Church Discipline

May 15, 2016 Preacher: Luis A. Cardenas Series: Doctrine

Topic: English Passage: Matthew 18:15–20

One of the greatest tragedies in the life of a Christian and in the life of a church is the toleration of sin. It is such a dangerous thing to call yourself a Christian, and not be battling against sin. And yet, this is very common, especially in American Christianity.

Many people in Christian churches have grown up hearing the message that God is holy and perfect. They know that all people are sinners, unworthy of His grace. But God sent Jesus Christ to pay for sin. And every person who believes in Jesus will be saved.

Those are all good things. Those are all true things. But that is not the full message of Christ. Jesus didn’t just come calling people to believe. He called them also to repent. And He didn’t’ just come to give people forgiveness. He came to bring transformation. In His grace, He sanctifies and glorifies His own. Jesus takes sin seriously. Jesus takes holiness seriously. And every Christian, should as well.

Look with me at Matthew 18. Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of God and verse 3.

Jesus was talking about a type of humility and dependency that characterizes all true believers. And God, as the Father of His children, takes care of them. Verses 5-7.

It is a serious and frightening thing to lead someone into temptation. Jesus takes sin seriously. And we get to see how serious he wants us to take it in the verses that follow. Verses 8-9.

Jesus is saying: Take drastic steps to fight sin in your life. Take drastic steps to protect yourself against the danger of sin. Each of you has a personal responsibility to fight sin. To battle against it. To put it to death in your life (Col 3:5).

But Jesus didn’t intend for you to do it alone. Jesus intended that you would be part of a church, a community that helps and serves and warns. Look at verses 12-14.

I’ve been on staff full-time here for just about 1 year now. And not long after I accepted this position, I was invited to a pastors’ meeting where they eat and pray and talk about issues in their church. This is a pretty broad group of people. They are all evangelical Christians, but’s it a pretty diverse group of churches.

Well, the devotional and discussion for that morning was the passage we just read. And we were all asked the question: How can we as pastors go after the straying sheep? What can we do to pursue those who seem to be going astray?

And every pastor gave their answer. And I immediately knew what I would say when it came to be my turn. I’m the youngest guy in the group. I have no pastoral experience. So, I just kept reading. And pointed them to the very next verses (15-20). And I said something like: “This is how Jesus wants us to help bring people back to Himself. This is the process Jesus gave us to restore someone.” This is what we refer to as Church Discipline.

And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the response. One of the pastors looked up. He looked around at the rest of the pastors in the room. And He said: “Come on, does anyone actually do this?” Are we supposed to actually go in front of the church and announce someone’s name?

Well, I hope that gives you an idea of how difficult of a topic this can be. It sounds judgmental. It sounds opposed to the heart of God. It sounds legalistic. Well, I hope as a result of our study today, you realize that it’s not those things. And as difficult or uncomfortable as this topic might be, the real question is: Will we obey the words of Jesus Christ? Will we let Jesus be in charge of our church? Or will we do things our own way?

Before we get into this passage I need to define church discipline. A lot of things can come to mind, but they might not be biblical. If you talk to a child about making pancakes, he might think making pancakes means pouring syrup on them. But you realize that that’s just the final step. There were a lot of other steps before that, that go into making a pancake. The same is true for church discipline. When you hear church discipline, don’t just think about the final step in the process, which is removing someone from the membership. You need to think about all the steps beforehand.

Church discipline is actually four steps. And every step is important. There’s a small book on church discipline by a guy named Jonathan Leeman. Really helpful. Ask me if you want to borrow it. And in there, he gives several reasons for practicing it.

Church discipline is an extension of the gospel. Church discipline promotes healthy churches. It warns sinners. It preserves the church’s testimony and witness. And most importantly it protects the name and reputation of Jesus Christ.

Now, just so you know, in a broad sense, everything our church does is part of discipline or discipleship. Discipline has to do with training. And there is much positive training. Prayers, Scripture readings, sermons, FLGs, healthy relationships—these are all ways we learn and push ourselves toward Christlikeness. That’s called formative or positive discipline. But when we talk about church discipline, we’re talking about corrective discipline. Hebrews 12 says that God disciplines those whom He loves. And that is referring to correction more than teaching.

Well, how does God use others to help us focus on Christ. He uses church discipline. Let’s look at the words of Jesus. Matthew 18:15.

This is describing the first step of church discipline. And it’s not something only mentioned here. The first step of church discipline is a one-on-one conversation. It’s not explicitly stated here, but Jesus’ statement doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to talk to someone every time they sin.

