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When God Takes The Bench

What is church discipline and what is its purpose?
What is the most loving way to deal with sin?
How tolerant should we be with sin in the lives of others?

BY JOHN HOPLER

Justice . . . God wants justice and righteousness in His church. With justice, a church will be a mighty army conquering the world for Jesus Christ. Apart from justice, the church will be impotent, divided, polluted, and defeated.

The true test of the justice of a church is this: how faithful is that church in obeying the instructions on church discipline in God’s Word? Church discipline is justice in action. In the same way that parents should discipline their children to establish righteousness in their family, so too, God’s people must carefully obey the scriptural commands on church discipline to establish righteousness in the church.

We cannot afford to be ignorant of the Word on this subject. We need to know God’s principles concerning church discipline, practice them, and teach them to others. I would like to examine five passages on this subject.

Matthew 18:15-17

“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And 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-gatherer.”

In this passage, Jesus explains what to do when one person sins against another. First, the person sinned against is to go to the offender and reprove him in private. The word “reprove” means to expose or to clearly point out what he did wrong and why it was sin. This is to be done in private in order to protect the other person’s reputation and to deal with the matter quickly and efficiently. If the offender acknowledges that he was wrong, there would be no reason for others to know about the matter. That would be gossip.

Jesus states that the goal of the reproof must be to “win” the offender. It should be done in a spirit of gentleness and with a confidence that the person will respond. Paul wrote in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Again, the goal must be to “restore” the offender, not to hurt him or get even with him. Wise reprovers will first examine their own hearts and motives before they reprove others. Any hurt pride or selfish desire must be set aside. Anger, bitterness, or resentment must be put away. The goal must be restoration and the motive must be loving concern for the offender’s welfare. When reproof is given with such an attitude, the person is almost always immediately restored.

However, if for some reason the offender does not repent, the reprover must not stop there. Jesus commands him to take one or two more individuals and approach the person again about the sin. One reason for this is to establish that he did in fact sin. If either of the new people saw the person sin or they hear him acknowledge that he committed the sinful act, two or three witnesses will then be able to establish as a fact that he committed the act in question.

What would happen if he denies that he committed the act and the person who originally reproved him is the only witness. [sic (no ? in orig.)] In such a case, that would end the process. Why? Because there would be only one witness, and two or three witnesses are required to confirm a fact (II Corinthians 13:1). Therefore, there should be no further action in the matter.

We must keep in mind that God is Judge. God, in His sovereignty, will make sure that two witnesses come forward to confirm the sinful acts of individuals, or else He Himself will judge those actions in some other way. Meanwhile, we need to hold to this righteous standard — two or three witnesses are needed to confirm every fact.

The requirement of two or three witnesses gives protection against malicious or erroneous accusations. If the person who brings the original charge is malicious and brings a false accusation, he will not want to take the second step of Matthew 18. And the fact that he won’t take this second step can be used both to convict the accuser and to justify the person wrongly accused. Second, if the person who brings the charge is in error (either about whether the act was committed or whether the Bible condemns such an act) the others will be able to expose the error of the charge.


There is no such thing
as love without justice.



If the person did in fact sin, the one or two others will be better able to convince the person that he needs to repent. For this reason it is important that the one or two people be righteous and mature individuals who are committed to scripturally solving the problem and to pursuing a godly unity. Again, Paul urged that “the spiritual one” (or mature one) restore those caught in any trespass (Galatians 6:1). Therefore, call upon righteous, mature men or women to be the second and third witness.

Hopefully, after the second step the offender will repent. If he doesn’t, however, Jesus instructs that the matter be brought before the church. The church should accept the charge since it has been confirmed by two or three witnesses. The church as a whole is then to reprove the person. If even after this, the individual doesn’t repent, the Lord instructs us to treat him as a Gentile or tax-gatherer; that is, to have no social association with him of any kind. The Jews, as far as possible, would always avoid tax-gatherers and have absolutely nothing to do with them.

This is true love! This is true justice! It is God’s loving way of removing sin from the church so that justice might reign and so that righteous love might grow in the church. It is the most loving thing for the church, as well as for the unrepentant person.

Do you think it is right to continue to associate with a brother who refuses to repent? If you do, God says you don’t love that person, rather, you hate him. “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (Proverbs 13:24). “Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (I Cor. 13:6). This is God’s way, as a loving father, to spank his child so that he will see the gravity of his sin. “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12: 10,11). There have been many instances in which a person disciplined by the church repented — after the church took a righteous stand and did not associate with him. God’s plan works! Father knows best.

Note that a person is disciplined under Matthew 18 not for committing a sin, but for being unrepentant. All men sin — but if a man is righteous, he will repent.

