God has already laid out a process in His Word to help erring believers that seeks to:
- protect the dignity of the individual(s)
- guard the unity of the body
Here are the steps given in the Word in the order they should be taken:
1) Privately talk with the person. (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1) This would be pre-discipline, seeking to gently restore the person.
2) If the person doesn’t repent after one-on-one input, take one or two others along as witnesses to talk with him/her again. (Matt. 18:16-17; 1 Tim. 5:19) This would also be pre-discipline.
3) If the person still refuses to listen, take the situation before the whole body. (2 Thess. 3:14-15; Matt. 18:17; 1 Tim. 5:20; 1 Cor. 5:9-13) If the person still does not repentant, this would lead to church discipline which involves a lack of intimate fellowship (“treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” – Matt. 18:17) and if necessary, cut off from further association (“Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.” – 2 Thess. 3:14-15; “you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but … Do not even eat with such people.” – 1 Cor. 5:11)
Notice how much has been invested into helping the person(s) before it goes church-wide. I chose the word “invested” carefully. To go to the extreme of church discipline you must put in more than a casual attempt to help the person. You must do more than simply reprimand. You must put real time and effort into helping the person. — That is the part that seems to be missing in too many church discipline situations which end badly.
The first two steps are true body life in action. As we will see in the next post, body life can prevent the need for discipline.
If the third step is necessary, it enables the unrepentant person to see that this is not merely the opinion or bias of an individual or of a few.
If church discipline is left up to one or even a few leaders, you could face a greater risk of division over it. When the whole church has a level of involvement in the decision to discipline, it protects the body as it was a decision made by the whole for the good of the individual(s).
If you are going to call it “church” discipline, then it should be just that — “church” — ekklesia — the gathering or assembly. Notice that 1 Corinthians 5:3-5 says “when you are assembled.”