Biblical Church Discipline and Restoration

One of the marks of true conversion in believers is their moral purity.  A person who has submitted himself to the lordship of Jesus Christ is therefore one who endeavors to walk with integrity and holiness of life.  Paul himself enjoined the Corinthians to live in this way: ‘Beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’ (2 Corinthians 7:1).
The preeminent reason, of course, is because God Himself is holy, and because He is, He commands that we are to be holy (1 Peter 1:15).  It is not only an aspect of His character, but it is also true of His written Word.  The psalmist has said, ‘The words of the Lord are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times’ (Psalm 12:6).  Psalm 119:140 declares: ‘Your word is very pure, therefore Your servant loves it.’ Jesus Himself affirmed the unbreakable nature and purity of God’s revelation when He said, ‘The Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35).
If these things are true of God and are expected of anyone who names the name of Christ, the church that names the name of Christ must by necessity seek to preserve holiness among her people.  Again, Paul stresses the desire of every faithful pastor when he wrote to the Corinthians: ‘I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin’ (2 Corinthians 11:2).  He similarly told the Ephesians that Christ’s own end for believers was this: ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless’ (Ephesians 5:25-27).  Paul taught the Colossians that Christ had reconciled them ‘in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach’ (Colossians 1:22).  Holiness is the premium virtue for those followers of Christ.
While holiness is commanded and expected of all Christians, it is also a reality that not all who profess to follow Christ will do so.  It is therefore the responsibility of the leadership of a local church to examine both the profession and walk of one who fails to obey Christ’s Word.  Daniel Wray rightly observes: ‘Just as the church applies biblical principles in admitting persons to membership, so too must she apply biblical principles in the governing of the membership and, if necessary, in removal from membership.  Jesus prescribed principles to follow which make all Christians to some extent responsible for each other’s behaviour, and he included disciplinary procedures [Matt.  18:15-17]’ (Daniel Wray, Biblical Church Discipline, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978, p.  2).
Wray’s reference to Matthew 18:15-20 is crucial because it is the seminal New Testament text on Biblical Church Discipline.  Jesus said, ‘If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.  But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.  For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.’
Jesus lays out a simple pattern for the church to follow.  It consists of four steps:
  1. Any believer has the responsibility to confront any other believer when they see that that believer has sinned.  If the sinning believer acknowledges his sin and repents of it, the confronting brother has won him to a place of unity and restoration.  This first step of discipline is where well over ninety per cent of discipline begins and ends.
  2. However, if the sinning believer does not repent, step two demands that the confronting believer has the responsibility to bring two or three additional believers back to the offending one for more confrontation.  This step insures that, at the mouth of two or three witnesses, both the facts of the sin, as well as the confirmation of the process, can be confirmed.
  3. Step three says that if the offending believer does not repent from the second confrontation, the sin is to be told to the church.  This normally is carried out by communicating to the leadership of the church, who then on behalf of the congregation, informs the entire congregation (usually, the communication is done through a public worship service).  Now, all the members of the congregation are enjoined to plead with the offending brother or sister to repent of their sin and come back to a right relationship with God.  After a sufficient time (determined by the Elders), the sinning brother has either repented, or refuses to do so.
  4. If he refuses, then by virtue of Jesus’ own pronouncement (via His words in Matthew 18:18-20), step four is to be enacted: he is to be excommunicated or disfellowshipped from the congregation, including his attendance at all public services.  He is therefore to be treated as one who rejects the gospel of Christ.  If he is seen by any member of the congregation, he is to be warned of the consequences of his sin, but is also exhorted to come to a saving relationship with Christ as he once confessed.  If the erring individual later repents, and requests reinstatement to the body of believers he once adhered, he shall meet with the elders, seek to be evaluated in the manifest presence of that professed repentance, and then be restored to the congregation, again at a public meeting.  At such time, at the discretion of the Elders, he shall be then fully restored to all the rights, duties, privileges, and responsibilities of fellowship and/or membership.  This is the four-fold process of Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration.
Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration, following Wray’s outline (pp.  3-4), can be proven from six bases: (1) It glorifies God because it proves our obedience to His instructions, while at the same time, maintaining the proper role of church government; (2) It’s goal is to reclaim the offenders (i.e., to restore those who have veered from the path of obedience); (3) It maintains the purity of the church and her worship, with a specific view toward the avoidance of profaning the elements of the Lord’s Supper; (4) It vindicates the integrity and honor of Christ and Christianity by exhibiting fidelity to His principles; (5) It deters others from further sinning; (6) It prevents giving God any cause to set Himself against a local church.  These need to discussed further:
  1. Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration glorifies God and therefore proves our obedience to Him.  If we cooperate with God in the matter of church discipline, we thus prove to Him and a watching world that we desire to glorify Him.  In addition to Matthew 18:15-20, other passages speak of discipline in varying forms (Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 1 Timothy 5:20, 6:3; Titus 1:13, 2:15, 3:10; Revelation 2:2, 14, 15, 20), which when we obey the injunctions, we thus manifest our obedience to Scripture and its Author.
  2. Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration has as its goal the reclaiming of those who have sinned and thus veered from the path of obedience.  Wray says, ‘The goal in every type of discipline, whether it be gentle correction, admonition, rebuke, or excommunication, is always the restoration of the offender’ (Wray, Biblical Church Discipline, p.  4).  It is not the intent of the church leadership, nor the congregation themselves, to see any other thing to occur in the person, save their full and complete restoration to the Lord and His body.  Often, those who are under discipline claim that they are being singled out, sinned against in the process of discipline, treated unfairly, etc.  If Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration however, is followed to its Scriptural specificity, no valid claim of wrongdoing can be justified.  As John Calvin observed: ‘Although excommunication also punishes the man, it does so in such a way that, by forewarning him of his future condemnation, it may call him back to salvation’ (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 12, Section 10).
  3. Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration maintains the purity of the church and her worship, with a specific view toward the avoidance of profaning the elements of the Lord’s Supper.  When the Corinthian church persisted in their accommodation of a man in sexual sin, Paul admonished them: ‘I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.  But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolator, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-not even to eat with such a one’ (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).  The reason Paul is so strong on this point is that to associate with such so-called brethren makes the church and the world indistinguishable.  The purity of those who profess to be followers of Christ must be maintained within the fellowship.  This is also why Paul spoke so forcefully when challenging the Corinthians to examine themselves before partaking of the Lord’s supper: ‘Whoever eats this bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.  But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.  For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep [die]’ (1 Corinthians 11:27-30).  Wray wisely says, ‘We must maintain the purity of Christ’s visible church to the full extent of our knowledge and power.  This is all the more evident once we recognize that false doctrine and bad conduct are infectious.  If these are tolerated in the church all members will receive hurt’ (Wray, p.  4).
  4. Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration vindicates the honor and integrity of Christ and Christianity by exhibiting fidelity to His principles.  When Paul was speaking to the Corinthians regarding their adherence to his dictates of the proper discipline of fellow believers, he said to them, ‘For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things’ (2 Corinthians 2:9).  Apparently, the Corinthians were now refusing to extend forgiveness to one who had previously sinned but who had now repented and was seeking to be restored.  We are only faithful to God’s Word when we pursue Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration, and when we seek to restore those who repent.  There is no virtue when we refuse to follow Christ’s command in the matter of discipline and there is no virtue when we refuse to grant forgiveness to those who truly repent.
  5. Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration deters others from sinning.  Paul said regarding leaders who persist in sin: ‘Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning’ (1 Timothy 5:20).  Anyone, especially a leader in Christ’s church, is to be rebuked in the presence of all, in order to provoke others to avoid the same.  It has a self-purifying effect on the congregation, challenging them to greater godliness.
  6. Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration prevents giving God cause to set Himself against a local church.  One only needs to read Revelation 2:14-25 to see how intimately involved Christ is as the Head of His Church.  One of the matters of extreme importance therefore, is the matter of obedience to His commands.  If a local church leadership refuses to discipline its members, then that local church is also in danger of being judged by God Himself, even to the point of being judged out of existence.  This should show any church the crucial importance of following the Lord’s directions in the matter of church discipline/restoration.
Biblical Church Discipline/Restoration, as shown, is a mandate from the Word of God.  May God’s grace and power be upon those churches who desire to follow His Word in this regard.