Church Discipline

It occurred three decades ago, still it’s etched very vividly in my memory.  There had been some kind of incident at recess that involved water balloons.  I hadn’t committed any malfeasance but because I was in the proximity of the heinous act I was sent along with others to sit on the bench outside of the principal’s office.  That bench was the place where many a soul had been sit to nervously await interrogation, judgment, and potential corporal (or was that capital) punishment!  Our principal’s name was Mr. Messer.  (The student body at Cubbage Elementary School had oft wondered if that was his real name or just a pseudonym he adopted to match his intimidating mustache.)  He had a paddle that hung on the wall at the entrance of his office…and he wasn’t afraid to use it!  Thankfully, the truth came to the forefront and I was exonerated of any wrongdoing.  The malefactors who carried out the soaking sin were discovered and were appropriately inflicted with paddle pain!  Fast forward to our present day and spanking is now seen as an antiquated, even barbaric form of punishment.  It is considered by society at large to have little to no place in homes and given even less of a position in the repertoire of discipline that can be meted out in the schoolhouse.  Corporal punishment is too harsh for us to impose on our children; at least that’s what the experts say.  Yet, years ago our school’s had paddles, now they have police.  We used to have problems with gum, now we have problems with guns.  Perhaps the old way of discipline wasn’t so bad and the so called experts of today don’t have as much expertise as they’d like to have us think.  In this month’s newsletter we’re going to look at the church discipline process from Matthew 18:15-20 (*I encourage you to read the whole 18th chapter of Matthew*).  Some may view it as severe or outdated, but I suggest to you that any other process is not only sinful (because it is not obedient to scripture) but is more cruel, for the way of man is never as merciful as the way of God!

The Prerequisite—Humility…Matthew 18 opens with the disciples pondering the age old universal question of “who’s the fairest of them all?”  Jesus, as was His modus operandi, answered their query with an illustration.  He called a wee one over and told the twelve that unless they became humble as a little child that they could not even enter the Kingdom of Heaven, much less become great in that Kingdom.  I don’t think it’s by accident that just before launching into the teaching on what may seem by some to be the harsh process of church discipline, our Lord focused upon the importance of humility in the life of the believer.  How many horrors in the area of discipline occur because parents don’t take time to remember that they too were kids once, or a teacher doesn’t pause to think back on the time when they were a student, or a manager forgets it was just a few short years ago that they were a lower level employee, or a self-described mature believer loses sight of the days when they were a mere babe in Christ?  This concept of evaluating ourselves prior to evaluating another is perhaps most famously taught in Matthew 7:1-5.  There Jesus clearly instructs that before we help our brother with the speck in his eye we must first deal with the log that is in our own.  One who is undisciplined themselves should not count it their duty to discipline others.  One who is not humble is more likely to be pointing out the sins of another for the purpose of covering or justifying their own transgressions.  That being said, no believer should take this emphasis on the prerequisite of humility as a reason (or  an excuse) to never be engaged in the discipline process for another Christian, but rather as an opportunity to grow their own selves in sanctification as it not only affects them but their brothers and sisters in the Lord as well!

            The People—Family…Notice the first four words of Matthew 18:15 are “if your brother sins.”  Don’t skip over that word “brother.”  Even if someone in the family of God has truly sinned, has actually broken God’s Word and not just offended your particular preferences or sensibilities, they are to be considered your brother or sister, a dear and beloved one, unless and until the process of discipline is carried through and you and the church have reason to believe otherwise.  The people we gather with in the house of the Lord are not to be disdained as enemies or ignored like pesky telemarketers or condescended to like second class citizens; they are called “brother”, not “red-headed stepchild!”  Most people will put up with more transgressions and downright foolishness from their natural family: their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters, their nieces and nephews, and so on than they will from anybody else.  In fact, the majority of folks will tolerate this kind of stuff from their family even when their friends and confidants are telling them how silly they are to keep having patience with such nonsense from their relatives.  If the bond shared between those connected by natural ancestry is so strong, how much stronger should be the bond between those of a shared spiritual lineage!  Indeed, the blood of Jesus should produce much more of a connection than the mere water of a womb!

