Church Discipline or Personal Vendetta?
When is it right, or wrong, to expel an unrepentant professed
Christian brother or sister from the church?

Author's Preface: Please make sure to read the end notes in this article as they are an integral part of it. In them you will find the Scriptural references and passages which are the foundation of this work.

The Bible clearly teaches that the church is to exercise discipline.1 The purpose of church discipline is to maintain the purity of the church, with a focus on the truth. While most churches pay lip-service to the commands of Scriptures in this regard, that's all it is; lip-service. These churches are willingly filled with professed brothers and sisters in Christ who are living in wanton and unrepentant immorality.6 Speak to the offender about this? Perhaps other than a few oblique references in a message, not a chance! They might just leave the church and, heaven forbid, they might stop giving.2

Other churches spend all their time judging non-believers, expecting them to act and speak as regenerate people without cause.3 Ostracizing and keeping these people out of the church and away from Christians (with intent or by result) is a favorite pastime. By no means should this be construed as Biblical church discipline, rather it is proof that the church does not understand its role in the world.

Lastly, and equally wrong, there are those who use church discipline as a weapon. How do you recognize this? Take a church from the first example, one who has turned a blind-eye on hosts of abuses for years and find them suddenly taking up the mantel. Of course, their change of heart is not to truly exercise their God-given and God-required role universally, exampling fairness and justice. In fact, they will look past the hosts of candidates to take aim at the one who has personally affronted them. It really doesn't matter what the affront is, whether true or false, the mere fact that it is an offense against them becomes the determining factor for this selective justice. Be certain of this, selective justice is injustice.4

True church discipline is done with impartiality 5 and, as said earlier, with a focus on the truth.10 The vague reason given, in a majority of cases where church discipline is being used as weapon, is that the individual is being divisive.16 This reason cannot be lightly utilized as it carries a burden with it. The onus is on the church to establish if the division is legitimate or not. Legitimate division?! Yes, there is such a thing.11 When the church or its leadership has strayed from the truth, there are legitimate times for division to arise. Using an example from the Old Testament, even if the king himself was to lead you astray, each believer is responsible to uphold and live out the truth. The one, or few, holding to the truth will always appear to be divisive, and will always be accused of such by the majority. To be expelled with a charge of being divisive, the burden is on those carrying out the discipline to establish that it is for the sake of the truth. If the church makes this claim without establishing the facts and revealing their basis, it is a cover-up and not church discipline. When church leadership makes the claim that no one needs to know the details, just "trust us," question all the more. The truth is not afraid of the light; it's a lie or deception that wants to hide in darkness.15

If the church is carrying out true discipline, based in truth, then the church will also be concerned that it be executed in a Biblical manner. How can the church carry out it's obligation to talk to the wayward individual, to try and persuade them to repent of their deeds, when they don't even known what those deeds are?14 The entirety of the requirement of the church to speak to the individual rests in their understanding of what the sin is and its' gravity. Scripture, nowhere, demands blind trust of church leadership - God's leaders work in the open, trusted because of their calling and experience, but visibly accountable to the whole body. Discipline serves as a deterrent, with a warning to all to not think themselves better than the one who has fallen, or to delude themselves into thinking that they too could not fall likewise.9

Speak the truth in love. Stand for the truth no matter what. Follow the means God established for confronting any who have sinned, especially an elder (leader) of the church. Remember that the elder, who has a greater responsibility, has accepted that role with a greater burden.7 When it's someone who isn't an elder; only the unrepentant are to have their sin revealed to the church. As for the elder, the command is that their sin is to be rebuked publicly no matter what.8 Not only is their responsibility greater, so too the need for the public deterrent. The elder unwilling to accept the burden of this level of accountability has shown himself to be unwilling to accept the responsibility of being an elder.

Should your church decide that it's time to start following God's commands, and begin carrying out its responsibility of church discipline, you can be sure that, initially, numbers will fall. People will be offended for the sake of the truth - and that's okay. It's all the more important that each reason be established and all is seen to be done with impartiality from that time forward. There's never a bad time to start doing what is right. God will bless. What's more important? Numbers? Finances? Prestige in the world's eyes? Or doing what is right solely because He commanded?!13 How your church answers will tell you how much concern they really have for the truth.

