Where is church discipline in the Bible?

When Jesus gave the Office of the Keys shortly after His resurrection, He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (Jn 20:23). As we learn it in the catechism, “The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners but to withhold forgiveness from unrepentant as long as they do not repent” (S.C. Art V).

What is the purpose of church discipline?

That comes through in the last part of Matt 18:15. “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” It’s all about restoration. If someone gets caught in a faith-destroying sin or anything else that would harm them spiritually, then it would be unloving to let them continue and have their faith destroyed. Instead, we would want to see them repent and be restored.

Is there another purpose?

Yes, there is. It serves as a warning to others. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote to Timothy, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (I Tim 5:20).

The Old Testament talked about purifying the people. Is this still another reason for exercising church discipline?

Exactly. This is the third purpose. The Lord desires to have the church purified to His glory. Although it was Old Testament, the Lord said, “Purge the evil from your midst” (Dt. 13:5). To allow known evil to continue unchecked is to forget He is still holy and we are His holy people (I Pet 2:9).

Are there any more examples of discipline in the Bible?

St. Paul did it for the sake of restoring a man who was committing heinous sins in the Corinthian church (I Cor 5:1-5). The churches of Pergamum and Thyratira were both chastised because they did not practice church discipline against those who not only were living in sin, but also teaching false doctrine. (Rev 2:14-16, 20)

How about actual commands to do it?

We can’t get much clearer than what the Lord says to Ezekiel. “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.

When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.” He sounds pretty serious!

Who is to be disciplined?

Someone who is involved in and persists in either a faith-destroying sin or a faith-destroying error (a false teaching) will need to be disciplined. Yet, it is not the sin, but the persistence in it, which is a sign of impenitence.

What is impenitence? Better yet, what is penitence or repentance?

Penitence is when a person humbly acknowledges they are a sinner and requests forgiveness. Some may call repentance simply asking for forgiveness, but that could lack the necessary humble acknowledgment of being a sinner. A person can ask for forgiveness and still be impenitent.

Asking for forgiveness would be just simply going through the motions. The best definition is to say repentance is begging for mercy. A person, led by the Holy Spirit to see their sin (Rom 3:20) will cry out for mercy (Lk 18:13). Begging for mercy carries the idea that we have abandoned any effort to save ourselves. A repentant person has actually been killed by the Law (II Cor 3:6) and has no resource but God’s mercy in Christ. Looking to Him for mercy is faith.

I thought all sins are the same. Why is one sin worse than another?

It’s not the sin. It’s the impenitence.

Still, why some sins and not others?

For the sake of restoring a person, church discipline ought to be carried out on those whose sin has become a matter of public record. This is what happened to David when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed (2 Samuel 11). It became a matter of public record. In our day, an unmarried couple living together is involved in public sin simply because they share the same address, even though their fornication remains private. Some pro-abortion legislators have been disciplined by their Roman Catholic congregations because their public record shows they support abortion laws. Dealing with those according to their public record, first assures there is not a mistake, but second provides the warning needed by others.

Are there faith-destroying sins that may not be a public record?

Yes. The neglect of worship is something that many consider harmless, but could actually destroy a person’s soul. A person is not likely to remain a Christian if he is starving himself to death.

The Lutheran documents call these people “despisers of the sacrament” (Apology to the Augsburg Confession XI: 61). Perhaps you can hear the 3rd commandment in that phrase. Breaking the 3rd commandment is also a sin, and a serious one.

What about a sin that everyone knows about but is not public record?

This is a matter of pastoral care but also discretion. Through preaching, a pastor will hope his people will become aware of their sins and repent of them. It’s not a matter of stopping the sin, but repenting of it. Sin will continue to be a part of everyone’s life, but penitent sinners will not let the sin rule over them.

Should the pastor act on rumors or gossip?

No. He should not be the moral police, meddling into his peoples’ business for the sake of finding their sin. In an era dominated by social media, one’s reputation needs to be guarded more carefully than ever.

Aren’t we judging? Didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not?”

Jesus did say, “Judge not” (Matt 7:1), but he was condemning self-righteous judgment. Look at the rest of the passage (Matt 7:1-2). A person should hold the same standard for himself as he does for others.

