What comes to your mind when you think of the word discipline? Better yet church discipline? Just the word conjures up thoughts up punishment, shaming, pain, or exclusion. In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus gives his followers clear instructions on discipline within the fellowship. The question at hand is, “What do you do when someone sins against you?”
Jesus’ 3-part instruction is clear: Step 1- Talk to the person yourself, in private. Step 2-If the issue is unresolved, take one or two people with you to help resolve the issue. Step 3- If the person still does not recognize their wrong or is unwilling to repent, take the issue before the church. If the sin is of a serious nature, and the church deems the person unrepentant, then that person is to be de-fellowshipped, or removed from regular fellowship in the church body. These steps are very clear from the passage, and the goal is always to try and restore the sinning individual. But often times churches get the process wrong, the issue remains unresolved, and the conflict takes on a life of its own. Here are some common questions and answers in regards to dealing with sin in the church family:
What if I am not able, or I am hesitant to go to the other individual?
Let’s be honest, most of us do not follow Jesus’ instructions because we don’t follow step one. We find it easier to brood over the problem, finding fault with the other person, and we may remain convinced that since we have been wounded, the other person “must come to me” and ask forgiveness. So first, we have to check our own hearts and make sure that we are not making excuses and avoiding conversation with the individual who has offended us. Having done so, there still may be some instances where involving another person right away is a good idea–
A Boss–Employee Situation– If you are an employee, and the boss is the person who has sinned (made you work extra overtime without getting paid, demeaned or insulted you, made inappropriate advances towards an employee, etc.) then it is better to go to a human resources officer or another manager in order to start the conversation. Because of the office roles and the natural fear of losing one’s job, it is not easy to address an issue directly with someone who is your superior. The same logic would apply to a situation where there is a male–female gender difference. The person who has been sinned against may need someone to act as an advocate and approach the offender together in order to start the conversation.
Situations involving teens and children– Again, in this kind of situation a parent or another adult may be needed to bring up the issue. Say, for example, a youth leader or Sunday school teacher said something particularly harsh to a student or young child. Once the parents find out about it, as the child’s authority they should go to the leader or teacher and try to get the issue resolved. The same thinking would apply to situations involving sports coaches or group leaders.
What if the offense is not exactly sin?
This is where Ken Sande’s writing is helpful. In the book, The Peacemaker, he explains the value of “overlooking minor offenses”. We should not decide to confront others simply because they have a habit which irritates us (let’s say, interrupting conversation). We need to ask wise questions before making a conclusion: Has the offense taken place before? Was it directed towards me as an individual? Was the person taking advantage of a situation in order to get a laugh? What was the context of the encounter and what were the other factors involved?
While thinking through these questions we need to give others the judgment of charity– assuming the best about their motives, even though their methods may be suspect or less than desirable. For example, “Did that team member bring up his point just before the end of the meeting in order to get under my skin, or did he do it out of a genuine concern for the group?” If we give the judgment of charity, we are much more likely to overlook an offense because we assume there was no ill motive. When we do not give the other person the judgment of charity, we assume their motive was to harm us. In those cases, even though the issue is not sin, we still need to reconcile with the other person through personal conversation, so that we understand their actions and intentions, and so that we can move forward in relationship. If we do give the judgment of charity, it is more likely that the other person, perhaps sensing our positive disposition, will respond in repentance!
When and how do you “tell it to the church?”
Assuming that Step 1 and Step 2 have been followed, Jesus instructs us to “tell it to the church” if the individual still will not listen. However this step is where I have seen churches or individuals get off track. Either the conflict is shared with the broader church too soon, before appropriate steps of reconciliation are completed, or the issue is of such a nature that it does not require the involvement of the gathered assembly of believers. Remember- “tell it to the church” is a last-resort step, after all other measures have been taken to convince the individual to repent. And even then, the goal is restoration to the fellowship.
