Church discipline—the very phrase sends a shiver down the spines of some. Questions arise about fairness, forgiveness, grace, compassion and love. Accusations fly—of pride and divisiveness, self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
And if we’re honest, we fear what it will say about us, as a local church, if we appear to punish someone for sinning, when we know Jesus has forgiven us of so much.
The objections and hesitations are understandable, but they’re also a bit too self-conscious. They betray a little too much concern with what other people think. Awash in the spirit of our non-judgmental age, church discipline feels acutely judgy, and that can’t be good for business.
But shouldn’t we be concerned about our church’s reputation in the local community? Jesus himself wants us to shine like a city on a hill whose light can’t be hidden (Matt 5:14–16). He wants the world to know we’re his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:34).
So how does a commitment to the practice of church discipline relate to a right-headed care for the public reputation of a local church?
Recently, I read 1 Corinthians 5 in my quiet time, and the apostle Paul confronted me with a different way of asking the same question. The question is not, “What does it say about the church if we exercise discipline?” but rather, “What does it say about the church if we neglect church discipline?” Paul says that our refusal to discipline unrepentant church members—by taking their names off the membership rolls, refusing to admit them to the Lord’s Supper, and helping them see that their sin calls their professed faith into question—says at least eight bad things about us.
Ironically, these eight things are precisely what we’re afraid the world will think if we do exercise church discipline.
1. We think it’s arrogant to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s arrogant not to discipline.
The argument sounds something like this: “Who are we to condemn the behavior of anyone else? Since we’re all sinners, isn’t it arrogant for any of us to single out someone else’s sins as somehow worse than ours—as if theirs are worthy of public rebuke and ours aren’t?”
Paul argues just the opposite in 1 Corinthians 5:1–2: “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 you.” In other words, it’s not arrogant to remove the man; it’s arrogant not to remove him. Why? Because the Corinthians thought they were being the “bigger Christians” by “giving him grace,” perhaps as if “he who is most lenient with others is most humble himself.”
Not so, says Paul. It’s arrogant to let professing Christians get away with acting worse than non-Christians and re-naming that Christianity. That’s not a humble submission to Scripture. That’s over-writing Scripture.
2. We think it’s divisive to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s divisive not to discipline.
It’d be easy to think that removing an unrepentant sinner is divisive. But Paul actually commands the Corinthians that “he who has done this be removed from among you.”
Meditate on that phrase for a moment: “removed from among you.” The preposition “among” implies that as long as this unrepentant sinner remains among you—talking as one of you, counted as one of you by others—then he’s the one sowing division. How? By introducing a pattern of rebellion where there should be a pattern of repentance. When a member makes peace with his own sin, it disturbs the peace of the church.
3. We think it’s foolish to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s foolish not to discipline.
Our fallen assumption here is that the word will get out about us—we just couldn’t be patient with a really bad sinner, or we’re not a very forgiving church, or whatever. If even faithful discipline gets bad press, then why do it? Besides, who wants to come into a church where they make a practice of kicking people out? Talk about bad for business—how do you expect to grow a church that way?
But Paul had already made up his mind on the matter before he ever put pen to papyrus: “I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.” It’s obvious to Paul what you do when a fellow church member makes peace with his own outward, ongoing sin (he “has” his father’s wife, present tense, ongoing). You should break peace with him, so that the world might respect the church for practicing what it preaches. That’s wisdom, not foolishness.
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