Is church discipline unloving? How many times it has happened in churches all across America where leaders in the church say practicing church discipline as described in the Bible in such places as Matthew 18 is “unloving.” Then their reasoning continues with the conclusion that “if church discipline is unloving therefore we should not practice church discipline.”
We as Christians must ask if this type of argument is biblical.
Let me be clear up front that I think people can mess up church discipline in an unloving manner, just like how people can mess any good and right act outwardly with a wrong motive and attitude.
However the issue I want to deal with is whether church discipline in of itself is “unloving.” I think the contents of the book of 1 Corinthians helps us answer this question biblically.
- As background, the church in Corinth had a lot of problems. They had enough problems that Paul didn’t just write one letter to them addressing their issues. If there’s a “First Corinthians” that means there must at least be a “Second Corinthians.” I actually think if we read 2 Corinthians carefully you will discover that there’s probably another letter in between 1 and 2 Corinthians. For whatever reason in His sovereignty God didn’t have it included as part of the Bible. So there were three letters addressing problems of the church in Corinth. But let us stick with 1 Corinthians. There’s all kinds of problems and issues. There’s spiritual pride, there’s abuse and misunderstanding of the spiritual gifts and sexual immorality, etc.
- With all the problems of Corinth, if there’s any epistles where we would see some form of church discipline implemented it would be be in these epistles.
- And we do see church discipline implemented in 1 Corinthians 5.
- Yet 1 Corinthians is a book that’s also famous for its thirteenth chapter. 1 Corinthians 13 is an exposition of what biblical love is, and specifically biblical love that is within the body of Christ.
- Thus love and church discipline is not incompatible.
- Look again at 1 Corinthians 5. See the extent that the church discipline has gone through: “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5). Frightening: The guy was even handed over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Yet the purpose still reveal a loving motive: “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
- Sometimes people say it is not nice nor loving to warn someone in unrepentant sin to make sure they are not in the highway to hell. These naysayers say “It is not nice nor loving to ask someone in serious sins to search their hearts Christian to see if they are genuinely in the faith.” But how does this square with 1 Corinthians? After the chapter on church discipline, Paul said “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Again this is the same epistle that’s famous for talking about love. How is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 biblical love? It is biblical love because it warns someone of the danger that their soul is in. But it must not stop with warning. The Gospel must also be shared and applied as the antidote. Yes, even for the Christian. Because Christians need the Gospel too. It is the Gospel that moves a Christian to say no to sin and yes to God. That’s what the Gospel does at the human level: The Gospel provides powerful motivation to fight sin. But at the deeper spiritual level beyond what the human eye can see, Paul tells us right after 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” The first five words are so beautiful: “Such were some of you.” Amazing grace: Amazing that grace saves, and still amazing that grace since it continues on to sanctify us.
- Any objection against biblical church discipline will eventually bring up the J-Word. “Who are you to judge?” “God doesn’t want us to judge.” “It’s not loving to judge.” But in 1 Corinthians the word “judge” appears more than any other letters in the New Testament. This means we must look more deeper rather than be stopped by superficial mantra.
- Love and judgment in church discipline are not incompatible. Paul himself in talking about his role in church discipline said “For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present” (1 Corinthians 5:3). You might say it is different since Paul is an Apostle but this verse does show “Don’t judge” is not a blank check.
- Let’s continue looking at 1 Corinthians 5: “12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). In talking to the church Paul said the church’s job right now is not to judge outsiders. But those among the church Paul ask rhetorically “Do you not judge those who are within the church?” The answer to the rhetorical question is “yes” since verse 13 Paul issue this command “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” Note here this is not a judgment of sending someone to hell but judgment of removing unrepentant sinners from the church.
- Paul also goes on to say Christians will one day judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3) and in some capacity, we are going to judge the world (1 Corinthians 6:2). So judgment in of itself is not wrong. In fact Paul talks about judging the world and angels as a motivation for present judgment, that if we will judge angels “How much more matters of this life?” (1 Corinthians 6:3)
- Again all this is to show that judging in of itself is not wrong. But there can be wrong judgment and also judgment done wrongly. We have to be careful.
- Motivation and purpose is everything when it comes to judgment and church discipline. I find 1 Corinthians 11:32 quite amazing: “But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” Biblical judgment by God upon believers is an act of discipline from the Lord. Yet what is the goal? It is “so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” It is done out of love with eternity and the present in focus.