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Church Discipline

“If your brother sins against you . . .”    — Jesus 


The Motivation of Discipline

One of the many characteristics and actions of our Savior is His desire to see all of His children walk in truth. His love for us is demonstrated in many ways. He gave Himself, He saved us, He changed us, He empowers us, He lives in us, He guides us, directs us, teaches us and yes, He disciplines us. All is motivated by His love for His children.  Consider the declaration of Revelation 3:19, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”


This love-motivated discipline is the Father’s desire for His children to know the truth and to walk in it.  This love is a recognition that the Father knows best and that He wants the best for His children.  It is the recognition that we see through a glass darkly and that we make sinful decisions and selfish decisions that bring sometimes horrible consequences to our lives.  Since the Father sent the Son to bring us life, and that life more abundantly, we need correction and direction and discipline, which He lovingly provides.


The Father’s love expressed in discipline is explained in Hebrews 12:4-11: “‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”


The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology states that “the notion of the discipline of God, and eventually the concept of the community and its leaders effecting God’s discipline, derives from the notion of domestic discipline (Deut 21:18-21; Prov 22:15; 23:13). God is portrayed as a father who guides his child . . . The notion of discipline as familial chastisement remains in the New Testament (Eph 6:4; 2 Tim 2:25; Heb 12:5-11).”1


Personal and Private Discipline

How does the Father discipline us?  His disciplines take a variety of ways and methods, but usually include a combination of both the Word and His Spirit.  In a very private and personal way, through the Word and the conviction of the Spirit of God, He lovingly points out our sins and brings us to the truth.  As we zealously repent, He delights in changing our minds and hearts and empowering us to overcome those areas that have defeated us in the past. How does the Word discipline us?  2 Timothy 3:16 declares, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  As we read and study His Word, and we are made aware of His commandments, we are given the opportunity to repent and do things His way.  Proverbs 6:23 states: “For these commands are a lamp, this teaching is a light, and the corrections of discipline are the way to life.” Most Godly discipline takes place during devotions while in the Word and in prayer.  Privately and personally, the Father shows us His way and gives us the power to do it!


The Word works in conjunction with the Holy Spirit to convince us of the rightness of the Lord’s ways.  For instance, Jesus promised in Acts 1:8 that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  When we are saved, the Holy Spirit comes to live in us: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1Co 6:19).  We have responsibility to guard what the Lord has given us through the Spirit.  2 Timothy 1:14 commands, “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you — guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”  One of the tools we have to help us guard what the Lord has given us is the spirit of discipline.  For instance, Paul reminded that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2Ti 1:7).


All discipline is hard and difficult: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:11).  In contrast, according to Proverbs 12:1, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid.”  Our choice is clear; we can accept the discipline of the Lord and enjoy the peaceful fruits of righteousness or we can behave foolishly and reject His discipline.


Public Church Discipline

What happens when a brother or sister refuses the conviction of the Spirit and the clear teaching of the Word?  When a believer openly embraces and practices a behavior clearly forbidden by the Word?  1 Corinthians 12 teaches in detail that we are members of one body.  Not only do we learn how the body functions and all the gifts in the body, we also learn that when one member of the body is sin sick, it affects the whole body.  Verse 26 states, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”  When our brother sins and does not repent it affects the whole body and the whole body suffers because of it.  Remember, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (12:27).  Consequently, we have a family responsibility to help our sinning brother.  Motivated by love of the brother, we are commanded to confront the bother and the sin issue in order to restore the brother and guard the family that meets locally.
Although there are many scriptures that deal with this issue, the two main ones are found in Matthew 18 and Galatians 6.  These passages are included for easy reference since they will be referred to often:


“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them”                                             — Matthew 18:15-20


“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”                                                                       — Galatians 6:1-2


The First Step

The discovery process is always left up to the Lord.  There is never to be a standing investigatory committee or an oversight group that is responsible for ferreting out the sin in one another’s lives.  As we walk out our lives in Christ, as we grow in intimacy and fellowship, we will naturally become more aware of what is going on in other’s lives.  As we walk out our life in Christ and we discover anyone in a trespass or if we see a brother sinning, we are then called to act on behalf of the brother.  It is important to note that all of us, not just the elders and leaders, are called to this body ministry.  If you are the one who sees a brother in trespass, you are responsible for going to the brother and confronting him.  Don’t go to the elders; go to the offending brother.  The only qualification given for the person confronting is that he be a brother and that he be spiritual, indwelt by the Spirit of the Living God.


If the Lord has chosen you to be used in this fashion, the first step is to pray and check your motivation. Are we motivated by love of the brother?  Are we operating in a spirit of gentleness?  Are we trying to restore the brother?  Are we being careful in case we are tempted in a like manner?  Obviously, there is much to be prayed about and considered before we take the first step of talking privately with the sinning brother.


Having prepared yourself through prayer and self examination, the next step is to go privately to the sinning brother, “showing him his fault in private” (italics mine).  I am convinced that this is the Lord’s choice method.  It springs from the fact that most discipline is personal and private and provides a bridge between personal and public discipline.  Jesus was specific in using the words “in private.”  How wonderful that the Lord even cares if we get embarrassed and deliberately and specifically tried to protect us from the further embarrassment of public notice.  What opportunity for quick and private repentance.  When successful, this first step of public discipline brings the sinner to repentance, edifies the body and usually strengthens the relationship between the one confronting and the brother being confronted.


