Pastor Jeff Struecker
Nov 30, 2023
Church discipline is not talked about much, and many lifelong churchgoers feel confused when it comes up, often saying, “I have never heard this, never done this.” It seems like a topic nobody wants to discuss in the church. But there’s a lot written about it in the Bible.
When I say “church discipline,” it usually brings up negative thoughts, especially for those who have some history with it. Experiencing church discipline is rare. I’ve been in rooms with many pastors who admit, “I have never heard this, never seen this, no idea what this looks like,” even pastors of churches. We’re going to see what the Bible says about church discipline. Using the word “discipline” can immediately bring up negative images. Maybe your parents used the word, and what your dad did might not have been discipline but abuse.
One of the most explicit passages in the Bible about church discipline comes from the book of Matthew 18. If you have a red-letter Bible, your letters will tell you that this is Jesus speaking to his disciples. He tells his disciples that he wants his church to be pure and holy and describes how his church is supposed to be pure. Earlier in Matthew 18, he says if you have a brother who has sinned against you or a sister who has wronged you, there are steps that he expects you to take. He goes into those steps: first, you go to them one-on-one and tell them, “What you did hurt me really bad, and it was wrong.” If they don’t want to listen, the next step is to go to them with another brother or sister—a godly person, an impartial observer who just wants God’s best for you and the person you’re talking to. You go with another brother or sister and try to explain what happened and why it’s wrong.
But let’s say they totally blow you off when you go alone, and then they blow you off again when you go with someone else. Notice that you’re actively going to them; you’re not sitting around pouting, waiting for them to come to you because you love this person who has wronged you and wants the best for them. Now, you’re starting to get concerned, and Jesus tells his church what to do next in the book of Matthew. Here it is, Matthew 18: 7.
I hope that when you hear these words and as you read this Bible verse, you don’t sense any abuse or anger. I hope there’s no ugliness in what you perceive. It’s crucial not to miss this point. By the time we reach verse seven, Jesus emphasizes the loving care he expects from his followers when someone wrongs them. It was a sin, causing significant hurt. Instead of retaliating or harboring resentment, go out of your way to reach out to them, seeking to restore the person and mend the relationship—not just your relationship with them. When a sin occurs, their relationship with God is also affected.
But let’s say they dismiss your efforts. Now, enlist a Godly friend, whether male or female and go out of your way a second time. Share with them that what happened was wrong, a sinful act that caused you pain. Stress that their actions not only hurt you but also damaged their relationship with God. Do you sense the compassion in this passage? If, despite your efforts, they remain indifferent, Jesus provides guidance on the next step. You and the friend who visited this person take the matter to the church.
When Jesus says, “take it to the church,” there’s much debate about its meaning and how to execute it. While there may not be a single answer, the varied responses emphasize that what Jesus expects next is specific. If the person refuses to heed the entire church, then the directive is to turn away from them. In the original language, Jesus suggests removing them from communion, essentially excommunicating them. This means no longer sharing communion or fellowship with the individual. Treat them as if they are no longer part of your church family. While it may sound severe, it’s vital for the church’s overall health and, significantly, for the person’s soul. This step might be the last resort before their soul faces serious jeopardy, potentially spending eternity separated from God. It’s crucial to clarify that excommunication doesn’t condemn someone to hell. Instead, it underscores the seriousness when a soul shows no remorse for known wrongdoing, even after multiple interventions. It raises the question of whether that soul has genuinely experienced a radical change through Jesus. The reason for excommunication, treating them as outsiders, maybe because they were never truly part of the church family from the start. Jesus’ language regarding church discipline isn’t that of an abusive parent or a screaming, miserable-making mother. It reflects the love of a father who desires the best for you. This is your Father in heaven, who loves His Church, wants His best for this Church and wants His Church to be pure. He wants His Church to be holy, which naturally begs a question.
Take a moment to ponder and respond to this question audibly: Why does God emphasize purity in His church? Consider how your answer could significantly influence your role within the church and, importantly, how your church engages with the community.