Church Discipline


Church discipline is one of those topics which isn’t spoken about or even taught very often within churches, simply because either people don’t understand the reason for it or don’t know how to enforce it but in most cases, church discipline is mainly neglected and not practised because the leaders feel they don’t want to confront anyone and upset the flock. This sadly is the downfall of many a congregation.

Scriptural Authority For Discipline

Whether congregations realise it or not, they have the obligation to maintain discipline, Titus 2:11-12.

The word, teaching or instruction in Greek is the word ‘paideuo’ which literally means putting in order, Acts 22:3.

The Scriptures themselves fulfil four functions, 2 Timothy 3:16. Doctrine or teaching, rebuke, are associated with the idea of proving to be right and therefore rebuking error, correction and instruction, which in Greek is the word, ‘paidia’ which means training or discipline.

Authority of Christ

We know that all authority has been given to Christ, Matthew 28:18 and we also know that Christ gave authority to His apostles, Luke 10:16.

The authority Christ gave His apostles involved the apostles exercising discipline. Acts 5:1-11 / 1 Corinthians 5:3-13. This also involved evangelists and churches exercising discipline by apostolic authority, 1 Thessalonians 5:14 / 2 Thessalonians 3:6 / 2 Timothy 4:1-2

The Great Commission involves Discipline

There are two parts to the commission, first of all in the making of Christians


‘Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.’ Matthew 28:19


‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’ Mark 16:16


‘Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.’ Luke 24:47


‘Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ Matthew 28:19

‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’ Mark 16:16

Secondly educating and developing Christians involved discipline.

Teaching them the commands of the Lord

‘Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Matthew 28:20

Teaching them to observe those commands

‘Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Matthew 28:20

This involves all the work of discipline, 2 Timothy 3:16 and it involves exclusion where necessary as we saw earlier in 1 Corinthians 5:3-13 / 1 Thessalonians 5:14 / 2 Thessalonians 3:6.

And here’s the key to understanding discipline, the more discipline is maintained the less exclusion will be necessary and that’s because the law of admission and the law of exclusion are related. To emphasise the law of inclusion into the kingdom and neglect the law of exclusion is unfaithfulness. And so, we’re obligated to keep a proper balance, James 2:10. The church must not only preach but keep the whole counsel of God. Acts 20:26-27


Discipline is all about preserving the purity of the church because Christians must follow after holiness. Hebrews 12:14 / 1 Peter 2:11 unto ultimate perfection, Ephesians 5:27. Christians must be bound in love to each other 1 John 4:6-13 and Christians should live in the bond of peace Ephesians 4:3.

The church must therefore be guarded against every subversive influence, things like false doctrine, Acts 20:29-30, division and strife, Acts 20:30 / Romans 16:17 / 1 Corinthians 1:10 and impurity, 1 Corinthians 5:3-13.

It’s the church’s duty to deal with those failings and help the situation in every way it can, Galatians 6:1 / James 5:19-20, and if all else fails, then disfellowshipping someone may be necessary. Matthew 18:17 / Titus 3:10.

But please remember the whole point of disfellowshipping someone isn’t the goal, the goal of the church is to save members of the church.

The salvation of souls is the object of the church, Philippians 2:12-13 and this involves instruction of the ignorant, correction of those in error, 2 Timothy 4:1-2, restoration of transgressors and disfellowship of the unrepentant. This extreme action of disfellowshipping is therefore a measure designed both to save the individual Christian and the church. 1 Corinthians 5:5 / Revelation 2:1-7.

Occasion for discipline

The New Testament gives us examples of where disfellowship has to be exercised but they are not to be taken as the only grounds. The principles behind them must be considered. The following are in order of occurrence.

Malice against fellow Christians, Matthew 18:17

Causing division, Romans l0:17 / Titus 3:10

Immorality, 1 Corinthians 5

Walking disorderly, 2 Thessalonians 2:6, this literally means ‘walking out of step’. It’s applied in the immediate context to those who were idle gossips, 2 Thessalonians 2:11. But it obviously in principle covers a wide range of offences, 1 John 1:7.

Blasphemy, 1 Timothy 1:20

False doctrine, Acts 20:30 / Revelation 2:2

Manner of discipline

The manner and method must be Scriptural, the manner of carrying out a matter often determines its effect. In other words, Scriptural discipline can become unscriptural when its carried out in an unscriptural manner. The right motives must be behind the action.

In personal grievances,

the object should be to gain a brother, Matthew 18:15.

In public grievances,

the object should be restoration, Galatians 6:1 / James 5:19-20.

In all cases

edification should be the object and not destruction, Luke 9:51-56.

Discipline should be exercised in the spirit of love and that’s because all things must be done in love, Romans 13:10 / 1 Corinthians 13 / 1 Corinthians 16:4. The love that Christ manifested to us must be manifested to others. Colossians 3:13 because this is the mark of true discipleship, John 13:34-35.