Correcting someone else can be spiritually dangerous, though. The apostle Paul gives a warning along with the command, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in a transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you be tempted” (Gal 6:1) Tempted to do what? To think you are better than he.

Tell me how this is out of love again.

I know. It doesn’t look like love, but neither does it look like love to a child when he is given a time-out. The purpose is to get a Christian to see his or her behavior is sin, repent of it and be joyfully restored.

This sounds like it is more than simply telling someone what they are doing is wrong? Is there more?

Yes. A person hearing someone tell him he is committing a sin can be hard. Still, if that doesn’t jolt a person, then it might call for warning them away from the Lord’s Supper because they are showing impenitence. It could eventually mean removal from the church rolls which is basically pronouncing the verdict that has already been made in heaven (Matt 18:18; Lk 10:16; SC V).

The gates of heaven are shut against the one who rejects forgiveness.

How does communion become a part of this?

Primarily, it is to protect the impenitent person. The Lord’s Supper is life giving and healthful when received in faith. If a person is impenitent, however, it is dangerous. The Holy of Holies in the temple was approached only with great fear (Heb 9:7) because of God’s destructive holiness (Dt 4:24). The Lord’s Supper is the New Testament Holy of Holies (Jn 1:14), and therefore carries the same danger. We approach because we are invited and because we are covered by Christ’s righteousness (Gal 3:27). He is our shield (Ps. 84:9). To be impenitent, however, is to cast off his righteousness. It is to sin against the body and blood (I Cor 11:29).

This happened in the Corinthian church. Some were sick and had even died when they sinned against the body and blood (I Cor 11:31-32). This does not seem likely to happen now, but God’s judgment according to the letter to the Romans is carried out when He allows sin to become worse (Rom 1:18ff). To continue communing that person is to seal him in his sin.

What about the corporate aspect of the congregation or the congregation as a body?

Of course this is another concern. To allow an openly impenitent sinner to commune is to give the appearance that we approve of the sin and forfeit the chance to give a warning for the sake of the rest of the congregation.

Who is worthy, then?

The catechism answers,“…he is worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you,’ …for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe” (SC VI). Not taking into account the corporate nature of communion—that is the confession involved—then the person who is worthy is the one who says, “This is what I need.”

What should happen if an impenitent person should come to the rail?

It depends on whether the pastor has spoken to them or not. If the pastor has not spoken about it, then it would be terribly embarrassing to be passed up. If, however, they have been warned and they still come up, then for their spiritual good, they should be passed, and the pastor should speak to them as soon as possible.

What does a person need to do once they are under discipline?

Repent. See the answers discussed above.

Is it enough for a person to say, “I know I have sinned?”

No. Saying, “I know I have I sinned,” is a step removed from saying, “I have sinned.” And still a person can say, “I have sinned,” and still not be penitent. If a person is penitent we would expect them to show it. John the Baptist taught us to expect penitents to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:7). In other words, we should expect a corresponding change in life. Otherwise the repentance is not real. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession says, “There can be no true conversion or contrition where mortifying the flesh and good fruits do not follow” (Ap XII: 131). The Augsburg Confession of 1530 says, “Then good works, which are the fruits of repentance, are bound to follow. (AC XII: 6)

Are we saying grace isn’t enough and you need to have obedience and good works to be saved?

No, but again the Law must do its work, killing a person and leading them to cry out for mercy.

When they do this, they show they are penitent, and we ought to expect that they will no longer continue to live in that sin. Like St. Paul had asked, “How can we who have died to sin, still live in it?” (Rom 6:2)

What should the congregation do once a person repents?

Forgive him or her and welcome them back into full fellowship, with all its rights and privileges, especially the privilege of communing again.

Are we doing something new in our congregation?

No. This has been done in the past, but it did not get quite as much attention. We are also addressing the practice more openly and directly with the congregation.

Who has the authority to do this church discipline?

God gave the authority to the church but He has also established the office of the Holy Ministry to exercise it for the people of the church publicly (Acts 20:28; I Cor 4:1). Still, the entire congregation should be involved. In a document against abuses in the Church of Rome, the 16th century confessors say, “The keys do not belong to one particular person but to the church” (Treatise 24).

Who gives this authority?

