What is church discipline? In broad terms, church discipline is one part of the discipleship process, the part where we correct sin and point the disciple toward the better path. To be discipled is, among other things, to be disciplined. And a Christian is disciplined through instruction and correction, as in a math class where the teacher teaches the lesson and then corrects the students' errors.
It's for this reason that there's a centuries-old practice of referring to both formative discipline and corrective discipline. Formative discipline helps to form the disciple through instruction. Corrective discipline helps to correct the disciple through correcting sin. This book focuses on corrective discipline, but teaching and correction always work together. That's the nature of discipleship.
In more specific and formal terms, church discipline is the act of removing an individual from membership in the church and participation in the Lord's Table. It's not an act of forbidding an individual from attending the church's public gatherings. It is the church's public statement that it can no longer affirm the person's profession of faith by calling him or her a Christian. It's a refusal to give a person the Lord's Supper. It's excommunicating, or ex-communion-ing, the person.
To be clear, then, I will treat these terms synonymously: "to excommunicate" is "to exclude from fellowship," which is to "remove from the Lord's Table," which is "to formally discipline." Some people treat one or two of these things as different stages in the process; I do not.
Many texts in the New Testament point to the practice of church discipline. The most well known is probably from Matthew's Gospel. Jesus says,
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that "every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matt. 18:15-17, NIV)
On the surface, Jesus appears to have two concerns: first, that the sinner repents; second, that the number of people involved remain as small as necessary for producing repentance. Beneath these concerns is the deeper conviction that the church should look different than the world—Christians are not to live like pagans or tax collectors. Matthew's Jewish audience would have understood "pagan" to represent those who were outside the covenant community and "tax collector" to represent those who had betrayed the covenant community (and were therefore also outside the community). Church members should live differently than the world. And if, after a series of gracious warnings, they don't, a church should exclude them from its fellowship.
The sin described here is an interpersonal one: "against you." Yet I believe we often overemphasize the significance of this detail. The issue here is whether the individual is repentant and to be treated as a brother or sister in Christ. The larger point in these verses is that local churches have the authority to assess professions of faith and to act accordingly: "if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask" (Matt. 18:19). In other words, churches can employ the process of church discipline described in verses 15 to 17 to sins more broadly.
In short, Jesus means for churches to play a judicial function. He draws the language about "two or three witnesses" from Deuteronomy 19, a passage where Moses laid out rules of procedure for judging criminal cases. When faced with people who claim to represent Jesus with their lips but who live contrariwise, churches must carefully weigh the evidence and render judgment. "Is this a valid gospel profession? Is this a true gospel professor? What does the evidence suggest?"
The apostle Paul also invokes church discipline in a number of places:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. (Gal. 6:1)
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. (Eph. 5:11)
Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. (Titus 3:10, NIV)
If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thess. 3:14-15)
John encourages something like preemptive discipline by not letting someone participate in the fellowship of the church in the first place:
Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting. (2 John 9-10)
Peter also presents us with a clear example of preemptive discipline (Acts 8:17-24).
One last famous passage on church discipline is 1 Corinthians 5. Paul lays out the sin and his reaction to it in the first few verses of the chapter:
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. (1 Cor. 5:1-3)
What's striking about Paul's counsel is how it both overlaps and does not overlap with Jesus's counsel in Matthew 18. Like Jesus, Paul encourages the church to play a judicial function. He even uses the words "judgment" or "judge" several times (1 Cor. 5:3, 12-13). Like Jesus, Paul is addressing a scenario where someone professing the name of Jesus could be removed from the church body. Unlike Jesus, however, Paul does not tell the church to warn the man and call him to repentance, like Jesus advises in Matthew 18. He simply tells the church to remove him—no questions asked. We'll discuss the rationale for this in chapter 3.
In the ensuing verses, Paul more carefully describes what this act of discipline should look like:
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. (1 Cor. 5:4-5)
To hand the man over to Satan is to treat him, in Jesus's words, like a pagan or tax collector; it's to treat him as someone who no longer belongs to the covenant community. The church, after all, is an outpost of the kingdom of God. Everyone who does not belong to the kingdom of God, therefore, belongs to the kingdom of Satan. Satan is the prince of this world, and the kingdoms of the world temporarily belong to him (John 12:31; 14:30; Matt. 4:8-9).
Paul next observes that failing to remove the man from the church puts the whole church at risk:
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. (1 Cor. 5:6-11)
In the final verses of the chapter, Paul reiterates the fact that the church has a judicial role to play in this man's life: "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'" (vv. 12-13).