Why is it so important that we teach and practice church discipline? How should we practice church discipline? This article looks at Matthew 18:15-17 to answer these questions.

2013. 10 pages.

Church Discipline Marks of a Healthy Church 11

(Transcription of audio file started at 01:09 and stopped at 41:17.

Headings added by Christian Library.)

Reading of Matthew 18:15-17.

Today I would like to answer two questions. First of all: Why preach on church discipline? Secondly: How should we practice church discipline?

Why Preach on Church Discipline?🔗

Let’s answer that first question. It is not exactly the most inspiring, devotional of subjects. It is not the kind of thing to gather a crowd or inspire. And yet we must preach on it. I want to give you a number of reasons for that.

The Bible Teaches It🔗

Firstly, because the Bible teaches it. Church discipline is not something that was thought up by a bunch of legalistic ecclesiastics with a measure of “control freak-ery.” Rather, it was ordained by the Lord. In fact, here in this passage it is the Lord Jesus Himself who gives us the template for it. Therefore, it should be received as an expression of His love and an expression of His care for His Church and for His people. If He gave us it, it must be a good thing. The reformers recognized how important this was as they sought to restore biblical order to the Church. In fact, they saw it as one of the three marks of a true Church: Along with the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments was thirdly Church discipline. And they said that without Church discipline, you lose the other two marks eventually as well. So we preach on this because it is in the Bible.

Order Is Necessary🔗

Because every human organization and every gathering of human beings anywhere needs some kind of order. We know what happens when there isn’t any order, rule or accountability in our families, in our businesses, in our sports clubs, etc. Everything just disintegrates. I was talking to somebody who is very expert in American Football. We were talking about the success of Michigan State in the past week, and this coach said that the key reason that turned this team around and made them such a success was discipline. They had all the talent and all the strength for years, but what made the difference was discipline. So for every family, every gathering of human beings and every church, we need an order to make us function well and to make us strong. One of the books of church order says this:

Any institution or society which is to function effectively must be well ordered: it must have recognized means of correcting aberrations which threaten its integrity. This is true pre-eminently of the Church of Jesus Christ whose witness in the world depends so intimately on the godly behaviour of its members.

Free Church of Scotland Church Order, 5.1

It Has Many Blessings🔗

That touches really on the third reason why we must preach and teach on this subject: Because it has many benefits/blessings. That quote said that the witness of the church in the world “depends so intimately on the godly behaviour of its members.” Without the members of a church living consistently and clearly in accord with God’s Word, then people looking on will just think we are a rabble, disorganized, chaotic, without any kind of standards or belief or practice. Church discipline helps to give a steady, consistent, clear witness by giving steady, clear standards of belief and conduct for its members to adhere to.

God’s reputation also depends upon the order and the life of the Church’s members. In 1 Timothy 5:20, we are told church discipline should be administered so “that others also may fear.” That is another one of its benefits. It has a preventative effect. When people see the Church exercising discipline in accordance with God’s Word without respect of persons, then it has a salutary effect upon us all. It makes us say, “Well, I do not want to be subject that. I do not want to be so shamed rightly. So let me live more holy. Let me avoid anything that would bring me into this situation.”

Another benefit is it prevents God’s judgment. There are other instances in the Bible. For example, the whole book of 1 Corinthians was written to a church that, because they were not exercising church discipline, was being chastised, not just with sickness amongst its members, but death even.

So there are many benefits of church discipline. Again, one of the books of church order says this:

Church discipline and censures…are of great use and necessity in the Church, that the name of God, by reason of ungodly and wicked persons living in the Church, be not blasphemed, nor His wrath provoked against His people, that the godly be not leavened with, but preserved from the contagion, and stricken with fear, and that sinners who are to be censured may be ashamed, to the destruction of the flesh, and saving of the spirit in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 1638-1842, 1843.

So there are many benefits to church discipline.