Time must be allowed for the Holy Spirit to convict and convince.  Most people’s initial reaction is not their final reaction.  Give the brother some room to prayerfully consider what you have brought to his attention.  Do not put a timetable on the work of the Holy Spirit but continue to make yourself available to him for prayer and counsel.  Don’t expect an initial first response to be immediate repentance.  It is a privilege to observe the Holy Spirit working in a brother’s life.  A good rule of thumb is to give the brother as much time as you would want someone to give you.


If the brother listens to you, you have won the brother.  The matter is finished and no further confrontation is necessary.  Careful consideration must be given to the fruits of repentance to make sure that the brother is sincere and that he is taking biblical steps to remove himself from the occasion of temptation.  Continued prayer and counsel may be necessary to help the brother.  Both should be offered until both the confronting brother and the sinning brother are convinced that victory has been achieved.


The Second Step

What do we do if the brother refuses to listen and refuses to repent?  Jesus said, “if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”  There has been much written on the second step in public church discipline.  Some suggest that the two or more witnesses be witness to the original trespass.  Others believe that the two or more witnesses are there to witness the brothers as they confront the sin issue and to determine the attitude and responses of the two men involved in the confrontation.  This step definitely takes the process out of the private arena into the public.  It is a dramatic escalation of the process and is designed to bring public pressure on the bother to quit sinning and repent.


With two or three witnesses, we are to go to the sinning brother.  Who should these witnesses be?  I don’t believe they have to be witnesses to the act of sin but are there to be witnesses to the confrontation.  The witnesses should also be spiritual men who are well grounded in the word and who will not be tempted in the area of sin.  They should also have a relationship with both parties.  They are there to observe the process and to offer counsel to both the confronter and the person being confronted.  Because these confrontations sometimes get emotional and fiery, the witnesses can also act as overseers to make sure that there is a spirit of gentleness.  While the person who is confronting the bother in sin, the two or three witnesses are to help keep the goal of restoration in mind and to keep the conversation going in the right direction.  The person being confronted sometimes tries to change the focus by obfuscating, attacking the person or persons who are confronting him, offering excuses for the continued behavior or outright denial of the charges.  The witnesses are to help both parties to remain calm, to keep the conversation focused on restoration, to make sure that the motivation of love of the brother is clearly communicated as the motive for the confrontation and to move the conversation towards a decision.


The Third Step

If, after being confronted privately and with two/three witnesses, there is no fruit of repentance, the original confronter and the witnesses are to tell it to the church.  This is not the church universal but the local church, the local group who meets in fellowship.  The telling should include the nature of the sin, the steps that have already been taken and the results of the previous conversations.  The first telling might be at a men’s meeting so that each man can discern what is going on and decide what, if anything, to tell his own wife and children.  Since the telling includes a description of the sin involved, consideration should be given to immature believers and children.  Remember that the Scripture, in Galatians, teaches that the ones doing the confronting be spiritual (mature) and have a spirit of gentleness.  The goal of restoration must be adhered to even more arduously in the very public disclosures as the possibility for wrong thinking and action increases with the number of brothers and sisters involved.  Great care must be given to avoid tale bearing and gossip and exaggeration and wrong attitudes.  The goal is restoration, not crucifixion of the brother.  All members of the local body are now involved in confronting and helping the brother.


There are only two groups of people in the world; those who are saved and are in the church and those who are outside of the church.  Jesus was speaking to his disciples at the time of Matthew 18 and the church did not yet exist.  When Jesus said that the unrepentant brother was to be understood as a Gentile, He was telling His Jewish audience that the sinning brother was to be treated as if he were not part of the covenant family, an outsider, apart from the grace of God.  One of the best examples of this is found in the Corinthian letters where Paul tells the Corinthians to put the brother out who was in sexual sin with his stepmother and in the second letter he tells the Corinthians to take him back in to the fellowship of the church.  As with all the other steps, this last and final step is to bring repentance and restoration.



The good shepherd always goes after the lost sheep.  The wonder of the gospel is that provision is made for the sinning brother who can not find his own way to repentance can, in fact, rely upon the good graces of a loving fellowship to be used in helping him be restored to full fellowship.  These clear scriptural instructions are the how to steps for that restoration to take place.  Consider the following principles:


1.  The motivation for all discipline is the love of the Father.
2.  Most discipline is private and personal.
3.  Most discipline is accomplished through study and prayer of the Word and the active work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life.
4.  The practice of sin is a family issue and sometimes must be dealt with by other members of the church family for the sake of the brother and the family.
5.  God Himself is the one who exposes and brings all things to light.
6.  All mature spiritual members of the body are called to this body ministry.
7.  Before confronting, prayer and self examination are required.
8.  Be careful to protect the sinning brother’s privacy by going to him in private.
9.  If the brother rejects the counsel, go to him with two or three witnesses.
10.  “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”
11.  “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and as a tax collector.”

— Mike Indest



1 Walter Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Publishing Group, 1996).