There has been a letter circulating online over the last several weeks from a congregation of the Lord’s church, which has since gone viral and has sparked a wide debate about church discipline. The letter was signed by three elders and was given to a member of the congregation. For some unclear reason, the letter, which was expected to be private, has made its rounds on social media. More details will be given about the letter below, but I would mainly like for us to consider the truth about church discipline. Since many people have made it clear that they don’t understand why the leaders of the Middle Tennessee congregation would reprimand the recipient of the letter, I would like for us to consider the truth about church discipline. My only purpose in this article is to examine what the Bible says about disciplining members of the Lord’s church. Since we don’t know the entire story behind the letter, it’s prudent to err on the side of caution of sticking to what the Bible says.
Concerning “The Letter”
Before we continue, I want to make it clear that I don’t have any affiliation with the church that wrote this letter. The first time I saw it was on social media, like many of you (for those who have not seen the letter, you can view it here). The elders address two issues within the body of it: the recipient had been forsaking the assembly for several weeks (see Heb. 10:23-25), and he/she was involved in an unscriptural living arrangement (see Heb. 13:4). The letter states that the elders tried to speak to the member multiple times but to no avail. Due to the individual’s unresponsiveness, they threatened to withdraw the congregation’s arm of fellowship from the person. I’ve seen many people indirectly question the elder’s motives in sending this letter—some believe they had no right to do such a thing to the unnamed person. But please consider this: elders have every right to invoke disciplinary measures towards wayward members simply because they have divine authority to do so (see 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Heb. 13:7,17). Every measure they take must be done out of love for the brethren and out of respect for God and His word.
The Divine Authority Given to Elders
The Bible directs every congregation of the Lord’s church to be established with elders and deacons (Phi. 1:1; Titus 2:5; 1 Tim. 3:1-13). Since all churches within the body of Christ are autonomous, each eldership is responsible for their own flock (congregation). The apostle Paul mentions this when he exhorts the elders at Ephesus to shepherd the church of God (Acts 20:28). The authority given to them was divine (i.e., the Holy Spirit - Acts 20:28). Each eldership has the responsibility to lead the church in a way that pleases God, and that includes exacting discipline on those who make a habit out of sinning and refuse to repent to God (2 Thes. 3:6). The late Batsell Barett Baxter wrote,
“Elders, in a sense, are like the administrators of an estate. They cannot change the provisions of the will, but are to carry out those provisions. In this case, the will is the New Testament.” (Baxter, Family of God, p. 78).
Why Church Discipline is Essential
If you’ve gotten this far in the article and have asked yourself, “what is church discipline anyway?” then you’re probably not alone. The late Wayne Jackson noted, “[Church discipline] involves everything from the most basic instruction that the new-born child of God receives—from the time of his conversion onward, all the way to the radical ‘surgery’ sometimes required in the withholding of fellowship from impenitent apostates” (Jackson, Church Discipline – A Tragic Neglect). Think about it this way: children must be subject to all of the rules that their parents put in place while they are living under their roof. If the rules are not followed, then discipline must be exercised in order to train the child to do better. The same is true when a child of God becomes a member of the Lord’s church (Acts 2:40-48). When a repentant sinner is baptized and added to the church, then the individual automatically agrees to follow God in all of their ways. If the individual continues to fall into sin with no desire to repent, and the issue harms the integrity of the local church, then the elders have the authority to go to that person and correct them.
The Bible is replete with examples of when it is expedient for church discipline to be exercised (Matt. 18:15-17; Rom. 16:17; Titus 3:10; et al). In fact, the entire fifth chapter of 1 Corinthians focuses on church discipline. The inspired apostle Paul encouraged the church at Corinth to separate themselves from a brother who was guilty of engaging in sexual acts with his father’s wife. The fornicator had to be disfellowshipped in order that his spirit may be saved (1 Cor. 5:5). Not only would the discipline help save the guilty party (see James 5:19-20), but it would help keep the church pure. Paul wrote, “Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6). If the matter went unchecked by the brethren, then their congregation would have been in danger of falling into a depraved state. The same is true for any congregation of the Lord’s church today. The purpose of exercising discipline is to help the unrepentant sinner see the error of their ways (Gal. 6:1) and to maintain the integrity of the church in the eyes of the world (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Timothy 5:14; 1 Pet. 2:11,12). When church discipline has to be exercised by a local eldership, disfellowshipping from disorderedly brothers or sisters is usually the final straw.
The Final Straw
When we choose to withdraw from an individual, that usually means that we are cutting all ties with that person and will no longer fellowship with them. When the shepherds at a local congregation carry out such an act, it’s not done out of vengeance or for physical punishment (Rom. 12:19). As shepherds of the flock, they are telling the unrepentant individual, “Alright, we have done all we can do to win your soul back to the Lord. This is the last straw.” Not one elder has a personal vendetta and WANTS to disfellowship from a wayward member. It’s just the final attempt to save the individual and the local congregation (1 Cor. 5:5-6). Thanks to God’s unlimited grace, sinners have a chance to be forgiven! (Luke 15:7; 1 John 5:17). So, those who have been disfellowshipped always have the opportunity to come back to the Lord and His church (the individual can’t be “banned” from the assembly). In conclusion, love for our fellow brethren and the Lord is the reason why church discipline exists. Let us continue to walk in love so that we may be blameless in this world (Philippians 2:14-16a).
Family of God, by Batsell Barrett Baxter, Gospel Advocate, 1980, p. 78
Jackson, Wayne. “Church Discipline - A Tragic Neglect.” Christian Courier, www.christiancourier.com/articles/207-church-discipline-a-tragic-neglect.