The Process of Discipline

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (v. 15).

- Matthew 18:15–20

Matthew 18:15–20 explicitly links the process of church discipline with the keys of the kingdom in telling church leaders that what they bind on earth is bound in heaven and what they loose on earth is loosed on heaven. Of course, this assumes that this binding and loosing is done in accordance with Scripture. But it is the same right first conveyed to Peter when Christ promised to give him the keys of the kingdom, so we know that church discipline opens and closes the door to this blessed realm (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 85).

Before looking at this opening and closing in more detail, we will today discuss the process of church discipline. As we see in today’s passage, discipline deals with professing believers who have sinned against others. Generally speaking, discipline proceeds from the private to the public. The believer who is sinned against by another professing believer must first engage the offender one on one and seek that person’s repentance. This is for the good of the church, as it prevents news of the sin from spreading beyond the people involved and becoming kindling for the fire of gossip. If the person repents, no further action is necessary. But if private admonition does not work, the offender is to be taken before other witnesses and finally the whole church, which must excommunicate sinners who persist in impenitence.

Let us note two things at this point. First, these instructions for discipline are not to be applied woodenly for each and every sin. Scripture also speaks of the love that “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). The sins that merit church discipline are flagrant sins that may destroy the peace and purity of the body of Christ. Discipline is not to be enacted for every grievance that arises in the church. Second, there are cases in which discipline should not begin with private admonition. Public sins should be dealt with publicly, as Paul shows us in 1 Corinthians 5.

Today, many professing Christians see church discipline as unloving, and many church leaders are afraid to practice it for fear of appearing merciless. Yet refusing to apply church discipline in careful obedience to Scripture is the most unloving and merciless thing the church can do. When the church does not call out impenitent people, it gives them false assurance that they are in a state of salvation.

Coram Deo

Dr. John MacArthur writes: Church discipline “is not merely to punish the offender, or to shun him completely, but to remove him as a detrimental influence from the fellowship of the church, and then to regard him as an evangelistic prospect rather than as a brother” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,158). The church does not discipline its members to shame them but to call them to repentance and perseverance.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 24:10–23
2 Samuel 11:1–12:23
Galatians 2:11–14
James 5:19–20

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