Does forgiveness remove the need for church discipline?

In my ten years at Bearwood Chapel, we’ve only felt the need to pursue full church discipline in line with 1 Corinthians 5 on one occasion. However the need to remove membership due to persistent, unrepentant and serious sin will sadly arise from time to time in church life.

We’ve been talking about the importance of repentance and forgiveness over the past few days and my friend, Steve Kneale has also been doing so on his blog.  Steve has raised the issue about whether or not repentance is needed for forgiveness to happen. I believe that the consensus view from the resulting discussion is that it is possible for someone to say “I forgive them” in the sense that they choose not to hold the hurt against the offender. However, for the offender to enjoy the benefits of forgiveness, repentance is needed.

Now, let’s come back to church discipline. Imagine the scenario where someone is accused of adultery.  Their wife may choose to forgive in that they don’t hold this horrendous thing against their husband. They may, or may not be willing to accept their husband back into the home (which itself gets us thinking about the different levels of forgiveness and reconciliation). The husband is unrepentant.  However, some people among the members start to ask “but his wife has forgiven him, we heard her say it. Why are we still being asked to discipline him and remove him from membership? Shouldn’t we remove him too?”

I believe that the answer is that the church should still exercise discipline. Why? Well first of all because when I look up 1 Corinthians 5 where the man who sleeps with his dad’s wife is disciplined. Paul does not at any point say “Check how his dad feels and if he is okay, then drop the issue.”  Discipline is still necessary. This is because sin is not just against one individual but is against the Lord and is toxic to the whole body. There may also be other victims such as the husband of the other party to the adultery, the children of the couple etc.

Church discipline serves several purposes.

  • Its first aim is to seek the restoration of the sinner. We should remember that it is about loving discipline, not about vindictive punishment. To back down on discipline is to fail to show love and concern for the offender.
  • Secondly, it aims to protect the honour of the Gospel from outside accusation. We are being clear to a watching world that ungodliness is wrong.
  • Thirdly, Paul talks about how a little yeast infects the whole dough. Discipline is a form of quarantine to protect the wider body. This is often about making it clear that the person does not act or speak for the church or the Gospel and stating that their example is no to be followed by others.

Even where there has been individual forgiveness, these things remain necessary.  This also raises the question, what if the person has repented, does that halt church discipline? I want to suggest that it doesn’t. That might come as a shock. However, we tend to think of discipline purely in terms of excommunication but in fact it should be about more than that. It should be about seeking through whatever loving and Biblical means necessary to correct, teach, train and restore someone.  So, even with repentance there may be a requirement to ask someone to comply with some disciplinary measures. Indeed, their willingness to comply may be evidence of true repentance. This might include for example being restricted from certain ministries or taking part in members meetings. 

Now, if I can add one further point in. When we took church discipline, it was serious, necessary and painful. However, guess what happened when the person in question went to a new church? He was admitted to membership, no questions asked and no conversation with us.  I’m sure that they thought they were amazingly loving and tolerant. However, what they were saying was that they had no concern for God’s glory, no concern for his wife or any other injured parties and no love for another local church or appreciation for the costly decisions they had made.  Finally, they were declaring that they did not really love their own church family enough to ensure that it was properly protected.

Please, when someone approaches you to join as a church member, talk to their previous church, find out if they are under discipline.  Recognise that discipline and work with it.

It is so much easier for us to avoid these painful decisions and the usual consequences from discipline. However, this is the right and loving action to follow.

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