Paul's Passing Thoughts

The Truth About “Church Discipline”

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul M. Dohse Sr. on February 8, 2015

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Audio Link: The Truth About “Church Discipline”

Good evening and welcome to False Reformation blogtalk radio. I am your host, Paul Dohse. If you would like to join the discussion tonight and add to what we are learning, call 347-855-8317 and remember to mute the speakers on your laptop or PC. And by the way, the question or comment does not have to pertain to the subject at hand—it can be off-point. When I answer, I will say, “Hello, you are live on Blogtalk radio what is your comment or question?” Just start talking as identifying yourself is optional. Per the usual, we will check in with Susan towards the end of the episode to see if she has anything to add.

A Short Contemporary History of Church Discipline     

With that said let’s get on with our subject tonight, “church discipline.” I am going to begin by describing how church discipline has evolved in the evangelical church within the past ten years. Prior to 1980, church discipline was all but completely unheard of. It started making a comeback in the early 80’s much to the delight of many evangelicals who were frustrated and confused by indifference to sin in the church.

Of course, this comeback was spawned by the Calvinist resurgence that started in 1970. Churches that began to practice church discipline were seen as fellowships that were serious about following God and dealing with sin. The manner of practice was pretty much what you would expect: if someone was practicing sin of the baser sort, they were confronted by someone. If the person would not listen, two or three witnesses would return and confront the person. Of course, this all comes from Matthew 18: 15-20. Let’s go ahead and read the passage:

Matthew 18:15 – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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 collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Even in the beginning of the discipline resurgence, there were problems with how church discipline was practiced. First, the Matthew 18 prism was, and still is, used for every situation in the church. In contrast, there are seven different applications for various situations within the church, and we will go over those tonight. Matthew 18 is only one of those situations; specifically, the resolving of conflict between Christians.

Secondly, rarely was the situation brought before the whole church before excommunication which Matthew 18:17 clearly calls us to do. The third step is usually an announcement to the congregation in regard to what the elders have decided to do. I think this is the strongest argument for home fellowships versus the institutional church model that there is: most institutional churches circumvent this step because of the impracticality of doing so because of size, numbers of people who don’t know the parties, and possible legal litigation.

Again, church discipline was rare and only practiced in situations where the sin was considered to be of the baser sort. All of that gradually changed. We began to see folks brought under church discipline for many different kinds of behavior. Most notably, lack of church attendance. This was first brought to light when Pastor Mark Dever, a well-known Neo-Calvinist, excommunicated 256 members for non-attendance.

This was followed by church discipline for non-tithing or lack of tithing. In regard to the biblical counseling movement that was growing at breakneck speed within the Reformed community, people began to show up at counseling appointments and finding unexpected additional persons present. Hence, the counselee suddenly found himself or herself in the second step of church discipline. Any attempt to vacate membership at that point would be considered an attempt to avoid dealing with the sin and excommunication more than likely the result.

Eventually, the cat was completely out of the bag; what was going on was the spread of something called “redemptive church discipline.” What was/is cause for church discipline? Sin; i.e., anything the elders deem sin and worthy of church discipline in their minds. What about the problem of people simply avoiding church membership? It is now generally accepted that any professing Christian is under the authority of any Reformed elder whether a formal member or not.

One might say, “They can pound salt—they don’t have that kind of authority over me.” True, but that doesn’t prevent them from announcing to the congregation that you are under church discipline WITHOUT naming your sin and thereby leaving the congregation to their imagination because in the minds of most Christians, church discipline is for sins like adultery or worse. Whether or not they truly have that authority over you—your reputation is ruined just the same.

Authority, and the Church Discipline Myth   

Let’s look at another aspect of this: the supposed authority of elders to determine your salvation. We hear it all the time: church membership is synonymous with being joined to the body of Christ. If your membership has been revoked, guess what? It’s the same difference; church membership equals salvation.

Let’s address this, and also answer the question: is there really any such thing as church discipline?

In regard to actual excommunication, or expulsion from the body, the only account that we have, or cause for an expulsion from the assembly, is in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. This is the only passage were expulsion is not in doubt, and the reason is gross immorality of the sexual kind. Paul says in no uncertain terms: “Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?” And, “Expel the wicked man from among you.”

This is the only place in the Bible where expulsion from fellowship is explicitly instructed. Also note: in all of the other sins confronted in the letter to the Corinthians, this is the only place that any kind of disciplinary action is commanded! I think this is a point well worth mentioning. Paul motivates them throughout the letter to obey because of God’s promise of reward, loss of reward, judgment, the coming resurrection, etc.; but chapter 5 is the only place where God’s people are commanded to take specific action to remove a parishioner from the fellowship. I believe this speaks volumes toward an argument that church discipline is reserved for sins of the baser sort, those “of a kind that does not occur even among pagans.”

