Church Discipline
By Paul Robison

One brother states: “To be ‘blameless and harmless children of God [without fault’, as Philippians 2:15 describes,] is a much needed goal for motivating interest in church discipline.  Unless we try to be God’s blameless beloved children in His church family, we will fail to discipline each other as we should. … We should think of church discipline as our heavenly Father’s loving discipline of His children in His church family.  If we lack responsible family fellowship and mutual family discipline, we lack the love that proves us to be God’s children” (Usrey).  Another brother made this observation: “Church discipline is a family matter.  It involves only the family, and it involves all the family.  It is the loving way to respond to those who refuse to obey the will of the Heavenly Father. … For a family to ignore and tolerate wrong doing among its members is not a sign of love.  It is irresponsibility.  You do not love a brother if you let him go to hell rather than discipline him out of his sin.  Some are so short-sighted they refuse to administer the momentary sorrow of discipline and hence allow a sister to be eternally damned. … When one receives discipline, it is because brothers and sisters in the church regard him or her as a special person” (Jividen).  Another brother laments that we have failed to restore the New Testament church with regards to discipline: “The time is ripe for some serious soul-searching, congregation by congregation.  Most church families are so lax regarding spiritual discipline that we have compounded the scandal of sin by the scandal of indifference.  Right now would be a good time to have a family meeting and talk about this public disgrace.  Our lampstands are as tarnished as our reputations.  For the moment, forget the notorious sinners among us.  We who have neglected our duty to exercise biblical discipline are the ones who first need to repent” (F. L. Smith)!

As we can see from these introductory statements, the topic of church discipline is not popular, and the practice of church discipline is almost dead.  In a society that is trained to exalt tolerance and privacy, church discipline is scoffed and ridiculed as meddling in matters where nobody has any business or rights to be making judgments about someone’s behaviors.  This attitude was clearly manifested by the courts and the press when Marian Guinn sued the Collinsville Church of Christ in 1984 for invasion of privacy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.  “Blind to the spiritual implications of biblical disfellowshiping, all the court in the Guinn case could see was a technical line between membership and non-membership” (F. L. Smith).  While most people in the world think that it’s none of the church’s business to scrutinize a person’s conduct, we know from the Scriptures that saving brothers and sisters from spiritual peril is the church’s very real business!  Before we look specifically at our text, let’s remember the broader context for the letter of 2 Thessalonians. 

We remember from a previous lesson, that the Thessalonian congregation was composed mainly of Gentile converts, who lived in an environment of hostile Jews.  Paul had to leave this group hurriedly, but Timothy remained to work with them some more.  It is a congregation that has not been established for long, and Timothy’s report in the first letter is that they are standing firm despite the persecutions (1 Thess. 3:6-8).  Since Corinth is the only place where Paul, Silas, and Timothy were together before Paul makes another visit to Thessalonica, this second letter must have been written shortly after the first one—some commentators say a few weeks, and some say a few months.  One commentator observes: “It is simply a second prescription for the same case, made after discovering that some certain stubborn symptoms had not yet yielded to the first treatment” (Walker quoted in Morris).  A good two word summary might be “Be diligent!” or “Be industrious!”  With this background in mind, let’s look at several aspects of church discipline found in chapter 3.