One final point concerning this passage. How quickly should each of these steps be taken? As quickly as possible, though never without thorough knowledge. Once the case is clear, however, God wants speedy justice. God doesn’t tolerate sin for even a moment. He wants it removed … NOW! God says, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7,8). Today! Obey now! Remove sin now! Or else the person who is sinning will harden his heart and be deceived by sin (Hebrews 3:13). Not judging sin promptly will result in more sin and greater damage to both the person and the Lord’s church. “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Therefore, go through each step (if necessary) deliberately, thoroughly, and diligently. All sin destroys. So root out sin in obedience to God’s Word. “For the Lord will execute His Word upon the earth, thoroughly and quickly” (Romans 9:28).

I Corinthians 5:11

“But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler — not even to eat with such a one … remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”

This passage deals with a person who claims to be a Christian but whose life is characterized by certain sins. The sin has become a part of his life, as opposed to someone who simply commits a sin once and then repents.

An obvious example would be someone who openly indulges in one of these sins, take for example sexual immorality, and will not repent of it. In this case it is easy to see that he is an “immoral person” because he arrogantly desires to continue sinning.

Another example would be the person who sins only once but will not acknowledge that the sin is wrong. In this case, although the offender does not have a very long track record, he would still be classified as a “wicked person” Why? Because he brazenly admits that he did nothing wrong. He considers it all right to go ahead and do it again.

A third case would be a person who verbally repents whenever he is confronted, yet continues to practice the sin. After a while, the genuineness of his repentance would be questionable and he would have to be judged as a “wicked person.”

One thing is for sure — it is better to move quickly than slowly in removing wicked people from the church. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (I Corinthians 5:6)? If given enough time unjudged sin will ruin the whole church.

It will also ruin the individual who is sinning. “Do not hold back discipline from the child. Although you beat him with the rod, he will not die” (Proverbs 23:13). The tendency is to hold back discipline. But if you discipline him, he won’t die. Rather, it will help bring repentance and life. The person whom Paul was judging in I Corinthians 5 later repented and was restored to fellowship (II Corinthians 2:5-11). It is better to use the rod of church discipline quickly rather than with hesitation when dealing with people who are consistently unrighteous in one of the areas listed in I Corinthians 5.

Another question that may come up is: “If we do not know if the individual is a believer or not, should he still be disciplined?” It does not matter whether the person involved is a Christian or not. That is why Paul used the term “so-called brother.” He may call himself a brother or others may call him a brother. Whether or not he truly is a believer should not affect practicing I Corinthians 5:11.

II Thessalonians 3:6-15

“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life, and not according to the tradition which you received from us… For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread… And if anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that man and do not associate with him, so that he may be put to shame. And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”

The third category of church discipline involves unruly individuals in the church; people who are lazy and who will not work to meet their needs; busybodies.

The word “unruly” means “without rules or order.” In other words he is idle and undisciplined. He wastes his time. His idleness is a curse to others. As a “busybody” he spends his time meddling in other people’s personal business and does not properly take care of his own responsibilities.

God commands us “to not associate” with any brother who does not work. The world would give such a man a handout. But God says to withhold food from him because it is his appetite that will urge him to work (Proverbs 16:26). We are to reprove him. If he does not repent, we are not to associate with him. This is the most loving thing to do. To provide for his physical needs would be to hurt and destroy him. To support him is to encourage him in a lifestyle of irresponsibility.

God loves workers! Paul was a hard worker and God wants His people to imitate that example and be hard workers (II Thessalonians 3:7,8). He does not want us to associate with any who are unruly or are busybodies or will not work to meet their most basic needs.

Romans 16:17,18

“Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ, but of their own appetites, and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.”

This is one of two commands given by Paul to turn away from those who cause division in the church.

How do people cause division? There are many ways. Personal jealousies and competition cause divisions. A self-centered person will often be stubborn and insist strongly upon “his interpretation” of a particular issue, finding himself at odds with those who differ with him. Offenses not dealt with righteously can cause jealousy and rejection and result in division. Wrong views of authority can cause suspicion and distrust of those in authority and ultimately create strife. Slander almost always becomes involved at some point, causing others to become affected and divided. God loves unity and hates disunity among his people. Proverbs 6:16-19 says that He hates people who spread strife and disunity.


Differences of opinion are acceptable in the church, but using them to cause divisions is an abomination to God.


How should we treat a divisive person? It is clear: “Turn away from him.” The meaning of the words “turn away from” in the original language is “to bend out of one’s way.” We are to go out of our way to avoid him. How, then, in a practical way do we “turn away?” When he calls, we “turn away” by politely saying goodbye and hanging up. When he writes, we “turn away” by not reading, and taking it to our elders to handle. When we see him on the street we “turn away” by physically turning away and moving on. God commands us to avoid divisive people. This command can often be one of the most severe tests of a believer’s love and loyalty to the Lord.

Divisive people usually have the ability to talk “as smooth as butter” (Psalm 55:21). They usually use the Scripture. They may be very knowledgeable in the Scriptures. In order to make you more responsive to them, they will flatter you and make you feel good and important as they slide their slanderous report into you. To disarm you, they often speak very highly of the person they are bitter against and then in the next breath, undermine his character with subtle “concerns,” questions, and innuendos.

