For the past few days my family and I have been reading in our after-breakfast Bible reading what Wayne Grudem says about the power of the church in Chapter 46, “The Power of the Church,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). In my last post I shared some of what he said about the keys of the kingdom, and in this post I’ll share some of what he says about church discipline. Although we read the entire chapter (except for what it says about discipline of church leaders), I won’t be sharing here from what it says about the church’s power in spiritual warfare and about the power of the church and the power of the state.
The Purposes of Church Discipline
Sin hinders fellowship among believers and with God, and the sin must be dealt with for reconciliation to occur. Thus the primary purpose of church discipline has two goals, to restore the offender to right behaviour and to bring about reconciliation between believers and with God. Grudem compares the role of the church in doing this with parents’ and God’s disciplining their children. In doing this he cites Proverbs 13:24 and Hebrews 12:6, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” and “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).
Another purpose of church discipline is to keep sin from spreading to others. Paul had this mind when he asked the Corinthians, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6), in connection with his telling them to put out of the church a man who was having sexual relations with his stepmother.
A third purpose of church discipline is to protect the purity of the church so that Christ will not be dishonoured. He wants his bride, the church, to be “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27). Thus we should “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish” (2 Peter 3:14).
Sins Subject to Church Discipline
On the one hand, in Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus taught that if a personal sin against someone else couldn’t be resolved privately, then it should be dealt with by the church:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence 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, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
On the other hand, the New Testament specifies several kinds of sins that should be dealt with by the church: incest (1 Corinthians 5:1-5); laziness and unwillingness to work (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10); disobeying Paul’s writings (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15); blasphemy (1 Timothy 1:20); divisiveness (Titus 3:10); and teaching heresy (2 John 10-11). Grudem notes that all of these sins were publicly known and thus brought dishonour to Christ.
How Church Discipline Should Be Carried Out
Matthew 18:15-17, quoted above, suggests both that knowledge of the sin should be kept to the smallest group possible and that disciplinary measures should increase in strength until there is a solution. Grudem suggests a step between the small group meeting and the church meeting, consulting the church leaders, and that the church might have to meet twice, first to decide what to do with the offender and then to exclude him or her from church fellowship. He also notes that Jesus went on to say that God would support the church’s discipline of the offender (Matthew 18:18-20).
If the church’s discipline results in the repentance by the offender, those who know about the situation should welcome him or her back into church fellowship. “You should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).