Church Discipline: Guarding the Gospel


Reposted from Rooted Thinking.

Ever heard of church discipline? Have you experienced church discipline or seen it practiced in a local church?

Shortly after publishing Pioneer Missions, I had opportunity to discuss the book with a number of cross-cultural missionaries from around the world who read it, including Korean, American, British, and Canadian workers. One part of the book that provoked much discussion was what I said about church discipline. In the book, I urge church planting missionaries to understand the importance of church discipline in guarding the Gospel. One missionary, upon reading how this is emphasized in the New Testament, expressed dismay that he had never seen it practiced in his large urban sending church.

In the last couple of weeks, I have had two cross-cultural missionaries speak with me about church discipline. Our team here in Cambodia has also been re-hashing this teaching. Two Cambodians believers living overseas (Canada and USA) have written me seeking counsel about it. Both Cambodians wanted to know how to deal with someone regularly attending their churches that profess Jesus Christ as Savior but continue to live in sexual immorality. In both cases, the immoral person knew they could not become members without repentance, so they chose not to become members. How would you counsel, from Scripture, concerned believers as well as those still in sin?

We know certain things to be true:

  • When Jesus saves a person from their sins, He begins the work of changing them and making them more like Him. He gives them His Spirit (Eph 1:13-14). They have been “born again” (Jn 3:1-7) and have become/are becoming “new creatures/creations” (2 Cor 5:17) by God’s grace.
  • God demands that certain sins be repented of immediately if a person professes to know Christ: idolatry (worship of other gods), sexual immorality, drunkenness, greed/swindling/theft, reviling, and refusal to live in unity because of jealousy, envy, and covetousness (1 Cor 5-6; Gal 5:19-21). These sins are listed in regard to repentance multiple times in the New Testament.
  • If a person refuses to repent, then their profession in faith in Christ is to be tested by church discipline. If they are God’s child, the Lord will chasten him/her until he/she repents and accepts new life in Christ (1 Cor 5:4-5).
  • If the person living in sin is unrepentant under discipline, it is to be concluded that they are not of Christ. Words mean nothing. The assumption is that they will not “be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:4-5).
  • It is supposed to be clear who is “in” Christian fellowship, and who is “out”. Those who are members, those “among us” (1 Cor 5:13) and “of us” (1 Jn 2:19) enjoy spiritual fellowship with us as acknowledged believers in Jesus. These take the Lord’s Table with us, pray with us, etc. Some, even though they profess to be followers of Jesus, are to be excluded from this fellowship because of their rebellion against the Lord.

To judge or not to judge?

Only God can see the heart (1 Sam 16:7). We must not judge others in a self-righteous way (Mt 7:1-5). Yet, as we saw above, God Himself teaches His people to look at the lifestyles of those who profess to know Him and make judgments about them. We are to determine whether or not a person’s life shows that they are a Christian. If someone stubbornly continues in the types of sin mentioned above, their lives broadcast a vivid contradiction to their profession. People that remain like this must not be allowed to stay in fellowship with God’s people.

It is easy to understand why these passages of Scripture are so unpopular, swept under the rug as though they don’t exist. All of us who are in Christ know we are but saved sinners. We all continue to fight our sinful flesh and the influence of the world. Most of us want to err on the side of mercy and compassion. Some seem to think that church discipline would turn people away from salvation in Christ.

Why is church discipline so important to God?

  • Church discipline clarifies the Gospel. The Gospel message is one of repentance and faith. There is no such thing as faith that is not repentant. And repentance is not merely a mental exercise in the realm of knowledge—it results in a changed life. If the message that we preach does not proclaim repentance and the reality of new life in Jesus, only addressing forgiveness of sins and promise of heaven, then we preach a false gospel. Church discipline undergirds the doctrine of repentance and shows that repentance includes a desire to obey God.
  • Church discipline clarifies what it means to be “the Church.” The Body of Christ and its local expressions in congregations are for believers in Jesus. It is a fellowship of believers that exhorts each another to love and good works (Heb 10:24) , continuing in the apostles’ doctrine prayer, genuine life- on-life fellowship, and the Lord’s table (Acts 2:42), and pursuing new life in Christ to His glory (see all Epistles).
  • Church discipline clarifies that local congregations exist for God and His glory above all else (1 Cor 10:31). By obeying Christ and exercising church discipline, we keep God on the throne, not our own ideas or agendas, not unbelievers and their perceived needs. To fail to use church discipline as needed is to remove God’s blessing on a church. It is disobedience. It is a distortion of the Gospel before unbelievers. It betrays a view of the local church that dishonors God.

Patience, love, kindness, and discretion are all needed in good measure when considering church discipline. There is no room for self-righteous attitudes, impatience, or anger.

Practical ends of church discipline

Two practical purposes of church discipline are: 1) to save the soul of the one in need of discipline, that their faith in Christ would be real (1 Cor 5:5); 2) to remove the evil influence of those unrepentant from within the congregation (1 Cor 5:6-13).

Church discipline is vital to making disciples and being the Church.

Many who profess Christianity who have no desire to repent and obey Jesus. They simply don’t yet understand the Gospel until they are faced with church discipline–only then do they see that faith includes repentance.

If we truly love God, the Gospel, God’s people, and the unsaved, then we will most certainly lovingly pursue a sinning brother, all the way to the point of church discipline— if need be.*

* McPhail, Forrest. Pioneer Missions: Meet the Challenges, Share the Blessings (Kindle Location 579).

Photo: Patrick Schneider on Unsplash.

Forrest McPhail Bio

Forrest has served as a missionary in Buddhist Cambodia in Southeast Asia since 2000. He presently serves as the Asia/Australia/Oceania regional director for Gospel Fellowship Association missions. He enjoys writing and teaching on missions and the Buddhist worldview. He and his wife, Jennifer, have 4 children.