Guidelines for Church Discipline

A Study of 1 Corinthians 5 – A Sunday Night Message

Introduction: Tonight we’re continuing our studies into the book of 1 Corinthians and we’re coming to a new section of the book, to chapter 5. As we’ve been saying, the book of 1 Corinthians is a handbook for dysfunctional churches. It was given to show us how to deal with church problems. Chapters 1 through 4 are devoted to dealing with division in the church; and now we come to chapter 5 and to the  subject of “church discipline.” That actual phrase – “church discipline” – does not occur in the New Testament or anywhere in the Bible. But there are various passages in the Bible about how to help bring discipline to the moral and spiritual lives of Christians; and that’s what we’re talking about. We have to be gracious about how we discuss this issue, because many problems have occurred in churches over the implementation of church disciplinary procedures. We all believe in church discipline, but how and when and where is often a matter of personal conviction.

This week I finished a biography of Rev. Jonathan Edwards, who is a towering figure in American history and in Church history. He has been called America’s greatest theologian. He was pre-colonial and his lifespan went from, roughly, 1700 to 1750. He played a critical role in the Great Awakening, which brought spiritual revival to the Colonies and paved the way for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. His famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is one of the most famous ever preached. His life and influence helped shape our nation. But his primary career was pastoring a small church in Northampton, Massachusetts. He often studied thirteen hours a day, working on his sermons. When a revival came over Northampton in 1735, over 300 converts were added to the church. But fifteen years after the revival, in 1750, after serving as their pastor for 23 years, he was dismissed from his church. Why? Well, in simple terms, some young men in the church had gotten into some literature they shouldn’t have been looking at, and Edwards called their names from the pulpit and demanded they be expelled they be subjected to church discipline. Some were guilty and some were not; but everyone was upset and offended; and almost everyone now admits that Edwards probably didn’t handle the matter as wisely or discretely as he might have. Anyway, it caused so much consternation and anger in the congregation that Edwards was forced to leave, but he had nowhere to take his large family. The Edwards finally moved into a little town and ministered as a missionary to Native Americans, and later he was invited to become the President of Princeton University, but died from a small pox inoculation almost as soon as he took office. In reading the story, I was stuck at how difficult the whole matter of church discipline can be, even for one of the greatest pastoral figures in American church history.

This means we have to be gracious in discussing this issue, and we have to realize we all may come at this topic in different ways. Let’s begin by reading the chapter — 1 Corinthians 5: 

  • Verse 1: It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. This was either downright incest, or something close to it. Most commentators think it involves a man sleeping with his stepmother. This was forbidden by Jewish Law and even by Roman law. It was viewed as reprehensible in society.
  • Verse 2: And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?
  • Verse 3: For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this.
  • Verse 4: So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of our Lord. Handing someone over to Satan meant removing him from the assembly of the church.
  • Verse 6: Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. In Jewish and Old Testament history, the Passover celebration involved throwing all the yeast or leaven out of the house, for the Israelites left Egypt so suddenly they didn’t have time for their bread to rise. Leaven became a symbol for sin.
  • Verse 8: Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
  • Verse 9: I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. This verse refers to a letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians that has been lost to us. We believe Paul wrote at least four letters to Corinth, but only two are inspired canonical Scripture.
  • Verse 11: But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. One day you are praying with someone, studying the Bible with someone, worshipping with someone, soul-winning with someone; and the next day you find out they are sleeping with another man’s wife. Or they fall back into a hard-core addictive pattern. It affects your relationship with that person. I know what that’s like. That hurts so very much; but it is not appropriate for us to act as if nothing is wrong, to engage in business-as-usual with them.
  • Verse 12: What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

Based on this chapter I want to give you three guidelines I’ve tried to follow as it relates to church discipline.

1. There are many levels of church discipline. The thing that strikes me most forcefully about this passage is how many people were not cast out of the church. Here was a man who was put out of the fellowship (verse 2), handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (verse 5), gotten rid of (verse 7), and expelled (verse 13). But now, let’s back up and see how many other problems were in the Corinthian church. For example: Some were quarreling (1 Corinthians 1:11). Some were worldly (2:1). Some were suing others (6:6). Some were abusing the Lord’s Supper (11:17-21). Some were abusing spiritual gifts (chapter 12). Some were confused about the resurrection (chapter 15). This church was a mess.

