Who Is Responsible for Church Discipline?

Posted by Tim Bice

I think most Believers automatically think that the pastor, elders, or leaders of the church are the ones to handle all church discipline issues within the church. However, that is not always true. To help us understand it better, Jay Adams in his book, “Handbook of Church Discipline,” distinguishes between “informal” and “formal” church discipline.1

Informal discipline

Informal church discipline is actually carried out among brothers and sisters of Christ within the church. Informal discipline includes the first two steps Jesus outlines in Matthew 18:15-16. If a brother is in sin, go to him in truth AND love. Go to him not only to warn him, but also to counsel him. If the person in question does not repent, then witnesses are called in. The witnesses are to be objective, listening to the cases of both the charged and the one charging; they are not there just to support the one charging. These steps are considered “informal” discipline that can and should be done by church partners (members).

A warning

This is not a green light for gung-ho church members that get off on confronting the sin of others. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”(Matthew 7:3) This verse reminds us that we are not perfect and need to observe our own life as well. We always approach others in truth AND love. Like a friend once told me, “I don’t want to be so truthful that I’m unloving but on the other hand I don’t want to be so loving that I’m untruthful.” I might add that this process should be slow enough to give the charged time to repent, but quick enough that it doesn’t linger forever.

Formal discipline

Formal discipline starts in the third step of Jesus’ instructions (Matthew 18:17) where witnesses are instructed to tell the church of the unrepentant sin of the charged. This is where the elders/pastors formally get involved and where it becomes serious. There are also times when serious public situations occur such as in 1 Corinthians 5 where a man was sleeping with his father’s wife and the whole community knew about it. If a church partner commits a public sin, the elders need to go directly into formal church discipline with the hope of repentance and restoration in mind.

Accusations against an elder/pastor

There must be more than one person to bring accusations against an elder/pastor. “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

The divisive person

Just like a good husband/father won’t let a disruptive person continually harm his family and home, neither should churches allow divisive people bent on harming the church remain in the body. In these types of cases or when a wolf begins to divide the church, the elders will act swiftly (Titus 3:10). Shepherds must protect the sheep! (Acts 20:28-29)

The church and excommunication

Excommunication sounds very harsh…until you really look at what it means. Jonathan Leeman says it best, “It’s excommunicating, or ex-communion-ing…

to excommunicate is ‘to exclude from fellowship, which is to remove from the Lord’s Table, which is ‘to formally discipline.”2 This is always done for the good of the person, the health of the church and the protection Jesus’ reputation. At this point in the discipline process, the whole church (partners only) come together to hear the elders recommendations concerning the charged. It comes full circle – back to the members – the body. The church body may decide to give more time for the charged to repent, or they may see that the charged is unwilling to repent and, therefore the church can no longer vouch for his profession of faith. The end goal is never “kick them out,” or “get them away from us.” The main goal is always the same – reconciliation, repentance, and restoration; but there will be times when people will not accept the church’s discipline and we must “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:5). Even the act of excommunication is for his good.

If the charged ever gets to this point, the church does not shun him, but continues to reach out to him. The disciplined person is made welcome in the services and gatherings except for Lord’s Supper and partnership meetings. He is to be treated “as a heathen and a tax collector,” (Matthew 18:18). In other words, like an unbeliever. Each church has plenty of unbelievers coming to their meetings and this man should be no different. The church continues loving him and asking him to repent for his own good, the church’s health, and the reputation of Jesus’ name. Until he repents, the church body cannot eat or mingle with him, (1 Corinthians 5:11).

1 Handbook of Church Discipline. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Ministry Resources Library, 1986. Print.

2 Church Discipline How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.