblical understanding—follow this—of the glorious good news that God loves sinners enough to pursue them in their sin. God doesn’t sit back and let us wander into sin. He comes running after us. Praise God, He comes running after us.
He loves sinners enough to pursue them in their sin, to call them away from sin. He gives us His Word, and He gives us His Spirit to call us away from that which destroys us. God loves sinners enough to call them away from sin, to save them from their sin. By sending His Son to die on a cross in their place and then to raise Him from the dead, bring Him into heaven, and send His Spirit to all who believe in Him, and in this way to empower them to obey Him. This is the gospel.
Some of you are here today, and you’re not a Christian, and if you thought Christians were weird and kind of scary before you got here, you’re really thinking that now. You’re thinking, “There’s no chance I’m becoming a Christian, and I’m certainly not joining The Church at Brook Hills to have thousands of people correcting me in my sin.” If that’s you, I invite you to consider this. Consider that you and I and every single one of us in this room has sin in our lives that separates us from God, sin that we will one day be accountable to God for, sin that, ultimately, on that day will warrant eternal separation from God.
But God, in His love, has not left us alone in our sin. Instead, He loves us; He loves you and me so much that He has pursued us. He has sent His only Son, Jesus, to pay the price for our sin in our place, and Jesus has risen from the dead in victory over sin, so that, through faith in Him, through trust in His love, you and I can be saved from our sin now—so that you don’t have to live in sin now, so that you can be restored to God now—and forever.
In light of this glorious reality, I want to invite you, if you have never turned from your sin and yourself and trusted in Jesus as your Savior and your Lord, then I invite you to do that today. I invite you to put your faith in the God who loves you, who has pursued you–even by bringing you to this place to hear this good news at this moment–who at this moment is calling you away from sin, is offering to save you from your sin, and to enable you to live the life He has created you to live. I invite you to do that in your heart. There’s a place on the back of the tab in your Worship Guide where you can indicate that: “Today, for the first time, I am turning from my sin and self, and I am trusting in Jesus as Savior and Lord.”
When you do that, all who have done that, all who have turned from their sin and trusted in Christ, the God who has pursued you never stops pursuing you. The God who has called you away from sin continues to call you away from sin. The God who has saved you from sin has not just saved you from its penalty in eternity, but He’s saved you from its power on earth, and He has put His Spirit in you to enable you to obey Him. So see church discipline in light of a biblical understanding of the gospel.
Then, see church discipline in light of a biblical understanding of a Christian. Think about what it means to become a Christian, what we just talked about. To become a follower of Christ is to confess, “I’m a sinner, and I need Jesus to save me from my sin, so by His grace I am turning from my sin and trusting Him as my Savior. I want to follow Him as my Lord.” Once this happens, once we become followers of Christ, we then live a life of following Christ. Not just turning from sin at one point in our lives, but turning from sin every day of our lives. The more we live, the more we want to become like Christ, to grow into the image of Christ.
Now, obviously, no Christian is perfect in that. Every Christian still struggles with sin. When we sin, we experience conviction from Christ, who calls us back to Himself and to obedience to His Word. This is what it means to be a Christian, so think about this: To be a disciple of Christ is to invite discipline from Christ. Every true disciple of Christ wants to be transformed more into the image of Christ and wants to be pulled back to Christ whenever
he or she wanders into sin. In this way, discipline is a central part of every disciple’s life.
So discipline makes sense in light of a biblical understanding of the gospel, a biblical understanding of the Christian, and discipline makes sense in light of a biblical understanding of the church. Follow this. Biblically, the church is Christ’s chosen instrument for declaring who belongs to Christ and overseeing those who believe in Christ.
This is the whole point of Matthew 16. Turn back there with me real quick. This is a passage we studied together a little over a year ago when we were walking through the book of Matthew. Remember this is the first time Jesus mentions the church in the book of Matthew, and it comes in the middle of a conversation Jesus was having with His disciples about who people said He was. In that conversation, Peter made his famous confession of faith. In verse 16, he says to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) Then, listen to what Jesus says to him right after this in verse 17. “Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…’” There it is, the mention of “church”. “‘…and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’” (Matthew 16:17–18) Listen to this. Jesus says, “‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’” (Matthew 16:19)
When we studied this passage last year, we saw Jesus is building His church on this foundational confession of His Lordship, and He’s telling His church that they have authority to declare people forgiven by God or not forgiven by God based upon people’s confession (or lack of confession) of faith in Christ. As the church, we say to people in this world, “If you turn from your sin and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, you are free from sin, loosed from sin’s penalty forever,” and we say this with the authority of Christ. At the same time, as the church, with the authority of Christ, we say to people in the world, “If you do not turn from your sin and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, you will spend eternity bound to your sin and its payment in hell.” This is what we do as the church.