Failure to Exercise It Is Damaging🔗

Fourthly, because failure to exercise church discipline, or a failure to exercise it properly, has such damaging consequences on the church and upon its members. I am sure anyone who has been in a church for any length of time has seen or heard or experienced themselves bad church discipline – a failure to discipline sin, or else a failure to do it well and to make such a mess of it. Even one case like that can destroy a minister, can destroy elders, and can destroy a whole church. In fact, in Scotland a case of discipline that went undisciplined for more than ten years eventually resulted in a whole federation of over a hundred churches being smashed to smithereens in the year 2000. Failure to discipline, or the failure to do it well, has such drastic consequences. As we saw in 1 Corinthians 11: People were sick, even dying. In Revelation 2, the Lord put His frown upon the church of Thyatira because they were not disciplining those who were sinning in their midst.

We need to preach on this so that those who are called to administer it – the consistory and elders – do it, and learn how to do it well, and so that those who are subject to it know how they will be dealt with, know the procedures and do not feel that they are being unjustly or unfairly dealt with.

We Can Prevent It🔗

Fifthly, we preach on this because it can prevent church discipline. There are many things that can prevent church discipline having to take place. Faithful preaching that sets forth clear standards of what people are to confess they believe, and their standards of Christian character and conduct, should have a preventative effect over a period of time, so that we are prevented from falling into sin that will make some kind of discipline necessary. We also prevent church discipline hopefully by pastoral visitation – the elders and the pastor visiting the flock. You hopefully pick up warning signs before it is too late and give corrective instruction or guidance or warning so that sin is nipped in the bud.

But we can prevent church discipline too hopefully by teaching and preaching on church discipline. And that is one of the reasons I wanted to do it early in my own ministry here, before a case does arise and then it becomes very difficult to teach and preach on it, because everyone thinks you are talking about "him" or "her" or "them." So we can do this early without personalizing it and it can be tackled objectively. And hopefully in doing so, again, it will set a marker that will prevent us falling into the kinds of sins that would bring church discipline upon us.

The Goal of Restoration🔗

Lastly, we do this because it has such a positive aim. The ultimate aim of church discipline is not to punish but to restore. Just as all chastisement within a family. No mother or father chastises their child just to inflict pain and humiliation. Not at all! The object is to recover them and to bring them back to right conduct and right speech. And so it is with church discipline. The great aim of it is restoration.

Some of you will have heard of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the Scottish preacher associated very much with preaching of the love of Christ. He was a man with a very tender heart, renowned for his evangelistic zeal and compassion for the lost. He speaks in one of his letters about church discipline. He came to value it despite his initial reluctance to exercise it when he came into his church in Dundee. He said this to his congregation:

When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great and almost only work was to pray and preach. I saw your souls to be so precious, and the time so short, that I devoted all my time, and care, and strength, to labour in word and doctrine. When cases of discipline were brought before me and the elders, I regarded them with something like abhorrence. It was a duty I shrank from; and I may truly say it nearly drove me from the work of the ministry among you altogether. But it pleased God, who teaches His servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke in upon my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline. I now feel very deeply persuaded that both are of God – that two keys are committed to us by Christ: the one the key of doctrine, by means of which we unlock the treasures of the Bible; the other the key of discipline, by which we open or shut the way to the sealing ordinances of the faith. Both are Christ’s gift, and neither is to be resigned without sin.

Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 1892, p. 73

This is put quite well for us in Lord’s Day 31 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

A. The preaching of the holy gospel, and Christian discipline, or excommunication out of the Christian church; by these two, the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers, and shut against unbelievers.

Q. How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline?

A. Thus: when according to the command of Christ, those, who under the name of Christians, maintain doctrines, or practices inconsistent therewith, and will not, after having been often brotherly admonished, renounce their errors and wicked course of life, are complained of to the church, or to those, who are thereunto appointed by the church; and if they despise their admonition, are by them forbidden the use of the sacraments; whereby they are excluded from the Christian church, and by God himself from the kingdom of Christ; and when they promise and show real amendment, are again received as members of Christ and his church. 

Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 83, 85.

