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Discipline Offenses

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In the New Testament, church discipline involves varying degrees of censure. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, the congregation is told to avoid associating with certain members, but to warn them as brothers rather than treating them as enemies. Paul tells Titus to warn a factious person twice, then to reject him (Ti. 3:10). Jesus says that a person who will not hear the church must be treated as a Gentile (an outsider) and a publican (a renegade). So-called brothers who will not repent of scandalous conduct must be “removed from your midst,” delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, not associated with, even in table fellowship, and removed “from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5).

This range of responses indicates that church discipline is not all one thing. The different responses are matched to specific kinds of offenses. In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul is dealing with church members who live disorderly lives. In Titus 3, he is looking at a person who causes divisions. In 1 Corinthians 5, he is concerned mainly about those who bring public reproach upon the testimony of Jesus.

Few churches today practice any of these forms of discipline. While there are exceptions, even fundamentalist churches discipline members only for the most flagrant sexual immorality or, less commonly, for high-handed rebellion against church leadership. Because they fail to practice church discipline, most churches are actually out of order with the New Testament. Consequently, they are dysfunctional churches that tend to produce dysfunctional Christians.

New Testament believers could incur different levels of church censure for a variety of offenses. The mildest congregational censure was limited fellowship and brotherly warning (2 Thess. 3:6-15). To incur this level of discipline, a member only had to live a disorderly life that contradicted apostolic teaching. In the immediate context, Paul teaches that Christians ought to work hard to support themselves rather than relying upon others to support them. He demands that a (presumably able-bodied) individual who does not work should not be supported. In other words, indolence leading to financial need constitutes grounds for church discipline.

In his concluding remarks to Titus, Paul deals with the problem of people who cause divisions. Factious behavior leads people away from good faith and morals. Faction or schism is especially a temptation for those who hold strong opinions and convictions. The opinions may not be wrong, but the way in which they are promoted can become lethal. Some people like to divide a church into factions so that they can command one party. Paul teaches that such people are to be warned twice, then rejected.

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Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:17 calls for a very stern response toward those who reject church authority. Persons who will not heed the decision of the assembly are to be treated as outsiders and renegades. Each church holds authority from heaven. Members who simply exempt themselves from the authority of the congregation are committing a scandalous act that calls for an extreme response.

Equally extreme is the response in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul’s words may not require “shunning” of the sort practiced by some Anabaptists, but they certainly imply a complete cessation of all Christian fellowship. This level of discipline is to be implemented whenever a “so-called brother” (v. 11) engages unrepentantly in certain indecent patterns of conduct.

The first of these sins is sexual immorality. Unrepentant sexual immorality is never to be tolerated within the church. Paul does not distinguish acceptable and unacceptable forms of immorality. Incestuous relationships, homosexual conduct, adulterous affairs, and premarital dalliances all fall under this rubric, as do at least some remarriages after divorce.

Paul also insists that churches should disfellowship so-called brothers for demonstrating greed. Capitalistic societies sometimes seem to view greed almost as a virtue, but it is a sin that needs to be restrained. Wealth may be a gift from God, and wishing to improve one’s lot in life or to provide for one’s family is not sinful, but a person who is driven by covetousness is an idolater. Churches are responsible to confront avaricious members. If those members will not repent, then fellowship must be withdrawn.

Relapses into idolatry were not uncommon among Christians of the first century. Family ties, old friendships, and even social benefits could attract believers into some degree of identification with old ways of worship. Even John warned against idols. Such relapses directly contradicted the gospel and severely undermined the testimony of Christianity. They were to be met with the sternest confrontation by the believing community. If it seems impossible that modern Christians could face this temptation, perhaps we should ponder how easily professing believers can be induced to wear the badges and repeat the slogans of gospel-opposing social movements and intellectual systems.

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Some people love to bully others. Whether they display their abusiveness in their speech or in their deeds, they fall under the strictures of 1 Corinthians 5. Such people seek power in order to exercise it over others. Deprived of power, they resort to insults, name-calling, character assassination, or other forms of thuggery. The local church must not tolerate such behavior. Abusive people are to be treated the same as fornicators and idolaters. They are to be put out of the church’s fellowship until they repent of their scandalous conduct.

Both testaments condemn drunkenness, and neither seems to draw much distinction between being a little tipsy and being falling-down drunk. Of course, people in biblical times had no understanding of alcohol as a substance, so the warnings against drunkenness should be applied to all substances that impair the physical and mental faculties. God wants His people to be in their right minds. Spiritual decisions cannot be made in an inebriated haze. Christians who fail this test are to be disfellowshipped by the congregation.

Paul also names swindlers. These are people who prey upon others. They look for opportunities to gain by taking advantage of the weak or naïve. These are the sort of people who would join a church to cash in on the mutual trust among church members. By confronting them, the church is protecting its members as well as its reputation and purity.

Nothing in 1 Corinthians 5 indicates that Paul meant his list to be exhaustive. Rather, he most likely names behaviors that illustrate an entire class of scandalous sins. If tolerated, these sins will spread within the church. They will pollute the congregation’s fellowship with Christ. They will ruin the church’s reputation in the surrounding community. For these reasons, as well as for the restoration of the sinning brother, Scripture lays the responsibility upon churches to discipline those who fall into these errors.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Savior, When in Dust to Thee
Robert Grant (1779-1838)

Savior, when in dust to Thee
Low we bow the adoring knee;
When, repentant, to the skies
Scarce we lift our weeping eyes;
O, by all Thy pains and woe
Suffered once for man below,
Bending from Thy throne on high,
Hear our penitential cry!

By Thy helpless infant years,
By Thy life of want and tears,
By Thy days of deep distress
In the savage wilderness,
By the dread, mysterious hour
Of the insulting tempter’s pow’r,
Turn, O turn, a fav’ring eye;
Hear our penitential cry!

By thine hour of dire despair,
By thine agony of prayer,
By the cross, the nail, the thorn,
Piercing spear, and torturing scorn,
By the gloom that veiled the skies
O’er the dreadful sacrifice,
Listen to our humble sigh;
Hear our penitential cry!

By Thy deep expiring groan,
By the sad sepulchral stone,
By the vault whose dark abode
Held in vain the rising God,
O, from earth to heav’n restored,
Mighty, re-ascended Lord,
Bending from Thy throne on high,
Hear our penitential cry!

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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