Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Why do we practice church discipline?
I assume you’re referring to disciplinary actions taken by the church to correct deviant behavior on the part of church members. The church is formed by individuals who, moved by the Spirit and voluntarily, find, in Jesus, their Savior and Lord and become part of His body, the church. This community of believers has boundaries—that is, a well-defined message, mission, and way of life—that contribute to its harmonious unity and to the achievement of common goals. Sanctions are established in order to deal with dissidence that could threaten the well-being of the community and the spiritual experience of believers. This is what we find in the Bible, and I will comment on the significance of disciplinary actions of the church.
1. Types of Church Discipline: Church discipline was used in the apostolic church for two main reasons. The first was for the violation of the moral values of the church based on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. For instance, Paul instructs the Corinthians to apply discipline to a member who practiced sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:1-5). Jesus instructed His followers about what to do when “your brother sins against you” (Matt. 18:15; 1 Tim. 5:20). The second was of a doctrinal nature. Individuals who opposed the teachings of the church, or promoted their own teachings, were to be disciplined (2 John 10; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:9, 13).
Based on the nature of the infraction, two main types of specific church discipline were practiced. The first consisted of the application of sanctions that could include a private or public rebuke (2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Tim. 5:20), or the restriction of Christian fellowship (e.g., “keep away from” them [2 Thess. 3:6, NIV]; “do not associate with him” [verse 14, NIV]). The individuals were not to be regarded as enemies (verse 15, NIV). The second type of discipline was total exclusion from the church, excommunication. It is probably to this that Paul refers when he says that he “handed over to Satan” two church members (1 Tim. 1:20, NIV; cf. 1 Cor. 16:22; Titus 3:10, 11).
2. Purpose of Discipline: Church discipline has two main purposes. The first is to restore individuals to full fellowship within the church. Indeed, this is the most fundamental purpose of any church discipline, including excommunication. True discipline is redemptive, not punitive (cf. Gal. 6:1-5). The hope is that “God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25, NIV; cf. James 5:19, 20; Jude 22, 23). Second, discipline is applied on account of the holiness of the church. This explains why those disciplined do not enjoy full fellowship. The public witness of the church is to be protected by supporting the highest values of society that some of its members may be violating (1 Peter 2:12).
3. Significance of Exclusion: Disfellowshipping church members brings to an end their fellowship within the body of Christ. In apostolic times this could mean their returning to a pagan way of life and exclusion from the grace of God through Christ. This remains the same in places in which Christianity is a minority world religion. In the Christian world there are many denominations, and church discipline is not usually considered a serious matter. For Adventists, exclusion is, first, a return to a religious world in a state of confusion, heading to an eschatological apostasy. Second, it is a decision that could lead to permanently taking the wrong side in the cosmic conflict, therefore risking eternal life. Third, since excommunication is to be accompanied by loving attempts to restore former church members, it does not fix their final destiny. Finally, church discipline is the church’s painful acknowledgment that particular believers have chosen to break from the church in spite of all efforts to keep them within the community of faith. In that sense exclusion is an expression of respect for their freedom of conscience.
Perhaps we should take from this discussion the importance of showing kindness and love to those who deviate from the teachings and way of life in the body of Christ.