Discipline must be strictly according to the New Testament, for example in public grievances, the offender should be properly warned, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, they must be admonished at least on two occasions, Titus 3:10.

In private grievances

If the offender thinks they have committed an offence against another, they must go and rectify it, Matthew 5:23-24. The offended one must go to the offender Matthew 18:15, if they will not heed, they are to take witnesses, Matthew 18:16. If this is not effective, they must take it to the church, Matthew 18:17. It, therefore, becomes a public matter, if the offender does not listen to the church, they must be disfellowshipped Matthew 18:17.

It must be maintained with firmness and fellowship, no undue haste, no undue severity, and no slackness or unfaithfulness, Romans 12:8. It should be constant because if it is neglected, this means that the number of cases can accumulate, and it establishes a precedent in future cases. The church becomes infected with a spirit of negligence, 1 Corinthians 5:2 / Titus 1:5, and the longer a case is left, the harder it often becomes to deal with it.

Each case should be wisely and judiciously exercised, the principles are given but the immediate application is left to our judgment, hence the qualification of elders must be sober-minded, discreet and of sound judgment, 1 Timothy 3:2.

When withdrawal of fellowship is required, it must be done with proper warning to the offender, Titus 3:10 and in concert with the whole church, 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 / 2 Corinthians 2:6 and it’s vitally important that every member supports such a decision. Other congregations must also support it, Romans 16:17 / 1 Corinthians 5.

If this part was practised today it would certainly stop a lot of ‘church hopping’ when someone is disfellowshipped from another congregation.

Is it possible to disfellowship a whole church?

Paul was writing to a group of churches in Galatia, Galatians 1:2 and he declared that the whole group had departed from the truth, Galatians l:6-9. If they persisted in their error they would be severed from Christ, Galatians 5:1 and so, there seems warrant therefore for disfellowshipping congregations as an extreme measure.

However, a careful distinction must be made in a congregation between those remaining faithful and those not. Compare in 3 John the condemnation of Diotrephes, 3 John 9, with the commendation of others 3 John 1.

The effect of discipline

The effect is far-reaching, the offender is to be treated as a heathen man and a publican, Matthew 18:17, they are to be avoided, Romans 16:17. They are to be taken away from among you, 1 Corinthians 5:2.

Not to keep company nor to eat with them, 1 Corinthians 5:11, have no company with him 2 Thessalonians 3:14, they must not be assisted in any way that would promote his false position, 2 John 9-11 for the Christian so assisting is giving moral support to his error. Every member of the congregation must support this action.

However, this is not to be done in self-righteousness nor malice, but simply to make the offender ashamed 2 Thessalonians 4:14, with the hope of bringing him more rapidly to repentance. At all times it has to be remembered he is a brother, 2 Thessalonians 3:15.


The restored offender should be forgiven without recriminations, 2 Corinthians 2:7 they must be comforted 2 Corinthians 2:7 and be given a special assurance of love and affection 2 Corinthians 2:8. This must be done not only for their sake but for our own, lest unworthy personal motives become involved, 2 Corinthians 2:10-11. There should be true rejoicing at the restoration of a fellow Christian, Matthew 18:13-14 / Luke 15:7 / James 5:19-20.

A closer look at the discipline and the treatment of the offender from the Corinthian example

Review of 1 Corinthians

After the introduction, Paul raises the matter that was causing him great concern, the division in the Corinthian church which called for immediate attention. Disunity in the congregation prevents the exercise of discipline and allows problems to go unchallenged and unchecked.

In 1 Corinthians 5, he mentions his shock and dismay on hearing that immorality is being committed by someone in the congregation, and no action has been taken to deal with the offender. Bearing in mind that the Corinthian letters were written early in Paul’s ministry, it is probable that the Corinthian Church was without scriptural oversight at this time.

Contrast his opening greeting in the Corinthian letters, with the greeting in the much later letter to the Philippian congregation, which he knew well and with whom he had an excellent relationship.

Notice the absence of any reference to ‘bishops’ in both Corinthian letters. The exercise of discipline is virtually impossible, and, at best, extremely difficult, in a congregation which lacks a Scripturally Appointed Eldership. Elders have both the duty and the responsibility to maintain the purity of the church, and their appointment should be a priority in the programme of any young congregation.

‘It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. So, when you are assembled, and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.’ 1 Corinthians 5:1-5

1. The offender is known to everyone in the congregation but is unnamed in Paul’s letter.

2. The immoral relationship is described as being with ‘his father’s wife’. His stepmother.

3. The church has done nothing about the offensive situation. Paul’s implication seems to be that, because of their divided state, they lack either the will or the desire. Or the ability to deal with it, the remedy is clearly stated, ‘the guilty man should be excommunication’. 1 Corinthians 5:2.

