It’s one of the most avoided subjects in church discussions. We don’t want to talk about it because we don’t know how to deal with it. How strict should we be when a believer needs discipline?
We are not talking about having discipline to complete a task. This is about discipline when there is a behavioral issue in the church. But most people don’t accept discipline well. If they fall under discipline they just leave the church and find another one.
But if we never accept discipline for our mistakes, sins, and other issues that call for discipline in the church, we will never grow beyond a certain point as a believer. Discipline is good for us. Jesus put it in place for a reason.
So let’s look at one of the harder issues in the church. Why do we need discipline in the church? I hope you will be more comfortable with church discipline as we take a closer look.
We Need Discipline
Imagine what it would be like if parents never disciplined their children. That wouldn’t be very loving. Children without discipline continue to misbehave. They become entitled and think they are above the law.
God loves the children he disciplines (Hebrews 12:7-8). If he didn’t love us he would let us continue sinning and doing things that displease him. When you think about it that way, church discipline is a must and shows us God’s love.
No discipline feels good at the time (Hebrews 12:11). But if we let each other continue in disruptive behavior and misdeeds, we show others that we are unconcerned about sinful behavior.
Don’t confuse the Church on earth with heaven. Here on earth we gather together as imperfect human beings listening to the Holy Spirit and obediently working toward holiness. But none of us is there yet. We make mistakes. We offend one another. And sometimes we need correction.
There are several reasons we need church discipline. It creates a space for us to evaluate ourselves and place ourselves before more mature Christians. They have our best interests at heart when they must address us with discipline.
One reason we need church discipline is disagreements among us. Sometimes they are doctrinal and other times they are practical. We don’t always get along. Paul has several disagreements throughout the New Testament.
The book of Acts shows a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas concerning their missionary journeys together (Acts 15:36-41). They had taken John Mark with them but at one point he had abandoned them on the field (Acts 13:13). Barnabas wanted to give John Mark a second chance but Paul would have none of it.
They ended up separating from the joint work on the mission field. Paul took Silas and Barnabas took John Mark. Perhaps Paul was young in his leadership but he must have had a reason for rejecting John Mark. Barnabas was more forgiving and gave him another chance. But don’t give up on Paul. Late in his ministry he called for John Mark to come and minister to him while under house arrest (2 Timothy 4:11).
Paul also had a disagreement with Peter in Galatia. False teachers called Judaizers followed Paul around in his ministry. They believed he was not preaching the gospel because he did not preach circumcision. The Judaizers believed that Christians must accept part of the Mosaic Law. But Paul preached that we only need Christ.
When they visited Paul in Galatia and Peter was with them, he did not eat with the Gentile Christians. He may have been afraid of the influence of the Judaizers in early church history. Not wanting to offend them he offended all of the Gentile Christians.
Paul took his actions to heart and addressed him openly (Galatians 2:11-14). In this case Paul was in the right. Peter should not have rejected one group of Christians for another. Perhaps he was more comfortable with Jewish Christians. But it was more likely he didn’t want to upset the Judaizers.
Sometimes in our disagreements we realize that we have been the offender. Without realizing it we have violated Christian doctrine or practice. No one wants to be a rebel. But the disagreement between Paul and Peter set Peter on the right path again. Disagreements can be helpful in keeping us right before God.
But through our disagreements and the righteous way we approach them we can be sure we are following the proper doctrines and practices for Christians. Disagreements and arguments can help us. But sometimes there needs to be discipline when we are on the wrong side of the disagreement.
Jesus introduces another reason for church discipline. It’s possible for one believer to offend another. Whatever the offense may be Jesus gives us a way to forgive one another and be right before God (Matthew 5:23-24). We must get right with one another and forgive before God will accept our offering of praise and worship.
Offenses against other believers hinder our worship. It keeps us from fellowship with one another and God (1 John 1:5-10). Through confession and forgiveness (James 5:16) we can be restored to fellowship with one another.
Christians should not be easily offended. We must pursue grace and peace. We cannot love each other if we offend one another. Sin should offend us. But our personality conflicts, disagreements, and unique tendencies should not.
We must learn to love one another and live together in community. Maintain unity in the body of Christ. Jesus brings diverse people together. The things about us that are different should bring flavor to our churches. We can learn from different perspectives.
Sometimes these offenses must be dealt with through Jesus’ process of discipline when we cannot find the middle ground. Serious offenses can rise up among us, especially if we allow the world to influence us more than we are influencing the world.