We say to people who make this confession, to people who confess Christ as Lord, “You are the church. Based upon your confession, you belong to Christ.” That’s what I mean when I say that, biblically, the church declares who belongs to Christ. An individual doesn’t just say, “I’m now a Christian, and I represent Christ to the world.” No, the church says that about a Christian. The church declares, “This person is a follower of Christ.” And the church doesn’t just declare that but takes responsibility for overseeing and caring for that person’s spiritual life.
This is part of what’s happening in baptism. Baptism is an individual saying, “I am a follower of Christ” and giving testimony to that, and us as a church saying, “Yes, we affirm that testimony in your life.” This is why, before anyone becomes a member of this church, they sit down with a deacon or elder in this church, and they share their story of how they have come to faith in Christ. Because we are saying, based on Scripture, that “As best as we can tell, any and every member of this church is a follower of Christ.”
This is why, when you get to Matthew 18, where Jesus talks about church discipline, and He says that, when someone in the church refuses to repent of sin, refuses to turn from their sin, then the church is no longer able to say, “This person is a Christian.” Because from all the church can tell, this person does not understand the gospel, is not a disciple of Christ inviting discipline from Christ, and therefore should be removed from the church as treated as a non-Christian.
I cannot emphasize just how big this is. Biblically, the church has the God-given authority and responsibility to declare who is a follower of Christ and who is not, and it is based on this authority that a church like ours might come to the point where we would say, “We can no longer declare that this person is a Christian, and so this person is removed from the church altogether.”
Do you see this? Put it all together: The gospel, the very essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and the huge responsibility and authority entrusted to the church. Based on a biblical understanding of all these things, church discipline is non-negotiable. It’s essential. To not do church discipline is to miss the gospel, to miss what it means to be a Christian, and to miss what it means to be the church in the first place. This is a threefold framework for understanding church discipline.
Two Facets of Church Discipline…
Based on this then, in the church, biblically, we see two facets of church discipline, both of which are extremely important. First, in the Bible, we see formative church discipline, which is the term I’ll use to describe the continual training that believers receive from God’s Word in the church as their lives are transformed into Christlikeness. Think 2 Timothy 3:16 here. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16)
This is the kind of training and discipline that we receive on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis as we read and study God’s Word in the church. Every time we open the Bible, we are experiencing discipline like this. Every time we teach one another the Bible, whether it’s in here or in a small group, we are experiencing discipline like this. We’re being confronted with ways we need to grow, our minds are being transformed, our desires are being changed, and our will is being surrendered more and more to God’s Word.
In this way, everything we do in the church is a part of formative discipline, forming us as disciples of Jesus. This is so key. When we think about discipline, let’s not think just about removing members from the church. Let’s think also about the continual encouragement and exhortation and teaching and training we are receiving as followers of Christ every week.
So, first, there is formative church discipline, and then second, there is restorative church discipline. This is what Matthew 18 as well as 1 Corinthians 5 are specifically addressing: The corrective care taken by the church in matters of unrepentant sin in a brother or sister’s life. The key term here is “unrepentant sin.”
What we’re talking about here is not just whenever somebody sins, they should be brought before the church or removed from the church. That’s not restorative church discipline. No, we’re talking here about when a brother or sister is walking in sin, not turning from it, and when they are confronted in love by a brother or sister, and then eventually multiple brothers and sisters, and that person continues to walk in that sin, refusing to repent, then there eventually comes a point, because of continued, willful, unrepentant sin, when the entire church becomes involved, even to the point of potentially removing that person from the church.
Now, the reason I want to point out both of these facets of church discipline is because I want us to realize that 95% of church discipline involves the first facet, formative church discipline. So when you think about church discipline, think that; think about brothers and sisters who are helping one another every week to turn from sin and follow Christ faithfully. This is what we do as a church. As we do that, there does come a time for corrective church discipline, the rare–hopefully rare–instances when a brother or sister continues in clear unrepentant sin.
