Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Dark Side of Church Discipline

It is impossible to truly study church discipline and miss the shaded or dark side of its use in the church.  Issues of control held by clergy or church leadership, whatever the title, can become a power or hyper-hierarchical issue. Such a transition negates the biblical basis of servitude in a Christ application of servant hood. Whenever control supersedes restoration and spiritual development, church discipline enters this shaded area which weakens the faith and distorts the teachings of Christ. 

Church discipline can be greatly abused when removed from biblical standards. In an article by Alexandra Alter entitled "Banned From Church", such abuse is highlighted with little consideration to the positive or redemptive aspect of church discipline.  Within the article, a 71 year old lady is removed from a church by a State Trooper after a frantic 911 call from a minister. Her crime was simply showing up at church after the minister had withdrawn her membership. Buried at the end of the article is one of the best explanations of the problem.

Among churches that practice discipline, there is little consensus on how sinners should be dealt with, says Gregory Wills, a theologian at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Some pastors remove members on their own, while other churches require agreement among deacons or a majority vote from the congregation (Alter, 2008). 

The message of Gregory Willis reveals problems existing because of the lack of biblical standards for the practice of church discipline among these churches.

It would seem inconceivable that the very practice of church discipline could be and often is a violation of biblical discipline. The question is not, what does the church think? But, what is the proper biblical application? The standard of church discipline is not tradition but rather biblical application. To demonstrate this we are using Matthew 18:15-17. It would be difficult to find any denominational writings on Church Discipline that would fail to utilize this text. The problem with the text arises only when the exegesis is limited allowing manipulation in the application of the text.  In "Church Discipline: Missing the Mark” R. Albert Mohler, Jr. reveals what he sees as the impact of watered down theological practice.

The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other.

The absence of church discipline is no longer remarkable—it is generally not even noticed. Regulative and restorative church discipline is, to many church members, no longer a meaningful category, or even a memory. The present generation of both ministers and church members is virtually without experience of biblical church discipline (Mohler, 1998).

The key factor is not control; it is holiness before a holy God in the practice of the community of Faith. The classification of Church Discipline is centralized by many denominations and fundamentalist churches in the Matthew 18:15-17 text. Utilizing comparisons directly linking Old Testament texts to the New Testament teaching the Old Testament base challenges the application of the text. It becomes apparent that the teaching of Christ is assertively linked to the Old Testament. This leaves the reader deficient to conclude other than a major influence of Hebraic thought is crucial in the comprehension of the text.  The format includes an application statement, an inter-testament link, and application summary for each verse to reveal the connection between the testaments and proper application.

Application:   15“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother (NKJV, 1998)." This is an outworking of Leviticus 19:17, your heart must be clear in relation to the community of faith.  If someone has sinned against you,  you must go to them and seek to make things right. If it works you are blessed, if not, you are charged to continue. This is not for doctrinal issues or sin observed; it is for those sins directly toward another believer. There are other scriptural methods for dealing with additional issues. In qualifying a situation as not being applicable to this scriptural format, is not to condone sin, but rather to seek biblical practice to refrain from multiplying sin.

Inter-testament Link: If we understand Matthew 18:15..., from a scriptural basis it is a limited application of Church Discipline. This text has been given to allow for healing within the body of Christ when a believer sins against another believer.  The focus of this discipline is always restoration of the relationship individuals have within the body of Christ. The offended is called to take action to keep their own heart in the right relationship toward God and their fellow man. 

Leviticus 19:17 - 18, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him.  18You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (NKJV, 1998)." Beale and Carson would indicate verse 17 is a basis for the teaching of Christ to instruct his followers to guard their hearts before God (Beale & Carson, 2007, p. p.56).

Application Summary: The application of this verse is expanded by some to include sin in general removing the words, "against you." The general reasoning is that two manuscripts do not contain these words. (Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus) (Azurdia, 1994, p. p.78). Defending, "against you" is very apparent in, Matthew 18:21, "Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times… (NKJV, 1998)?" The first question ever asked about Jesus' statement is, how many times do I have to forgive my brother when he sins against me? Did Peter understand the statement as being any sin or sins against him? Did Jesus rebuke Peter and say, "It's not just against you it's any sin?" No, Matthew 18:22, "Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven (NKJV, 1998)." Jesus simply applies a continuous application of forgiveness then follows it with a parable to reinforce this scriptural truth.  When Keener wrote about the background for this, he stated that it was a standard Jewish custom of the time, reinforced by the Dead Sea Scrolls and the writings of the rabbis (Keener, 1993, pp. , Mt. 18:15).  So, when Peter so easily grasped the concept it was a reflection of the general acceptance of this teaching within the community of faith. The overwhelming evidence indicates that the biblical application of Matthew 18:15 includes "against you" and is limited in its application by their insertion. 