First of all, we hear a command for withdrawal.  Verse 6 states: “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.”  To our modern ears this might sound rather harsh, but let's remember how much more lenient this practice is than what was commanded to offenders in the Old Testament.  In Lev. 24:10ff, we read of one who blasphemed God's name, and the penalty for this sin was death by stoning, done by all the congregation!  In the Gospels, John makes mention of two groups who could be put out of the synagogue for their actions (John 9:22; 12:42).  The Jews had three types of expulsion: one type lasted for a month, one for an indefinite period of time, and one was permanent, for all time (Study Bible).  During the expulsion period, the faithful Jews could not do business with those who had been expelled.  Perhaps the threat of disfellowship means so little among us because the joy of fellowship means so little to us as well.  Our time spent around the Lord's table is about 15 minutes maximum, and our time with each other throughout the week totals about 2 hours and 45 minutes.  Now, I ask you, if I spent only 3 hours a week with my wife, could I build a very close relationship with her?  The New Testament doesn't give us a specific number of hours that we are to meet and to be together, but it does show that the early Christians spent much time in each others' lives.  This closeness is why withdrawal of fellowship would have had such a bite to it for those who were sinning.  Someone else puts it this way: “Of course, if withdrawing ... fellowship is going to have the desired effect, there must have been an enviable ongoing ... fellowship to begin with.  What hope do we today have of sending a message like that when ... fellowship is so woefully out of vogue” (F. L. Smith)?  Let's now note several other interesting features in this passage.  Paul's command is “not simply a suggestion, but it is a binding order under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Study Bible).  The word for command is a military term, and members who disobey the command would be guilty of treason.  The word “disorderly” also is a military term meaning to march out of step or to march without conforming to the regimen (Clarke).  Those members who are idle and are being busybodies are not living according to God's will.  “The present tense of the verb walks (meaning ‘lives’) denotes that it is a deliberate course of action. Their disorderly conduct is not an occasional lapse but a persistent practice” (Hiebert).  “Paul ... defines 'disorderly' as those who do not walk according to the tradition (the pattern of teaching and living) Paul and the apostles [had given to the church in Thessalonica]” (Guzik).  Back in The Dark Ages when I was a child and discipline was practiced, my father might tell me at times: “Son, leave the table until you can straighten up!”  He made that statement for my own good and for the good of others in the family.  Now withdrawal is similar; only all Christians in the congregation say to a sinful brother or sister: “We are all leaving the table until you straighten up!”  One commentator puts it this way: “We cease to have fellowship with him.  We do not regard him any longer as a Christian brother.  We separate from him.  We do not seek to affect him in any other respect; we do not injure his name or standing as a man, or hold him up to reprobation; we do not follow him with denunciation or a spirit of revenge; we simply cease to recognize him as a Christian brother, when he shows that he is no longer worthy to be regarded as such” (Barnes).  We have seen the command for withdrawal.

Now let's notice the history behind withdrawal in verses 7-12: “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone's bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us.  For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: ‘If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.’  For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies.  Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread.”  Paul's command to withdraw from those living in a disorderly way was not one made quickly.  We see there is some history behind this command.  When Paul was working with the church in Thessalonica, there was already a tendency for some members towards idleness.  So Paul taught them a simple rule: “Those who don't work, should not eat.”  Isn't it interesting that when God created the world, Adam was required by God to work in the Garden of Eden in order to have his food?  This was a part of God's good creation that existed before Adam sinned.  Paul and his companions had also set good examples as industrious workers before the brethren in Thessalonica.  They did not mooch off of anybody but worked diligently so they could teach members by their examples.  Then, we know that Paul urged these brethren in his first letter “to work with your own hands, as we commanded you” (1 Thess. 4:10-12).  Even though Paul made this command in his last letter, some brethren had not taken it heart and put it into practice.  In fact, instead of becoming busy to earn their own living, they had become busybodies and were probably mooching off other members for their food.  So Paul once again commands them to work in quietness and make their own living in this letter.  So we see how Paul has time and again tried to get those who were idle to change their ways: public teaching, personal example, teaching by letters, second chances.  Paul had been very patient with these people; he had given them at least three chances over some time to repent.  May we do the same when it comes to church discipline.  We should not be hasty, and like Paul, we should try several methods and repeated attempts to try to get members to see the error of their ways before we practice withdrawal from them.  If we do not have a history behind our withdrawal, maybe we need to make some more attempts so that we can be sure that the sinner knows what he is to do, and we see that he has stubbornly refused to live in conformity to Christ's will.  We saw that there was a history behind withdrawal.

Next, we find an encouragement towards withdrawal.  Look at verse 13: “But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good.”  Now church discipline is never easy.  Not only does it take patience, as we've just seen, but also it takes courage, wisdom, and humility.  “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).  Now notice something else here: Paul encourages ALL the sound brethren to work at this endeavor.  He does not call on the elders or the preacher.  This is something that involves the whole family.  They all are going to have to leave the table together if they ever hope to shake their erring members.  One commentator puts it this way: “Paul is urging the Thessalonians to do that which is excellent and good, that which accords with God's will [even though it will be difficult.  They are not to become weary during this process.]  They are never to let opposition from without nor disorderly conduct on the part of some members [from within] cause them to lose heart in doing the honorable thing” (Kelcey).  Did your parents ever make that crazy statement when disciplining you: “This sure hurts me more than it does you”?  Church discipline is never easy if true fellowship and love have untied our family in the Lord.  It will not be easy for all of us to act together in trying to shake those who have persisted in their errors.  But Paul spurs us on with his words: “Do not grow weary in doing good!”  Here is an encouragement towards withdrawal.

