Thom Rainer on Church Discipline

Thom Rainer
Thom Rainer

by Thom Rainer

ThomRainer.com focuses on the local church, pastors and staff, and leadership. By its very nature, the blog is practical, often citing statistics and sociological research. There are many able persons who focus on areas I do not, such as key biblical and theological matters.

Still, if my blog, or any of my other writings for that matter, do not have biblical foundations, I am nothing more than an amateurish sociologist or a secular researcher. I must constantly ask if everything I write is in line with Scripture. Ultimate truth is found in His Word.

But when I write about church discipline, the topic expands into both biblical teachings, particularly ecclesiology, and practical church ministry. A healthy church is ultimately a biblical church. And there should be little debate about the biblical mandate for churches to exercise church discipline.

Yet the topic of church discipline seems to be primarily reserved for the theologians and a few pastors. Those of us who write about practical ministry and church health rarely mention this topic, even though it is a clear biblical practice.  Allow me to note seven observations about church discipline.

1. Church discipline is thoroughly biblical. As examples, note the following passages in Scripture:

Matthew 18:15-20: Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That 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.

Romans 16:17-18: Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.

1 Corinthians 5:1-13: It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.

2 Corinthians 2:5-11: But if any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all. Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow. Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him. For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things. To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.

2 Corinthians 13:1-3: This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. I told you before, and foretell you, as if I were present, the second time; and being absent now I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that, if I come again, I will not spare: Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, which to you-ward is not weak, but is mighty in you.

Galatians 6:1-2: 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. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-12: Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.

Titus 3:9-11: But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.

2. Church discipline is rarely exercised by leaders in local churches. In my own denomination, church discipline began to wane in the 1870s, and is almost non-existent today.

3. Church discipline is perceived by some church members to be authoritarian, judgmental, and legalistic. And, of course, it can be if it is exercised outside the parameters of Scripture, or with the wrong heart and motive. Like many other good things, it can be abused.

4. The introduction of church discipline in a local congregation often results in a schism, and sometimes dismissal of the pastor. Frankly, that is one reason why many leaders avoid the issue.

5. Small steps toward church discipline are often met with opposition. I am specifically referring here to the removal of members from church membership rolls, even some who have not been seen in years.

6. Entry points or new member classes are very helpful. These classes can provide not only information to new or prospective members, but expectations of them as well. Many current church members do not see the local church as a place where they are to serve and model spiritual maturity. An entry point class can establish such expectations. It can also set biblical standards by which church discipline is practiced.

7. Some leaders forget that a key role of church discipline is restoration. Some forget that the goal of discipline is to lead prayerfully toward the restoration of the wayward church member. Church discipline should break our hearts. Restoration should bring us great joy.

I would love to hear from you about church discipline. It is my prayer that one day we will see many congregations bearing the fruit of church discipline: the glory of God; the love of the sinner; the restoration of the wayward; the purity of the church; the protection of the fellowship; and a witness to the world.

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Visit him online at ThomRainer.com

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