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Plain Speech on Church Discipline

GDJT 1 (2022): 15–37
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One of the biblical marks of a true church is the proper practice of church discipline. However, few American evangelical congregations practice it. Consider J. Carl Laney’s survey:

In a recent survey of 439 pastors on the matter of church discipline 50 percent acknowledged situations in their ministry where discipline would have been appropriate but no action was taken. Three major hindrances to the practice of church discipline were mentioned: (a) fear of the consequences or outcome, (b) preference for avoiding disruptive problems, and (c) ignorance of the proper procedures.[2]

That survey was taken in 1984. We had hoped the renewed emphasis on church discipline in the late twentieth/early-twenty-first century might help matters. It seemed to gain traction for a while, but then petered-out. Now, the situation seems to have worsened. A variety of reasons could be mentioned: the rage of the “seeker” (church growth) movement; the advent of the emergent church movement; the financial implications of taking a hard stance on church discipline, especially in megachurches strapped with massive building costs/debt; unhealthy churches planting more unhealthy churches; etc. The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 opened-up a newfangled concept: online church. Further, the pandemic gave anyone who wanted it the excuse to forsake the assembly: health concerns. In all this, church discipline has been (all but) halted.

A new generation of pastors now is emerging—a generation who wasn’t there when the resurgence of congregational discipline took place. If they’ve witnessed it at all, it’s often done wrongly. In my conversations with younger pastors, they seem to be asking three questions: (1) When do you do it?; (2) How do you do it?; and (3) Why do you do it? We can’t tackle every issue related to congregational discipline here. What we can do is acquaint a fresh generation of pastors as to its pervasive importance to a congregation’s overall health. To do so, I’ve organized my thoughts this way: (1) a deep, exegetical dive into Matthew 18:15–20; (2) biblical guardrails for defining disciplinable offenses; and (3) implications pastors must consider as they execute congregational discipline.

Defining Church Discipline: An Exegesis Matthew 18:15–20

The Structure of Matthew 18

Matthew 18 is the fourth of five major teaching discourses found in Matthew’s Gospel.[3] Some claim chapter 18 is a loose collection of sayings.[4] Others view the chapter as having definite structure (though they differ on the number of sections).[5] The theme of chapter 18 is the relationship of believers within the church.[6] Verses 1–4 speak of entrance into the kingdom through child-like faith. Verses 6–9 warn of the consequences of causing another believer to stumble. Verses 10–14 illustrate the value of each believer. Verses 15–20 set forth procedures of church discipline and restoration. Finally, verses 21–35 illustrate God’s emphasis on forgiveness.

Matthew 18:15–20, therefore, is the fourth of five discourses in the chapter.[7] It neatly falls between sections discussing the value of each believer (10–14) and the emphasis of God’s forgiveness. Davies and Allison correctly observe, “In short, the way in which Matthew encircles vv. 15–20 is proof of his deep pastoral concern.”[8] 

Matthew 18:15

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.[9]

This verse begins with the Greek phrase, “Moreover, if ” ( Ἐὰν δὲ).[10] Likely, this construction contrasts the “sinning brother” (v. 14) with the heavenly Father’s will that not one of the “little ones” perish.[11] This contrast is followed by the phrase, “your brother sins against you.” Three pertinent issues deserve mention.

First, the word ἁμαρτήσῃ simply means “to sin.”[12] Hagner suggests the word “is probably left deliberately imprecise so that a broad variety of offenses can be included.”[13] It is the only time that Matthew uses the word in this form (aorist, active, subjunctive, third person singular). Second, the word “brother” refers to a Christian brother. Davies and Allison state, “Here it clearly means ‘Christian brother.’”[14] Most scholars concur.[15]  Third, scholars are divided on whether the phrase, “against you” (εἰς σὲ) is part of the original Greek text.[16] Some ancient manuscripts have it; others don’t.[17] The parallel passage in Luke 17:3 omits the phrase. Even so, some scholars favor its inclusion on linguistic and contextual grounds.[18] Linguistically, Blomberg suggests it was omitted from some manuscripts “due to ‘homophony’—parts of different words that sound alike so that part of the text is accidentally omitted.”[19] Contextually, Gundry favors its originality for the following reasons: (1) Matthew inserts “between you and him alone” in the next clause and (2) that personal connection appears to carry over into the next section on forgiveness between two “brothers” (vv. 21–35).[20]

At this point, a decision must be made that will affect the application of the entire process: i.e., (1) if “against you” is original, then the thrust is the offended person must confront the sinner; however, (2) if “against you” is not original, then it opens-up the possibility for anyone to confront the sinner. Perhaps the most powerful piece of evidence is this: The phrase is not in the earliest manuscripts. Further, even if we omit the phrase, the general term for “sin” (ἁμαρτήσῃ) still would include those sins committed against individual brothers. I conclude (albeit with some hesitation) the phrase probably should be omitted, although the unspoken implication “against you” certainly is implied and does no violence to the biblical author’s intent. The application (as we shall see) is that, when possible, the offended person should initiate the first step toward restoration.