An issue which may not need the involvement of the entire fellowship could be a small group leader who is teaching erroneously. False teaching is a sin, but the influence and teaching of the individual may not affect the entire church, so ideally the issue can be dealt with by the elders, pastor, and other small group members. If the leader recognizes his error and is receptive to instruction, then the issue need not be brought before the entire assembly, as long as it is dealt with among the individuals in the small group and the church leadership.
Issues of sin which more likely require involving the entire fellowship would be examples of immorality which become more broadly known to the congregation (adultery, lying, misuse of church funds, repeated outbursts of anger, etc.). How this step of discipline is carried out may differ from congregation to congregation, and may differ according to the sin involved. For most congregational churches, a vote of the members is required to formally discipline a fellow member, i.e. remove his or her membership status. In other churches, a vote of the elders or senior leadership is sufficient to remove a person’s membership. In certain cases, a vote to remove someone’s membership may not be required, if other steps are taken to address the issue and repentance occurs. Removing a person from a leadership or teaching position, or restricting their service in the church are other ways of enacting discipline in the hopes that the person will repent.
What about Communion or church attendance?
For some churches, the steps of removing someone from membership and also withholding communion are done together. In other churches, they may be done separately or consecutively. While a church may affirm that a person in unrepentant sin is still a Christian, withholding communion is a step whereby the church affirms that the fellowship between that individual and the church is not what it should be; there is a sin issue which needs to be addressed. While the unrepentant person is welcome to come to church service, hear the word of God preached, and participate in worship (just as any non-Christian is welcome to do), taking communion with other believers in the same fellowship would compromise the purity of the church and the teaching of Jesus. As 1 Corinthians 11 states:
 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Is excommunication the same as shunning?
There are three parallels to Matthew 18:17 in the New Testament- Romans 16:17, 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, and Titus 3:10. The words to the church about the person who is causing division are even more harsh, “have nothing more to do with him.” By viewing the person in the same category as a Gentile or a tax collector, Jesus is making plain that the person is not to have regular, ongoing, contact with those in the fellowship of believers. Jews in Jesus’ day had contact with Gentiles and tax collectors, but it was sporadic and generally avoided. It does not do justice to Jesus’ words to try and lessen the fact that he had excommunication in mind.
However the balance of the New Testament on this issue leaves the door open for restoration. Even excommunication is not a final judgment on a person’s soul. It is a collective judgment of the church on the disconnect between a person’s profession of faith and his current life. In 2 Corinthians 2, the apostle Paul urges the church to welcome back the brother who sinned, because he should not be “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (2 Cor. 2:6-8). The posture of the church should be to welcome back any sinner who repents, expresses faith, and seeks to follow Jesus.
The difficult balance is to speak and talk in such a way that urges the sinning believer to repent, while not completely ignoring him or expressing total disapproval toward his person.
Does that mean that you do not attend his child’s birthday parties or go to his house for a football game? I’m not sure. But if I were to maintain friendly contact with someone who was clearly sinning and hadn’t repented, I would not be honoring Christ by avoiding the sin in question, were I to go to his house for a barbeque.
A person might ask, “But doesn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies, and Jesus himself went to the home of tax collectors and sinners?” That is an accurate point and an appropriate question. Excommunication is not the same as complete shunning. In the case of “enemies” or of the tax collectors with whom Jesus dined, His welcoming posture came with their first exposure to the good news. What made Jesus radical for his day was that he showed the religious establishment it was possible for all kinds of people to enter the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus did not go out of his way to be extra-friendly to those who were unrepentant, in fact he did the opposite- He warned them, very bluntly. The main difference I can see in the case of church discipline is that the unrepentant person referred to in Matthew 18 has already had access to the good news of Christ. The dividing line of fellowship in regards to church discipline is whether or not the person has repented and changed his ways when his sin has been clearly placed in front of him. If the person is not willing to repent, then believers are to no longer have consistent contact with him until he does.