Church discipline includes:
The Necessity for Maintaining Church Order.
The need for each local church to discipline its life and order follows from three basic principles:
1. The gathered church: Ideally, the church is a fellowship of regenerate people and ought only to receive into its membership born-again believers. The gathered church means a church made up not of those who once professed to be called out of the world to follow Christ, but of those who still do so. It follows that those who turn back on their profession, or who give other reason to the church to believe that they are not truly converted, must be removed from membership.
2. The ordered church: The church stands for the truth of the Gospel and for Christian morality. It exists to bear witness to both in the world and to further this end it has an ordered structure and fellowship. If a member violates its standards, action must be taken to restore its order, both for its own purity and for the sake of its public witness.
3. The voluntary principle: A person joins a church not under any coercion but by his own desire. In doing so, he takes upon himself both privileges and responsibilities. The responsibilities include making a full contribution to the life of the church and living a consistent christian life on the personal level. Since he has willingly consented to these principles, the church is right to act when they are violated.
2 Cor. 8:5; Acts 2:41-44.
The New Testament yields abundant examples of churches maintaining their order in this way. They cover many different situations including offences against the peace and fellowship of the church, heresy, sin in a member’s personal life, disputes between members and disputes between churches.
Mat. 18:15-20; Acts 15:1-33; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1, 2; 2 Cor. 13:1, 2; Gal. 6:1; 2 Thess. 3:6, 11, 12; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:20; Titus 1:13; 3:8-10.
The Purpose In Maintaining Church Order
In maintaining its order, the church is acting in self-preservation. Its life is spiritual and sin can destroy it. If sin is tolerated in the midst, the whole life of the church suffers and the fellowship is marred.
1 Cor. 5:6; Rev. 2:14; 6:20.
Errors of belief and practice, if overlooked, deny the very message proclaimed by the church. A telling witness demands consistency. The church acts against sin within itself in order to preserve effective witness. Where the members know that the church will take action to preserve its order, they are discouraged from sin. This is heightened if they see instances of such discipline being carried out.
Titus 2:1-5; 1 Tim. 5:20.
The church is also acting for the highest good of the one who has sinned. It is giving proof that it takes a serious view of sin in the christian, but it is doing much more than this. The real aim is that the guilty person should be brought to repentance and restored to full fellowship in the church. All such action should be effected faithfully, but not harshly nor arrogantly. It must always be done in christian love and humility.
2 Tim. 2:24-26; Titus 1 :13; 1 Cor. 5:5; Gal. 6:1; 2 Cor. 2:6-8; Rev. 3:19.
The Means of Maintaining Church Order
It is a vital necessity for the spiritual life of the church that only converted people are admitted into membership. The membership of any who give positive cause for doubt should be reconsidered, and those that actually give evidence that they are not converted should be removed from membership altogether. Such removal should never be done without ministering to the one concerned, and in love seeking to help him. The teaching ministry of the church must include detailed instruction in christian living and standards of behaviour, both on the personal level and within the corporate life of the fellowship. This includes not only the public preaching of the Word, but also the particular application to the individual in private, through pastoral care. Offences can be called personal when they concern a personal relationship where an injury has been done, or is thought to be done, by one member to another. They can be termed general when they concern error, heresy, morals, breaches of love, neglect of responsibility, or in any other way injure the cause of Christ.
Personal Offences: Christians are forbidden to go to law against their brethren. In case of wrongs, there are two courses of action. One is patiently to suffer the wrong done, and not to seek reparation. The other is to have the matter decided by a wise man in the church. Members who find themselves in a situation that cannot be resolved privately may ask the elders of the church to decide it. If the professed injury is proved, it may involve the wrong-doer in censure. In cases where a quarrel between members is disrupting the fellowship of the church, the elders should call for the dispute to be heard before them, and it may be necessary to rebuke both parties.
1 Cor. 6:1-7; Mat. 18:15-17.
General Offences: As in the case of personal offences, the first person to have knowledge of a general offence should make personal and private efforts to remedy the situation if this be possible. Failing this, he must notify the elders. Having thus obtained a formal knowledge of the matter, they will visit the brother concerned in the name of the Lord and of the church, to hear his explanations and intentions. They will go in a spirit of love and meekness, desiring to win the brother. If this first visit does not resolve the matter, it may be necessary to warn the offender of the error of his ways and to require him to come before the church. If, when this happens, the offender should disprove the charges made against him, or should he admit them and confess his wrong, making suitable acknowledgment and reparation, this should be deemed sufficient and the case dismissed. If the offender defies the authority of the church and refuses to appear before it, or if he cannot appear, the church will reach its decision prayerfully and justly and mercifully in the light of all available evidence. But if all patient, deliberate and prayerful effort to reclaim the offender finally fails, excommunication must follow upon due admonition.
Titus 1 :13; 1 Tim. 5:20; Titus 3:10; 2 Cor. 2:6-8.
The aim of excommunication is not only the church’s purity but also the offender’s good. It is reformative as well as punitive. The person excommunicated can be restored upon repentance. It is essential that all members are aware of the church’s position in its control over them. They should be regularly reminded of this, and more important still, it should be ensured that new members fully understand this when they join the fellowship. It will avoid misunderstanding if pastoral exhortation and censure are specifically clarified to prospective members when joining the church. This activity of discipline must be constant and consistent, avoiding the sudden purge.
1 Tim. 1 :20; 2 Thess. 3:15; 1 Cor. 5; Gal. 6:1; 1 Tim. 5:22 (see also vv. 20-21) .
The Special Place of Elders and Deacons: The disciplinary ministry of the church is through the elders. They are responsible for teaching and encouraging the members, for the execution of church censures, and the pastoral care of the subjects of censure. There are several points of difference when the church has to deal with sin on the part of an elder or deacon.
Heb. 13:17; Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2; 1 Thess. 5: 12; Gal. 6:1.
An accusation against an elder is more serious than one against other members. Elders are also more vulnerable than others to accusation, and their reputation must be protected. Consequently, such an accusation should be heard only in the presence of several witnesses so that every word may be established.
1 Tim. 5:19 f.
Officers accept great responsibilities, and if they fail to live up to these they render themselves liable to the censure of the church. Sins of office include failure to fulfil their duties, using their privileges for personal gain or selfish prestige, and instigating party spirit. Such a person should not continue to hold office. It may be advisable while an accusation against an office-bearer is being heard to suspend him from office until the matter is resolved.
1 Pet. 5:2, 3.
Dangers to Avoid in Discipline
Heresy Hunting: Those in the church who pry into the affairs of others, or are constantly on the look-out for sins and errors create an atmosphere which will be deadening to that brotherly love and trust which should characterise a christian fellowship.
Assuming the Accused Person Guilty: Christian love demands that we believe the best about a person until we are forced to conclude otherwise. The elders should examine an accusation before it is brought before the church to see if there be a case to answer. The charge must be solidly proved by two or three witnesses, and unless or until that is done, the member should be assumed innocent.
1 Cor. 13: 6, 7; 2 Cor. 13:1.
Errors in applying censure: Churches can make mistakes. It is possible to censure a member wrongly, or to fail to administer censure where it is due. It is important to rectify such mistakes with all possible speed. They may bring the gospel into disrepute outside the church, or impair the authority of all discipline within it. The aim of the censure is to edify both the wrong-doer and the church, but where it is wrongly applied, the effect will be nullified. Forthese reasons, a church guilty of any such miscarriage of justice should rejoice at having it pointed out.
1 Cor 5:1, 2, 11.