            The Purpose—Win Your Brother…At every stage in the church discipline process Jesus is clear to point out that the purpose is to “win your brother”…not to win an argument.  The goal is not to show that you’re right, but that your brother’s way be righted.  How many battles do people fight, some real and some made up, for the sole purpose that they might be the hero who wins over some other person made out to be the villain who loses?  Now don’t get me wrong, there are times when having peace no longer depends upon us because the Word of God has been violated in a clear way (Rom. 12:18), but do understand that the purpose for standing up is not so our brother will be put down, but that, if possible, he too would be raised to where God has called him to be.  Whether it be a parent-child relationship, a teacher-student relationship, or a church relationship, discipline is always to be seen as something done for a person, not to a person.  The goal is to be restorative, not punitive.  I repeat again before we move on, the purpose is to win your brother…not to win an argument.

            The Process—How You Do It Says Everything…Okay, let’s get to it shall we.  If you have considered yourself and believe that you have met the prerequisite of humility; if you can look at the other person as a brother or sister you should love and value as a member of the family of God; if you can confront your brother with a purpose of winning them and restoring them; and you are convinced that they are involved in unrepentant sin, then what should you do?  Jesus doesn’t leave it for us to decide.  He clearly tells us that we go to our brother in private.  What we have to speak to them about may be something of which they’re unaware.  How many people have concocted false, even vicious pictures of others, going so far as to judge the thoughts and intentions of another’s heart over things that they’ve never brought to that other person’s attention?!  The Lord leaves no place for holding brothers and sisters to account for that which they’ve never even been told about.  If you do go to the brother in private and they repent, then end of story.  No need for anyone to know your brother’s sinful transgression or your godly heroism.  However, if you don’t win your brother in private, then you take two or three with you to confront him.  I don’t think I’m reading into Scripture here to suggest that the ones you take with you ought to be spiritually mature individuals, probably in church leadership in some respect, not just simply a couple of folks that like you better than the one you have issue with.  If you win your brother there, then end of story.  Again, no need to highlight your brother’s awful sin any longer or to promote far and wide the righteousness of you and those who went with you.  If your brother still has not been won, then you take it to the church.  If he still refuses to listen, then he is to no longer be seen as a product of Christianity, but as a prospect for conversion.  Hard stuff some may say.  And indeed it is.  That having been said, it’s a much better process than anything that man has manufactured.  Man, left to his own devices, comes up with processes that hold others accountable for that which they might not even be aware, that gossip about a brother or sister assuming the worst rather than confronting their brother seeking the best, that “take their ball and go home” showing that they care little for their brother’s own sanctification (and truth be told probably little for their own), and the list of sins could go on and on delineating the pitfalls into which we fall when we take things into our own hands rather than follow God’s instructions which, though not easy, are clear.

            The Perks—What Benefits Are In It…First, you’ve been obedient.  Follow the process of these six verses and you will have been obedient to the Lord which is what those who believe in Christ should always be seeking.  Second, you’re not falling into the sins (such as gossip, etc.) that inevitably occur when we attempt to handle such things our own way instead of God’s way.  Third, you will be giving an opportunity for you, your brother, the church, indeed the family of God to grow in sanctification and be a better witness for the Lord.  Finally, God will be glorified.  If a brother who is in a genuine sin repents, then the forgiveness that extends to him in the course of this discipline process will glorify the mercy of God.  If one who professed to be a brother does not repent and turns out to not be a brother, rejecting ultimately the mercy of Christ that has been made available to him by the Lord and brought to his attention by the Church, then the judgment of God that falls upon him will glorify the justice of God.  May we all be disciplined by and for the Lord who loves His children enough to chasten His own (Hebrews 12:5-11)! (*This newsletter article comes from a Sermon Series on Must Do’s From Matthew 18; it is available online at gcmfm.com and was preached on Sunday, March 8th*)