Sunday, September 8, 2019

Church Discipline

How should “erring” brothers and sisters1 be treated in a Christian community of faith that uses the Bible as a guide for life? Jesus followers and early Christians2 were scarcely consistent on this issue. I stumbled across the problem of church discipline in Baptist Bible Study one recent Sunday morning. We were discussing Titus chapter three (one of the Pastoral letters—First and Second Timothy being the other two) when the problem surfaced:

As for a man who is factious3 after admonishing him once or twice have nothing more to do with him (Titus 3:10 RSV; compare 2 Tim 2:23-26; 2 Thess 3:14-15).

This statement seems to evoke the practice of shunning. As far as I know shunning is not something that is practiced today in those mainstream Protestant churches that emerged out of the reformation. Some religious groups, however, do practice shunning as a form of religious community discipline.4 As I understand the practice of shunning, the excommunicated/shunned person may still live in the community but no one will have anything to do with him or her. This advice by the author of Titus (called the “Pastor”) seems to be an informal process, rather than an official act of the community, however.

            The passage that is best known is Matt 18:15-17, but recommends a different and more formal practice in dealing with erring brothers and sisters:

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. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (RSV; see also 1 Tim 6:19-20).

This form of official discipline also seems to end in shunning. In ancient Judaism a proper member of the community would not associate with Gentiles or tax collectors.

            Paul, on the other hand, is somewhat more callous in 1 Cor 5:1-5. Here are his final statements on the situation in the passage: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:2, RSV; i.e., put him/her out of the community), he writes to the church. And adds further: “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5, RSV; see also 1 Tim 1:20, and similarly in Galatians 1:6-9). He does sound more compassionate in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (RSV; and similarly in James 5:19-20), but, alas, it is not how he treated the brother in 1 Cor 5:1-5 (quoted above).

            Suppose you were the one considered by others in the community to have erred in some way; how are you supposed to act? The principle stated in Matt 5:23-26 offers some guidance:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24, RSV).

If you are the erring brother or sister the principle reflected in this passage puts the responsibility for reconciliation on you rather than your accuser.

            The word “discipline” in English is generally used with an emphasis on control or punishment. Meanings of the word include “to punish or penalize for the sake of discipline”; “to train or develop by instruction and exercise”; “to bring (a group) under control”; “to impose order upon.” Hence, a “disciplinarian,” is “one who disciplines or imposes order.”

The basic goal of these passages in the New Testament related to discipline in the community of faith can be summed up as being for the purposes of punishment and group control—even though Paul states that it is for therapeutic purposes (1 Cor 5:5). One would have hoped that the practices of the community would have better characterized it as a center of healing and reconciliation, much as Paul envisioned in Gal 3:28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (RSV; compare 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11).

The church as a center of reconciliation and healing remains an ideal to be pursued but it is scarcely a goal that can ever be achieved.

            At its base church discipline in the early gatherings of faith was an attempt at controlling the thinking of members of the community (Phil 4:2-3; 1 Tim 6:20-21; 2 Tim 3:8-9; 2 Tim 4:14-15; Heb 13:17), and it appears that it was no more successful then than it is now.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Those who disagree with the accepted views of the community may not think they are guilty of error, however.
2They are not the same thing.
3The Greek word translated by “factious,” (airetikos), according to the lexicon, relates to causing divisions, and is the adjective related to airesis “party, school, faction, or heresy.”
4For example, the Mennonites and the Amish.