Paul was exercising church discipline all the way through the book of 1 Corinthians, but only in this one case in chapter 5 did he use the phrases: put out of the fellowship (verse 2), handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (verse 5), gotten rid of (verse 7), and expelled. This realization has been paradigm-changing for me. Expelling someone from church is only one form of church discipline. When people ask me, “Why aren’t you exercising more church discipline at The Donelson Fellowship?” my answer is that we are doing it all the time. Let me give you some examples.

  • The pulpit ministry here is a form of church discipline. In other words, our teaching ministry is designed to bring discipline into the lives of the members of our church. This is biblical. The whole book of 1 Corinthians, for example, was a form of church discipline. Here was a church whose members had many problems. Here was a church where people were quarreling; they were worldly; they were abusing the Lord’s Supper; they were confused about the resurrection. And Paul wrote to them, rebuking them, correcting them, setting them straight. When we preach and teach the standards of God, that brings discipline to our lives. And by pulpit ministry, I don’t just mean my preaching. I’m referring to all the Scriptural teaching that occurs in Big Church and Small Church arenas here.
  • There is pastoral confrontation, and by pastoral I don’t just mean the times when I myself personally confront someone. I’m talking about anyone on our pastoral staff or among our leadership.
  • This sometimes includes the deacons.
  • This sometimes includes our LifeGroups.
  • This sometimes occurs friend-to-friend.
  • Sometimes we remove people from places of ministry until they recover their spiritual bearings.
  • Sometimes we ask people to submit to counseling.
  • Sometimes we set up accountability teams or accountability partners to work with individuals.
  • Only rarely does it come to a point of expelling a member in a public way. At least, that was true in the troubled church at Corinth. Despite all their problems, only this one issue required the kind of action outlined here as putting out of the fellowship, handing him over to Satan, getting rid of him, and expelling the wicked person from among you.

2. There are three principles to church discipline. The rule I’ve always tried to follow is this: We try to deal with personal sins personally; private sins privately; public sins publicly. Let me take those one at a time. First personal sins—these are sins that no one knows about except you. Many times people come to us with personal moral failure. Perhaps you come to me or to one of our other pastors on staff and confess you’ve been trapped by online pornography and you need help. You are telling me that in confidence. You are trusting in pastor-parishioner confidentiality. If you come to one of us with an issue like that, we will do everything we can to help you. But I will also respect your privacy. In fact, I am ethically bound to respect your confidentiality. It would not be legally wise for me to take your personal sin and make it public. There are exceptions, of course. Confidentially is important, but it is not always ultimate. For example, if someone confesses he had abused a child, I am obligated to report that to the authorities. I had a man once who called me on the phone and told me he was killing himself. I kept him on the line, but managed to call the police and they got there in time to intervene. It’s not always possible to keep deal with personal sins personally, but that is the goal. Second, we try to deal with private sins privately. Suppose there’s a marriage in trouble. A few people may know about it, but it’s essentially a private matter. We do our best to help them; but we try to keep private matters private. These are very often complicated situations. The worst thing in the world is trying to adjudicate a private situation in a pubic arena. But third, there are sometimes public sins that have to be dealt with publicly, and that was the situation here in 1 Corinthians 5. Look at the way the chapter opens: It is actually reported… This was common knowledge in the church and also in the city of Corinth. Even the pagans were appalled. This was a situation that was so public that if ignored it would damage the church’s reputation in a community. That’s why Paul told them to deal with it, to put the man out of the church. There have been a handful of times when we’ve had to do this, and these are been very hard. I’ve always had the backing of the deacons; I’ve always had the backing of the church. But it is a deep burden and grief.

3. There are two goals to church discipline. But that brings us to the third thing—the goal of church discipline. The first goal is for the wellbeing and holiness and purity of the church, as we see in Paul’s reference about clearing out the old, sinful leaven (verses 6-8). But the other goal is for the restoration of the offender. Verse 5 tells them to take this action against the offending member “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (See also 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

Conclusion: I do not know how to have a one-size-fits-all approach to church discipline. I don’t know how to do it in a cookie-cutter way. Every situation is different. Every case of failure requires great wisdom. We don’t do it perfectly, but we are doing it in one way or another virtually all the time. And we’re living in such fallen times that we’re going to have to increasingly be wise and proactive in helping people stay holy. Let’s pray for one another. And let’s maintain personal purity in our lives so that we’ll not become a source of anxiety or distress for others. Let’s live for Christ and for His cross and for His cause every day.