There are many books written on the topic and in fact, much of what we read in the New Testament deals with the harmony between the brethren. We are instructed to love, pray for and even serve one another. Though this seems simple enough in theory, the practical application is much harder. Still, maintaining relational, theological and even philosophical unity is imperative to be successful in working together to fulfill God’s great commission. We don’t have to universally agree, but there is a set of unanimity that must be preserved in order for a church to walk together and build together. Unity is the most important asset for a team and must be preserved at all costs! When there is disunity, it must be dealt with. This brings about the question of church discipline and how it should be administered.
Church discipline is an ecclesiastical function that is mandated by the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20. This responsibility was given originally to the Apostles and continues today, falling upon the shoulders of Senior Elders.
This come under the doctrine of spiritual authority. I am not exempting eldership from correction and I do not believe that true spiritual authority creates hierarchies and citizenship structures—the catch with true spiritual authority is that it cannot be exercised beyond a believers willingness to receive it. There is no physical infrastructure to enforce the authority of God’s word like there is with the laws of this nation via the police and the criminal justice system. Whether or not a resolution takes place is up to the individual’s willingness to receive from the leader.
The Purpose of Church Discipline
First, church discipline should seek the restoration and reconciliation of the believer who is going astray. Going astray doesn’t necessarily mean open sin, though it absolutely applies to sinfulness. It can boil down to believers with inappropriate motives and bad attitudes that can affect and infect the entire church if it is not dealt with. As a shepherd this cannot and will not be tolerated. As I already stated, unity is the single greatest asset a group or team can possess and we must protect it.
There is always room for dissent and disagreement in our church but we must go about resolving these issues in a Biblical, loving manner. The good news is that if this is the focus of our actions, most issues can be handled easily. If we have a loving, trusting relationship there shouldn’t be anything we can’t work through! The bad news is that if this isn’t carried out, disagreements and misunderstandings can become toxic and spread to others, provoking offense and hurt feelings that really should never have arisen.
Revelation 12:10 exposes Satan as the accuser of the brethren and I believe it is accusation, not temptation, that is his most potent weapon against us. Satan accuses us and he accuses others in our minds. In no time at all a simple difference of opinion can escalate to full fledged bitterness. Instead of trying to reconcile we find ourselves building a mental case against a friend or leader, preparing for some kind of impending show-down and recruiting alliances across the group. The bottom line is that it never has to go this far and if we could step back from a situation and carry ourselves like mature believers, it wouldn’t!
And so, church discipline cannot be ignored. It must be undertaken in love, but undertaken nonetheless. Frustration, offense and bitterness are all signs of a troubled soul that left unattended, have the potential to do great harm to the unity of a local assembly, potentially even leading the individuals into sin. I know of no ministry that enjoys this particular function of the priesthood, but it is an integral part of spiritual growth. In order to have a Godly church there must be a standard upheld by the entire local assembly. There must be a willingness to seek God and an openness to redirection when necessary.
The Theology of Church Discipline
1) When conflict or sin has come between people, the goal is repentance and reconciliation, along with recompense, if needed.
2) Church leadership must be committed to the reputation of the Gospel and the well-being of the entire church, not just the interests of the individuals who are disgruntled or sinful.
3) Such matters in the church are entrusted to Christian leadership, namely the elders of a local assembly. Leaders must be careful not to abuse in any way the responsibility to oversee the unity of a fellowship of believers. In some situations there may arise an impasse, where people reject the counsel of leadership. This is a situation that must be followed by quick repentance and heart-change in order to preserve fellowship. Open discord is the antithesis of church unity and cannot be allowed to persist if the integrity of the work of God in that local church is to be maintained.
4) Discipline is never pleasant but the finished work will be a unified group of holy people, distinguished clearly from the world by possessing the heart of Christ.
5) For the truth to emerge, the elders must hear firsthand reports from all sides in the dispute before a decision can be reached.
6) Witnesses should be present in any dispute but the most important person to have present, is the one you’re offended with. If you’re qualm is with Brother Jones, why would you talk to Sister Clara about it? Grab a leader, sit down with Brother Jones and work it out! Our shared faith creates this enormous common ground upon which to build a solution—it pains me that we so often turn to school yard antics in the face of conflict.
7) The fellowship of the church is commanded by scripture. God’s people must be reminded that unrepentant sin and unnecessary division are unacceptable to a Holy God. We must look at sin—our own sin and that of others—in the light of God’s grace, forgiving one another and committing to allow Him to help us all grow.
Scripture references: Romans 16:17-18, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, 1 Corinthians 5:13, 1 Corinthians 14:40, 2 Corinthians 2:7, Revelation 2:2, 1 Peter 5:1-5, Hebrews 12:11, Proverbs 16:32, Proverbs 17:27, Acts 15, 2 Timothy 2:14-26, 2 Timothy 1:4-7; 2 Timothy 4:1-8.
Everyone has a choice regarding where they will attend church and with which local assembly they will serve. If the place you serving is not to your liking or you do not respect and trust the leadership, by all means exercise your free will and move on, but don’t allow the enemy to cause you to become an accuser. We only have a short time to labor.
– Ps. Ken
Ken is the pastor of Spirit Life Church in Piqua, Ohio. Check out the church website for sermons and more!