Proverbs 19:11 says “it is your glory to overlook an offense.” Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 say we should have compassionate hearts that bear with one another in love. First Corinthians 13 says love bears all things and believes and hopes all things. We should all have an extra layer of grace with one another. We can actively choose to forgive and overlook.

We can extend the grace of God and believe that God is working in that other person. They realize what they did was wrong.

But at times, there will be sins that damage a relationship or bring danger to a person or bring significant hurt or dishonor to God. And Jesus says we all have the responsibility to talk to that person. That’s the first step of church discipline.

But notice how Jesus says to do it. Between you and him alone. No one else needs to know. No one else needs to be involved. You do it privately, face-to-face. Now I want to help you with this so let me give you some other passages that tell us how else this is supposed to be done, in addition to being private.

Matthew 7:1-5 says not to judge others. This doesn’t mean don’t confront them about the sin. It means don’t act like you’re the judge over them. God is the judge. Show them what God says. You are their friend. And Jesus uses the familiar analogy of the speck and the log. Think about your own sin, that’s a bigger deal. You’re a sinner just like them. So don’t talk to them like you’ve never sinned.

Galatians 6:1 says that when someone is caught or trapped in a sin, you are to restore them in a spirit of gentleness. And then it says to keep watch on yourself, so that you’re not tempted. Verse 2 says bear their burdens. Which includes helping them. You’re not there to condemn. You’re not there to hunt for sin. You’re there to gently restore. You need to think about who you’re talking to. Think about the circumstances.

First Thessalonians 5:14 says it like this: Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. You’re not judgmental. You’re gentle and patient.

Even Timothy, who was a leader, was told by Paul (1 Timothy 5). Don’t rebuke an older man, encourage him like a father. Speak to young men like brothers. Older women as mothers, younger woman as sisters with purity. You’re not talking to an enemy. You’re talking to someone on the same team, someone in your family. And you have an opportunity to open their eyes to a sin and keep them from further consequences, maybe even eternal ones.

James 5:20 says it like this: whoever brings a sinner back from his wandering, will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. That’s what Jesus wants.

Ecclesiastes 4 says: Two are better than one. For if one falls, the other will lift him up. Woe to him who is alone when he falls and does not have another to lift him up.

We need others to restore us. To bring us back. Matthew 18:15. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. He’s restored. You have him back as a useful brother.

Now, is this going to happen immediately? Not always. Sometimes you bring up sin, and people get defensive. That’s part of the sin nature. So we need patience. Hopefully, with time and the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the word of God, they come to their senses. The next time they see, they say: “You know I didn’t respond the right way, but you were right about that. Thank you for having the courage to speak up.” And that’s the end.

The vast majority of sin is dealt with on a personal basis. Either you realize it yourself or another person makes you aware of it. And that’s it. And as brothers you continue fighting sin together. And nobody else knows what happened. It was just between you and them.

But what if they don’t respond? What if you give them some time, and you realize that they don’t care about this sin. Then what do you do? Verse 16.

This is the second step of church discipline. Again, this is not an angry mob. It should have the same patience and grace as the first step. But this time there’s one or two other people. The law of Deuteronomy refers to the importance of multiple witnesses. You don’t want a biased view. You may want to include an outsider or someone the person respects. As this person seems to be choosing sin over repentance, let a couple more people in on what is going on.

 Maybe you’re being too sensitive at the time and impatient. Hopefully the other witnesses will see it. But if there is clear sin, you want others who will graciously call the sinner to repentance and who will be able to see this person’s spiritual state. Maybe the extra people will be enough to make him aware that there’s a problem and he’ll have a change of heart.

Again, no one needs to know except for this group. If you start telling people, it’s gossip or slander. That’s not what we want. And the goal is not to publicly embarrass a person. The goal is restoration. You want to win a brother back.

And again, this takes time. Jesus doesn’t give us a time table here, so we don’t want to rush through it all, but we also don’t want to ignore the sin, especially when two or three agree that that’s the case.

If, after enough time is given, the two or three of you still agree that this person wants to pursue sin rather than repentance, then you go ahead to step 3. You begin to include more people. Verse 17a.

Tell the church. Jesus is advocating gossip or slander here. The tone here is grace. The goal is restoration. And in most cases, the best thing to do is tell the church leaders. Let them investigate a little further. Let them decide the best way to inform the church.

