Dare to Discipline
Published by Jeffrey Weima
Professor of New Testament
It must be admitted that the Church does not have a very good track record of dealing with its wayward members in the humble, gracious, and Christ-like manner that allows for the noble purposes of church discipline to be fulfilled. Nevertheless, discipline remains one of the important tasks of the Church. In fact, discipline is so important that the Reformers identified it as one of the three “marks” of the true church, ranking right up there with the pure preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments (Belgic Confession, Article 29).
AN “X-RATED” PROBLEM
One biblical passage that reveals well the purposes of church discipline is 1 Corinthians 5. Paul describes an “X-rated” problem where a member of the Corinthian church was involved in a sexual relationship with “his father’s wife” (5:1). The woman was not the man’s mother but his stepmother (see Leviticus 18:7-8 for the distinction between “mother” and “father’s wife”). This kind of illicit relationship was not even acceptable in the sex-saturated, free-thinking perspective of pagan Roman society. The fact that no charge of incest was brought against the man by the local city authorities suggests that he was a wealthy and powerful member of Corinthian society. This would also explain why the church leaders were reluctant to discipline him.
Paul, however, is less upset with the sinful man than he is with the sinful response of the Corinthian congregation. Their failure to discipline this erring church member was exacerbated by a couple of factors. First, the Greek text of 5:1 indicates that this situation was not an isolated instance – a “one-night stand” – but an ongoing situation in which the church had ample opportunity to deal with their wayward brother in Christ. Second, the Corinthian church did not merely tolerate the incestuous situation but openly accepted it, as evidenced not only in their “pride” (5:2) and “boasting” (5:6) but also in their welcoming this man to their table fellowship (5:11).
A “TOUGH LOVE” SOLUTION
Paul issues a tough solution to this “X-rated” problem—tough not only for the Corinthians to carry out but also for us today to understand properly. The apostle commands the church to “hand over this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh” (5:5). This might at first seem as if Paul intends for Satan to cause severe physical suffering in the man’s life which will ultimately lead to his death. A more careful look at the larger context, however, reveals that Paul is calling instead for the excommunication of the man from the fellowship of the Corinthian church.
That this is the apostle’s intention is clear first of all from the rest of the chapter where the emphasis is never on the death of the person or the destruction of the yeast but on their removal: “… put out of your fellowship the man that has been doing this” (5:2); “Throw out the old yeast …!” (5:7); “Expel the wicked person from among you!” (5:13). Second, Paul’s command “not to associate with … nor even eat with such a person” (5:11) clearly envisions that the sinful church member is still alive. Third, Paul’s theology would never allow that this man’s death somehow pays for his sin. The word “flesh” also has in Paul’s letters an ethical meaning where it refers to a person’s “sinful nature.” The apostle’s intent, therefore, is that the Corinthian congregation will shut this man out from their church fellowship with the goal to bring about the destruction not of the man’s physical body but instead of his “sinful nature”.
THREE PURPOSES OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
For the Sinner’s Sake: The first purpose of church discipline is not to weed out undesirables from membership in the church nor to proclaim divine judgment on wayward sinners, but to ultimately bring about the person’s salvation. As Paul put it to the Corinthians, they must take the “tough love” step of excommunicating the man “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5). The stakes could not be any higher: the eternal destiny of the erring brother is in such a precarious position that the Corinthian church must act. Such a disciplinary step is never done vindictively or self-righteously but always “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1) and in a way that treats the errant member “not as an enemy but as a brother or sister” (2 Thess. 3:15).
For the Church’s Sake: Second, discipline is crucial to preserve the salvation of the whole congregation to whom the sinner belongs. Paul makes this important point in the paragraph of 5:6-8 where he uses a baking analogy. This analogy does not involve “yeast” – as it is commonly translated – but more accurately “leaven.” What is the difference? Yeast is put into dough to cause it to rise and become leavened. Since yeast was an expensive commodity in the ancient world, people would commonly not bake all the leavened dough but keep a little bit of it separate. They would then put this leavened dough into the next batch of dough so that it would become leavened, and this process would repeat itself over and over again. Paul’s sentence, “A little leaven leavens the whole batch,” (5:6) is probably a common saying of his day (see Gal. 5:9) similar to the familiar phrase, “One bad apple ruins the whole bushel.”
Paul’s analogy, then, is a powerful one. One bad portion of yeast will taint only one batch of dough, but one bad batch of leaven will taint all the successive batches of dough. In a similar way, one sinner jeopardizes not just himself or herself but endangers all the other people in the congregation, too.
For God’s Sake: The third purpose of church discipline focuses not just on the sinner and the broader Church but on God Himself. The glory and holiness of God ought to be revealed in and through His people: “Be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:15-16) and “Live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Pet. 2:12). When the Church tolerates sinful conduct and fails to practice discipline, there is the danger that the world views the Church – and the God which it worships – as being no different than any other religion or institution and consequently fails to bring God the glory that He is justly due.
There are many reasons why Jesus-followers and congregations today are reluctant to practice discipline: we don’t want to appear judgmental or self-righteous; we don’t want to get involved in an awkward situation; we don’t think that it will do any good. And yet discipline, when it is carried out properly, ought to be seen ultimately as an act of love. The writer of Hebrews reminds us in an echo of Deuteronomy 8:5, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6). Jesus affirms these words when He says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Rev. 3:19). For the sake of the sinner themselves, and their holy God, the 21st century Church must follow the example of God and of Christ, practice tough love, and dare to discipline!
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