What is church discipline/excommunication?

At Mount Sinai, God gave Moses a long list of laws. The purpose of those laws was to set aside the people of Israel as holy, and make Israel a nation that followed and feared God. The law also contained specific penalties for those who broke the law. These included punishments such as monetary restitution, expulsion from corporate worship, corporal punishment, and even death.

God's instructions to the church are similar, but in a different context. The church does not have the authority to enforce a law or punish an offense like a civil governing authority has. The church only has the authority to discipline within the context of the church body. The church and its members are called, just like Israel, to be set apart and to follow God's standards. The punishment for disobedience, however, is a gradually escalating discipline within the church, culminating in removal from fellowship—excommunication.

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus gives the guidelines for confronting a brother in Christ about an offense. First, the offended party is to speak to the offender alone, explaining the situation and the wrongness of the action. If the offender is dismissive and unrepentant, the offended person is to return with one or two witnesses. Hopefully, the offender will repent and ask forgiveness, but if not, the issue is to be made known to the entire church. The last recourse is for the church to treat the offender like "a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matthew 18:17).

This is the only system for church discipline that the New Testament gives. The Bible does not say that the offender is to be humiliated from the pulpit, gossiped about, disowned, or even shunned outside of church. The most extreme punishment a church can give is to remove the offender from fellowship and treat him like one outside the community—an unbeliever. How are we to treat unbelievers? While we are not to have close relationships with them (2 Corinthians 6:14; Proverbs 12:26), we are to point them to Christ (Acts 26:18), pray for them (James 5:16), and gently correct them (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

Paul's letters to the church in Corinth give testimony to the power of church discipline. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, Paul confronts the church for allowing a member to remain in their fellowship while he was living in adultery with his father's wife. Paul instructed that the man be delivered "to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:5). The man was obviously unrepentant. He had flaunted his sinful lifestyle before the church. The best recourse was for him to be expelled from the fellowship. Apparently, it worked. In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Paul exhorts the church to welcome back an offender who had responded contritely to church discipline. In fact, Paul told them to comfort the man lest he be "overwhelmed by excessive sorrow."

Second Corinthians 2:8 gives the desired result of church discipline: "to reaffirm your love for [the offender]." Church discipline is not to humiliate or control a person. It's not about anger or self-righteousness or even recompense. Church discipline is designed to protect the corporate body of Christ from unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:6-7) and to encourage someone living in sin to renew his or her relationship with God (Galatians 6:1).

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