So even there you can see that the Catechism brings before us many reasons why we should believe in church discipline and exercise it (if that is the office we are called into) and be subject to it if we are members of the Church of Christ. I think we all surely have at least some of Murray M’Cheyne’s reserve and reluctance. Who really wants to be involved in church discipline? You cannot help but be suspect of somebody who is enthusiastic about it. And yet, as I hope I have shown, there are many reasons to value it and use this precious key. That is why we preach on it.

How to Practice Church Discipline🔗

Secondly, I would like to focus on: How do we practice it? I want to focus more on the spirit with which we want to exercise church discipline rather than the intricate mechanics of it. What kind of manner should we have in doing this?

Love🔗

Firstly, we must do it with great love. That really is the biblical context for Christ’s teaching in Matthew 18:15ff. You will notice that Matthew 18:1-10 are full of Christ’s concern for His little ones. That phrase comes up again and again: His children and His little ones. He is very concerned that these little ones be cared for and loved and protected and not made to stumble or fall. You see that, for example, in verse 6:

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Matthew 18:6, KJV.

So verses 1-10 speak about Christ’s love for His little ones.

Then in Matthew 18:11-14 we see Christ’s love for the lost, wandering sheep. He says in verse 11: “The Son of man is come to save that which was lost.” He tells that summary of His parable of the shepherd leaving the 99 and going after the one that was lost, concluding in verse 14: “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”

So we have here Christ’s great love for His Church being the foundation of this teaching about Christian church discipline. That is what this is all built upon. That is the kind of spirit with which we approach it. Love for the little ones. Love for the lost sheep. Therefore, we are to go about this without a loving motive and a loving manner. We are motivated by love – by a love for the little ones, a love for the lost sheep, a love for the wandering, and a love for the injured. And we also have love in our manner, that we say the right thing, at the right time, in the right place and in the right spirit. And if we truly are motivated by love, we will have that great concern: Am I saying the right thing? But that is not enough. Am I saying it in the right spirit? And that is not enough either. Am I saying it at the right time? More. Have I chosen the right place in which to do this?

When we look at the love of Christ contextualizing this, we will want to reflect His great love for His little ones and for His sheep in the exercise of church discipline. That is what introduces these words in verse 14: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee.”

Carefulness🔗

Secondly, we need great carefulness. This is a very solemn matter. As it is described here, it is one of the keys of the kingdom. Verse 18 speaks of what you shall bind on earth “shall be bound in heaven.” The Catechism also speaks of this being a key of the kingdom. That means we need great care that church discipline only [deals] with what the Bible calls sin. Not what we call sin, not what we do not like, not our preferences and prejudices, but what the Bible calls sin. This is our rule book. This is our law book. We must make sure that we are not disciplining what is not forbidden or commanded by the Word of God.

(Transcription of audio file from 22:18 to 22:33 omitted.)

We must also be careful that we follow the three step process laid out in these verses. This process begins, first of all, in private. “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone” (Matthew 18:15). Alone is the great emphasis here. Privacy is the great emphasis here. Go as secretly and as privately as you can. And you have to do it, not give somebody else the bullet to fire, as it were. But you do it. If your brother has sinned against you, go, tell him his fault, between him and you alone. “If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother” (Matthew 18:15). That is the great outcome of it, isn’t it?

It would be wonderful if that is what happened every time we saw a brother or sister sinning, and we went and said, “Dear friend, I am just really worried about you. I am concerned the Bible says this, and just looking at your life and your conduct, I am worried where you are going. Do you understand that you are out of line with God’s Word?” and for somebody to say, “Well, I have never thought about that,” or “It is just weakness,” or “I have sinned and I am grateful to you for coming.” Wouldn’t that be just wonderful? That is the great aim! To gain your brother, because you are losing him insofar as he/she keeps sinning. They are going lost, and we want to gain back. If anyone ever comes to you in this way, in this spirit, in accordance with this pattern, please try and believe that their motive is to gain you and to restore friendship and fellowship in the gospel. It is not to attack you. It is not just to criticize you. It is to gain you. Step one is privacy.