One Foundation for Church Discipline…
A threefold framework, two facets, and one foundation for church discipline–undergirding all of this–don’t miss this–undergirding all of this is the grace of God. Come back to Matthew 18 for a minute here. We don’t have time to study the entire context of this chapter, but if you just look at the general headings around this chapter, you’ll see that Jesus’ teaching on discipline is couched in a conversation about God’s care for His children, God’s loving pursuit of His children, and God’s willingness to forgive His children whenever they sin against Him. This is how discipline must be carried out in the church—with care, with loving pursuit, and with a willingness to forgive a brother or sister, regardless of what he or she has done, when he or she repents.
Bonhoeffer said, “The purpose of discipline is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of men [and women] who really live under the forgiving mercy of God. Discipline in a congregation is a servant of the precious grace of God.” God is a gracious Father who seeks after his wandering children, and we reflect His grace maybe most clearly when we care for brothers and sisters who are caught in unrepentant sin.
How Do We Practice Church Discipline?
So then how do we practice church discipline? This is where a comparison between Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 can be somewhat confusing. In Matthew 18, Jesus outlines a process for corrective church discipline, but in 1 Corinthians 5, there doesn’t seem to be any process at all. Paul just says, “Purge the evil person from among you.” No questions asked.
I think any confusion can be cleared up pretty easily, for it certainly seems that when we get to 1 Corinthians 5, we are coming in on a process that has likely been playing out over time. The problem in Corinth is that there is a member of the church who is sleeping with his step-mom, and this is something that’s been going on. This is not just a one-night stand followed by brokenhearted repentance (not that that is not serious). The picture here is a man who “has his father’s wife,” and the tense there is present, indicating an ongoing activity. This is not talking about a brother in the church who is hungering and thirsting for righteousness, yet battling with sin. No, this is talking about an ongoing settledness in unrepentant sin that is already known throughout the church.
In this sense, 1 Corinthians 5 is simply picking up where the process in Matthew 18 ends. Think about it. We just read Matthew 18:15–17, and Jesus outlined, in essence, a four-step process for corrective church discipline, and I put it in your notes here.
Step One: Private Correction
Step one: Private correction. Notice that the goal in this process is to keep the circle as small as possible as long as possible. “Don’t talk about another person’s sin with other people,” Jesus says. “Go to him or her. When a brother either sins directly against you and has not come to you in repentance, or if a brother is caught in sin and is not turning from it, then love him enough to go to him.” Private correction.
Go to him in a spirit of love and humility and grace in such a way that hopefully, when he sees his sin, he will say, “Yes, I need to turn from it,” and by the grace of God, he will, and your communion in Christ will be even that much deeper. There is no question. The people I am most thankful for in Christ are the people who love me enough to do this in my life, and when they do, I pray that I respond in humble repentance.
Step Two: Small Group Clarification
But if I don’t, and if someone in the church doesn’t, Jesus says, “…take one or two others along…” (Matthew 18:16) Step two: Small group clarification. Jesus quotes here from the way things were handled in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 19:15, where others are witnesses to the truth of something. The picture here is to involve another believer, maybe two. Again, the circle stays really small here. Ideally, these other believers know that brother or sister well and care for them, and hopefully that person will see their sin and repent.
Step Three: Church Admonition
“But,” Jesus says, “if they don’t, if a brother refuses to listen to a smaller group in the church, then,” Jesus says, “…tell it to the church.” (Matthew 18:17) Step three: Church admonition. This is where the circle clearly grows to the gathering of believers in a local church.
Now that brings up all kinds of questions. How do you get there and what does that look like? We’re going to talk about some practical things here next week. Our elders have been praying and working through what that looks like, but let’s just see what Jesus is saying here because this is the part that probably sticks out most to me in this passage.
Remember, the goal here at every step is to restore a brother, to draw a brother back to Christ. I’ve thought before, “Why tell the whole church about this brother and his sin?” The answer is so that now, the entire church together comes together to say to that brother, “We love you, and we want you to come back to Christ.” Again, don’t see this as legalistic; see this as loving! Brother or sister, God loves you so much that if you are caught in sin, He will send an entire body of believers to you in demonstration of His love and mercy and grace to bring you back to Him.
Step Four: Church Excommunication
But then, if he refuses to listen even to the church, then step four is church excommunication. “Treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17, NIV). As we talked about, treat him like he is no longer your brother in Christ. He is excommunicated, removed from the church. That doesn’t mean to stop loving him or to stop praying for his restoration, but the church’s fundamental relationship with that person changes, as is evident from Paul’s instruction not to associate or even to eat with that man.