If you talk to an elder about someone else’s sin. It’s possible that the answer they’ll give you is “have you talked to this person about it?” And if you say “no” then you’re being disobedient. You’re being unloving. You’ve now included someone else in this issue who didn’t need to know. And if an elder approaches someone about a sin he heard about, that’s just operating on rumors or gossip.

We are to personally address hurtful sin in other’s lives. And only when we believe that the person is unwilling to repent should we include others. And by the time it gets to step three, the unrepentance is clear.

Why tell it to the whole church? So you can all shun him? No! So you can all join in calling that person to repentance. Some people in the church might have a closer relationship to the one who sinned and can contact him. The church might see this person out in the community. And they should be made aware of the responsibility and opportunity to call this person back to repentance.

This is not a witch hunt. This is a loving pursuit of a sheep who is running full speed off a cliff. We want to step in. We don’t want to let him go his own way. And the strength of God’s call back to Christ is shown in the unity and love of the church. The person needs to know that he is in danger!

Listen, the decision when to tell a church about a sin, is not based on how “big” or “bad” the sin is. It’s based on how clear it is that the person is in characteristic unrepentance. That’s the issue here: a lack of repentance.

If someone is struggling against a sin, even a “major” one. And you are still losing some big battles. But  you have people helping you, you keep repenting and fighting… That’s not a church discipline issue. That’s about training you and counseling you and surrounding you with strong accountability and learning how to apply the gospel in your everyday life. But it’s not a church discipline issue.

Church discipline is about someone who is characterized by unrepentance. And as a lack of repentance is made more clear, more people get involved. And by the grace of God, and through the love and concern of the church, the person will return to his senses. He will repent. He will turn away from sin and commit to fight against it.

But sadly, there will be times, when even the call of the church will not turn a sinner from his way. What do we do then? We can’t just let it continue. This person is a member. This person represents Christ and our church. So what do we do? Matt 18:17b.

Gentiles were unbelievers. Tax-collectors were traitors to the Jewish people. Both groups were outsiders to the Jewish community. Jesus is saying here: treat them like an outsider. Treat them like an unbeliever. Obviously, this would mean removing them as a church member. It would mean preventing them from partaking of the Lord’s Supper with the congregation. It means getting rid of any type of connection that associates this person as part of our Christian fellowship. Don’t call him “brother.” Don’t discuss identify him as a believer.

Can you still have this person over your house? Of course. But you need to remember you’re dealing with a non-believer. Love them. Serve them. And call them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Don’t allow them to continue thinking they are saved. For their own sake. And for the sake of the church. And for the sake of Jesus Christ.

But how could a church do this? What right does the church have? Where is Christ in all of this? Verses 18-20.

We don’t have the time to dig into these passages, but let me give you the big picture. The church does not have the authority to save anyone or un-save anyone. But the church does have the authority to declare salvation. It won’t always get it right. But what the church declares is a reflection of what has already been declared in heaven. That those who continue in unrepentance will not inherit the kingdom of God.

And when the church lovingly, patiently, graciously, and compassionately upholds the purity of Christ and the gospel, Christ affirms that decision. He is present in that congregation. And God blesses.

Do you remember Acts 5 with Ananias and Sapphira. Great fear came upon all who heard. And yet multitudes were added to the Lord.

First Corinthians 5 describes a man who is involved in scandalous sexual immorality. And Paul scolds the church for allowing it. He says: Purge the evil person from among you. Don’t let yourself be polluted.

This is to be done, not with a spirit of self-righteousness, but of humility and love. And as a result God is honored. And God is feared.

First Timothy 5 speaks of rebuking an elder who persists in sin in front of everybody, so that the rest may stand in fear.

We serve a great and holy God. We worship Jesus Christ who gave himself up for our sins. Not just to give us forgiveness, but to empower us, through the power of His resurrection, to a holy life that is useful for His purposes. Jesus came to give us life, that we may have it abundantly.

That abundant life comes from fighting sin and serving Christ. And in order to promote holiness in his people and conform us to the image of Christ, God has given us His Holy Spirit. But He also given us the church.

And God wants to use all of us and tools in His hands to help others. We’re imperfect tools. We’re unworthy tools. But that is because it brings God glory to work through weakness. And God wants to use us, like iron against iron, to sharpen one another.

I’ll just close with the exhortation of Hebrews 3:12-15. It highlights our own personal responsibility to help one another fight the good fight. Church discipline is not just about what happens from the front. It’s about what happens between you and the people around you.

Hebrews 3:12-15.

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