Discipline: Prosecution or Pastoring?

The last two articles in this monthly column have looked at the first two of the “marks of the true church” identified by John Calvin, with a view to inquiring into the elders’ responsibility to these commitments.

In this article and a subsequent one (OK, I’m learning. I know I can’t do it in one), we visit the commitment of faithful churches to Biblical church discipline. My purposes are several: to review the Biblical grounds for discipline, to inquire into the Biblical methods, all while keeping before us the Biblical purpose. Again, the point is to help you, the elders of the local church. You face several potholes in the pursuit of discipline these days. For one, we are living in relativistic times, when “live and let live” is the byword, and when many believe any discipline is arrogant interference. In such times, applying discipline takes courage. For another thing, we live in litigious times, and recent cases have given rise to judgments against churches that disciplined members. Perhaps you haven’t faced it in your church, but I have heard those chilling words: “I’m going to sue you if you proceed with this discipline.” In all honesty, it’s enough to make strong elders quake with anxiety. Finally, we live in individualistic times, in which other churches probably won’t honor your process of discipline anyway, and thus, times in which members merely transfer out of one church to avoid the problems of discipline. Having exposed all the mine fields, we have two choices: drop discipline from our practice, declaring that it “won’t work” in our age anyway, or review what the Bible says, screw up our courage, and get to work, trusting the Lord to honor in heaven what His representatives do in faith on earth. I propose the latter.


If you’ve been a reader of this column for any length of time, you know I believe the offices in the church are to be pastoral (shepherding) in character. That is especially true of the eldership which is told (in Acts 20:28) to “keep watch over the flock,” to defend it from wolves, and to be “on guard” against those who distort the truth. I read this responsible duty assigned to elders to be the outworking of Jesus’ commission to Peter in Matthew 16:18f:

I tell you that you are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church…I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Understand: Jesus’ authorization to Peter and the apostles (repeated in John 20:23 with even more clarity: “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”) is to be carried out by the elders of the New Testament church as part of their “defense of the flock.” Keeping doctrinal and moral error from corrupting the rest of the people of God is, in and of itself, a Scripturally defensible ground for discipline. Read I Corinthians 5 to observe how Paul handled a known sin in the church there!




Not only is the preservation of the church at stake. There is also the matter of the holiness and honor of the Name of God. We are called by His Name—“Christian.” Therefore, “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (I Pet. 2:15–16). If that is so, we must understand that every member of the church is, at all times, always under discipline—the discipline of the Word and Spirit, which seeks to develop and cultivate our holiness despite our sinful hearts and lives. (Also see Heb. 12:14: “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord.”)


But while it is fair to speak of church (elder-applied) discipline as being for the sake of the church and for the honor of the Lord, it is also incomplete to say only these things. Clearly (and for the pastoral elders, essentially) discipline is, according to Scripture, intended to bring about repentance in the sinner, so that he/she will be reconciled to God and to the church.

Consider Matthew 18:15f. In this extraordinary passage, about which so much should be said, I will restrain myself and say only a couple of things.

First of all, the procedure commanded is so obvious as to need no comment.

Second, I want you to note the link between the discipline applied and the phrase noticed earlier (“bind,” “loose” sins, v. 18). The point is clear: what the church, through its elders, forgives because of genuine repentance, is forgiven by God (loosed; all legal claims satisfied). Likewise, what the church declares not forgiven (still bound to the sinner, not satisfied by confession and repentance), God will not forgive.

Third, please note that it is in this case (discipline with legal witnesses) and not in the case of small gatherings of worship or prayer, that Jesus says: “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” He’s not speaking of His presence in Worship; He’s speaking of His authorization and approbation of the discipline work of the church!

Now, having just exploded one of your favorite texts, allow me to get to my point. Jesus authorized discipline, commanded certain procedures for certain cases, and assured His church that He will “bind” Himself to their legal (“two or three witnesses” suggests nothing less) disciplinary pronouncements. But to overlook the key of verse 17 is to miss much of the point. In the midst of the process, Jesus charges the church to treat the unrepentant sinner “as you would a pagan ora tax collector.” (Think that’s tough? Check out I Corinthians 5:5, where Paul orders them to “hand this man over to Satan”!)

What’s the point? Many think such a passage justifies “the ban,” the notion that you cut off all contact with such people, let them feel the pain of loneliness and the hurt of being shunned. I’m sorry to pop your balloon again, but that’s nonsense. What was Jesus’ (and therefore His disciples’) approach to pagans or tax collectors? Witness! Evangelism! He ate with them and associated with them so visibly that the religious leaders of the Jews blew a gasket (Mt. 9:10–11, 11:19). He told the Jews: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” That’s what it means to treat the disciplined as pagans and tax collectors. To recognize, and then to declare publicly, that we are no longer to view or treat them as if they were part of the family of God, but now we are to evangelize them, since they have proven they are not.

You will find the same emphasis in the I Corinthians 5 passage. “Hand this man over to Satan” sounds extraordinarily harsh, until you read the next phrases: “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” How in the world can one’s spirit be saved if he has been “handed over to Satan”?

You must understand that the church is viewed as the dominion, the present kingdom of rule, of Christ. That which is outside of it Jesus and the apostles call “the realm of darkness.” In John 16:11, Jesus calls Satan “the prince of this world.” Jesus’ entire earthly ministry was to declare “the kingdom is at hand,” and then to reveal the dimensions of the new regime: casting out demons, healing the sick from the effects of sin. Make no mistake about it: His coming inaugurated the final battle of kingdoms.

In this light, handing someone over to Satan in order to save his spirit is to officially declare that he actually belongs to the Kingdom of Darkness,and not the Kingdom of Christ. This is exactly the same point Jesus made in Matthew 18 about treating the disciplined as “pagans and tax collectors.”

The bottom line: If discipline is applied with any other attitude and spirit than that of an urgent contending for the salvation of the individual who is right now outside of Christ, it is not Biblical discipline. (Compare Jude 23.) I’ll say it another way: If you apply discipline perfunctorily, or merely to satisfy the requirements of your church’s book of order, you are perilously close to the spirit of the Pharisees! Discipline can only, must only, be applied to sinners with hard and hardening hearts in order to call them back. But because that is the loving purpose, and because discipline is the only way that works to break through the hard heart, it is absolutely necessary. There is no Biblical option. And that’s true no matter whether our age understands, whether you are threatened with a lawsuit, or whether it’s easier to ignore problems and hope they “transfer” away.

(Next time: some thoughts on methodology.)

Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is pastor of the Bethel CRC, Dallas, TX.