Now, again, we’re going to talk more next week about some of the practical “how-to’s” in this, but see very simply and significantly at this point: This is not an option. This is a command from Jesus, and to not carry this out in the church is to sin. Any church that doesn’t discipline like this when necessary is sinning against Christ, and this is why we see Paul commanding the church at Corinth to purge a member from their midst.
Why Do We Practice Church Discipline?
So come back to 1 Corinthians 5 now with these huge foundations laid out, and I want you to see why we do this as the church, why we practice church discipline, even to the point of excommunicating or removing someone from the church.
For the salvation of the individual.
Why do we practice church discipline like this? In the passage we just read, Paul gives three primary reasons. One, we do this for the salvation of the individual. Look at verses 4–5. Paul says, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan…” Why? “…for the destruction of the flesh, so that…” Purpose clause; here’s the purpose. “…his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:4–5) Now, there’s a variety of debate over some of these phrases. What exactly does it mean to hand him over to Satan? And then what does it mean for the flesh to be destroyed? Amidst the confusion, as you keep going, the point becomes clear. Paul says the church is to do this so that this man’s spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. You do this, ultimately, for this man’s salvation, for this man’s eternal good. To remove him from the church and cast him into the world where Satan is the “ruler of the world,” so to speak, is a good thing.
Now that begs the question, “How? How can that be a good thing?” Here’s how: Because in the world, God is sovereign, even over Satan, and the hope is that God will use even Satan to show this man the consequences of his sin and draw him back to God.
There’s biblical precedent for this. Let me show you three examples really quick. One is Job. In Job’s life, did God use Satan for Job’s good? Absolutely. God used Satan to bring Job to the point where Job said, “My eye has seen [the Lord]; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5–6) God used Satan for Job’s good.
The next example is in Paul’s subsequent letter to the church at Corinth in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. Paul talks about a thorn in his flesh, literally a messenger of Satan. He says, “Please remove this.” And God says, “No. I’m using this messenger of Satan, this thorn in your flesh, to bring you to a greater trust in me.” God uses Satan to strengthen Paul’s faith.
Then, a third example—this one pertaining specifically to church discipline— is in 1 Timothy 1:20. Paul tells Timothy about Hymenaeus and Alexander, two men who had turned away from biblical truth. Paul said, “Some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander…” Then, he says, “I have handed [them] over to Satan [so] that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1 Timothy 1:19–20) Did you hear that? “I have handed [them] over to Satan [so] that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1 Timothy 1:20)
How all of this works is a bit of a mystery, but the teaching of Scripture is clear, and the point of this passage is clear: The hope is that, by being removed from the church and cast out into the world, a world that is dominated by “the evil one,” Satan, this man will see the end and the effect of his sin, and he will come back to Christ.
This happens. I was talking with a church leader just the other day who was sharing a story of a brother who had been removed from their church. He was totally unrepentant in his sin, unwilling to turn from it, cold in his heart, and he was removed from the church. A year later, this man realized, “What have I done?”, and he repented of his sin and came back to
Christ. This is the hope. “Do this,” Paul says, “so that his spirit may be saved. Do this for the salvation of the individual.”
For the purity of the church.
But not just for the salvation of the individual. Paul says, “Do this for the purity of the church”, which is what Paul addresses specifically in the next verse. In verse 6, he says, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” (1 Cor. 5:6–7) We’ll talk more next week about the imagery of the Passover here, as well as the significance of this phrase, “you really are unleavened.” At this point, just notice that the imagery is of something that seems small, penetrating and infiltrating something that’s large. A little bit of leaven in bread makes the entire loaf of bread leavened.
The same is true in the church. One man’s unrepentant sin in the church, one man’s sexual immorality was literally contaminating the entire church, and—don’t miss this—the church was responsible for that. Follow this in your notes. This is so key. The clear message of 1 Corinthians 5 is that church members are accountable for unrepentant sin in their midst. Notice that not one time in this entire passage does Paul specifically address the brother who is living in sexual immorality. Paul doesn’t say anything to him. Instead, Paul addresses the church, and he holds the church accountable for standing by and doing nothing about this brother who was caught in unrepentant sin. The primary issue that Paul is addressing in 1 Corinthians 5 is not the brother’s sin, but the church’s toleration of the brother’s sin.
