Church discipline may be the most neglected teaching in the church today. It's seldom practiced.
No one likes to confront a person who is living in sin. I've never heard of a church leader who loves being on the discipline committee. It's so difficult to confront and legally risky to discipline that it's somewhat like getting wisdom teeth removed: We delay it as long as possible.
Since we're hesitant to teach and practice discipline, members of the body of Christ live in immorality, are deceptive in business, treat others with a mean spirit, or use language that is an embarrassment to the kingdom of God—without ever hearing a word of reprimand. As a result, the church loses credibility.
Second Thessalonians 3:14-15 is one of several New Testament passages that command the local church to practice discipline. "If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother" (NIV).
To participate in the New Testament church automatically assumed a commitment to holy living. Any whose lives were flagrantly unrighteous were disciplined by others in the body. Second Thessalonians 3 deals with the final stages of church discipline. The earlier stages are outlined elsewhere in Scripture:
1. A Christian who is caught in a sin should first be gently confronted with the anticipation of being restored (see Matt. 18:15 and Gal. 6:1).
2. If the disobedient person refuses to repent, he is to be confronted by two or three witnesses (see Matt. 18:16).
3. If there still is no restoration, the issue is to be brought before the church (see Matt. 18:17).
The church member who disregards these efforts and continues to live in flagrant sin is to be isolated from the fellowship: "Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed" (2 Thess. 3:14).
Oddly, the one who does the confronting is often the one who is made to feel ashamed. Those close to the one being disciplined will charge, "Who are you to judge?" "Do you think you're blameless?" "What a self-righteous hypocrite you are!"
The church leaders are even accused of "shooting their own wounded." But confronting a sinner is not shooting the wounded; it's trying to prevent fatalities. It's removing the bullet and disinfecting the wound. Just as wise parents may say to a rebellious child, "I love you too much to let you behave this way," so compassionate church leaders must refuse to allow flagrant, continuous, unchristian behavior to go on.
The purpose of discipline is to motivate repentance and to prevent future transgressions in others. That's why the sinner is to be isolated. Those who dote over him because they feel sorry for him are enabling sinful behavior. Paul instructed the Corinthian church not even to eat with the man living in incest (see 1 Cor. 5:11).
The sinner is not to be treated as an enemy but warned as a brother. There must be civility and compassion, but the church can't go on as though nothing is wrong. That causes us to lose credibility. The church is about truth and holiness. However, it's important to remember that the sinner who does repent is to be welcomed back and restored to complete fellowship (see 2 Cor. 2:7).
Years ago the church could impress the world with excellent programming. In light of the current scandals and accusations of immorality against church leaders, the church must be a place of integrity and authenticity to get a hearing. That includes the disciplining of those who wander away from their faith and deliberately continue sinning.
Bob Russell is the retired senior pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., a church he led for 40 years. He now focuses on mentoring pastors while teaching and speaking around the country. His latest project, Acts of God, a film, small-group study and sermon series by City on a Hill Studio and book by Moody Publishers, will be available beginning in February. Visit actsofgodthemovie.com for a preview or more information.