Procedure of Church Discipline
An elder once said, “We all know that we ought to improve church discipline, but nobody seems to know where to begin and how to do it”. Through lack of knowledge many souls who might have been restored through church discipline have been lost. Consider the familiar maxim: “They who remain ignorant of history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of previous generation.” Thus, consider how many more may be lost as a result.
Church Discipline Is a Process
The plan of salvation is a process. It has a set of procedures or steps which must be taken in the proper order so that the process is completed and salvation can be procured. We do not treat the process of salvation like denominationalists who take John 3:16 or Acts 16:31 as the entire plan of salvation to the exclusion of all other Bible teaching of the subject (Acts 16:34). By so doing they propagate the false doctrine of “faith only” and reject what the Bible and the context has to say about baptism.
We must not treat the process of church discipline as others treat the plan of salvation. Just as no one passage tells us the complete plan of salvation (hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized): no one passage tells the entire process of church discipline. Just as the Phillipian jailor is told to believe and Saul of Tarsus is told to be baptized does not mean they are different plans of salvation. Just because the Corinthians are told to remove the wicked man and the individual is told to go privately to his brother does not mean they are two different processes. By studying all the cases of conversion and related passages we come to a clearer understanding of the plan of salvation. Likewise, by studying all the cases of church discipline and related passages we can come to a clearer understanding of the correct procedure used to restore an erring brother and save his soul.
Steps in the Process of Church Discipline
Public and Private Instruction and Exhortation
God commanded the church to assemble for worship (Heb. 10:25). Paul told the Corinthians “therefore when you come together in one place…” (1 Cor. 11:20a) to properly partake of the Lord’s Supper. Instructive discipline is to be used in these public assemblies (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 14:26; 1 Sam. 2:2).
Not only did Paul teach publicly, but also “from house to house” (Acts 20:20). We are commanded to meet this obligation to our brethren if the process is to be completed (Acts 18:26; 1 Th. 5:14). It is unwise to punish one for breaking the law if we have been neglectful in teaching them the Will of God.
Private Rebuke and Admonishment
Rebuke private sin privately. “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” (Matt. 18:15). “Go to him” requires action on our part. The Lord deals with the responsibility of the trespasser in another passage (Mt. 5:23,24). Private matters must be taken care of privately. Jesus did not say, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go tell his fault to others” or “broadcast it on the 10 o’clock news” or “write him up in the paper”.
We need to admonish those brethren caught in sin. Paul even rebuked Peter (Gal. 2:11-15). Silence is not golden as we owe it to our brother to save his soul from hell. “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (Js. 5:19,20). We need to admonish those found in sin. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). It does no good to tell everyone else of an individual’s sin, and leave him in the dark.
Confirmation of Sin
The certainty of the guilt of innocence of the accused must be ascertained. Two or three witnesses were required by the Law of Moses (Num. 35:12,30; Dt. 13:14;17:2-6). Paul required two or three witnesses when an accusation was brought against an elder of a local church (1 Tim. 5:19). The apostle Paul required evidence. He warned the Corinthians, “This will be the third time I am coming to you. ‘By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.’ I have told you before, and foretell as if I were present the second time, and now being absent I write to those who have sinned before, and to all the rest, that if I come again I will not spare” (2 Cor. 13:1-2).
This should be done on an individual basis when we meet to admonish them privately. Sometimes a sin is so public that it is already openly confirmed (Gal. 2:11-14). Nevertheless, this step must be taken before the local church can be involved collectively. “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” (Mt. 18:16).
The purpose of witnesses is two fold. First, it is to confirm what took place when the sinner was confronted with his sin. A brother who refuses to repent will not hesitate to lie about specific details to justify his actions. Second, it is to give more force in restoring a brother.
The certainty of the guilt or innocence of the accused must be ascertained. Enough evidence must be heard before judging with righteous judgment can take place (Jn. 7:24,51). Witnesses must inquire, search, ask diligently to be in the face of their denial. If people denied having done the wrong, and have no clear and certain proof or when the certainty of guilt cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt, we cannot continue with corrective discipline. Some men’s sins follow (after this life) and will be revealed at the Day of Judgment (1 Tim. 5:24).
In the Old Testament, we read that if charges are made against the inhabitants of a city, such as serving other gods, etc., then they were to be the smitten with the edge of the sword (Dt. 13:14). They were not to execute a man until he is judged. This required testimony of two or more witnesses (Num. 35:12,30). It should never be administered on the basis of hearsay evidence, but conclusive proof was to be gained (Deut 17:2-7). Steps:
✓ It be told thee.
✓ Thou hast heard it.
✓ And inquired diligently
✓ it be true.
✓ The thing certain
✓ at the mouth of two or three witnesses.
They couldn’t say, “I want to tell this but want no responsibility for what follows. Leave my name out of it.” They were to go to priests and judges at Jerusalem for any case too hard to decide (17:8-12). Today, however, we have no court higher than the local church.
It is possible that the accused may even be innocent, as Jesus was innocent. Even two or three witnesses may be wrong in some cases, hence, each individual church member should reserve the right to form his own judgment, giving the accused the benefit of any reasonable doubt of his guilt until the evidence has been established and the witnesses credible.
– Daniel R. Vess