The next phrase, “go . . . tell” lumps two imperative verbs next to one another (ὕπαγε ἐλέγχω). The first means “to go.”[21] The second means “to lay open, expose, uncover, reveal.”[22] The implication is: A single disciple  should go to the individual privately and expose the sin. Preferably, the one who was wronged should initiate this, though we could think of scenarios in which this may not be possible or practical (i.e., it would not be wise for a woman who is wronged to confront another woman’s husband alone and in private).

The last phrase stacks two more verbs on top of one another, “if he listens . . . you have gained,” (ἀκούσῃ ἐκέρδησας). The first means “to hear,” but has the connotation “to obey” (cf. John 5:25; 9:27; Acts 28:28).[23] The second means “to win, to gain.”[24] Christ asserts: When a person repents, then the brother has been won and should be restored to fellowship within the community of believers.

To summarize, Christ addresses his disciples in verse 15. He states that if a Christian brother sins, then the offended disciple privately should confront the sinning brother. He should expose to him the particular sin. The purpose is to persuade him to repent and, thus, be restored. 

Matthew 18:16

But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

The first phrase contains the exact same verb for “listen” (ἀκούσῃ) as the previous verse and presents the undesirable scenario of an unrepentant person. The second phrase introduces another imperative verb, “take” (παράλαβε), indicating the single disciple should confront the sinning brother with two or three witnesses. The third phrase is almost an exact quotation from Deuteronomy 19:15 of the LXX.[25] Calvin documents the purpose of the witnesses: “to give greater weight and impressiveness to the admonition.”[26] The aim of this second step (i.e., group confrontation) remains the same: To persuade the erring brother to repent and be restored to fellowship within the community of believers.

Matthew 18:17

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Matthew now presents a scenario in which the erring brother becomes hardened. “If he refuses” (παρακούσῃ) means “to ignore, to refuse to listen to.”[27]  The matter, at this point, escalates to a “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) matter. Nearly all scholars view this as the local assembly of believers rather than the universal church.[28]

The next phrase contains two items of interest. First, the verb, “if he refuses” (παρακούσῃ) is repeated (perhaps for emphasis). Second, Matthew follows-up with this phrase: “let him be to you [singular, σοι] as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Carson states, “This suggests that each member of the church is to abide by the corporate judgment and reminds the reader of the individual responsibility each believer has toward the others, already presupposed by the singular ‘your brother’ in v. 15.”[29] Practically speaking, then, each individual member of the congregation is to treat the unrepentant brother as a pagan or tax collector, so that the congregation acts as one.

The practical difficulty comes in understanding precisely how a pagan or tax collector is to be treated. Calvin clearly asserts, “the meaning is, that we ought to have no intercourse with the despisers of the Church till they repent” (emphasis original).[30] Keener states they should be treated as “unclean and to be avoided.”[31] On the other hand, Laney exhorts, “It means to keep loving him as Jesus loved the publicans and sinners.”[32] Hence, we must determine the proper behavior toward unrepentant sinners.

It is generally recognized that Matthew wrote to a mainly Jewish-Christian audience. Jews despised both pagans and tax collectors.[33] Jews faithful to the Torah would have “nothing to do” with such a person and would break off all private contact with the person.[34] Since Matthew was writing to Jews (the audience—in the larger context of the entire Gospel narrative), Jesus was speaking to Jews (the disciples—in the immediate context), and the sinning brother had been given at least three opportunities to repent, then we can conclude that normal and friendly intercourse should cease until the sinning brother repents. However, this is not to suggest the Christian community “go dark” on the person or cease all communication without exception. To the contrary, he should be actively and warmly engaged with the gospel. The congregation must be clear that, in their eyes, he is demonstrating actions consistent with an unregenerate heart. At the same time, the congregation should seek to evangelize him with some sense of urgency.

Matthew 18:18

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Hiers lists five main interpretations of this passage:[35] (1) that authority was given to absolve or release a person from some sort of vow;[36] (2) that authority was given to determine which actionswere forbidden and which permitted;[37] (3) that authority was given to exclude persons from the community (the majority view);[38] (4) that authority was given to forgive or withhold sins;[39] or (5) that Jesus’s judgment pronounced upon the cities of Jerusalem would be ratified at the judgment before the Son of man.[40]

We must consider something else as well: The verse also appears in the context of the church (ἐκκλησίᾳ) in Matthew 16:19. However, three interesting differences should be noted between that passage and this one. First, the first line (“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”) is absent from Matthew 18:18.[41] Second, Peter is addressed individually in Matthew 16:19, whereas the verbs are (second person) plural in Matthew 18:18. Third, the context of Matthew 16:19 concerns matters of conduct generally, whereas Matthew 18:18 concerns church discipline specifically.

