Church Discipline and Restoration
Introduction: Discipline in Light of the Gospel
In the beginning, man and woman were created by God for His glory and for our greatest joy. By design, our greatest delight and truest satisfaction were to be found in trusting and treasuring God.
Though the man was originally created good, the Scriptures reveal that he eventually and willingly rebelled against his Creator. Therefore, he has ever since suffered the consequences, condemnation, and curses of what has been called “the fall.” This fall did not merely change mankind’s environment, but also his very essence. By this one original sin, the nature of humanity was altered, and we became sinners, natural enemies of God, predisposed to hate and rebel against Him. We were enslaved to the tyranny of sin and the death which it brings, and we were exposed to the just wrath of God.
Though man suppressed and exchanged true worship of the Creator for the praise of created things, God’s plans to unite His glory and our joy were not thwarted at the fall. Rather, He has been patiently and purposefully working to restore what was broken. This restoration has been most clearly and fully revealed through the person and work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. In the perfect obedience of His life, His death for our sins, and His resurrection, Christ introduced reconciliation into the world. Through treasuring and trusting in His finished work, we once again have a relationship with our Creator.
Though we who believe have experienced true redemption and reconciliation, the fullness of our hope awaits us in the future. We are longing for the promise of Christ’s return, our resurrection and the restoration of creation. Until then, we still struggle with the residue of our old self, the flesh. This struggle is not to be lived out alone, but rather in the context of community, particularly the local church. We are called by God to watch out for ourselves and those whom we love lest we are enticed by the deceitful promises of sin. We will never truly love discipline until we hate sin.
Love demands discipline. On a personal level, love for the Lord demands a response in which the desires of the flesh are slowly and methodically put to death. On the corporate level, love for the Lord and for His church requires a response in which sin is dealt with as God has intended. What loving parent would allow their child to play with fire? Would we expect anything different from our heavenly Father? (Col. 1:28-29)
Discipleship and the discipline through which it occurs is defined as maturity in Christ. This is accomplished primarily through teaching and warning. We might divide these two aspects of discipleship into two necessary components: those which are formative and those which are restorative.
Formative discipline involves teaching, preaching, prayer, study, fasting and various other forms of engagement or abstinence to fill us with the Holy Spirit and remind us of 1) our ongoing need to repent and believe in the Gospel, and 2) its free provision to us through our faith in Christ.
Restorative discipline occurs in the context of community and involves warnings, rebukes, exhortation, and correction intending to prevent or to correct explicit, willful, unrepentant sin within the church.
Both are a means of training us toward our goal of maturity in Christ. Neither personal formative discipline nor corporate restorative discipline is easy or necessarily enjoyable at the time. However, both are means that God uses to shape us to become like Christ. We must be trained by discipline in order to grow into maturity.
The Scriptures are full of wisdom regarding discipline. The writer of Hebrews teaches us that God’s children are disciplined by Him in one form or another. Sometimes He sends tribulation and persecution or removes worldly comforts to foster humility, holiness, and faith in us. Sometimes He disciplines through the work of the local church. It is this context of corporate discipline in the local church body with which this document is concerned. Therefore, the term “church discipline” will include the various steps of the community of faith coming alongside a professing believer to exhort, encourage, warn and rebuke him in loving hope for his or her restoration and movement toward Christian maturity.
Our hope, however, is that formative discipline through the work of the Holy Spirit will keep us from the need for the restorative forms. Regardless of the form, we will certainly be disciplined and God will use it to accomplish His loving purposes. (Hebrews 12:5-11)
An Individual Calling
A significant part of the Christian life calls for the believer to be intentional, disciplined and self-controlled in seeking and submitting to the Lord through personal devotion and practice (Galatians 5:22-23; 2 Timothy 1:7). However, our flesh is opposed to our desire for holiness (Galatians 5:16-17), and we must, therefore, be diligent to fight the flesh by walking in the Spirit (Romans 8:12-14) as children of God. By His grace, we can grow in our ability to live by faith through the Spirit’s sanctifying work (1 Peter 1:2) as we relate to God and others through the realities of life.
