Historically, Protestants have argued that there are certain, essential marks that characterize a true church. The Belgic Confession of 1561 identifies these marks as being three in number. In addition to the “pure preaching of the gospel” and the “pure administration of the sacraments,” a true church “practices church discipline for correcting faults.” While most churches would readily acknowledge the importance of the first two of these marks, the third one has fallen into such disuse that few church members have ever heard a sermon on corrective church discipline, much less seen it practiced.
This is remarkable when one considers the plain and simple teaching of Jesus on the subject. In Matthew 18:15–18 He spells out, step by step, how believers are to provide loving accountability to one another in a local church.
What the Lord prescribes is far different from the harsh caricatures that are sometimes associated with church discipline. He teaches His followers to help one another in their pursuit of holiness.
Jesus knows that His followers will face ongoing battles with sin in their lives until they breathe their final breath. One of the primary means for helping us discover and mortify sin is the communion we enjoy in the fellowship of a church. Followers of Christ bear a responsibility to help one another grow in grace. One way that we do this is by loving our fellow church members enough to confront them with their sin.
Jesus outlines several steps that we must be prepared to take in order to do this effectively:
The first step is very private and involves intentional engagement of a brother or sister who has specifically and unrepentantly sinned. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (v. 15).
These words really do not need explanation. Personal sin is to be dealt with privately. An erring brother is confronted privately with a goal of “gaining” him — helping him to see his sin and repent of it. If that happens, all is well, the matter is settled, and God receives praise for rescuing a brother and preserving a relationship.
“But,” Jesus goes on to teach, “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (v. 16). At this level, reinforcements are called in to help restore the sinning brother. If he will not listen to one person, then perhaps he will listen to two or three.
The goal here is the same. The approach is still private, though the circle of involvement has become wider. The hope is that the collective persuasion of two or three witnesses will sway the erring brother to repent, thereby rescuing him, restoring fellowship, and bringing the matter to a close.
When that happens, there is cause to celebrate and praise God for intervening in the life of one of His children in a strong way. But if the wayward member remains impenitent and “refuses to listen to them,” then, Jesus says, “tell it to the church” (v. 17). At this point the full weight of the authority of the church leaders is brought to bear on him in hopes that he will be humbled and recovered.
The next step is the final one: “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17). The word “even” indicates our Lord’s estimation of the seriousness of refusing correction from a local church.
Such recalcitrance requires the most serious step that a church of Jesus Christ can take. The member who refuses to repent even when the church calls him to do so is to be removed from the membership of the congregation. That does not mean that he is to be shunned or treated as a pariah. Rather, it means that he is to be regarded as someone who needs to be evangelized (a “Gentile” or “tax collector”).
He should be encouraged to hear the Word of God preached as often as possible. But he should no longer be given the fellowship of a brother.
He is no longer afforded the privilege of having a congregation’s affirmation by welcoming him as a member of the body. In the words of Paul, he is to be delivered “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). Even in this final step of removal, the purpose is still redemptive.
This kind of loving accountability is exactly what Christ has provided for His followers through the ministry of a local church. It is one of the ways that He has designed for believers to be molded in discipleship.
When a church fails to teach and practice this kind of discipline, it is robbing its members of one of the ways that the Lord has provided for their spiritual welfare and formation. More than that, it is blatantly disobeying the clear commandment of the Head of the church, Jesus Christ.