We previously considered the similarities between discipleship and church discipline. Now we will look at the primary difference between the two — who we discipline.
Discipleship begins with people who don’t know the Lord. To be a disciple of Jesus, one must first come into a saving relationship with the Lord. Consequently, in the initial stages of fulfilling the Great Commission we must go to those who do not know Him with the message of salvation … how Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment their sin deserved and was raised from the dead so they too can experience new life in Him by grace through faith (1 Cor. 15:1-8; Eph. 2:8-9).
Consequently, to make disciples we must engage in outreach. But, to truly fulfill Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:18-20, we must then shepherd those who have put their trust in Jesus as we are to teach them to obey everything He has commanded.
Church discipline begins with people who are already in the shepherding phase of discipleship … with those who already know the Lord … but are practicing sin. We all, as believers, still sin, but “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). Church discipline may be necessary for believers if they continue sinning willfully and remain unrepentant of that sin.
Hence, church discipline excludes those who have not yet become followers of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul communicated with the church in Corinth about their need to exercise church disicpline. He said, “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” (1 Cor 5:9-10).
Our responsibility is to share the Gospel with people who do not know Jesus, not to judge them. Judgment is God’s responsibility. — “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.” (1 Cor. 5:12-15)
Church discipline is for those who are followers of Jesus.
Paul continued his instructions to the Corinthians –“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.” (1 Cor. 5:11)
Why would the standard be harsher for those who profess to be believers?
1) Believers have experienced God’s grace. That same grace that saves us “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-13). The unsaved do not know that grace and hence lack this motivation.
2) Believers have received the Holy Spirit who lives within them and empowers them to rise above temptation. “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Gal. 5:16) The unsaved do not have this resource within them. They are still bound by sin and the flesh.
3) Believers have been committed with the message of reconciliation. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Cor. 5:18-20) God’s honor in the world is at stake as believers represent Him to a lost world. If believers are to represent Him, then they must live in ways that reflect His light so He is glorified (Matt. 5:13-16). To not discipline those willfully living in sin is to be more concerned with “our” reputation in the world than with God’s honor. The unsaved need to see a good testimony of Jesus in those who profess to be His so they want the life He came to give.