We must not bring worldly attitudes and issues into the church. We can discuss them if we are mature in Christ. Don’t allow the world to be the reason you are offended by another Christian. Deal with offenses through the proper channels of church discipline.
Confess to one another and forgive one another. Unforgiveness is not worth your eternity. Jesus says that those who don’t forgive one another will not be forgiven by the Father (Matthew 6:15). Unforgiveness is a serious offense to God.
Finally, personality conflicts can happen among believers. Let’s face it. There are some personalities that clash no matter what you do. We try to make peace with one another but this is not always possible.
When these personalities come in conflict we must find ways to get along. Sometimes that means these people must not be in the same groups in the church.
But only through church discipline, through coming to leadership or finding accountability that keeps us from fighting with one another, can we solve these issues. When two strong personalities meet we must keep from destroying the unity and peace we have together.
Paul had a strong and bold personality. There were times he clashed with other apostles and believers. Paul had a hard head and thick skin. He had no problem addressing something he saw as wrong. When such strong personalities get together there can be fireworks.
If you experience personality conflict with someone else do whatever you can to live at peace. If the situation cannot be resolved spend time with other believers. Forgive the other person even if you think they are wrong. After all, Jesus is the Judge and only he can properly deal with differences and personalities.
Jesus’ Process for Discipline
Jesus foresaw the future of the Church he was building. He wisely knew that we would need a system of discipline for all of these reasons. In Matthew 18:15-20 he presented a tiered approach to dealing with sin and everything else that would cause dissension among us.
The first step of discipline in the Church is the one-on-one approach. Jesus calls us to first deal with the offense personally. But we often tell our problems to people who aren’t involved. They only get one side of the story. And they usually side with us. But that is not how Jesus designed our approach toward reconciliation.
When we go to the person who offended us, our approach keeps our offender’s reputation intact. It gives that person the ability to deal with a situation they may not even know had occurred. Sometimes we become offended by things that should not be offensive to us.
Our offender may not even know that they have offended us. They may not see it as an offense. They may not even know they bothered us at all. So if we do not keep the matter personal and address them one-on-one that have no chance to even know about it, let alone address the situation.
Addressing the matter personally and quickly keeps us and them from not being able to worship God in fellowship with other believers. Sin and offense separate us and cause us to feel like we don’t belong. So dealing with the issue quickly returns us to the community. Sometimes we physically withdraw from the church for a while. But many times we feel like we don’t belong.
But what if we address the situation and the offender does not apologize or ask forgiveness? First, we should have already forgiven the person for the offense. But we must follow the next step Jesus gives.
The second step of discipline when one-on-one approaches fail is to bring wise counsel my seeking the help of an intercessor. When one-on-one approaches fail to resolve the offense, for our health and the health of our offender, we bring the matter before one or two other Christians.
The intercessors must be mature Christians who are able to handle the offense with love and wisdom. The pastor and elders of the church may be the best candidates for this second approach. Go to them and tell them of the offense before your offender.
Allow them to deliberate, ask questions, and find out both sides of the story. They will be able to provide counsel and wisdom, as well as disciplining your offender or helping you to understand whether or not it was an offense.
Even after these first two steps, your offender may not listen to you or to the wise counsel of the pastor and elders of the church. You have only one option left.
If these first two steps fail, the offended person should bring the issue before the entire church. This is the last resort approach. These steps are not meant to give you power over your offender or shame your offender into restoring the relationship. This final step ensures that righteousness and justice are carried out.
This is the most public approach to discipline. The whole church can hear the matter and decide how to proceed. The worst thing that can happen to your offender is discipline that will save the offender in the end.
Paul writes to the church in Corinth about a report he has heard concerning a young man who is sleeping with his mother-in-law. Paul says this is an abomination even the world does not practice. And the man is proud of it (1 Corinthians 5:1-6).
You might think Paul is extremely abrasive in his approach to this young man. But the offense is so great that the whole church is made aware of it. They seem to already know it’s going on and no one has done anything about it.
So Paul reacts, telling them to send the young man out of their fellowship. But do not be too alarmed. This harsh treatment was exactly what the Holy Spirit ordered. By the time Paul writes Second Corinthians, he reconciles the young man (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Paul tells the church to invite him back in to their fellowship because he has been repentant.
Even at this last resort of making it public before the whole church our relationship can be restored with our offender. But we must follow these steps or we’re not following Jesus’ process for healing us from the offenses we cause amongst ourselves.
How to React
So what if another believer sins against you or offends you in some way? Or what if you’re the person someone walks up to you and says, “You have sinned against me”? I have had people walk up to me and tell me I offended them in some way. To me it felt like a personal attack.
