Church Discipline

Church Discipline: the Correction of a Believer or the Excommunication of an Unbeliever? (Part 1)

Harmonizing Matthew 18:15–17, 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15

From Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (DBSJ), Volume 20: 2015. Used with permission.


Within the larger discussion on church discipline, two questions that go to the heart of the issue continue to resist consensus. The first question concerns the spiritual status of those being disciplined. Are they to be viewed by the church as true believers caught up in some transgression and, thus, to be corrected and restored? Or, are they to be viewed as those who have made a profession of faith but who are, in fact, not saved and who need to be confronted and removed? Or, does the New Testament allow for either of these two options, depending on the nature of the disobedience?

The second question, related to the first, addresses the type of discipline meted out to the disobedient. Does church discipline invariably involve excommunication, that is, the removal of the disobedient from the membership of the local church with a loss of all rights and privileges? In other words, does the New Testament teach that excommunication is the only option when exercising church discipline of the unrepentant? Or, does the New Testament allow for a level of church discipline that stops short of that? And, if that be the case, what does this level look like?

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Church Discipline & Defending the Faith, Part 3

From Voice, Jan/Feb 2015. Adapted from Stephen Davey’s book In Pursuit of Prodigals. Kress Biblical Resources (The Woodlands, TX, 2010). Used by permission. Read Part 1 & Part 2.

When Is It Wrong to Judge?

1. It is wrong to judge someone before you know all the facts in the case.

The Apostle John wrote, “Our law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing” (John 7:51). In other words, the believer should never judge on a whim, an impression, a rumor. The facts are necessary, and the believer should be quick to hear and slow to speak.

2. It is wrong to judge when judging is based on a person’s convictions and/or preferences.

Romans 14 makes it clear that personal decisions can direct activities in areas where the Scriptures are silent. For instance, the Bible doesn’t specifically address credit cards, dating practices, plastic surgery, watching television, using electric guitars in church, ad infinitum.

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Church Discipline & Defending the Faith, Part 2

From Voice, Jan/Feb 2015. Adapted from Stephen Davey’s book In Pursuit of Prodigals. Kress Biblical Resources (The Woodlands, TX, 2010). Used by permission.

In the matter of church discipline, the Bible is clear that believers must judge themselves (See Part 1). When else is it right to judge?

2. It is right to judge someone who is openly living in sin.

The Apostle Paul instructed the church in Corinth:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you. You have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this. (1 Corinthians 5:1-3)

Paul clearly announced, “I have already judged him.” It is important to note that Paul called attention to this man’s sin (sexual immorality) in the presence of the congregation.

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Church Discipline & Defending the Faith, Part 1

From Voice, Jan/Feb 2015. Adapted from Stephen Davey’s book In Pursuit of Prodigals. Kress Biblical Resources (The Woodlands, TX, 2010).Used by permission.

Paul instructed Timothy to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) which means we must engage in an active defense of the faith. That battle for truth begins in the local church where truth and holiness must be defended. And of necessity that involves church discipline. But what exactly is church discipline?

Church discipline can be broadly defined as the “confrontive” and corrective measures taken by an individual, church leaders, or the congregation regarding a matter of sin in the life of a believer (Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek Testament. Regency, 1976, p. 237).

Discipline and discipling are actually interconnected actions with similar goals in mind.

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Were the Novatians Early Baptists? Cyprian on Church Discipline

(Read the series so far.)

Most Baptists would not disagree with Cyprian on church discipline if they would only read what he wrote. But Ernest Pickering’s characterization is representative of what most Baptists believe about this issue: “Basically, [Novatian] and his followers were contending for a stricter view of the requirements for church membership than was generally accepted in his day.”1 Thus, Novatian is a crusading separatist; Cyprian is a lax compromiser. The truth, however, is that Novatian was a schismatic exclusivist.

Cyprian on church discipline

Cyprian was not lax. He believed that the truly repentant ought to be re-admitted into fellowship, and that the un-repentant should be excluded. When some of the lapsed presumptuously demanded to be re-admitted to the church, Cyprian condemned this “seditious practice” and charged that the clergy who permitted it were “frightened and subdued” men who “were of little avail to resist them, either by vigour of mind or by strength of faith.”2 Instead, Cyprian advocated a moderate, sensible policy:

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James MacDonald Asks Forgiveness for Unbiblical Discipline of Harvest Bible Chapel Elders

“For many months, we have labored under the awareness that our church discipline of a year ago was a failure in many respects, not the least of which was the complete lack of biblically required restorative component, which wronged the brothers that we were attempting to help” CT

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