Another issue to consider is this: The verbs from the respective roots, “to bind” (δήσητε), and “to loose” (λύσητε), may be translated one of two ways in both Matthew 16:19 and in Matthew 18:18. They could be translated by the periphrastic future perfect passive tense, i.e., “shall have been bound;” or, they could be translated as a simple future tense, i.e., “will be bound.” If the former, the action of the church has already been anticipated in heaven. If the latter, the action of the church will be validated by heaven. Stagg rightly concludes, “Either way, agreement between heaven and church is pictured.”[42]

Based on the evidence presented above, I tend to agree with Hiers’s third option: That authority was given to exclude persons from the congregation. Calvin is persuasive when he says “whoever treats with ridicule the reproofs and threatenings of the church, if he is condemned by her, the decision which men have given will be ratified in heaven.”[43] Yet, the very fact the disciplinary procedure escalated to this point illustrates the authority of the congregation to determine which actions are permitted and which actions are forbidden (Hiers’s second option). In other words, the congregation has the authority to determine, based on case-specific contexts, what is or is not sin for the purposes of church discipline. I shall qualify this delegated “authority” below, but for now will leave it at this: The word, “to sin” (ἁμαρτήσῃ), is an imprecise term—and a general one—that could include any and all sins. It follows that Jesus—and Matthew—likely left it imprecise, deliberately, to cede authority to the congregation to determine which sins are disciplinable offenses versus which ones are not.

I propose a combination of Hiers’s options two and three seems best. The “binding/loosing” refers to excommunicating/readmitting the erring brother. However, it can only refer to excommunication/readmission because of the congregation’s conviction of what the congregation has deemed as sin (“whatever you bind on earth”) or not sin (“what you loose on earth”). Christ seems to grant the local congregation authority to “declare the terms under which God either forgives or retains sins (cf. John 20:22b–23).”[44] As Derrett concludes, Matthew 18:18 “grants a power finally to expel the recalcitrant; but the text itself speaks of a power which is not limited in this way: it does not necessarily have to do with forgiveness, or refusal to forgive sins. It enables, rather, conduct to be categorized, defined, both for the past and the future.”[45] In short, Christ appears to grant the congregation power to define what constitutes a disciplinable offense and to exercise discipline for those defined offenses.

Matthew 18:19

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.

Some scholars believe this verse is not included in the original. Albright states, “It is unlikely that this verse is in its original context, for while vs. 18 dealt with conduct on the part of the community’s members, vs. 19 is an exhortation to faithfulness in prayer.”[46] Albright neglects to recognize the context of the passage. First, the phrase begins with the connective adverb, “Again” (πάλιν), clearly connecting this verse to the previous discussion of congregational discipline. Second, the theme remains constant. Blomberg notes, “In this context v. 19 simply restates the theme of v. 18.”[47] Third, in no way does it violate the context of the previous verses. The thrust of this verse deals with congregational discipline and restoration.

Let us briefly explore three points. First, Derrett suggests this verse refers not to agreement in prayer, but to agreement between the offended and the offender.[48] He argues the word αἰτήσωνται (“they ask”) can refer to out of court settlement disputes. Consequently, two individuals who come to such an agreement will receive the approval of the Father in heaven. I found few who agree with Derrett on this point.[49]

Second, in keeping with the context, the root word of the term “anything” (πρᾶγμα) does have legal connotations (cf. 1 Cor. 6:1). Luz, perhaps correctly, suggests, “πρᾶγμα is a general term and is by no means a terminus technicus for ‘legal matter.’ When the reference is to a legal matter (as, e.g., in the case of 1 Cor 6:1) the context must clearly indicate as much.”[50] Luz’s line of thinking is used by those who wish to keep this passage centered exclusively on agreement in prayer-matters. However, Matthew 18:15–17, in fact, is set in a judicial context in which sin allegations are made, individual rights are protected (by two or three witnesses), and decisive action is taken (one way or the other). Carson is on-target when he says, “Scripture is rich in prayer promises, . . . but if this passage deals with prayer at all, it is restricted by the context and by the phrase peri pantos pragmatos, . . . which should be rendered ‘about any judicial matter.’”[51] This legal framework is in keeping with the context: congregational discipline.

Third, both verse 18 and verse 19 have the combination “earth . . . heaven” (though heaven is in a different form in the original). Hendriksen comments, “According to verse 18 the discipline exercised on earth is confirmed in heaven; according to verse 19 the prayer offered on earth is answered by Christ’s ‘Father in heaven.’”[52] This word-play illustrates further evidence of the development of the author’s thought.

I conclude: This verse is a continuation of the discussion of congregational discipline. The promise remains that if two are in agreement (possibly referring to the two witnesses in v. 16) on the matter of congregational discipline, then it will be done for them by the Father.

Matthew 18:20

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

Many commonly have misunderstood this verse as saying that Jesus is with two or three persons who are gathered in his Name. Weber accurately points out the weaknesses of this interpretation, “But such an interpretation is wrong for two reasons: (1) it takes the statements out of the context of church discipline and the pursuit of the straying brother; and (2) the conclusions that it leads to regarding prayer is contrary to Scripture.”[53] We might add: Jesus’s presence resides in and with every individual believer, not merely when two or three decide to congregate. More importantly, the context of congregational discipline continues from verses 15–19 and carries through the end of this verse.

