Nothing can be more cruel than leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 105)
The local church is the mode through which God displays the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. We are a group of sinners saved not because of our works of righteousness, but according to the great mercy of God through the sacrifice of Jesus. We are washed with the regenerating and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. We are adopted into God’s beloved family. And we have devoted ourselves to one another in love for each other and in love for the God who has so graciously saved us. Together the church represents Jesus to the watching world by love for one another.
But, what if one of those local church members turns away from God? What if they forsake gathering with the church family and they pursue openly and unrepentantly a life of rebellion against God? What if they declare with their life and their decisions that God never truly changed them in the first place? What if they drift into a lifestyle that exhibits no apparent fruit suggesting that they are Christians and what if they have a false assurance of a salvation? This is one of the most heart-breaking situations a church family can face. Every local church that truly holds one another accountable and is involved in one another’s lives will inevitably face this situation. But how do we respond? Many have decided that the most loving thing to do is to ignore the unrepentant sin of their beloved brother or sister. In a culture obsessed with tolerance and with avoiding offense, we by default avoid any confrontation with another who is living in open rebellion against the Lord. This difficult situation is not, however, a situation for which the Bible is silent.
The Bible calls for individuals living in unrepentant sin to be confronted with love by individuals, by groups of people, and by the whole church (Matt. 18:15-18; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; Titus 3:10-11). If the person still refuses to turn from the unrepentant sin after a period of pleading with them, then the person is removed from local church membership and the church ceases its pursuit of them. This may seem harsh and unloving, but it is actually the most loving thing a church family can do. Like the same love that motivates a Father to discipline his children for playing in the street with oncoming traffic, we plead with brothers and sisters to stop running down paths of destruction. Here are four reasons love should compel every church to take the Biblical principle of church discipline seriously.
#1 Love for the individual
The Bible teaches that at salvation, Christians are born again, made new, and brought to new spiritual life. This regenerative power of the Holy Spirit in our lives changes us, opens our eyes, and creates in us deep affection for the Lord and his people. We are by no means perfect and will make many mistakes, but our lives will be a constant struggle toward loving Christ more. Our lives will be full of failure, repentance, and spiritual growth. If we were to ever turn our back on God and his church completely, however, there should be real concern about whether we were ever truly transformed by saving faith in Jesus. This turning our back on God would manifest itself in unrepentant sin – or sin that we actively and knowingly refuse to turn away from.
In 1 Corinthians 5, the Corinthian church faces a situation with a church member who has embraced an inappropriate relationship with his own step-mother. Paul calls for the removal of that individual from the local church membership. He assumes that the individual may not actually be a redeemed follower of Jesus. If that is a possibility, the most loving thing Paul could do for this individual is to take the extreme measure of removing the individual from the membership of the church, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). If we truly love an individual, we must warn and plead with them to repent not only because sin leads them down the path with destructive consequences, but because their sin may be evidence of their own unbelieving heart which will result in judgment on the day of the Lord.
#2 Love for the church
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul warns that unrepentant sin within the church will spread and spoils the church. He writes, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:5) and to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13). It is important to note that Paul is not speaking of those who are not Christians, but rather he is speaking of the danger of those who “bear the name of brother” (1 Cor. 5:11) and who are “inside the church” (1 Cor. 5:12). On other occasions, Paul calls for the removal of an individual because of their rejection of sound teaching (2 Thess. 3:14-15; 1 Tim. 1:19-20). Church discipline, therefore, protects the church from the spread of sin and the damage of false teaching. A church that refuses to confront unrepentant sin among them is a church that sends a message to its members that sin is not that dangerous and our responsibility to one another is not important. Over time the church becomes no more than a social gathering of somewhat like-minded people with no real obligation to love one another beyond what is comfortable. Church discipline is a demonstration of love for the whole church.
#3 Love for the world
The church is God’s corporate witness to the non-Christian world (Matt. 5:13-16; John 13:35). The mission of the church is to glorify God by making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19-20), but hypocrisy and false teaching within the church is a direct deterrent to that God-given mission (2 Pet. 2:2). Church members who fail to represent Jesus rightly to the world can ruin the church’s witness to individuals and to the community at large, thus driving sinners away from the message of salvation rather than toward it. A church that refuses to confront unrepentant sin sends a message to the watching world that Christians really aren’t that different from the world. It is a fearful thing to consider how many people may have rejected Christianity precisely because they had met many self-professing Christians who were not following Christ at all.
#4 Love for God
As mentioned above, the church’s mission is to glorify God by making disciples. Love for God compels us to represent God rightly so that he might be worshipped. Ongoing unrepentant sin and false teaching by those who claim to worship God is a grievous sin against God, thus the church lovingly confronts that sin because of its love for God. We so desire him to be glorified that we are willing to have the hard conversations with those among us who are taking his great name in vain.
There is far more to say on the topic of church discipline, but for now, it will suffice to say that it is one of the most loving acts a church family can do. It should be approached with prayer, patience, humility, and deep compassion for a brother or sister who is pursuing a path of destruction. May our love not be bound by whats comfortable or easy. May our love look more like the love of the Father who confronts the sin of his children (Heb. 12:5-11).