Then there is a second step. Verse 16: “But if he will not hear thee.” If you have tried this and you get nowhere, this person rejects your critique or he does not acknowledge his sin and he says, “I do not car what you say,” you cannot just walk away saying, “Well, I have tried my best. It is up to him.” No, we have to go further in love. “Then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (verse 16). Maybe you bring another friend, an elder, or maybe the minister along and speak to them in the same serious, solemn and sober tones, again, hoping and praying that he will hear and return.

Then the third step. Verse 17 really holds out a terrifying prospect that even after step one of privacy and step two with another witness, he refuses still to hear you. Then you are obliged to take it to a third level, and that is to tell it to the church. You have to take it to the elders and it has to be dealt with formally and officially. We hope and pray if that ever happens to any of us that then we would hear, then we would repent.

And yet here we are warned that that may not be the outcome. He may even neglect to hear the church. And if so, it says, “Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican” (verse 17). It is not saying to treat him as a devil, but you have to treat him as an unconverted man or woman. As somebody that needs to be evangelized. Somebody that needs to hear the gospel and believe it and repent again. It does not mean you just shun them and forget about them altogether, but we are to see them as in great danger, great spiritual peril, and to seek to win them back even then. The church may, of course, use various sanctions at that stage from basic rebuke, to admonishment, to lesser excommunication, all the way to excommunicating a person from church privileges – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

So we have to use great care in addressing sin and in following this three step process. If we do so, then hopefully as these steps are processed the person who is accused and who has done the sinning is feeling the increasing weight of this. They might be able to dismiss you; he might think, “Oh, that’s just him.” But when you come with somebody else, maybe with an elder, that is weightier and more serious than he thought. If he dismisses that, then the weight of the church and the name of Christ is involved. The hope is that as the weight of this grows and the seriousness of this is more impressed upon this person, eventually they will break and they will repent. They will say sorry. They will confess.

So great care is required, and we must follow these steps. It is very tempting when we see somebody who sins to send him straight to the elders or straight to the minister, but that is not the way to go. The Bible is very clear. And it is this way in order to prevent frivolous and trivial things coming to the church, so that these things are dealt with on a lower level first of all, filtered out, and hopefully getting to the stage of the church dealing with it becomes unnecessary. So let’s not shortcut this. Let’s not override this. Let’s not think we know a better way. This is Christ’s way. This is the cut of Christ’s key, as it were. Use this way with His blessing. It can have this great effect of bringing even a great sinner back to experience great grace – the grace of Christ. So we need great carefulness.

Courage🔗

Thirdly, we need great courage. Who really wants to be involved in this process? You get the odd person who really loves to go and poke someone in the eye, pointing out their faults. You get the odd person like that, but the vast majority of us do not find great pleasure in that. We probably shirk from it. Even with our children at times we just would rather avoid the confrontation. Some of us maybe have more of that tendency than others. Therefore, we need to be encouraged. We need courage to be put into us, so that we do not just ignore things or leave it to others or hope it goes away, but that we do obey this passage.

One of the reasons that we are put off doing it is because of the toll it takes on us. Anyone who has ever been involved in church discipline knows the incredible toll it takes upon people emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically. It is stressful. It is painful. Again, you just say, “I will just close my eyes and ears and pretend it is not there.” You want to try and avoid it. Maybe others avoid it because they think, “Well, we are friends! We are brothers and sisters.” We do not want to fall out. We want to preserve relationships. We are maybe afraid of the impact and the consequences. “If I deal with him, then the family will be all upset, and then maybe the extended family.” You think of all the possible fall out.

So there are so many rationales that we can think through to put us off this. And that is why we need great courage. Great courage to face sin. Great courage to do something about it. Great courage to do something about it in the right way, and to persevere through the stress and leave the consequences to God. If church discipline is a key and preaching is a key, we would not dream of putting down the key of preaching and discarding it and saying, “Well, we can just do without that!” Then let’s not do it with the other key either! We need great courage.

Humility🔗

Fourthly, we need great humility. The apostle Paul has so much to say about church discipline in so many of his letters. In the book of Galatians he says this:

Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

Galatians 6:1, KJV.