The first phrase, “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” likely expands from the “two” witnesses mentioned in the previous verse[54] and has to do with the decision concerning the erring brother of the believing community.[55]  This verse appears to provide spiritual assurance in the midst of practicing the difficult, and oftentimes uncomfortable, task of congregational discipline. Understood this way, Christ’s presence is assured, in a special way, during the actual execution of congregational discipline. The phrase, “there am I among them,” may be referring to a Jewish belief. Davies and Allison explain:

Verse 20 especially recalls a saying in m. ’Abot 3.2, recorded in the name of R. Hananiah b. Teradion (who was killed in the Bar Kokba revolt), the father–in–law of R.Meier: ‘But if two sit together and words of the Law (are spoken) between them, the Divine Presence rests between them . . .’. Similar is the saying attributed to R. Simeon ben Yohai (A. D. 100–70) in m. ’Abot 3.3: ‘If three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of the Law, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God.’[56]

Regardless, the assurance of having Jesus Christ present is comforting, especially considering the nature of the disciplinary circumstances.

Concluding Remarks

Matthew 18:15–17 sets forth proper procedures for congregational discipline. First, a sinning brother should be confronted privately and individually (v. 15). Second, the unrepentant brother should be confronted privately by one or two more (v. 16). Third, the matter of the unrepentant brother is then to be brought to the congregation (v. 17). The purpose of each step is to persuade the sinning brother to repent that he may be restored to fellowship within the community of believers. Fourth, normal intercourse with the unrepentant brother should cease except for warm, heart-felt evangelistic purposes.

Verses 18–20 provide three beautiful promises. First, Christ promises that whatever the congregation binds and looses on earth will agree with heaven. This binding/loosing appears to be the authority of each local congregation to define what constitutes a disciplinable offense and the authority to exercise discipline for that offense. Second, Christ promises that if two are in agreement (possibly referring to the two witnesses in v. 16) regarding congregational discipline, then it will be done for them by the Father. Third, Christ promises to be in the midst of those who gather for the purpose of disciplining a wayward brother.

Defining Disciplinable Offenses

Defining what constitutes a disciplinable offense is, perhaps, the trickiest part. Each situation is different, and the elders in each congregation must exercise careful wisdom and discernment. Never lose sight of the ultimate aim in the text: restoration of the wayward brother. Mark Dever offers several other practical benefits for practicing congregational discipline:

  1. For the Good of the Person Disciplined
  2. For the Good of the Other Christians, as They See the Danger of Sin
  3. For the Health of the Church as a Whole
  4. For the Corporate Witness of the Church
  5. For the Glory of God, as We Reflect His Holiness[57]

Scholars tend to categorize disciplinable offenses into broad categories. For instance, Kitchens posits the following four categories: (1) private and personal offenses that violate Christian love; (2) divisiveness and factions that destroy Christian unity; (3) moral and ethical deviations that break Christian standards; and (4) teaching false doctrine. Such categories can be helpful. However, they do not detail specific disciplinable offenses. This leads to the present-day dilemma: No one is clear about which sins rise to the level of discipline.[58] 

As such, the Apostle Paul provides specific commands to disassociate with certain persons on at least six occasions in Scripture. He commands the respective congregations not to associate (1 Cor 5:9; 2 Thess 3:14), to turn away (Rom 16:17), to reject (Titus 3:10), to keep away from (2 Thess 3:6), and to avoid (2 Tim 3:5) certain types of people. We also have an instance in which Paul himself “handed over to Satan” certain individuals (1 Tim 1:19–20). As well, Galatians 6:1 contains an inference to disciplinable offenses. While space prevents a detailed exposition of the above-mentioned passages, a few general observations might offer some guidance in defining specific disciplinable offenses.

Disciplinable Offenses in 1 Corinthians 5:1–13

A grievous situation arose in 1 Corinthians 5: A man committed sexual immorality with his father’s wife (1 Cor 5:1). Paul lamented that the Corinthian saints did not mourn over this wickedness (1 Cor 5:2). Then, he commanded them “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:5), indicating excommunication.[59] He later commands the congregation “not to associate” or “not even to eat” with a sinning brother (1 Cor 5:11). It remains unclear if the latter phrase refers to the Lord’s Supper or not. However, the phrase, “not to associate” (μὴ συναναμίγνυσθαι), means “to have no company with.”[60] Paul follows this command with a litany of vices defining what constitutes a sinning brother: the immoral,[61] covetous, idolater, reviler,[62] drunkard, or swindler.[63]

Thus, disciplinable offenses include this litany of vices. The elders of each local congregation will need to guide the members in defining more specific parameters based on the authority that Matthew 18:18 vests in the congregation.

Disciplinable Offenses in Romans 16:17–18

God divinely placed Romans 16:17–18 near the conclusion of the letter to the Romans. It is a warning to watch out for false teachers. Paul actually says to “avoid them” (ἐκκλίνετε ἀπʼ αὐτῶν) (Rom 16:17).[64] The particular sins of these heretics are that they create “divisions” (διχοστασίας)[65] and “obstacles” (σκάνδαλα).[66] Verse 18 declares these heretics do not serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thus, disciplinable offenses include these two types of sin: “divisions” and “obstacles.” Again, the elders of each local congregation will need to guide the members in defining more specific parameters of these two sins.