4. This verdict is not primarily intended to be punitive, i.e. a punishment but is meant to be corrective. 1 Corinthians 5:5.

The Sequel

‘If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent—not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.’ 2 Corinthians 2:5-11

Titus, who has carried a second letter, the ‘painful’ letter! to Corinth has found Paul in Macedonia, probably in Philippi, and reported that the situation in Corinth has greatly improved and the guilty person has been confronted, has been dealt with, and has repented.

Look at how the church had acted. 2 Corinthians 2:6 uses the word ‘punishment’. The word Paul uses here is ‘epitomic’, and it’s different from the word for ‘punishment’ found in Matthew 5:46, which reads, ‘These shall go away into everlasting punishment’.

Here the word is ‘kolasin’ and relates to suffering a penalty. The passage in which we’re considering the word would be better understood to mean ‘rebuke’ or censure.

The church has, at last, brought the offence out into the open, and has confronted the guilty man with his sin and then excommunicated him, and denied him, fellowship.

This action has been effective, He has suffered the grief of repentance, and has been made to understand that to be excommunicated means to be placed outside of the fellowship of God’s people and in the realm of Satan, where, if he remains, he will lose his salvation. In that state, neither religious nor social contact with members of the church is permitted.

But since ex-communication isn’t amputation, which is permanent, but is a condition which can be reversed, and since, in this case, the guilty man has shown evidence of repentance, Paul urges that the church show him comfort, lest he becomes so depressed that he becomes completely crushed by his grief, or, as Paul puts it, ‘Reaffirm your love’, 2 Corinthians 2:7

The previous verse, 2 Corinthians 2:6 may be understood in two different ways. Paul speaks of ‘the punishment’ which was ‘inflicted by the majority’, which implies that the decision wasn’t unanimous!

Does this mean that the congregation wasn’t unanimous in the decision to ‘punish’ the guilty man?

Or does it mean they weren’t unanimous in determining the manner or severity of the ‘punishment’?

It may seem inconceivable that anyone in the congregation would object to the man being faced with his immorality, but, bearing in mind the composition of the congregation Greeks, Jews and probably other races, and the immaturity of most of them, it is possible that there was a minority, as Paul’s words imply, that felt ex-communication was too severe a punishment.

It may be that among the Jewish members there were some who had belonged to the stricter sect of Judaism, and these people believed that when a Gentile submitted to the ceremonies which admitted him into Judaism, his conversion cancelled all previous relationships, and this meant that he was free to form new relationships.

It is possible that they constituted the ‘minority’ which didn’t agree with the course of action taken by the majority, and it’s clear to this group that Paul directed his illustration based on the Passover and the leaven, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8

Obviously, there is much we don’t know about the situation at Corinth. Paul doesn’t give details. No names are mentioned. Neither the man nor his father is named, and the woman involved is described only as the man’s stepmother. The phrase ‘his father’s wife’ is the Hebrew form of step-mother.

It’s probable that no charge was made against the woman because she wasn’t a member of the church and therefore she was outside the church’s ‘jurisdiction’.

Again, the man’s father may have taken a younger woman as his second wife, and this may have resulted in her affair with the ‘younger’ man. Or, as some commentators suggest, the wife had been divorced by the father, and this immoral affair had developed with her stepson after the divorce, or may even have caused it.

We may speculate about the details of the case, but we cannot be certain! What we may say with certainty is that between this man and the woman, an immoral relationship developed which couldn’t be tolerated because it defiled the Lord’s church, and discipline had to enforce. But the man’s ex-communication isn’t to be the last act in the matter, because, as Paul points out if the church cuts itself off from the man completely and permanently, ‘Satan gains a victory’, 1 Corinthians 5:5

Imagine what would happen if a local congregation found it necessary to disfellowship a man and treated him as ‘dead’, and the neighbourhood learned about this?

How quickly would it be said, ‘That’s Christians for you! That’s how they behave in that church!’ The effect on the public’s opinion of the church would be devastating.


1. The frequent failure to exercise Scriptural discipline has often resulted in damage to our congregations, weakening their internal spiritual strength and their external witness.

2. Elders or ‘leaders’ often lack the courage to act, when an offence should be dealt with, and one of the sad reasons for this may be that, on earlier occasions, problems which should have been confronted have been deliberately ignored, or ‘swept under the carpet’.

3. In dealing with occurrences which require the application of Scriptural discipline, Galatians 6:1-5 should never be overlooked.

‘Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfil the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.’ Galatians 6:1-5

Maybe congregations should ask themselves if the fellowship they enjoy with one another is so powerful, that anyone having to be disfellowshipped would miss it all that much!



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