When Jesus breathed on His disciples and gave them the Office of the Keys, He also gave the church that authority. And having been given all authority on heaven and earth (Matt 28:18), He continues to give this authority to the church to use it on His behalf.

Shouldn’t God do this Himself?

Actually He is. He is using the men He has called and the concern of His people for their fellow Christians. “Warn the wicked man” of Ezekiel and the softer command of Galatians, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual, restore him gently” (Gal 6:1) should show us God wants us to do this for Him.

Can an individual do this?

Yes, in fact an individual should. Individuals are the ones Matt 18 is first addressing. Look at the steps involved in Matt 18:15-20. If you see someone committing a faith-destroying sin, realize it is hurting their soul, but also doing damage to the body of Christ (I Cor 12:12-26). Out of love, you are not going to want to just let it go. But because it hurts you as well as them, you will want to gently and lovingly confront them with it.

So what is a pastor’s job?

The pastor has been given the authority to exercise the Office of the Keys on behalf of the congregation. This is most visible when he speaks the absolution, baptizes people, distributes the Lord’s Supper, and speaks God’s Word to the people. These duties can be called the Keys that “win.” The Keys that “warn” concern discipline, even preaching the Law. Although the pastor has the authority, he will not want to act unilaterally in disciplining a person.

Does Matt 18 have to be followed when the sin is a matter of public record?

No, but since the purpose is to restore the person, the discipline will need to be as discreet as possible. Of course, it can’t be entirely discreet, because there is still the public warning involved. To warn a person from the Lord’s Table can be very effective. At least the rest of the congregation will see since this person is impenitent, he or she is not being allowed to hurt themselves at the Lord’s Table.

Do the steps of Mt 18 mean three steps and you’re done?

No. There is nothing that says how often each step could be done–especially the first step. The intent is to restore your brother. If you are concerned that your brother (or sister) is engaging in a sin that is going to destroy his soul, you will warn him until you believe this is not accomplishing anything. After this is exhausted, you will want to bring in some witnesses. If you discipline someone, won’t they just quit coming to church or go to a different one? That is the risk. This is why it should be done slowly and gently. The ultimate goal is to restore them to the faith. We can’t neglect this aspect of their pastoral care, however, for fear they may leave.

What is the responsibility of other congregations?

It would be the hope of a disciplining congregation that other congregations will love the soul of the one who is disciplined and not ignore what has happened. Unfortunately, it can happen too easily that a person could just go down the street to another church. It should be expected, however, that churches of the same confession would stand together.

What about the rest of the family?

They can be the biggest help or the biggest hindrance. If members of the family are pulled into the situation to protect their fellow family member from what they think is the injustice of the discipline, it is obviously going to hurt that person in the long run.

On the other hand, if other members of the family understand what this is all about, they are in an excellent position to help their family member repent. This is why it is critical to know the purpose of discipline, so they can see it has been done out of love. The same would go for other members of the congregation.

How come I never knew about this before?

Church discipline has tragically fallen into disuse. We were told this would happen. Jesus said in the last days, people’s love would grow cold (Matt 24:12). People may not realize it, but it shows a lack of love when we are not willing to confront and warn a person from danger. Our politically correct society is also a relativistic society where everyone decides for themselves what is truth, and has contributed to a decline of its use.

God willing it won’t, but it sounds like it could happen to any member. Wouldn’t it be wise for everyone to be made aware of it when they become members?

Actually, every time we install new officers, the congregation hears them promise to see to it “that the erring are admonished, and that discipline is maintained.” This is one of the responsibilities of the elders. The article on Conditions of membership in our congregation’s constitution also says, “Communicant members are those who…permit themselves to be fraternally admonished and corrected when they have erred (Matt 18).” Still, it would be wise to make sure this is understood as youth and adults are catechized and become members.

I noticed there were a lot of Bible passages that were referenced. In fact they started getting a little annoying in some places. Was there a reason for this?

Yes. We want you to realize this practice is soundly Scriptural and not just suggested once but seen as an integral part of a church’s life.

Is there someplace where I could read more about this?

Yes. Much of this comes from the 1985 CTCR (Commission on Theology and Church Relations) report called, “Church Discipline in the Christian Congregation.” (PDF found here)