Application:  16"But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established (NKJV, 1998).’'  Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 19:15-21, in which, the witnesses must have observed the event. No charges can be brought without witnesses. If there is not the required number of witnesses to the allegations, then this process must end.  "(The rabbis took this principle so far that one eyewitness was not sufficient even if the eyewitness caught the murderer with the bloody knife in hand) (Keener, 1993, pp. , Mt. 18:16)."

Inter-testament Link: The verse breaks down into three sections by the use of commas, 16a: moves the unresolved conflict to a new level, 16b: brings in one or two more, 16c: is an Old Testament quote from Deuteronomy 19:15-21. The Deuteronomy quote deals with establishing procedure to hear evidence in a criminal charge (Beale & Carson, 2007, p. p.57).

Application Summary: The major problem in the application of this verse is created by expanding the definition of the term witness. When you look at the consequence of this text fully worked out to a non-repentant conclusion, it would be difficult to accept that the witnesses would not meet the Old Testament requirement. In fact we could strengthen that conclusion by injecting the Jewish source shared by Beale and Carson.

Perhaps the closest parallel to Jesus' procedure in Matthew appears in 1QSV,25-VI,1, where again emphasis is placed on resolving disputes privately; only then may they be brought to the congregation, with at least two witnesses...  (Beale & Carson, 2007, p. p.57).

The exegetical facts support only the interpretation of the witnesses having been witnesses to the original conflict resulting in sin. 

Application: "17And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector (NKJV, 1998)." Every step of this process is taken seeking the offender to repent and restore the relationship damaged by their actions. It is not possible to understand the severity of this final action in the context of being put out of church today. The person simply can go down the street and join another fellowship.  That was not the implication of Jesus declaration.  "After the most severe level of discipline the offending member would be treated as a pagan instead of a Jew. Pagans and tax gatherers alike - tax gathers were seen as agents of a pagan government - were excluded from the religious life of the Jewish community. (Keener, 1993, pp. , Mt. 18:17)."

Inter-testament Link: The understanding of this text is equivalent to the cutting off of people from the congregation of Israel as seen in Genesis 17:14, Exodus 12:15, 19: 30:33, 38 (Beale & Carson, 2007, p. p. 56).

Application Summary: If we lose the original intensity of this action we miss the entire application of Jesus Teaching. "An outcast. This means that you treat the person as a nonbeliever, because he is not walking as a believer. Love him as Jesus loved the publicans and sinners. Reach out to him in witness, but not to relate to him as a member of the Body of Christ. Like all evangelistic outreach, the goal is to bring a soul to Christ and back into the functioning Body (Bubna, 2000)." 

How anyone could truly seek to teach from a biblical exegesis of the text, understanding the historical implications, make such a statement?  Does Jesus love the publicans and sinners? Of course He loves them and died for them. This has nothing to do with the understanding of this verse unless you eliminate the Hebraic mindset of the original audience and speaker.  Bubna has brought this Hebraic thought, spoke out of the deep experience of the Jewish people, out of context and eliminated its meaning and effect, taking the truth of a heart wrenching separation and turning it into a contemporary juggling of the membership role. Simply remove them from the membership role and place them on the prospect list. When we miss the depth of the Word, we can also miss the truth of the Word.

It would be easy to say I was writing from a denominational or personal bias.  But the truth is, when I began this research, I was coming from a church tradition misusing two of the three areas covered. The practice of using this scripture for sin in general has been common in churches I've served and in which I was reared. It was also a general practice to allow any two people to go and hear the discussion even if not being true biblical witnesses.  What it really comes down to is, do I follow the churches traditions or the original meaning of the Word of God? Is my salvation in the church or in the shed blood of Christ? Who is Lord of my life?
Works Cited
Alter, A. (2008, January 18). Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 22, 2009, from
Azurdia, A. (1994, Fall). Biblical Studies . Retrieved 31 2009, 12, from
Beale, G., & Carson, D. (2007). Comentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Bubna, D. L. (2000, October). Retrieved January 13, 2010, from{F0B71E13-F9BA-428E-B64A-913449B56F24}&notoc=1
Keener, C. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament. In C. Keener, The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove,IL: Inter Varsity Press.
Mohler, R. A. (1998). Church Discipline: Missing the Mark. Retrieved December 22, 2009, from
NKJV. (1998). Quick Verse: New King James Version. Nashville.
Wilbur, B. (2010). Church Discipline based on Matthew 18:15-17. Non - Published.

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