Next, we discover the important purpose for withdrawal.  Look at verse 14: “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.”  “Do not keep company” literally means “Don't mix yourselves together with this person.”  “All social intercourse, visitation, and companioning with the offenders must cease” (Coffman).  Now note this purpose of our leaving the table: “that he may be ashamed.”  Here is the goal of the whole church's cutting off interaction—it is to help the person see his stubborn sinfulness.  One commentator put it this way: “The disciplinary acts are thus to be viewed as means whereby they may be brought to repentance. Paul hopes that the disapproval shown by faithful Christians will cause the disorderly ones to see their true state and will lead them to be ashamed of their conduct.  [This is much like the time when the prodigal son who finally “came to himself” in Luke 15:17--he realistically assessed his sorry state and then remembered the joys of his family that he had in the past.]  Paul always has uppermost in mind the restoration of the offender” (Kelcey).  Our withdrawal is not only to show the society around us that we do not approve of the person's actions but also it is to convince the sinful brother of the error of his ways and his need to live in conformity once again with Christ's teachings.  The purpose is repentance!

Next, we find the attitude that should be displayed during withdrawal.  Look at verse 15: “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”  This attitude is where those who practice the withdrawal can often go astray themselves.  One commentator puts it this way: “The enforcement of discipline is a difficult matter.  It is easy for [members] to become [condemning] and unnecessarily harsh in the process.  Paul's words are directed against any such eventuality. ... They are to be far from treating the offender as an enemy. ... It is the rebuke of a friend. ... [We see here] the steady refusal to have any truck with the evil [behavior], and a genuine concern for the well-being of the wrongdoer” (Morris).  Yes, the sin must be brought home to the erring, but “it is done entirely in the spirit of love, with a tender concern for the welfare of the one being disciplined.  It is reclamation, not the purging of the flock, that is in mind” (Morris).   One brother has observed: “As long as we continue to tolerate 'sin in the camp,' our boasting about how loving and spiritual we are only disguises the truth: how very unloving and unspiritually-minded we have become” (F. L. Smith).  An attitude of caring, even during withdrawal, is underscored by Paul.

But how does this passage relate to other passages that deal with discipline like Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-8?  Let's consider quickly the broader context of withdrawal.  Time will not permit a careful reading of these two passages, so please read them yourself during you own private study.  One commentator's remarks on these two passages were very interesting.  With regards to Matthew 18:15-17, he states: “The Jews gave the name heathen or Gentile to all other nations but themselves.  With them, they had no religious intercourse or communion.  Publicans were men of abandoned character, and the Jews would have no intercourse with them.  The meaning of this is, cease to have religious intercourse with him, to acknowledge him as a brother.  Regard him as obstinate, self-willed, and guilty.  It does not mean that we should cease to show kindness to him, and aid him in affliction or trial; for this is required towards all men; but it means that we should disown him as a Christian brother, and treat him as we do other men not connected with the church. ... This is the only way of kindness.  This is the only way to preserve peace and purity in the church” (Barnes).  With regards to 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, he states: “... the offender was in some sense placed under the control of Satan.  It is further evident, that it is here supposed that by being thus placed under him, the offender would be subject to corporal inflictions by the agency of Satan, which are here called the ‘destruction of the flesh.’  Satan is elsewhere referred to as the author of bodily diseases. ... It may be observed here, that though this was to be done by the concurrence of the church, as having a right to administer discipline, yet it was directed by apostolic authority; and there is no evidence that this was the usual form of excommunication, nor ought it now to be used.  There was evidently miraculous power evinced in this case, and that power has long since ceased in the church” (Barnes).  If these explanations are true, there are absolutely no contradictions between these passages and the one we studied in Thessalonians today.  In fact, they all harmonize and point towards the same practices and purposes.

During this week, I heard a wonderful prayer said while visiting in someone's home.  I cannot quote it precisely, but his gist of the prayer was this: “Lord, thank you for helping us to get through some difficult times together.  I hope my relative will realize how much he has strengthened me, and I hope that I have been a strength to him as well.  God, we thank You for such families, and that they can function in this way.”  This prayer captures the spirit of how we should approach church discipline.  The purpose is to strengthen sinful members and bring them to repentance.  Another brother made this good observation: “All the teaching and preaching in the world is not going to be very effective in combating the present flood of immorality in the church until discipline is practiced in order to put teeth into the message.  To say one thing and do another is hypocrisy.  Too often a church believes in discipline but fails to practice it.  Faith without works is still dead” (Jividen).  “Church discipline safeguards the purity of the church and also glorifies God.  When we must practice it, let’s be sure that our motives are right and the ultimate redemptive purpose is never lost” (adapted from Kirby).  Sin is serious business before God.  Don’t try to deceive Him for He will not be mocked.  Are our lampstands as tarnished as our reputations?  Do we need to pray for more courage, wisdom, and humility to practice church discipline?