Now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11)
Our study of 1 Corinthians chapter 5 has brought us some practical instruction as to how to deal with continual willful sin in the church. The Corinthian church was permitting a man to continue in an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife. For a number of possible reasons, the sin was not dealt with by the community, but rather, to their shame, they allowed the man to continue to fellowship and be a part of the church, even as he continued in this heinous sin. Paul’s instruction in this chapter has brought us face to face with the matter of church discipline, and caused us to face questions in our own day as to how and when to exercise church discipline, and what “excommunication” looks like in the local assembly today.
While it might be nice to have a black and white manual that lays out the detail of what sins ought to be disciplined, under what conditions, and exactly when it should be done, there are specifics that God has left unsaid. Our human tendency to love rules and fundamentalist religion might lead one to ask the question, why are there no hard, fast, cookie-cutter rules to the exercise of church discipline? Why would God leave anything unclear? Is it not because the church is a living, breathing organism? Is it not so that as a living body, we might come together and cry out for wisdom to our living Father? Just as there are no handbooks that tell us exactly how to raise our children, because each child is unique and needs to be handled differently, likewise each church member is unique, and every matter of church discipline should be handled in their own way, as we seek to apply the Biblical guidelines and function with a Biblical framework.
What is quite clear in Scripture is that for the love of the individual, for the love of the church, for the love of the watching world, and for the love of the glory of Christ’s name, the church of Jesus Christ must exercise care as to who is counted in their number and who is not. If we care to be an honest display of Christ’s transforming power over sin, and uphold the holy name of Christ, and display obedience to a benevolent Father, then then we must, as His church, deal with sin in the church rightly. As Christians are, as Martin Luther observed, simultaneously sinful and justified, there are sins that we expect as part of our incomplete sanctification, but then there are sinful patterns that go unrepented of causing the whole assembly to lose trust in the veracity of a person’s faith. As such, church discipline is never about “which sin” or “how badly does one sin” before the church exercises discipline. Rather, as Jonathan Leeman observes, “sin gets weighed in a balance with sin on one side of the balance and evidence of repentance on the other side.”
Nevertheless, as the matter of church discipline is considered, we want to be prepared, so that we may rightly deal with matters rightly in our church. It would help us to consider some general questions in advance of any specific matter, so that we might know how to at least begin to proceed to deal with sin that may or may not require church discipline. In order to help us, this week we will consider, as a church, some general questions that often arise on the subject, and some specific test cases.
Some questions we’ll consider include:
• Can you discipline a non-member?
• What if a member resigns his membership before discipline is carried out?
• How do you handle a church member who refuses to disassociate himself from an excommunicated individual?
• Should you eat Christmas dinner with an excommunicated family member?
• Should the church discipline a teenage member who is yet under the authority of his parents?
• How do you discipline an elder? And who should lead the process?
• Is non-attendance a disciplinable sin?
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