Don’t miss the point of 1 Corinthians 5. Hear this, Church at Brook Hills: The church is responsible for unrepentant sin among its members. Are you catching this? Because we don’t think like this. We think about sin individualistically. “That’s his problem or that’s her business.” And that’s exactly what the church in Corinth was saying, but Paul rebukes them for it. This unrepentant sin in one brother’s life was the whole church’s business.
This is such a radically different way to think, and this is so tough, because it so goes against the grain of how we think. But this is the beauty of biblical community, Christ centered community. We belong to one another. If one brother or sister continues in sin, that doesn’t just affect him or her. It affects all of us. So in the church, we are accountable to God for one another.
Do you realize, member of The Church at Brook Hills, that you are accountable to God for the growth in holiness of the brothers and sisters sitting around you? And if they are continuing unrepentant in sin, you are accountable for addressing this. Addressing it in what way?
Well, first, Paul says, “You are accountable for mourning over unrepentant sin in the church.” Verse 2, “Ought you not rather to mourn?” (1 Cor. 5:2) The word here implies sorrow over the sins of others and confessing those sins as if they were our own with a full recognition of the judgment they deserve. The church at Corinth had become so casual, so complacent with unrepentant sin in their midst. Christian, church member, mourn over any and all unrepentant sin in the church.
One writer said, “A church that does not mourn over sin, especially sin within its own fellowship, is on the edge of spiritual disaster. When we cease to be shocked by sin, we lose a strong defense against it.” A casual approach to sin in others’ lives leads to a casual approach to sin in our lives. In the same way, a casual approach to sin in our lives leads to a casual approach to sin in others’ lives. These things feed off of each other.
So church members are accountable for mourning over unrepentant sin in the church, and then, of course, for removing unrepentant sinners from the church. Paul says, “You are accountable before God for not doing this.” We must do this, church. It couldn’t be any more clear in Scripture. We can’t say, “This is too tough for us to do in a large church.” No, we can’t afford to say that! We are accountable before God for mourning over unrepentant sin in the church and removing unrepentant sinners from the church.
Church members are accountable, and church members must be humble. Notice the sin that Paul is addressing here in the church at Corinth. It’s pride. “You are arrogant!”, verse 2. “Your boasting is not good”, verse 6. There were proud.
Now how is that so? How were they proud? Follow closely. Listen to what Paul is calling pride in 1 Corinthians 5. According to Paul, pride is toleration of unrepentant sinners in the church. It’s not necessarily that they were applauding the sexual immorality in this brother, but they were ignoring it and tolerating it in the church. They were open-minded, so to speak, and they probably looked at themselves as welcoming. “It doesn’t matter what you do; you can be a member of this church.” Paul says, “That’s pride.” It’s pride to claim that you are a church of freedom and grace while you tolerate unrepentant sinners in your midst.
The alternative, of course, is humility, the exclusion of unrepentant sinners from the church. And exclusion is the right word here. “Do not associate with him,” Paul says in verse 9. “Don’t even eat with him,” he says in verse 11.
This isn’t the only place Paul talks like this. This is not just Paul having a bad day. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6, he says to “keep away from any brother [like this].” (2 Thessalonians 3:6) 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 says, “Take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him…” (2 Thessalonians 3:14–15) 2 Timothy 3:5, “Avoid such people…” (2 Timothy 3:5) Titus 3:10 says to “have nothing more to do with him.” (Titus 3:10)
I want us to realize that this is the exact opposite of the way we think. We think the first— toleration of unrepentant sinners in the church—is humility. “Who are we point the finger, to judge, to cast the first stone?” So, it’s humility to tolerate sin in the church. And we think the second is pride. “Talk about arrogance and legalism. Who are you to cast someone out of the church? Are you holier than everybody else?”
Mark it down: As we practice church discipline and on occasions when something like this happens, this is exactly what people will say: Pride. If they were humble and gracious, they would keep them as members of the church. But the Bible says the exact opposite. Church, pride is to tolerate sin among one another like it’s no big deal. That’s pride. And you’re sinning against God, arrogant before God, in doing it. Humility is to address sin in your brother or sister’s life and to remove them from the church if necessary. Don’t miss this:
Humility does not tell God how to be gracious. Humility obeys God with fear and trembling.
Church members are accountable, church members must be humble, and church membership is essential. This is something we’ve talked about before, so we’ll just hit on it briefly here. The implications are huge for what it means to be a part or a member of the body of Christ. Most people today read this story and think, “Big deal, so the guy’s not a member of the church anymore.” But the deal is that this was huge in that day. This just shows how much we have minimized and misunderstood church membership in our day.