Disciplinable Offenses in 1 Timothy 1:19–20

The situation in 1 Timothy 1:19–20 is similar to the previous discussion in that it confronts two false teachers, Hymenaeus and Alexander. Their specific sin was blasphemy. The Apostle Paul states in this text that he handed them over (παρέδωκα) to Satan. Scholars debate the exact meaning of this phrase. However, it seems clear that the Apostle Paul is referring to some form of disciplinary action. Knight concludes, “Thus ‘delivering over to Satan’ is inextricably involved in putting a person out of the church fellowship (cf. Matt 18:17).”[67] Lea and Griffin iterate the same, “By excluding them from the fellowship of God’s people, Paul hoped that Satan’s affliction of the troublemakers would teach them not to insult the Lord by their words and deeds.”[68]

Thus, unrepentant blasphemy is a disciplinable offense. The elders of each local congregation will need to guide the members in defining more specific parameters.

Disciplinable Offenses in Titus 3:10

Titus 3:10 similarly addresses “one who stirs up division” (αἱρετικὸν), a Greek term which refers to a “division–maker.”[69] Lea and Griffin comment that the words heresy and heretic are derived from the term,[70] while Knight more specifically states that the term refers to those who follow the teachings described in verse 9. Those teachings include such things as foolish controversies, genealogies, and quarrels about the law.[71] The Apostle Paul commands to “have nothing more to do with him” (παραιτοῦ), a Greek term which “probably has the sense discharge, dismiss, drive out.”[72] 

Accordingly, disciplinable offenses include the above-mentioned types of factions. Once again, the elders of each local congregation will need to guide the members in defining more specific parameters based on the authority that Matthew 18:18 vests in the congregation.

Disciplinable Offenses in 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15

The sin addressed here is laziness. The Apostle Paul twice mentions how to deal with idle people. The first is to “keep away” (στέλλεσθαι) from them (2 Thess 3:6). Rogers and Rogers state:

The word originally meant “to get ready,” “to equip,” esp. in reference to equipping an army for an expedition or for sailing. Then it came to mean “to bring together” or “to gather up,” as for instance one gathers or tucks up clothes. From this comes the sense of an inner gathering-up or withdrawal, and so of flinching and avoiding. Here it is withdrawal from brethren who are out of step.[73]

The second is to “not associate” (μὴ συναναμίγνυσθαι) with them (2 Thess 3:14), the same word used with the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5.

The Apostle Paul had addressed idleness in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:11–12). Greene states, “Some members of the congregation continued the practice of not working but depending instead on others for their daily bread (2 Thess 3:11).”[74] Paul commands them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to withdraw from any brother “who is walking in idleness” (ἀτάκτως). Some versions translate “idleness” as “disorderly” (i.e., KJV). Tyndale renders it “inordinately.” Yet, the translation “idleness” captures the meaning nicely. Leon Morris explains:

“Disorderly” is the adverb from the same root as that which we examined in the note on “idle” (1 Thess 5:14). It shows us that the same people are in mind as in the former passage, and, that their offense was idleness. Paul speaks of the brother “that walketh disorderly” (REB “who falls into idle habits”); he is speaking of a continuing practice, not of an occasional offense.[75]

The nuance of idleness comes into sharper focus in the subsequent verses. Paul states the Thessalonians should follow his example of working night and day so as not to be a burden to them (2 Thess 3:7–9). He then states, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Paul later attacks those who won’t work, calling them “busybodies” (2 Thess 3:11). The obvious implication: stay away from idle, lazy, slothful people.

The Apostle’s precise command is, “You keep yourself away from” (στέλλεσθαι) such persons (2 Thess 3:6). He later adds the already familiar command to “not associate” (μὴ συναναμίγνυσθαι) (2 Thess 3:14) with such people.

Thus, idleness is a disciplinable offense. As always, the elders of each local congregation will need to guide the members in defining more specific parameters.

Disciplinable Offenses in 2 Timothy 3:1–5

The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, warning him of treacherous, ungodly behaviors in the last days.[76] Paul names certain types of persons to “avoid” (ἀποτρέπου) (2 Tim 3:5b), a term which appears only here in the New Testament. Bauer says the term means to “purposely avoid associating w. [sic] someone.”[77] Rogers and Rogers use more emphatic language, “The vb. [sic] is a strong one, implying that Timothy is to avoid them w. [sic] horror.”[78] The following three verses provide a list of eighteen types of people to avoid.

Verse 2 warns to avoid people who are lovers of self, lovers of money, proud (ἀλαζόνες),[79] arrogant (ὑπερήφανοι),[80] abusive (βλάσφημοι),[81] disobedient to parents, ungrateful (ἀχάριστοι),[82] and the unholy (ἀνόσιοι).[83] Verse 3 warns to avoid the heartless, unappeasable (ἄσπονδοι),[84] slanderous (διάβολοι),[85] without self–control, brutal (ἀνήμεροι),[86] and haters of good. Verse 4 warns to avoid the treacherous (προδόται),[87] reckless (προπετεῖς),[88] conceited (τετυφωμένοι),[89] and lovers of pleasure.

As such, disciplinable offenses include the above-mentioned types of sins. Of course, the elders of each local congregation will need to guide the members in defining more specific parameters based on the authority which Matthew 18:18 vests in the congregation.

