There was a pastor who became involved immorally with a married woman in his congregation. They each divorced their respective mates and then were married to each other in the church of which he was the pastor. The congregation turned out en masse for the wedding, giving open support.
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 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. | Matthew 18:15-17 New American Standard Bible
That tragic story of the pastor reflects the dominant mood in the American church today, that we should show love and tolerance to those who fall into sin. That mentality is behind the push to accept practicing, unrepentant homosexuals as church members and even as pastors.
Even among churches that would not condone these things, there are very few that practice biblical church discipline towards those who persist in sin. Pastor John MacArthur reports (foreword, A Guide to Church Discipline, by J. Carl Laney [Bethany House, 1985], p. 7) that a leading pastor once told him:
If you discipline church members, they’ll never stand for it, and you’ll empty the place. You can’t run around sticking your nose into everyone’s sin.
If you’ve ever attended MacArthur’s church, you know that that pastor’s advice was not prophetic! The place is not exactly empty! But neither was that pastor’s advice biblical. Following his counsel would put us in disobedience to the words of the Master Jesus and the apostle Paul. Scripture is clear:
This seems pretty clear.
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.
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. In the name of our Master Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Master Jesus, 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 Master Jesus.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For the Messiah our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. | 1 Corinthians 5 New American Standard Bible
The church must practice biblical church discipline toward professing disciples who persist in known sin.
Perhaps no verse is so taken out of context and misapplied as Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” If you keep reading, in verse 6 Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine….” In verse 15 He adds, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
To obey those verses, you must make some astute judgments! You must judge that a person is a dog or a swine or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5:12, Paul tells the church that they are responsible to judge those within the church. Practicing biblical church discipline does not violate Jesus’ command, “Judge not.”
I realize that this topic will sound as if we’re trying to revive the Salem witch trials or the Inquisition. But the Bible is our standard for faith and practice and it has much to say about this subject.
There is such a thing as biblical church discipline. We should consider the purposes of church discipline, the problems that require church discipline, and the procedure for church discipline.