A Corporate Calling
Given the deceitfulness of sin, all of us need the most basic level of church discipline that involves our brothers and sisters speaking the truth in love to us (Ephesians 4:15, 29) because we are often blind to our own sinfulness (Matthew 7:3-5). We need one another to believe and live out the gospel—this is God’s design. Every church member is called to exercise their individual gifts to build up the body in love (1 Corinthians 12). Every member is called to labor and struggle with all energy to help one another in the church to grow in conformity to Christ (Colossians 1:28-29). This corporate calling is overseen through the shepherding and spiritual authority of the overseers of the local church, the elders (1 Peter 5:2).
Our call to live out the gospel takes place within the realm of spiritual warfare. The kingdom of evil is ever-present and always working against the kingdom of God. The difficulties we face in life are ultimately “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) and seeks to keep us living in fear and not by faith. Therefore, we need to love one another through encouragement, rebuke, and correction since we are all prone to wander from our God.
The Context of Discipline
The situations addressed in this statement are those of explicit, willful, unrepentant sin. Far too often individuals and churches engage in the disciplinary process in situations where the issue is not willfully unrepentant sinful behavior. This must not be the case. However, we must not let the fact that some would misappropriate Scripture to distract us from our responsibility to apply it as the Lord has directed.
This distinction between dealing with issues of preference and those of unrepentant sin is made explicit in Romans 14:10 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 where Paul’s admonitions appear contradictory. In Romans 14, Paul writes that we should not judge our brothers. In 1 Corinthians 5, he writes that we should judge our brothers. Given that Scripture is not self-contradictory, we know that Paul’s inspired interpretation of events must reflect differing circumstances.
The contexts of both passages clearly indicate that the situations are quite distinct. Romans 14 is dealing with principles of preference while 1 Corinthians 5 is dealing with that which has been clearly revealed as unrepentant sin. This distinction must be maintained in the way in which individuals and Fellowship Bible Church interpret and apply Scripture today. The issues with which this paper will be concerned are those of explicit, willful, unrepentant sin, not preference or conscience.
The Purpose of Discipline
Why should the church engage in corporate discipline? Five reasons stand out as most pertinent:
We love the Lord
Our God is a holy God whose eyes can look on no evil (Habakkuk 1:13). Though none of us will fully comprehend the Lord this side of glory, we recognize that our love for Him is informed by our understanding of who He is. We cannot love Him Whom we do not know. Part of the call to love God is to abhor that which is opposed to Him. Failure to fully appreciate the utter horror of sin is evidence of an incomplete understanding of the holiness of God.
Sin is a horrid thing. Through just one sin, death, depravity, corruption, and disease have reigned upon the earth for thousands of years. It always has devastating effects and all of us constantly live in that awareness.