Love without discipline is no love at all.12

Author's Postscript: As some read this they may feel it is their church, or a particular circumstance, that this was written to address. Good! Scripture has current and necessary application. Having been a traveling evangelist and speaker, an elder in a church, and pastor, this has been written in view of first and second-hand knowledge derived from a multitude of circumstances. With all para-church ministries I am involved with, and as a pastor, I hold myself to the level of accountability called for in this article. God forbid, but should I fall into sin, I understand that there are consequences. Public accountability to the church is one of them. All the more it leads me to cling to the Lord - "To Him who is able to keep [me] from falling..." (Jude 24)

End Notes:

1. A few pertinent passages include: 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 (see end note 6); 5:9-13 (see end note 3); Titus 3:9-11 (see end note 16).

2. The other excuse, often raised for not confronting an unrepentant sinner, is "Who are we to do so? Everyone sins." The answer to the "Who are we?" is clearly, by Scriptures, the ones whom God has commanded to do so. It is not necessary to feel worthy to do something God has demanded. Our feelings do not determine doctrine or practice - this is established solely by Scriptures. Additionally, the "Everyone sins" truism is a copout. Do you think that God didn't know this fact when He established the requirement for church discipline? Are you not mocking God in making such a claim? In reality, there is a big difference (or there should be) between the church (especially its leadership) and the one in need of church discipline. While all believers are "saints who sin" they are more specifically "saints who struggle to not sin." This is why God convicts of sin by His word and Spirit, sometimes using other individuals to remind us what is pleasing to Him. Sure we stumble and fall down, but God gets us on our feet and keeps us heading the right direction (which appears as repentance and Spirit led guidance).

Proverbs 24:16 For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity. (NIV)

I believe the true reason many use the excuse of "Everyone sins" is that they fear submitting themselves to God's standard of accountability and discipline.

3. 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ...

I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you." (NIV)

4. God's requirement that justice be impartial, and that all who are guilty be convicted, was established as a principle going back to the Law of Moses. The fellowship who does not administer church discipline, for fear of losing people, prestige, or finances, has by definition accepted a bribe to pervert justice. The receipt of any benefits, directly or indirectly, is the payoff.

Deuteronomy 16:19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous. (NIV)

Proverbs 24:23-25 These also are sayings of the wise: To show partiality in judging is not good: 24 Whoever says to the guilty, "You are innocent" - peoples will curse him and nations denounce him. 25 But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come upon them. (NIV)

5. As already established, in end note 4, those who are entrusted with making judgments must act impartially. This is not only a command to the nation of Israel, or one that could be construed as only being for governmental or civil purposes. It is an apostolic command of God to church leadership.

1 Timothy 5:21 I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. (NIV)

6. Sexual immorality is one of the most clearly defined Biblical reasons to exercise church discipline. In spite of this obvious command, it is the number one reason for a church to be in sin. How can a church be in sin? When a church willfully ignores, for its own reasons, any command of God.

1 Corinthians 5:1-5 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (NIV)

The apostle John, likewise, recorded a warning for any church that would tolerate (accept by silence and lack of action) those who are sexually immoral. Again, the emphasis is not on the unbeliever who is acting according to their nature, but the professed brother or sister in the church.

Revelation 2:18-25 "To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19 I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. 20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. 24 Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan's so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): 25 Only hold on to what you have until I come. (NIV)

The leadership of a church that does not discipline sexual immorality becomes like Jezebel. Their teaching (words without action) becomes that which misleads God's people. Needless to say, they are in danger of God's judgment.

7. Many churches lightly elevate people to the position of teacher, without doctrinal examination or true concern for the flock. Elders of the fellowship are responsible for maintaining doctrinal purity in the church. These days, the greatest qualification has become not what they believe or know, but their willingness to serve. Far better that there be fewer teachers than an abundance who teach error, intentionally or out of ignorance.

James 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (NIV)

Likewise the primary qualification for many pastors has become their degrees or school attended. Few churches directly examine the doctrine of pastoral candidates. When was the last time a pastoral candidate was asked if he accepted the burden of public rebuke if he was subsequently found to be in sin? Unless he would agree to this, he should not be considered as he takes lightly the office of teacher. Also see end note 8.

8. Care needs to be taken when anyone confronts an elder (which is all leadership of the church, not only the ones given the modern title of pastor). The Bible requires two or three witnesses as a burden of proof. This not only sets a legal threshold of evidence against the elder, it also provides protection for the accuser should a corrupt elder use his position to harm a legitimate accuser.