He is basically saying: You have no right to discipline anybody unless you realize your own temptability in this area too. “Considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” That is what meekness is about. It is saying, “Nothing is beyond me. Who knows whether I would end up in the same circumstances as this brother/sister given all that they have faced in their lives? I know where I would end up if God took away His preserving Holy Spirit in any degree.” So when we see someone sinning, then we want to aim at restoration, and we want to do it as in a humble, meek spirit, realizing that if we do not, then it is very likely we will fall into the same sin too.

He is really saying those who administer church discipline: Learn spiritual lessons from this. Learn about your own vulnerability, your own weakness and your own tendencies. Do not look down on this brother or this sister. Just say, “But for God’s grace, that is me as well…and worse!” We need great humility. If we go into this proudly, condemningly, self-righteously, it just will not bear fruit, because that just puts up people’s defences, it makes them aggressive and it makes them attack back. And then we are in a terrible situation

.

Wisdom🔗

Fifthly, we need great wisdom. I am sure as you have hear this being unfolded here you surely cry out, “Who is sufficient for these things?” And really, none of us are. But God has promised in James 1:5: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”

The church discipline cases I have been involved in have been horrendously complicated and messy, full of denials, excuses, counter-accusations, all sorts of defences and questioning of evidence. It has just been really ugly and messy. I am sure there have been and can be instances of church discipline that go very straight forwardly, but I have not been involved in any myself. After you have been through one or two of these, you realize you just do not have the wisdom and you just do not have the insight in yourself. You need to ask of the Lord. And this is something the congregation needs to ask for for the elders, so that when they do have to do this they are doing it with the wisdom that comes from above. [Ask] that God would give them insight to be able to discern between truth and lies, between good and evil and between what is just and unjust. At every step of the way, this needs great wisdom if it is going to work out as laid out here in Matthew 18.

Prayer🔗

It needs great prayer. We have touched on this already, but the context here is interesting as well. After He has laid this out for us, He speaks in verse 18 of binding in heaven what is bound on earth. Christ is basically saying, “When the church acts in my name in the right way, it is as if I have done it myself. If you bind someone on earth – if you discipline somebody on earth, for the right reasons in the right way and get to the right outcome – then heaven puts its amen upon it. And when you loose someone on earth – when you release them from church discipline and when you restore privileges to them upon repentance – then heaven puts its amen to it again.” And after He has said that, He says this:

If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Matthew 18:19-20, KJV.

How many times have you heard that verse quoted? It is usually quoted in the sense of: “We are gathered here for worship and preaching, and therefore fulfil thy promise that where two of three are gathered, there you are in the midst.” That is where we usually use this text. But that is not the context of this text. The context is of church discipline. Not church worship, but church courts. And it is an amazing promise that is given, that when elders gather together to exercise discipline – to insert the key of discipline into a life and to turn it in a biblical way for a biblical reasons – Jesus promises, “I am there turning the key with them. I am right there in that consistory room with them, in all that they do, every step of the way.” Therefore, we pray for this, don’t we? That is what we have to ask of our Father, which is in heaven: That He would send Christ into the midst of the courts of His church to bless discipline, just as we ask Him to bless preaching.

We pray for prevention. We pray that none of us will ever have to come under this discipline. We pray that if we do, we would react appropriately. We pray that if we ever have to be involved in any of these three steps, that we would do it in a biblical way. We pray that it would have a successful outcome, whether it is step one, or two, or even three. That the person would eventually come back. We pray that God would help us to use what He has provided for us to use, and not discard any of His ordinances that He has given to the church to bless us with.

So it is very challenging and very easy to reason away, but this is God’s Word. And this is one of the most neglected areas in the Church at large in our own day. It may well be one of the reasons why there is so little blessing. Maybe we feel we can get by with just preaching, but God says no. There are two keys. The door to blessing does not open with one key. It has a double lock and He has given us a double key, and we must use both keys in faith. And when we are faced with a challenge and all the rationale to not do it, if we would do that – with God’s help, for God’s glory – who knows what blessings are behind that door, ready to be poured out on faithful churches exercising faithful discipline for the glory of God and the good of its members?

David P. Murray

This audio was transcribed by Ineke van der Linden

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