As believers, we have the great hope of no longer being enslaved to sin or its curse. We have been granted liberty through the free gift of God’s grace. However, this liberty does not grant us license to sin. Rather, those who have tasted of the grace of God should be all the more adamant to oppose the sinful flesh. While we recognize that we will not see perfection until Christ returns, such acknowledgment should not lull us into an apathetic view of sin. Ultimately sin must become bitter to us because our sin necessitated the death of our savior, Jesus Christ – we were bought with a price, the blood of the spotless lamb. (1 Cor. 6:20, 1 Peter 1:18-19)
The church must recover a healthy view of the holiness of God and our responsibility to flee from our natural passions and desires. We would do well to remember the many admonitions of Hebrews to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1), and to “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.” (Hebrews 3:12), and to realize that “anyone of you may seem to have come short of it…Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4:1, 11)
We do not believe that any true believer can ultimately fall away from God’s grace. However, we must also confess that there exists the very real possibility that some will find false assurance of salvation. This is surely terrifying. (Hebrews 10:26-31)
These texts are not intended to relegate believers to perpetual fear, but rather to rouse the sluggish and undisciplined from their slumber. If a so-called believer is engaged in willful, persistent and unrepentant sin, the Scriptures say that his honest expectation should be judgment and punishment. That does not mean that he will receive such, for all true believers will ultimately persevere, but it does mean that he or she has no evidence upon which to base his or her claims of safety. Unrepentant sin in the believer must be dealt with by repentance. Failure to repent might be evidence of an unregenerate heart which is unable to turn from sin (Hebrews 12:15-17). Love for God demands the desire to be made holy in the image of Christ. (Romans 8:29)
We Love our Members
The motivation behind church discipline should always be the hope of the restoration of the wayward brother or sister. Discipline is not the end, but rather is the means to the expected end of repentance and reconciliation in the life of the true believer. (James 5:19-20)
In loving our brethren, we must remember to allow the Scriptures to define the means and manners of our love. While our culture might tell us that acceptance is love, the Scriptures are clear that true love means a call to holiness and life through the gospel of Jesus Christ. (1 John 5:2)
Attempting to love in a way that neglects Scripture not only evidences a lack of faith in Scripture and the Author of such Scripture, but also an ignorance as to the meaning of genuine love for the brother or sister. We must love in a way that is consistent with the biblical revelation. The Lord created the method of church discipline as His intended means of sanctifying the church and her individual members. This is how He intends to sanctify His people and therefore failure on our part to carry out His desires is decidedly unloving. Love for each member demands that we engage in discipline for their good and not let them sit idly in their willful, unrepentant sin and pretend as if nothing is wrong. (Galatians 6:1, 2 Corinthians 7:8-13)
We Love His Church
Not only are we called to love our individual members, but also to love the whole assembly who gather together in the name of the Lord. To allow for unrepentant and persistent sin to leaven the congregation should certainly be a concern which drives and informs our decisions in church discipline. (1 Corinthians 5:1-13) Love for the church demands that we discipline ourselves for the sake of purity.
We Love Non-Believers
Those who profess belief in Christ and yet continue in unrepentant sin misrepresent the nature of grace and the very faith that they claim. We want non-believers to know that the Christian faith does not merely gloss over hypocrisy and pretending. We take seriously the calls of our Lord. (Romans 6:1-4)
We Love the Scriptures
As we will discuss in the following sections, the Lord has specifically revealed the method through which the church is expected to deal with sin in its body. Failing to obey God’s commands is a sin. We must be careful lest we ourselves fall into sin merely by allowing others to engage in it. (Psalm 119:9-16 and I Timothy 3:16) Love for the Scriptures demands that we discipline in accordance with its instructions.
Fellowship Membership Commitment
The membership process at Fellowship includes the signing of our Membership Commitment. This commitment outlines the respective responsibilities of elders and members toward the church body. Particularly relevant are the following responsibilities:
To submit to the discipline of God through His Holy Spirit by following the biblical process for church discipline where sin is evident in another with the hope that such discipline will result in repentance and restoration. This includes receiving righteous and loving discipline when approached biblically by fellow believers (Psalm 141:5; Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13; Hebrews 12:5-11).
Submit to discipline & restoration by the church when ensnared in sin (Matt. 18:15- 20; 1 Cor. 5:1-5). • To submit to the elders and other appointed leaders of the church and be diligent to strive for unity and peace within the Church (Ephesians 4:1-3; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5).
Given that these responsibilities in the Scriptures are applicable to all believers, Fellowship Bible Church will reserve the right to exercise loving discipline outside of its official membership for those who regularly attend.
Practicing Church Discipline at Fellowship
Fellowship Bible Church believes that the only way to deal with sin and love the sinner is through the means revealed in Scripture. Our desire to obey the Lord thus necessitates that we follow His Word.