1 Timothy 5:19-20 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning. (NIV)

The two or three witnesses can be more than people, as well. Photographs, writings, recordings, etc., all are legitimate witnesses. Civil judgments serve as the witness of another God-ordained authority. All these become important, especially in regards to sexual misconduct, which is typically done in secret without other human witnesses. It does not matter that all witnesses come together at the same time, only that their testimony be in agreement, for the accusation to be considered legitimate.

The need of public rebuke is a requirement of the office of elder, both for those called pastor, and equally all other leadership (in some churches called elders, in others, deacons who act as elders). All who will not accept both the potential for such discipline, or the need of such discipline, have disqualified themselves from the office. It is important that this applies equally, without partiality, to all elders. Exempting anyone because of their preeminent status (i.e. as senior pastor), or because of their secular credentials (i.e. degrees held), or for any other reason, is to pervert justice.

Don't miss the last part of 1 Timothy 5:20. The need to do this publicly is a God-established need of public deterrence.

9. Church discipline is a step in what will hopefully be restoration. At all times the church should pray and hope that the disciplined individual will repent and be restored to the fellowship. The clear warning given, to all those helping to restore someone, is that they need to be personally careful. The implication is to never think themselves better than another and incapable of yielding to temptation as well.

Galatians 6:1 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. (NIV)

The key to "watch yourself" is to keep focused on the only one who can keep you from falling. When the focus becomes yourself, or another person, you will fall.

Jude 24-25 To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy- 25 to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (NIV)

10. Unity is the desired goal of the church. The consistent message of Scriptures is that unity cannot be based on a lie or less than the whole truth. With far too many churches, their unity is not rooted in the diligently sought, learned and taught message of Scriptures, but in a watering down of the message - removing the offence so everyone will agree (see Galatians 5:11; 1 Corinthians 1:18). For example, merely reducing the basis of your unity to "we all love Jesus" is a dangerous proposition. Apart from doctrine, established by Scriptures, answering necessary questions (i.e. "Who is this Jesus?", "What does it mean to love?"), such a slogan-based church readily will welcome a lie and call it unity. Such a low understanding of unity readily welcomes Mormons, Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and a potential host of other cults and heretics who will all readily pay lip service to the same platitude.

1 Corinthians 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. (NIV)

Unity must be rooted in the revelation of God (i.e. John 17:20-23). When unity is forced in any church, perhaps rooted in a person (i.e. a pastor), it is a unity on a shaky and soon-to-fall foundation. When the pastor leaves, or stumbles, the unity is quickly seen for what it is, as those within scatter or turn on each other. In contrast, if the unity of a church is the bond of a common knowledge and love for our Lord, the unity of the family will not be shaken though anyone falls or departs (or is expelled). In fact, the family will work together to help such a one.

11. The Apostle Paul, while disappointed at the lack of unity in the Corinthian church, established that there is a valid time for division - namely for the sake of the truth.

1 Corinthians 11:18-19 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. (NIV)

Paul's later writing to Titus, telling him to warn and expel a divisive person (Titus 3:10), is obviously not in regards to the "divisive" person who is standing firm in the truth, rather it focuses on the one who creates division in opposition to what is right and true. To determine who to support carries an obligation of searching out the truth and then standing with the one who is right (not necessarily the one who is popular or powerful).

12. In both the Old and New Testaments, God reminds us that His love comes with discipline (Deuteronomy 8:5; Proverbs 3:12; Psalms 94:10; Hebrews 12:5-11).

Hebrews 12:5-11 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 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! 10 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. 11 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. (NIV)

If we are to love as He does (and we are!), then our love must include discipline. Love without discipline is a useless counterfeit.

John 13:34-35 "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (NIV)

13. Obedience to the commands of our Lord is a Biblical test of our love. While it is easy to profess to love God, the evidence is always in our actions. This is true both for the individual and the church.

John 14:15, 21, 23-24 "If you love me, you will obey what I command. ... 21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him." ... 23 Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. (NIV) [See also Revelation 1:20-2:5 regarding the church]

14. "Tell it to the church" cannot be construed to mean only telling them that church leadership has decided something is wrong. When the sin is known to the church it not only serves as a deterrent but it also enables the church to talk intelligibly to the individual who is in sin. Lastly, it also enables specific prayer and curtails gossip (...ignorance of the truth is fuel for gossip).

Matthew 18:15-17 "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. 16 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.' 17 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. (NIV)

15. Ephesians 5:11-13...

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible... (NIV)

16. Titus 3:9-11...

But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. 10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. 11 You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (NIV)

Written by Brent MacDonald of Lion Tracks Ministries. (c) 2007
Duplication permitted as long as the source is cited.