Defining Church Discipline in the Court of Law

American society today seeks to wield power through lawsuits. Congregational discipline does open-up pastors—and the congregation—to certain liability risks, particularly when the discipline is done outside of established protocol. To wit, establishing proper protocol (and following it) becomes critical. Implementing certain safeguards can mitigate risk and, hopefully, avoid lawsuits altogether.[90] Three main legal theories are used against churches in most lawsuits: (1) invasion of privacy; (2) outrage (intentional infliction of emotional distress); and, (3) defamation.[91] Quine notes that in every case he read, which was allowed to go to through a jury trial, the jury decided against the church.[92] Therefore, Laney offers the following suggestions:

  1. Spell-out completely your beliefs in the church constitution or bylaws.
  2. Acquaint those seeking membership with the church constitution.
  3. Specify in the constitution: Members of the church have entered into a covenant to minister to one another’s spiritual needs, and since this relationship is entered by mutual consent with the church leaders and congregation, it also ends only by mutual consent.
  4. Refrain from publicizing information disclosed to the church leader in confidence.
  5. Respect the privacy of the one being disciplined.
  6. Refrain from publicizing the action outside the church family.
  7. Consider out-of-court settlements or alternative settlement means if a lawsuit is filed.[93]

Wayne House, a former professor of law, adds the following practical guidelines:

  1. Prepare church documents with an eye toward potential litigation.
  2. Prepare church members for church discipline by having them sign a statement detailing the church’s position (indicating their understanding of the moral, governmental, and doctrinal positions of the church, that they agree with these positions, and that they will submit to the spiritual authority of the church and its leadership).
  3. Follow the church’s standard consistently on all members to avoid potential allegations of discrimination.
  4. Be up-front and honest with potential plaintiffs.
  5. Consult an attorney.[94]

I should mention one other thought here. Some years ago, I worked for a law firm that defended employers in labor & employment litigation. I once had to subpoena a pastor: all notes, correspondences, emails, texts, etc. regarding a church member (the plaintiff). This alerted me to the implication for pastors: Anything reduced to writing (or on a device) could find its way into a court of law; and thus, into the public eye. Any documentation, therefore, should be exact, truthful, and factual. Remember, double-deleting items doesn’t delete them. Hard drives can be subpoenaed and deleted data can be extracted forensically. 

Conclusion

Holy Scripture clearly calls the congregation to be a covenant community in the truest sense of the phrase. Healthy congregations will practice congregational discipline and restoration with a specific aim: not excommunication, but restoration.

The 1689 Second London Baptist Confession recognized the great importance of congregational discipline (my modernized rendering follows):

To each of these congregations he has given all power and authority needful for their carrying out that command which he has written for them to observe in worship and discipline. Such power and authority align with his mind as declared in his Word, with commands and rules for the true and correct exercise and execution of that power (2 LBF 26.7, emphasis mine).[95]

Those wise Baptist divines also saw the ultimate aim as restoration. They even offered specific instructions on restoration (2 LBC 26.13), which included seeking godly counsel from sister congregations in difficult cases (2 LBC 26. 15).

May this new generation of pastors rediscover, anew, this critical mark of a healthy congregation. It will make your congregation so much healthier in so many other areas, too.


[1] Chipley McQueen Thornton, PhD, is Lead Pastor of First Baptist Church, Springville, Alabama.

[2] J. Carl Laney, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (O–D 1986): 357. See also J. Carl Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1985), 142, where Laney states, “The pastors sampled came from a broad spectrum of denominations and theological persuasions. The largest groups of respondents represented the following: United Methodist (70); Southern Baptist (61); those who simply labeled themselves ‘Baptist’ (46); Missouri Synod Lutheran (20); the American Lutheran Church (19); the Lutheran Church in America (18); those who simply identified themselves as ‘Lutheran’ (22); the Assemblies of God (21); no denomination indicated (61). . . . The remainder of the 439 surveys came from pastors of such denominations as the Wesleyan Church, Church of God, Free Methodist, Christian Church, Church of the Nazarene, Salvation Army, Moravian, Conservative Baptist, Seventh–Day Adventist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, Foursquare, Presbyterian Church in America, Church of Christ, General Association of Regular Baptists and many more.” Laney’s volume describes the survey at length on pages 140–150.

[3] Estella B. Horning, “The Rule of Christ: An Exposition of Matthew 18:15–20,” Brethren Life and Thought 38 (Spr. 1993), 69; R.T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1985), 269.

[4] Donald Hagner, Matthew, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33b (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 514.

[5] See Edward Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, trans. by David E. Green (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975), 358; R.T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew, 269; Estella Horning, “The Rule of Christ: An Exposition of Matthew 18:15–20,” 69–70; W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 2:750–51.

[6] Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, Holman New Testament Commentary, ed. Max Anders (Nashville: Holman Publishers, 2000), 285. Contra James L. Boyce, “Transformed for Disciple Community: Matthew in Pentecost,” Word and World, vol. 18, no. 3 (Sum 1993): 313. Boyce asserts the emphasis as the unifying theme of the “kingdom of heaven.”

[7] See Dennis Duling, “Matthew 18:15–17: Conflict, Confrontation, and Conflict Resolution in a ‘Fictive Kin’ Association,” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 37, pt. 1 (1998): 257.

[8] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:751.

[9] All Scripture references taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[10]  Ἐὰν δὲ plus the aorist subjunctive occurs nine times in Matthew 18:15–20. See Donald Hagner, Matthew, WBC, vol. 33b, 531. Hagner states, “Each of these clauses, except the last, introduces a potential situation and is followed in the apodosis by what is deemed the appropriate action.”

