DISCIPLINE WITHIN THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH: HOW AND WHY
I’m going to discuss discipline within the Church, or what is called the Body of Christ. This is not a thesis, nor is it complete, but it is an overview of the issue of Church discipline: how we accomplish it, and why we do it.
Please remember that this is from a Biblical point of view, and although other faiths may use a similar method of counseling and discipline, this is the way that all professing Christians are to conduct such issues according to Jesus and Paul, among others.
I am a Protestant, and a former Catholic. I will not be sharing the name of my “denomination” for the sake of focusing on the Lord, rather than highlighting schisms and factions of human beings who are calling themselves by any but His name. I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, and a lover of Adonai God.
We do not observe the “confessional”, and if one member of the congregation is doing something that is harmful to the church, there are certain steps we must take to ensure the safety of the rest of the congregation, and hopefully the return of the errant member.
I participate in pastoral/spiritual counseling. I made a vow when I became a minister that I would not divulge the secret matters of the heart that one would bring before me as we sat down to counsel. I do not share what is given to me in confidence as part of a program of spiritual guidance.
I warn folks ahead of time that although I may listen to certain private things, that they must not use me to further slander, to cover their decision to commit suicide, to tell of child abuse or crimes they have committed (for which they have not been punished), or to try to side against their spouse or cover adultery. I tell them that if it is an issue of crime, they must decide if they are ready to deal with the crime, because I cannot keep those secrets. I tell them if it is an issue of adultery, they must not tell me unless they are ready to begin working on this sin against their spouse (or the spouse of another), because I cannot cover this kind of sin. If it is an issue of a wrong committed against the congregation, they are not allowed to use me as a hiding place, thereby implicating me or including me as an unwilling participant in their actions.
By the same token, I will not cover a sin that I accidentally uncover, but I will go to the professing Christian person who has committed the sin and tell them I know. I will tell them what they must do in order to make it right, and if they refuse to listen, I take it to two or more witnesses, and if they still refuse to listen, I take it before the congregation.
In the Catholic Church, there is something called the sacrament of confession, or as it is now called, the “ministry of reconciliation.” If a person makes a “good confession”, she is absolved by the priest confessor, and given penance to do. She may never have to face the actual persons she has wronged, since her most likely penance will be to do some reading and say some prayers. The priest will not know if she has gone back to doing the same thing unless she returns to the confessional and tells him.
In the Catholic confessional, a person may confess adultery, murder, incest and any other number of heinous acts, and by virtue of absolution may freely say, when questioned, “I am not guilty of that act.” Why? Because the priest says, “I absolve you”, meaning, “You are not guilty”. So it is acceptable to lie to your mate and say you have not committed adultery, if in your heart you believe the words of the absolution.
I have outlined very briefly what Catholic priests do for penitents, because I want to draw a contrast. This is NOT what Protestant ministers do for those who seek their counsel. We believe that it is only God who forgives unto salvation, though we must learn to forgive one another if we would be imitators of Him. We follow the words of our Lord and Master concerning repentance, restitution, and forgiveness.
In the Bible, specifically the New Testament, we are called upon to have our fellowship in a community style. Men and women are to treat one another as honored brothers and sisters. There is a leadership that is devoted to prayer and study, and to minister to the needs of the “flock”, as Jesus called it. When one person claims to be a member of the Church (a Christian), and then does things that are harmful to the body, there is a process that we are to observe in the hope that healing will happen.
Jesus said, “I am the Vine, you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing.” In the Body of Christ, if a foot says to the body, “I don’t need you”, and it walks away, then it is no longer part of the body. These metaphors are given to explain the interdependence of members of the Universal Church of Jesus Christ, so that we may understand that when one part sins all are affected.
Jesus gave the instructions with regard to discipline in the Body:
(11) For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.
(12) How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?
(13) And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.
(14) Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.
(15) Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
(16) But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
(17) And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
(18) Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
(19) Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
(20) For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Sometimes a church body is too lax concerning obedience to God. In that case, the whole church must hear the judgment and discipline of leadership, as in the following from Paul to the church at Corinth:
1 Corinthians 5:1–13
(1) It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.
(2) And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.
(3) For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed,
(4) In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ,
(5) To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
(6) Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?
(7) Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
(8) Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
(9) I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators:
(10) Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.
(11) But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.
(12) For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?
(13) But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.
After a person has repented, there is also instruction given by Paul as he reminded the folks at Corinth to forgive the man (spoken of in 1 Corinthians) because he had repented:
2 Corinthians 2:1–11
(1) But I determined this with myself, that I would not come again to you in heaviness.
(2) For if I make you sorry, who is he then that maketh me glad, but the same which is made sorry by me?
(3) And I wrote this same unto you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice; having confidence in you all, that my joy is the joy of you all.
(4) For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you.
(5) But if any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all.
(6) Sufficient to such a man is this punishment, which was inflicted of many.
(7) So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.
(8) Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him.
(9) For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things.
(10) To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ;
(11) Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.
What was the purpose, then, of disciplining someone who called himself a Christian but who brought shame upon the name of Christ and caused fear and distrust of his followers? It was to:
1. Judge what he had done by comparing it with God’s commands for Christian conduct
2. To give him a chance to repent and change his mind
3. To bring him before the congregation to tell what he had done
4. To give him a chance to repent and change his mind
5. To treat him as if he were not a brother because he did not repent (shun, not eat meals, not invite him into the congregation)
6. To take him back if he repented and showed true sorrow over his behavior
7. To watch ourselves to be sure we do not follow suit.
Why is it important to bring discipline to the Body of Christ? It is because we are all members of one another. When one part of the body hurts, we all hurt. When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. It is our job to minister to the part that sins, because it affects the whole body. If that one will not accept correction, then it must be cut off so that it will not infect the rest of the Body (this is a metaphor).
(1) I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
(2) And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
(3) For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
(4) For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office:
(5) So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.
If we are called to leadership within the Body of Christ, we must model our pastoral counseling on the Biblical model. Not only that, but we model church discipline according to the pastoral letters in the New Testament. The two go hand in hand.
This does not only apply to the tiny denominational lines, but it is given to us by Jesus Christ and by Paul for all believers, wherever they may be found. If a person calls himself by the name of Christ, then he is subject automatically to the counsel and discipline of the Body of Christ.
The ultimate goal of discipline is repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Why is that important? Because these very basic steps are meant to lead to greater peace within one’s own heart, and to lead toward spiritual unity in the Body of Christ. It is only within the context of unity that others may be healed and strengthened by our testimony. It is only a healthy body that can perform to its maximum, and it is only a healthy body that can help another.
Christ is the Head of His Body (metaphor), and we are to function as His hands and feet, reaching out to others to bring health and life to a world that is dying.
Those who do not believe in Christ will not necessarily understand or agree with the Biblical view of repentance, forgiveness and restoration. However, it is important to remember that those who do believe in Christ, who have been taught the truths of God’s Word, will expect discipline and reproof when they are in error or sin.
Those who truly love and trust God will welcome it, and learn from it. They know that discipline is part of knowing that we have a Father in Heaven, who loves us enough that He cannot leave us the way we are.
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