Even in this one explicit case where we have a man expelled from the congregation, Paul does not declare him to be an unbeliever, but rather assumes the opposite: “When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” Bottom line: nowhere does the Bible say that a professing believer should ever be “declared” an unbeliever for any reason; to the contrary, Paul states the opposite by assuming that the expelled Corinthian was saved. It is also worth mentioning that Jesus assumes the lost sheep that stray from the flock are part of the flock and should be diligently sought after (Matt. 18:10-14). Perhaps the idea that we can do this (declare individuals to be unbelievers) is spawned by the belief that it is the church that actually does the disciplining when the term itself (“church discipline”) is a misnomer. In rare circumstance we expel, but it is the Lord that does the disciplining outside of the church: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” There is discipline by the Lord inside and outside of the church ( Hebrews 12:5-11, 1Cor. 11:30), and “self “ discipline by believers (1Cor. 11:31,32), but there is no “church discipline” practiced by elders or the church.

Now in regard to how this supposed church discipline works, let’s look at a couple of models:

Church Discipline and Counseling

In this model, the steps work the same as the traditional model. However, if the person repents, this begins the next phase of the church discipline “process.” The person is now required to enter counseling. This model integrates counseling and church discipline as one process. If the person refuses the counseling, he or she is not really repentant and the “process” goes to the next step. If the person enters formal counseling to “restore” him (Gal. 6:1,2) the discipline process ends when he/she is released from counseling. In other words, the person is “under” corrective church discipline until they are released from counseling.

The counseling is the correction part. Proponents of this model would scoff at the traditional view because “it does not deal with the person’s heart.” Only outward repentance is required with the traditional model. The person is supposedly only giving lip service to avoid public humiliation (as if the Lord wouldn’t use that to correct a person: 1Tim 5:20). Dropping the matter on the person’s verbal repentance alone is just “chopping off daisies,” and we don’t want the daisies popping back up tomorrow. We need to supposedly get to the “root” of the problem via counseling.

The supposed goal of church discipline is “real and lasting” change. On its face value, a very strong argument, if you approach the Scriptures using a heart theology hermeneutic, thus interpreting all of Scripture through that prism rather than drawing meaning from the plain sense of a particular text or combination of texts. The overall flavor of texts dealing with church discipline posits the idea that the matter is dropped upon verbal repentance (Luke 17:3,4).

I think proponents of this model see church discipline as one of the tools used to fine tune the church and therefore error concerning the truth. It reasons from the viewpoint of this model that all types of sin would be in play. In other words, you could be brought under church discipline for anything that is sin (just like counseling is for any kind of problem). If you carry that equation to various logical conclusions, the imagination goes wild, but this is in fact one of the tenants of this model.

Second Model of Redemptive Church Discipline

This model encompasses all of model two, except there is no confrontation because true repentance is determined by those who are spiritual (pastors, counselors, etc.) during the process. If it is observed that you are in sin, any sin, you can be placed in this process. You are “under” church discipline until it is determined by examining counselors or elders that you have repented. This is accomplished by examination and observation over time.

The steps are not confrontations to exhort repentance (like the traditional model), but warnings within the process that you are a step closer to disfellowship due to slackness or lack of change, or additional misbehaviors while in the process. Leaving the process without the blessings of church leaders who have not yet determined true repentance would usually result in disfellowship and treatment as an unbeliever.

A decision to place a person into this process by church elders is usually based on the testimony of others because mere verbal repentance on the part of the sinner is never acceptable. One is placed into the process without warning and for any reason seen fit by the elders; that is the primary difference in this model as opposed to the other two. Out of nowhere and without any warning, it is announced to the subject that they are in the discipline process.

The Terminology

No matter which model is practiced, and these are by no means comprehensive, the usual description for all models in constitutions and bylaws is the process of “corrective church discipline.” This description fits all three models and many more. Which one does your church practice? Are you sure?

What Does the Bible Really Say About Conflict or Sin Resolution Among God’s People?

Conflict resolution among God’s people always regards fellowship and not authority. No judgment is made in regard to the person’s salvation; it’s purely a fellowship issue. There is no church membership, you either fellowship with God’s people are you don’t.  Our only judge is Christ, and our only authority is what God says in His word. By the way, the word “obey” in Hebrews 13:17, a verse often used to taut elder authority means to “persuade.”

The Bible is specific on how different situations are to be handled among God’s people.

1. Conflict Between Christians

Though Matthew 18:15-20 is often cited as the general template for the so-called church discipline “process”, I would argue that these are steps in regard to offenses between believers only. Verse 15 makes this abundantly clear: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” It is argued by some that the earlier manuscripts do not include “against you”, which allows the passage to address sin in general. Hence, the aforementioned one-size-fits-all approach. So, how do we know for sure what is correct? Are the earlier manuscripts the final word? I would say the context of both reveals the best interpretation. In all versions, forgiveness by the one who is to go to him alone is in view (Luke 17:3,4). Why would a brother who observed another in sin necessarily seek a personal apology (repentance)?

Peter, who was there to hear the lesson first hand, seemed to draw this conclusion as well when he asked this interpretive question to Jesus: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’” (Matthew 18:21).

What we have here is the steps to reconcile two brothers / sisters and nothing more. Corrective measures in regard to other types of sins will be addressed later. What unfolds in the rest of this passage is a process that protects the confronted as well as the confronter. In the final step the whole congregation is called on to exhort the offending brother, but also giving opportunity, if applicable, for the offending brother to tell his side of the story to the whole congregation in order to hold the offended party and witnesses accountable. In any regard, this process is intended to exhaust all possibilities before one is to be treated LIKE an unbeliever.