[11] See Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 367.

[12] Cleon Rogers, Jr. and Cleon Rogers, III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 41.

[13] Donald Hagner, Matthew, WBC, 530. See also William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 698. Hendriksen comments that the word “is of a very general nature.”

[14] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:782.

[15] See Hagner, Matthew, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 33b, 531; R.T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, 274; Craig Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary, vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 278; Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999), 452.

[16] See Bruce M. Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), 45.

[17] See R.T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew, 274; Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 268, where Harrington states, “This phrase is absent from many important manuscripts. It was probably a scribal addition under the influence of Matt 18:21.” See also Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:782, fn. 3; Hagner, Matthew, 529.

[18] See Craig Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary, 278; Robert Gundry, Matthew, 367; Ulrich Luz, Matthew, Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, trans. by James E. Crouch, ed. Helmut Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 451; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:782; Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 453, fn. 20.

[19] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 279.

[20] Robert Gundry, Matthew, 367.

[21] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 41. Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, 291, notes that the present tense implies a “gentle, patient series of confrontations.”

[22] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:783. See also Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 41. They add,  “the implication that there is adequate proof of wrongdoing.” Scholars note there may be an echo of Leviticus 19:17. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, 269, states, “The verb elegxon suggests the influence of the Septuagint text of Lev 19:17 (elegmo elegxeis). See D. A. Carson, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 8, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 402; Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution, 367; Donald Hagner, Matthew, WBC, vol. 33b, 530; Edward Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, 358.

[23] See Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:783; J. Carl Laney, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” 359; Donald Hagner, Matthew, WBC, vol. 33b, 530, notes the term has the sense of responding appropriately.

[24] Rogers and Rogers, Keys to the Greek New Testament, 41; Matthew K. Parackel, “Authority and Discipline,” Cummunio Viatorum 28, no. 3–4 (1985): 123.

[25] William Hendriksen, Matthew, 700, fn 658, states, “The Hebrew text of Deut. 19:15 literally reads, ‘Upon the mouth . . . of two witnesses or upon the mouth of three witnesses the matter shall stand.’ The Septuagint inserts ‘all.’ . . . Clearly Matthew’s slight variation is not of any material nature. The rule as expressed in Hebrew was meant to apply to every case. And Matthew’s ‘by the mouth of two witnesses or three’ is identical in meaning to the fuller Hebrew phrase.” See also Donald Hagner, Matthew, WBC, vol. 33b, 532.

[26] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. by William Pringle, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 355. Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, 292 states that reasons for the witnesses might be (1) to bring loving persuasion; (2) to prepare for the straying brother’s resistance; or, (3) to provide one or two moderators.

[27] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 41.

[28] See W. F. Albright, Matthew, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 220–221; Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:785; Donald Hagner, Matthew, WBC, vol. 33b, 532; Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, 268.

[29] D. A. Carson, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, 403; Contra Stephenson Brooks, Matthew’s Commentary: The Evidence of His Special Sayings (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 101. Brooks states, “The singular soi can only refer to the original brother described in v. 15.”

[30] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 358. D.A. Carson, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 403, states, “It is poor exegesis to turn to 8:1–11; 9:9–13; 15:21–28 and say that such people should be treated compassionately. The argument and the NT parallels (Rom 16:17; 2 Thess 3:14) show that Jesus has excommunication in mind.”

[31] Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 454; See also R.T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew, 275; Ulrich Luz, Hermeneia, 452; Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew (James Family Christian Publishers, Reprint), 254.

[32] J . Carl Laney, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” 362; See also Craig Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, v. 22, 279; James L. Boyce, “Transformed for Disciple Community: Matthew in Pentecost,” 313.

[33] See Donald Hagner, Matthew, WBC, vol. 33b, 532.

[34] Luz, Hermeneia, 452.

[35] Richard Hiers, “’Binding’ and ‘Loosing:’ The Matthean Authorizations,” The Journal of Biblical Literature 104 (Junee 1985): 233–35. Hiers ultimately concludes that the verse expands on Jesus’s authorization to exorcise demons by resolving whatever problems arise in the church.

[36] Hiers cites Z.W. Falk, “Binding and Loosing,” JJS 25 (1974) 92–100 as defending this view; yet, I were unable to find other reputable scholars who take this position.

[37] See R.T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew, 275; Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30, no. 6 (Dec 2003): 438–45; Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 2004), 620.

[38] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 280; George Wesley Buchanan, The Gospel of Matthew, The Mellen Biblical Commentary, vol. 1, book 2 (Lewiston: Mellen Biblical Press, 1996), 740;Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:787; Donald Hagner, Matthew, 532–33; Douglas Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 215; Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, 269; William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, 702; Robert Gundry, Matthew, 369; Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 454–455; Robert Mounce, Matthew, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 176–77;Frank Stagg, General Articles: Matthew–Mark, The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1969), 184; Weber, Matthew, 294.

[39] See John MacArthur, Matthew 16–23, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 137–38.

[40] Hiers cites A. Schweitzer and Bornkamm as defending this position. Again, I was unable to find any other reputable scholars who take this position.

