Church Discipline in Church History (Part 1)

SplashThe issue or topic of Church Discipline is one which seems to be becoming one of more focus as the twenty-first century church seeks to either maintain or recapture ground lost to the post-modern era from which it is emerging. For some this may be a topic of which little or nothing is known while for others it may be a bit of a ‘hobby-horse’ issue. Therefore, it will not be the goal of this series to try to convince anyone of the requirement of this practice one way or another. Rather, the focus will be to provide background information from the foundation of the church at Pentecost to the present regarding the practice of church discipline and it its goal of restoration within the context of the church. This is undertaken in order to equip the one who has little current knowledge as well as provide balance for those who may have made this into a pet theological issue. In order to accomplish these lofty goals a survey style of presentation has been chosen which will begin in the first century AD and progress to the third century followed by the period of the Protestant Reformation and ending with own time.

The Apostolic Church in the First Century

The first place any Christian should look to determine matters of faith and practice ought to be the Bible. Therefore, it is the starting point for this survey examining the practice of church discipline and restoration in the local church which is the physical representation of Christ’s Bride on earth. In this section attention will be given to Matthew 18:15-20, an example of discipline in Acts, the issue of the sinning man in Corinth, and the factious man of Titus 3 to determine if these passages represent a description of the actions of the early church or contain prescriptions of the activity of the church through the ages.

Matthew 18 and Its Influence

Matthew 18:15-20 likely represents the extent of many people’s knowledge of church discipline. This is not as bad as it may seem for within this passage is a sort of template many churches which practice church discipline and restoration follow. For example, the Lord uses the term ‘brother’ to indicate the relationship the sinning party has to Him as well as to other believers in verse 15, thus this activity is to be applied to believers and not to the population in general.1 The fact that the person who is aware of the sin is responsible to show it to the sinning brother is an indication that this is an activity in which all believers share responsibility is not restricted to the leaders. This is further demonstrated by the fact that eventually it may be necessary to “tell it to the church/assembly”(v. 17). Finally, if the one astray refuses to take heed it is the responsibility of the congregation to expel the person from the assembly (v. 17b).

What has been presented so far is probably representative of what one might hear if an inquiry were made into the practice/application of Matthew 18 to a given situation. However, there are at least three implications which are often overlooked in this process. The first is the Lord is speaking to His disciples prior to the founding of the church at Pentecost, so this responsibility to be involved in the process may have caught His listeners a bit off guard. This is not to say that these instructions are not binding for they are definitely the instructions of Jesus as to how straying believers are to be called to repentance. Thus since these are His instructions it seems that this must be a practice of the church. Secondly, the process the Lord presents immediately ceases with the repentance of the erring brother (or sister). The progression presented only continues if the wayward believer refuses to listen. Or in other words restoration is accomplished at any stage of the process whether in private at the first meeting or in public following the involvement of the church. What is in view here is the end goal – restoration of the one being confronted. Many times it appears as if the process is undertaken today in order to exclude someone from fellowship rather than trying to maintain their inclusion.

The First Example of Discipline in the Church

The book of Acts contains the first recorded instance of church discipline in the incidentA and S involving the conspiracy of Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, to gain esteem in the local church by lying (Acts 5:1-16). However, unlike the prescriptive nature of Matthew 18:15-20, this passage is a description of how Christ views the purity of His Church. This passage should never be taken as giving license to the local church to carry out capital punishment – the Bride of Christ wields the Gospel not the sword.

The Sinning Brother in Corinth

In his writing to Corinth Paul reveals the fact that there is a man in gross immorality whom the local church has failed to confront in love (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). The Apostle then takes action to bar the man from the assembly for his offenses. This extreme measure seems to be taken by Paul only because of the lack of action on the part of the local congregation and its leadership. However, when the man demonstrates repentance the Apostle encourages the church to receive this man back into fellowship in love and it is an activity for the entire congregation to accomplish (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).2 The example learned here is not that a church should have an outside arbitrator to handle issues of sin but rather, that restoration is a welcomed and joyful result of the proper application of church discipline.

The Factious Man in Titus 3

Paul’s letter to his young protégé Titus is a bit of a ‘how-to manual’ for the local church as it addresses issues of qualified leadership (1:5-9), dealing with false teachers (1:10-16), intergenerational discipleship (2), and even church discipline (3:10-11). The difference found in Titus 3 as compared to Matthew 18, Acts, or the Corinthian church is it appears to address a truncated method of applying church discipline to a particular situation. Instead of the one-on-one, then with witnesses, then tell it to the church Factious Manapproach one learns that this factious person is to be warned off of his or her path at least twice and then be rejected. According to Kitchen, this situation is undertaken because of the potential for the “factious man” to not only fall into false teachings himself but to drag others along with him.3

This survey of the New Testament has provided the impetus for practicing church discipline and restoration by providing both prescriptive and descriptive passages to study further in the future. In our next installment attention will be turned to how the church has put this information into practice in various epochs of her history.

 

  1. John MacArthur, Matthew 16-23, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988), 19.
  2. John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 127.
  3. John A. Kitchen, The Pastoral Epistles for Pastors (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Christian Publications, 2009), 561-563.