Sometimes you get broadsided by a person who is offended by something you said. I once told a joke everyone laughed at and one of the people standing beside me who laughed at the joke later told me he was extremely offended by it. Before I apologized to him, I asked him, “If you were so offended why did you laugh at the joke?” He had no answer. I felt like he just wanted to get an apology out of the pastor. But I gave it anyway.
Let me start with how to react if you are the offender like I was. I could have told this person I didn’t believe they were truly offended. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do. We should take everything we are told as in offender seriously.
First, in the moment we are accused we need to be humble. Don’t blow off every accusation. You don’t know if you have truly offended and affected someone. So be humble in the moment and address the situation kindly and seriously. Genuinely be sorry even if you had no idea you offended someone.
In our current culture climate people are offended by the smallest things. Sometimes our culture spills over into the church. We don’t know the true feelings of someone if they say we have offended them, so we take them at their word.
Apologize for the offense. Sometimes you won’t remember what you said or did because you didn’t think it was offensive. If you discern this is not a true fence to the person accusing you, address it with that person one-on-one as Jesus taught.
Second, be teachable through the process Jesus has laid out for reconciliation. If you offend someone, go through the process of restoration of your relationship. We are all believers in Jesus, brothers and sisters in Christ.
Because we are part of God’s family we unconditionally love one another and want to be right with one another. Even if this issue goes to the second and third level obey the church leadership and follow the recommendations and requirements.
You will have hurt feelings about the whole thing. You will be upset. But through prayer and consultation with others healing can happen for everyone involved. Jesus still loves you and you are still his child. Never forget that through the process.
Now, if you are the one offended, your reaction to the offense must be measured. Don’t overreact to what has happened to you. You will feel slighted and offended at what has happened. You will want to get justice for yourself.
But remember what the Bible teaches about vengeance. It belongs to the Lord and he will carry it out on our behalf (Romans 12:19). He fights for us when we are offended. We must rely on him to deal with the offense.
At the same time, you must go through the system of discipline Jesus laid out properly. Don’t gossip or tell other people about this offense. Address your offender one-on-one. And based on the reaction continue through the process. If they apologize, forgive them and do your best to live at peace with them.
Seek restoration above all things. As I said earlier, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. It could be that they had no idea they even offended you, as in my case. You may be sensitive to something said or done because of your background.
Those who counsel and intercede with you and your offender may teach you that the offender did not scripturally offend you. Be open to their counsel. We all have something to learn when we are offended.
Whether you are the offender or the offendee we all have a few goals in mind. First, we want peace between us and all saints in the Church. Jesus died to bring us peace and unity. The Holy Spirit wants to minister to us so we have unity in the body of Christ.
We must do our best on our end to achieve peace and unity. We don’t always end up with peace between brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes the offense is too traumatic for one of them and while they forgive one another they have not been able to regain trust or complete restoration. In such cases, it is not wrong or unwise to unconditionally love one another but still have boundaries.
In the best circumstances when each person can forgive the other we can achieve reconciliation. Paul talks about the ministry of reconciliation and its importance to the body of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). Inasmuch as it is possible with us we must reconcile with our brother or sister in Christ. We must not allow Satan inroads into the Church or our hearts.
Sometimes the reconciliation is one-sided. The offender may not apologize and we have to live with forgiving others without receiving the apology and a full, peaceable reconciliation. It’s possible that we may apologize as the offender and not receive forgiveness from the other person. In such cases, we must make as much peace as possible, at least on our side.
Whatever has been hurt, we must finally have the goal of restoration. That may mean that we are the only person who is restored. But if it is possible for two people to get along, especially in the Church, we must make that our goal.
The Holy Spirit helps us much in the areas of restoration and reconciliation. He can bring restoration and forgiveness to our situation. We must listen to him and trust that he knows how to restore our souls and hearts. Follow the Holy Spirit’s lead in all things. It may take time, but he will lead you into restoration.
When you offend someone or are offended by someone in the body of Christ, there is a lot involved. We seek holiness and wholeness as Christians. You may not ever imagine yourself in this situation. But as a pastor I can tell you it happens more often than you may think.
As long as we maintain these guidelines as the foundation of restoration in offenses against one another, the Holy Spirit can do his great work of reconciliation and restoration between us. We must not minimize the offense or overreact.
We must be measured in our responses toward one another. Let peace and love reign in the body of Christ despite offenses. How do you respond in these situations?