Naive (unsuspecting) people are their victims. A naive person may have good motives, but his ignorance of consequences and his lack of discernment will destroy him in the end. A naive person will not avoid godless chatter. He will indulge in it and become more and more ungodly (II Timothy 2:16). As a result, he too will become wicked. We must not be naive, but must train ourselves in the scriptures so that we can discern destructive speech, reject it, and avoid those who foster it.

Titus 3:10,11

“Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”

The word “divisive” used in Titus 3:10 is the Greek word “hairetikos” from which we get the term “heretic.” In New Testament times it simply meant “one who creates or promotes a faction or division” (Arnt [sic: Arndt] and Gringrich Greek Lexicon, p. 23). In later years, religious groups started to apply it only to people who taught totally false doctrines.

However, in its original meaning, the word referred to any person who insisted upon dividing believers, no matter what the doctrine. A divisive person, then, is one who causes division in the church instead of seeking to resolve differences and promote unity.

Typically, a person who does this will do so by using Scripture. Titus 3:9 is relevant to this point: “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.” Making a controversy of anything in the church is wrong. It does not matter what the area of concern is. To pursue it with a spirit of controversy is sin. The Scripture says it is “unprofitable and useless.” It is using the front of Scripture to be self-promoting, and should never be indulged in. It will always “ruin those who listen” (II Timothy 2:14).

Let’s be clear. Differences of opinion, even on theological matters, are acceptable in the church. Paul makes this clear in Romans 14 where he instructs the believers to accept Christians who have different theological views on dietary laws. However, while different theological views are acceptable, making an issue of those differences and causing division is an abomination to God. God says to reject a man who causes division in the church after he has been warned twice.

In other words, if his communication is divisive and he repents after being warned, he may remain in fellowship. If he communicates divisively a second time and repents after a second warning, he may still remain in fellowship. But if he communicates divisively a third time, he is to be rejected, no matter how repentant he may seem. We are to “have nothing to do with him.” We can be as sure as the Word that he is not genuinely repentant but rather “warped, sinful and self-condemned” (Titus 3:11). Restoration should be granted only after the individual has amply shown over a period of time that he has forsaken his sin. In the case of a person who is factious once and will not repent, it is obvious that you do not need to wait two other times before he is “rejected.” In such a case, Romans 16:17 would apply, and he should be avoided.

Note how much God hates division in His church. A person could commit other sins many times and repent each time and still not be the object of church discipline. But a factious person is allowed only two verbal repentances. After that, he is to be “rejected” (Titus 3:10).

One final point. Factious people usually aim their attack at the leaders, as Korah did against Moses (Numbers 16). Why is this? Because it is through the leadership that God works to develop unity in the body. God gives “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers” so that the church will “attain to the unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:11-13). When people slander a leader or use doctrines for the purpose of dividing others from leaders, they are not only attacking God’s authority but are also undermining God’s primary agents for bringing unity in the body.

The question may arise about an individual who leaves the church before discipline is administered. Can such an individual still be put under discipline since he has left the church? The answer is “yes,” for several reasons.

First, the command to disassociate is in every case to the church and not to the guilty person. The person may have disassociated himself, but the church has not disassociated itself with him. If there is no public discipline, church members may make attempts to bring the person back to fellowship. This is the exact opposite of the scripture’s commands to “avoid,” “reject,” and “turn away from” the person.

Second, one purpose of church discipline is to protect God’s people by informing them who to “watch out for” (Romans 16:17). Without public discipline, believers who run into a divisive person will be unaware of any problem and the unrighteous person will be able to “deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Romans 16:18).

Third, as the person realizes that Christians will not associate with him because of his sin, he will be more apt to be convicted of his folly and seek godly restoration.

Summary

It is important to remember that the aim of church discipline is not permanent disassociation. It is a temporary action to bring an individual to repentance and restore him to a righteous life. The goal of Scriptural church discipline is restoration.

It is God’s way of showing compassion because it is His instrument to correct an individual. God wants each individual to be productive and not suffer ultimate loss of rewards. “Watch yourselves, that you might not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward” (II John 8).

We don’t realize how much we have been affected by the philosophies of the world. The world believes that tolerating sin is loving. The world sees any strong, painful discipline as unloving. But a surgeon has to cut and cause pain in order to save a life. To not treat that person is to hate and kill him. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6). “Stripes that wound scour away evil, and strokes reach the innermost parts” (Proverbs 20:30). To love is to discipline. “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines” (Hebrews 12:6).

These are the five passages on church discipline. Churches that obey and teach these commands prosper. Churches that disobey them and do not teach them will be plagued with problems. Therefore, Christian, you need to know these. You need to obey them! If you do, God’s blessing will shower down on you and your church — and His grace will reign through your righteousness.

“These also are the sayings of the wise: To show partiality in judging is not good: Whoever says to the guilty, “You are innocent” — peoples will curse him and nations denounce him. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come upon them” (Proverbs 24:23-25).


John Hopler is an attorney, and a pastor of Great Commission Church in Silver Spring, Md. John lives in Adelphi, Md., with his wife, Sandra, and their four children.

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