Except in rather extreme and extenuating circumstances (e.g. an abused child would not have to privately confront his or her abuser in order to facilitate the first step of discipline), the process should be followed with faithfulness and expectation of God’s Spirit to work through His intended means.
Members of Fellowship are expected to follow the biblical process of discipline as outlined in this paper. Therefore, the first step in instances of overt sin should be a private meeting to express concerns and correct any misunderstandings. We cannot stress strongly enough the need for confidentiality. As a church, we strive to keep the group of people involved in the discipline process as small as possible for as long as possible.
In the event that the sinning brother or sister is unrepentant, members are encouraged to ask a witness to accompany him or her for another meeting. If this too fails, the member is then asked to contact a pastor at Fellowship for further instructions on the church’s response. Functionally, the 3rd and 4th steps of the process will be carried out in the presence of two or more recognized pastors, at least one of whom being an elder.
While we never hope to need to arrive at these final steps, we fully believe that engaging in such is the best way to love a wayward brother or sister. Therefore, we will unapologetically obey the Scriptures as they apply in such instances. While such action may rail against our ideas of love and compassion, we trust that God will ultimately show Himself faithful and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
Practicing Church Restoration at Fellowship
When a member has confessed their sin and demonstrated genuine repentance, it then becomes necessary to set in motion a plan for restoration. (2 Cor 2:5-8) This plan will be put in writing for the sake of clarity. Fellowship Bible Church Pastors and Elders are typically involved in this process that includes the following steps:
- Setting expectations regarding the terms of restoration, the process and the resultant outcomes, the long-term effects and implications including any resultant disqualification from future ministry. It is important that others affected by the sin be involved and informed throughout the process. Where the sin is against another person, their cooperation and involvement is necessary. Particularly in marital situations, the spouse needs to be engaged through the process.
- Establishing a willingness to submit to accountability for the purpose of active repentance, pursuing restoration, and seeking godly counsel and submitting to authority. In each situation, the specifics of how this is accomplished will vary.
- Forming a restoration team to assist in the process of restoration with Elder and Pastor team leadership, oversight, and accountability. The team of 3-4 members will be chosen from the person’s established community or known relationships who are committed to the restoration process and able to give time attention to this person and assess credible progress.
The purpose of the restoration team is to provide accountability and encouragement. This group may not be qualified to offer the kind of counseling that may be necessary. In some situations, it may be necessary to secure professional counseling for the individual and those directly affected by their sin. Where finances may be an impediment to receiving counseling, Fellowship will provide assistance through its benevolence fund.
Finally, there should be a time for follow up and evaluation. This could be a great time to celebrate with the one who has been restored and help them see and appreciate all that God has done in their life. God has done incredible things among Fellowship members who have participated in the restoration process. We highly encourage it in order to actively experience the Gospel and His grace in seemingly impossible sin situations.
A Need for Humility
God’s word has ordained the discipline of believers as a means He uses for the building up of the saints. But we must confess that at times the church has failed to undertake this responsibility with a spirit of humility appropriate for fellow sinners who are equally in need of God’s grace. The way in which we have interacted with those ensnared in sin has at times been hurtful and has driven them from us rather than creating in them a thirst to be reconciled to us. For that, we are truly heartbroken and cry out to God in our own need for forgiveness. Whenever we engage in church discipline we would be mindful to remember the parable of the tax collector and Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14, where our Lord reminded us that it was the brokenness and cry for the mercy of the tax collector that revealed true righteousness, not the religious boastings of the Pharisee.
Exercising church discipline is a burden for the believer that is meant to sacrificially serve other believers. It is a burden that we cannot carry in our flesh, but must be carried by the Spirit of Christ in us who makes all burdens light. If we exercise discipline in keeping with the Holy Spirit, those ensnared by sin will be drawn to Him who is in us. If we exercise discipline in our flesh, they will be wounded and repulsed by us.
Thank you to The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas for their diligence in pursuing this topic so thoroughly and for allowing us to incorporate their material as a part of this document.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.