If a Matthew 18 situation is petty, the hope is that the one or two witnesses brought into the situation could somehow rectify that reality.

2. False Teaching That Causes Division

1Timothy 6:3-5 – “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”

2John:10,11 – “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.”

Titus 3:10 – “Warn a divisive [other translations: ”heretick”] person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.”

Romans 16:17,18 – “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.”

Note the procedure concerning heretics in the church that cause divisions: they are to be warned twice, then rejected. You can conclude from these verses that a divisive person is biblically synonymous with one who teaches false doctrine. This is a notably different procedure than Matthew 18. There is no exhortation, only warning.

 3. Sinning Elders

I Timothy 5:19 – “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.”

In regard to elders, we see a different procedure than Matthew 18. If it is established by two or three witnesses that an elder has sinned, he is to be rebuked before the congregation so that the other elders will fear.

4. Gross Immorality

1 Corinthians 5:1-13 – “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you.”

Though confrontation is not specified, verse 4 speaks concerning the necessity of involving the whole congregation in the casting out of the believer. This is absolutely critical. Confrontation beforehand and the liberty to apply some of the Matthew 18 process is not necessarily excluded and errors on the side of mercy.

 5. Idleness

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 – “6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”

Idleness falls under a category of confrontation apart from disfellowship. Verse 14 says not to keep company with him, but is followed by instruction to admonish him as a brother as opposed to treating him as a tax collector or heathen. This would certainly differ from Matthew 18. Verse 10 seems to indicate a refusal to help the brother until he starts working; fellowship would create a legal loophole for him to get monetary help through the back door, so-to-speak. The brother is to be ostracized within the church except for exhortation concerning work. This of course could include formal counseling.

6. Broken Fellowship Between Parishioners

At Phillipi, there was a situation where two parties refused to reconcile. Paul calls on them to agree while also calling on the congregation to help them. Since this was a public letter, the incentive for these women to quickly reconcile before the congregation got involved would have been greatly enhanced. The situation probably involved some sort of pettiness rather than overt sin.

Philippians 4:2,3 – “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

7. Counseling and Restoration

Galatians 6:1 – “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”

Those who interpret Matthew 18 in regard to general sins will now interpret this verse as a proof text that restoration is part of the steps in Matthew 18. However, Jesus clearly establishes the purpose of the second step in Matthew 18:16, that “every word may be established.” This does not seem consistent with restoring a fallen brother to spiritual health.

The Matthew 18 process is confrontational in nature. It seems to be primarily concerned with investigating a brother’s willingness to renounce his behavior and seek forgiveness from the one he offended. Furthermore, there is really no hint of “church discipline” in the context of Galatians 6:1. To attribute this verse to “church discipline” is assumptive at best. Discipline takes place outside of the church and is administered by God. We have specific instruction in the word for the purpose of ascertaining whether that should be done or not, and what types of situations should be applied. It is not discipline within the church by others and it is not counseling. However, correction from a wayward course and further instruction could, and often does result.


The repentant saint may seek additional help as a result of being confronted, but it is not a requirement to prevent further steps. A verbal commitment to cease the behavior is all that is required in most cases (“if he says” Luke 17:4). In all of the above verses, protracted counseling as a means of restoration to prevent further steps is nowhere to be found (as in redemptive church discipline). To further bolster this argument, keep in mind the qualifications for elders. They are not to be characterized by anger, excessive drinking, mishandling of finances or flirtations (1Tim. 3:1-12 Titus1:5-9). Paul says they can’t be elders, he doesn’t say to bring them up on “church discipline.” Obviously, consideration for eldership would be a moot point.

Ongoing struggles with besetting sins will always be among God’s people. Some sort of discipline process that will eradicate the need for daily forgiveness is not what the Scriptures call for. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, the apostle Paul mentions several types of Christians and what they need, and it’s not a one size fits all “church discipline.”


In the Holman Christian Standard Study Bible, yet another Neo-Calvinist translation in addition to the ESV, it states on page 1649 that there are “two categories of church discipline.” It frames all church teachings and examples set by the leaders as “formative discipline.” Everything modeled and taught to you is “preventative.” This overshadows all activities within the church with authority bolstered by preventative discipline or corrective discipline.

Example Letter for Elders Practicing Unbiblical “Church Discipline”

To the Elders of Anywhere Baptist Church, Ohio:

Regardless of what is stated in your Book of Faith and Order, or any covenant signed by me, The Ohio Revised Code states the following under chapter 2905: Kidnapping and Extortion, and 2905.12 specifically, “Coercion”:

(A) No person, with purpose to coerce another into taking or refraining from action concerning which the other person has a legal freedom of choice, shall do any of the following:

(2) Utter or threaten any calumny against any person;

3) Expose or threaten to expose any matter tending to subject any person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, to damage any person’s personal or business repute, or to impair any person’s credit;

Please be advised that I have a “legal freedom of choice” to vacate my membership at Anywhere Baptist Church.


Joe Grace

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