[41] See John Emerton, “Binding and Loosing—Forgiving and Retaining,” Journal of Theological Studies 13 (Oct 1962): 325.

[42] Frank Stagg, General Articles: Matthew–Mark, 184.

[43] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 358. Emphasis original.

[44] Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary, 620.

[45] J. D. M. Derrett, “Binding and Loosing (Matt. 16:19, Matt. 18:18, John 20:23),” Journal of Biblical Literature 102 (Mar 1983): 116. Contra Herbert W. Basser, “Derrett’s ‘Binding’ Reopened,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104 (June 1985): 297–300.

[46] W.F. Albright, Matthew, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 221.

[47] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 281.

[48] J. D. M Derrett, “’Where Two or Three Are Convened in My Name . . .’: A Sad Misunderstanding,” Expository Times 91 (1979): 83–86.

[49] I located only one other scholar was found to support the view: Douglas Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, 215.

[50] Luz, Hermeneia, 458.

[51] D. A. Carson, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 403.

[52] Hendriksen, Matthew, 702.

[53] Weber, Matthew, 294.       

[54] Hendriksen, Matthew, 703.

[55] Robert Mounce, Matthew, 177.

[56] Davies and Allison, Matthew, 2:789–90.

[57] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 186–92. See also Herbert Bouman, “Biblical Presuppositions for Church Discipline,” Concordia Theological Monthly 30 (1959): 513–515.

[58] See Mark Littleton, “Church Discipline: A Remedy for What Ails the Body,” Christianity Today (May 8, 1981): 31.

[59] See Harold Mare, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1976), 217–18; Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1978), 99.

[60] Archibald Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament: Vol. IV, The Epistles of Paul (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1931), 115. This word is used only three times in the New Testament (1 Cor 5:9, 11; 2 Thess 3:14).

[61] BDAG, 855, defines this term as “one who practices sexual immorality.”

[62] Rogers and Rogers, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the New Testament, 358, define this term) as “one who attacks another with abusive language.”

[63] BDAG, 134, defines this term as a “robber”.

[64] Rogers and Rogers, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the New Testament, 345, state that this term means “to come away from someone, to shun, to avoid.”

[65] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 345. This term means division, offense, cause of stumbling.

[66] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 539, fn. 49, states that this term refers to “the bait stick of a trap, and then trouble generally.”

[67] George Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1992), 111.

[68] Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 81.

[69] Lea and Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, NAC., 28.

[70] Lea and Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, NAC, 328.

[71] Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, 354, states, “The law in view here is undoubtedly the OT law, with which the false teachers were especially concerned (1 Tim 1:7ff.).”

[72] BDAG, 764. Emphasis original.

[73] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 485. See also BDAG, 942. Bauer cites the term as meaning “to keep one’s distance, keep away, stand aloof.”

[74] Gene Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2002), 341.

[75] Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1991), 253.

[76] Lea and Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, 223, speak of the term “the last days” as referring to the time of Christ’s completion of redemption until his return. Naturally, this would include Timothy’s day as well as ours.

[77] BDAG, 124.

[78] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504.

[79] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504. This term means a boaster or bragger.

[80] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504. This term means haughty, arrogant, or one who shows himself above his fellow.

[81] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504. This term means abusive speech or slanderer.

[82] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504. This term means not thankful or not grateful.

[83] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504. This term may also mean wicked.

[84] BDAG, 145, states that it refers to “one who is unwilling to negotiate a solution to a problem involving a second party.”

[85] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504, say, “Those who promote quarrels in hope that they may gain from them.”

[86] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504. This term means not tamed, uncivilized fear, or savage.

[87] Rogers and Rogers, Key to the Greek New Testament, 504. Rogers and Rogers state, “This term was used of one who is a traitor to his oath or one who abandons another in danger.”

[88] BDAG, 873. This term means rash, reckless, or thoughtless.

[89] BDAG, 873. This term means to be puffed up.

[90] Jay A. Quine is the pastor of Van Alstyne Bible Church, Van Alstyne, Texas. He is a former Municipal Court Judge and a former Deputy Prosecutor in Colfax, Washington. Quine has written an excellent two–part article on Court involvement regarding church discipline. See Jay A. Quine, “Court Involvement in Church Discipline,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149 (Ja–Mr 1992), 60–73; Jay A. Quine, “Court Involvement in Church Discipline,” Bibliotheca Sacra 149 (Ap–Je 1992), 223–36.

[91] Quine, “Church Discipline” (Ja–Mr 1992), 67.

[92] See JQuine, “ Church Discipline” (Ap–Je 1992), 236, fn. 41.

[93] J. Carl Laney, “Church Discipline Without a Lawsuit,” Christianity Today 28, no. 16 (W9 1984): 76.

[94] Wayne House, “Church Discipline and the Courts,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 4, no. 4 (Winter 2000), 70–72. At the time his article was written, House was the Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies and Apologetics at Faith Seminary, Tacoma, Washington, and Adjunct Professor of Law at Trinity International University.

[95] The Confession cites the following Scripture references: Matthew 18:17–18; 1 Corinthians 5:4–5; 1 Corinthians 5:13; and, 2 Corinthians 2:6–8.

Author 47f1e-penonpaper

Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.