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Understanding Biblical Church Discipline

The Bible acknowledges times when professing Christians fall into sin. Sadly, there are occasions when Christians may commit acts of significant sin (e.g., a sexual sin, an angry outburst); sometimes Christians fall into sinful habits or persistent patterns of sin (e.g., bitterness, gossip). In such cases, it’s the church’s responsibility to discern instances and patterns of sin in its midst and to make a biblical judgment about the nature of the sin (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9–6:3).

With biblical clarity and conviction, the church must lovingly confront the sinning Christian in the interest of restoring him back into fellowship with Christ and His church.

Church discipline is about love for Christ, His glory, and His people. Since those who continue in sin hurt themselves and others, it’s inherently unloving to allow professing Christians to continue in sin.

It’s important to emphasize, therefore, that we practice church discipline to restore an erring believer, teaching him to identify his sin and work out repentance, so he can become a joyful and fruitful member of the church once again.

The several passages that provide instruction on restorative church discipline (i.e., 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 1 Tim. 5:20; Tit. 3:10-11) are based on Jesus’ clear outline for confrontation in Matthew 18:15-17. Jesus provides the church with four steps to follow in working out the process of church discipline: (1) confront privately, (2) confront transparently, (3) confront publicly, and (4) remove formally.

Although those steps follow in order of increasing severity, ending finally with excommunication from the local church, all four steps are usually not required. In most cases the sinning Christian repents after the first private confrontation. In fact, this first step should be happening all the time in a healthy church (cf. Rom. 15:15; Col. 3:16).

Only the refusal to repent requires taking additional steps.