See what Paul is saying here about church membership. First, he’s saying that the church defines who is a member. Notice that it’s not up to this man whether or not he’s a member. It’s up to the church at Corinth, and the church at Corinth is responsible for defining who is a member. This is important because, as we’ve talked about, isolation from the church reflects separation from Christ. To be removed from the body of Christ is to be identified, not as a brother or sister anymore, but as a non-believer. In Jesus’ words, “as a pagan or tax collector”.
Do you see now why we talk all the time about becoming a member of a church and why I encourage just about every week every follower of Christ, whether here or another church, to commit your life as a member of that church? This is why. Because the New Testament knows nothing of a Christian who is not a member of a gathering of believers, a local church. It is unheard of in the New Testament to be a follower of Christ and not be committed to a local body of believers as a member of that local church. To be apart from the church is to be recognized as apart from Christ Himself. Christian, what church are you a part, a member of? What body of Christ has said of you, “Yes, that person is a follower of Christ”? What body of Christ have you submitted your life to for the oversight and care of your growth in Christ? Where is the church that is committed to pursuing you should you ever wander from Christ into the ways of this world? This is huge. Church membership is essential.
For the glory of God.
Paul says that we should do church discipline for the salvation of the individual, for the purity of the church, and ultimately for the glory of God. Notice that Paul begins this whole passage by saying, “Not even the world, not even pagans would condone what you are condoning in the church.”
Think about what they were saying about God to the world around them by their inaction in the church. They were saying that sin is not a big deal. They were saying that the God of the Bible doesn’t really change people. We need to realize that church discipline is designed by God to declare His glory to the world.
Church discipline is designed by God to make clear to the world that He is the ultimate Judge of sinners, that sin is a big deal, and continuing in sin is a dangerous way to live. One day every single one of us is going to stand before God to give an account for our sin, and He will judge us, and He will be just. Who can stand on their own in that day? Not one of us.
This is why church discipline is designed by God to show the world, not just that He is the ultimate Judge of sinners, but He is also the supreme Savior from sin. He will save all who turn from their sin and trust in Him. Not only will He save them, but He will empower them to turn from sin and to live for Him, with Him, and through Him.
We would miss the point of a message like this if it did not cause us all to stop and ask, “Is there any unrepentant sin in my life? What sin do I need to confess before God? What areas has He been calling me to obey in, yet I have continued to disobey? What things am I doing that He has called me not to do? Or what things has He called me to do that I am not doing?” I want to invite you to spend time in reflection and confession.
Why Not Church Discipline?
- “Church Discipline is legalistic.”
- Church Discipline is loving.
- “What about Matthew 7:1?”
- Keep going to Matthew 7:5.
- “People will leave.”
- This is God’s church to grow, not ours.
- “We don’t know how to practice Church Discipline.”
- Then let’s learn how to practice Church Discipline…
What is Church Discipline?
- A Threefold Framework for Church Discipline…
- A biblical understanding of the gospel…
- God loves sinners enough to pursue them in their sin, call them away from sin, save them from their sin, and empower them to obey Him.
- A biblical understanding of a Christian…
- To be a disciple of Christ is to invite discipline from Christ.
- A biblical understanding of the church…
- ■ The church is Christ’s chosen instrument for declaring who belongs to Christ and overseeing those who believe in Christ.
- Two Facets of Church Discipline…
- Formative Church Discipline:
- Continual training believers receive from God’s Word in the church as their lives are transformed into Christlikeness.
- Restorative Church Discipline:
- Corrective care taken by the churches in matters of unrepentant sin in a brother or sister’s life.
- Formative Church Discipline:
- One Foundation for Church Discipline…
- The grace of God.
How Do We Practice Church Discipline?
- Step One: Private Correction
- Step Two: Small Group Clarification
- Step Three: Church Admonition
- Step Four: Church Excommunication
Why Do We Practice Church Discipline?
- For the salvation of the individual.
- For the purity of the church.
- Church members are accountable…
- For mourning over unrepentant sin in the church
- Church members must be humble…
- Pride: Toleration of unrepentant sinners in the church
- Humility: Exclusion of unrepentant sinners from the church.
- Church membership is essential…
- The church defines who is a member Isolation from the church reflects separation from Christ.
- For the glory of God.
- He is the ultimate Judge of sinners.
- He is the supreme Savior from sin.