Church discipline is not a topic that comes up very often in scripture. It’s also not something that happens all that often in the church, at least not on the scale that’s happening in this passage. But talking about discipline is actually more reasonable and relevant than most people might first think. The word discipline typically stirs up only negative images in people’s minds—vindictiveness or judgmentalism. But this is exactly what Biblical discipline is not.
There is a cultural aversion to discipline. We’re comfortable with the idea of self-discipline—bringing ourselves into line with a certain standard in order to reach a long-term goal like weight loss, eating healthy, or earning an additional degree. We even refer to different branches of knowledge or fields of study as “disciplines” because we understand that achieving them requires a lot of focus, hard work, and self-discipline. However, we are uncomfortable with the idea of being disciplined by an external force—someone or something outside ourselves. And the reason for this is because of a rampant ideology of individualism.
In places where education is highly valued, a heavy emphasis is placed on the value of institutional authority and even discipline. In order to graduate from an institution, everyone has to submit themselves to external authorities, follow the protocol, and meet the requirements. There are clear boundaries between those who graduate from an institution and those who don’t. If someone claims the name, the identity, of a school, then we expect that person to have graduated from that institution. There should be disciplinary action taken against those who cheat and plagiarize. It’s the same in the workplace, in politics, and in the courtroom. It would seem that the only place that we don’t want the principles of discipline to apply is in the church. But that’s not entirely accurate. Discipline is how we try to carefully, graciously, and with great conviction manage our own house, so to speak. If discipline is functioning properly in the church, there will be a self-correcting ecosystem and the glaring examples of hypocrisy that we see will be greatly reduced if not eliminated.
Discipline is done not to harm each other, but to help each other—because the church is so committed to the community’s good that it can’t do anything else. This actually happens in every healthy community. A certain set of standards makes it internally reasonable and, in turn, consequences when that reason is compromised. One of the things that is hated the most is hypocrisy, RIGHT? Discipline keeps us from that. It keeps us real, and it keeps us authentic. But it also keeps us healthy. Because when the church is in community, its actions always have social consequences. What an individual does affects someone else, and what that person does affects the other individual. So, when there’s a disruption or when someone is wronged, the question simply can’t be, “Should there be discipline?” but rather, “Will the discipline be done well?”
In 1 Corinthians Chapter 5, Paul writes about a report of immorality in the Corinthian church and the leaders’ refusal to deal with the offender. He declares that the church, as a holy people, must not permit or tolerate immorality among its members. He gives three reasons why the church should hold the offending members accountable.
1. For the good of the offender. This is found in verse 5.
The thought here is that when addressed, the person in the wrong would hopefully realize the harm that they are causing to themselves, repent, and realign themselves with God and be restored.
2. For the sake of the church’s purity in verses 6-8
Here, Paul is talking about yeast in the dough. Or, in other words, like a virus, immorality or the influences of the world can spread. If these actions aren’t faced and dealt with, they will continue to spread throughout the community and cause a turning away from the true Gospel.
3. For the good of the world.
The fact is if we act like and validate the influences of the world, we are no different, and as a result, our testimony is ineffective.
Our call as a godly community is to hopefully never see this kind of discipline come to be because we live out Proverbs 27:17, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."
As we referred to earlier, when the community of God is healthy, we can walk with the understanding that we all hold each other accountable to the narrow road we all walk.
John McArthur has two wonderful quotes to help us in our understanding of Church discipline: "Therefore, all church discipline is to occur within the community of believing people."
"Church discipline is the key to the purity of the church, which in turn will enable us to reach the world."
The purest form of discipline is accountability. And in order for us to walk this narrow road, we must open ourselves up to the reality that this is something we all need. Because as Vance Havner put it, “The alternative to discipline is disaster.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want disaster in my life. I want to walk upright to the best of my ability, and sometimes that means I need discipline, I need accountability, from others to help me keep my eyes on Jesus.