How to Practice Discipline in the Local Church

“For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are” (1Co 3:17).[1]

Every local church is comprised of sinners, saved by grace. As long as we have the flesh, we will never be sinless, but because of God’s transforming power in our lives, we sin less. God’s desire is that His people grow in holiness. Indeed, He commands us: “You shall be holy, because I am holy” (1Pe 1:16). Being part of a local assembly provides many benefits for the Lord’s people, not the least of which is accountability. And accountability is fundamental to such growth in holiness.

The local church also possesses divine authority to deal with sin when necessary.[2] We refer to this as the practice of church discipline. It is important to note the similarity of the words “discipline” and “disciple” (i.e., learner or trainee). Corrective action, when it comes to sin, is critical for our training in holiness. Church discipline is for our good and for God’s glory. Some discipline may be carried out by the Head of the Church Himself (e.g., 1Co 11:29-30), but the Lord expects us to act when sin infects and affects the local church.

The Lord disciplines those He loves (Heb 12:6). We discipline our own children because we love them. Regardless of how antiquated the concept of church discipline might be considered today by society (even evangelical society), it would be hard to claim we love the Lord’s people if we fail to implement church discipline. The Hebrews writer adds that the Lord disciplines us, not only because He loves us, but He does so “for our benefit, that we may share his holiness” (v10).

It is unfortunate that some may equate church discipline with excommunication. There are other forms of discipline, which will be discussed below. Depending on the situation, the discipline may simply be a private conversation where an individual is confronted about their failure, which by itself may produce the necessary repentance.

Purposes Realized

What does the practice of church discipline accomplish? First, as noted above, it upholds God’s holiness, which He demands of His people. A clear line is drawn between the church and the world. Second, it will restore the purity of the local church (1Co 5:7 – “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump”). Third, it will hopefully lead to the restoration of the sinning believer (Gal 6:1). Fourth, it will deter the sinful behavior of others in the assembly (1Ti 5:20). Fifth, it may lead to the exposure and removal of professing believers who are not genuinely saved.

Behavior Addressed

The New Testament provides guidance as to which behaviors in the local assembly need to be addressed and how to handle them. The goal in every case is to redirect a wayward believer to holiness, “for God’s temple is holy, which is what you are” (1Co 3:17).

The first mention of discipline is described by the Lord Jesus (Mat 18:15-20). Unresolved personal conflict where definite sin (not mere grievance) is involved (v15) may escalate until action by the whole assembly is necessary to remove the one who refuses to admit sin (v17). Note that excommunication from the local church was first taught by Jesus Himself.

The Apostle Paul also taught the need for excommunication, not only for the sexual sin of 1 Corinthians 5:1 but also for willful doctrinal error (see 1Ti 1:19-20; 2Ti 2:17-18). It is also possible that the moral sins mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:11 would demand putting someone away from the assembly.

However, excommunication is not the only form of discipline in the local church. Paul taught that divisive individuals were to be warned and avoided (Rom 16:17-18; Titus 3:9-11). After one or two warnings, such a person may need to be “rejected” (Titus 3:10). “No believer should lend their ear to this man who is subverted and really knows he is sinning.”[3]

Paul also admonishes believers to “not associate closely” (2Th 3:14) with those who “are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others” (v11). They are not to be treated as enemies but admonished as brothers (v15).

There will also be times when a public rebuke is necessary: “Those guilty of sin must be rebuked before all, as a warning to the rest” (1Ti 5:20). Although the context is the behavior of elders, we might in principle apply this to all within the local church.

Other examples could be given, but space in this article will not permit an exhaustive list of every occasion in the NT of needed church discipline.

Spirit Manifested

The spirit in which church discipline is carried out may ultimately affect its goal. Some discipline may be done by an individual, and will require a “spiritual” person (i.e., one who is truly walking by the Holy Spirit) manifesting a “spirit of gentleness” (Gal 6:1) to seek the restoration of the sinning believer. All cases of discipline, however, should avoid any favoritism shown to family members or close friends (see 1Ti 5:21). Humility, love for the offender, and a willingness to forgive should characterize all in the local church when discipline is enacted.

Repentance Evaluated

After action has been taken by the local church, the repentance of the one disciplined will need to be evaluated. A number of scriptural principles should guide us to determine if repentance is genuine and complete. First, the believer will freely acknowledge the sin, rather than making excuses for their behavior (Pro 28:13; 1Jn 1:9). Second, they will demonstrate godly sorrow in relation to their sin (2Co 7:9-11). Third, they will stop the behavior for which they were disciplined. Repentance means a change of mind, which leads to a change of behavior. Fourth, they will make restitution and seek forgiveness from any they hurt by their actions (Mat 5:23-24). Fifth, they will manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Gal 5:22-23), giving evidence of a life now in fellowship with God and His people.

“Therefore … let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God” (2Co 7:1).

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the NET unless otherwise noted.

[2] Assembly elders do not possess this authority, but act as stewards of it, on behalf of the whole assembly.

[3] Norman Crawford, Gathering Unto His Name (Glasgow, Scotland: Gospel Tract Publications, 2003), 204.