church unity by church discipline

Church Unity by Church Discipline: Matthew 18:12-20

Sin is the most devastating thing. Sin is the most devastating thing, Christian, because of its power to destroy your life. Today, sin is devouring people left and right.  Sin destroys unity, sin destroys peace, sin destroys friendships, sin destroys marriages, sin divides households, and sin even splits churches and splinters entire denominations. In fact, every divorce, every broken home, every rebellious teenager, every church split, every denominational divide, and every war has its root in sin (James 4:1-2).

Sin is a most devastating thing! Take sinful words for an example: sinful words pierce like a sword (Prov 12:18), sting like a poisonous serpent (Rom 3:13) and have the potential to destroy whole forests with only a spark (James 3:1-8). This is what the Bible says about just one kind of sin—sin of the mouth—and there are hundreds more. Isn’t sin the most devastating thing?

There is no avoiding it, sin has a devastating effect on the unity and the purity of the church. But does it have to? Do we know where to go and what to do when sin is destroying the purity of a life and, by extension, a church? Consider this…

“The primary concerns that Jesus Christ has for his body are its purity (Ephesians 5:25–27) and its unity, and neither of those can exist where the process in Matthew 18 is not practiced. That is because the obstacles to purity and unity are sin and conflict, and those maladies can not be cured without the medicine of loving, biblical confrontation.” (Wayne Mack and Dave Swavely, Life in the Father’s House, 165)

So let’s hit Matthew 18. You can hang your thoughts on three main points: 1) The Setting, 2) The Steps, and 3) The Supports.

1. The Setting: Matthew 18:12-14

Before Jesus gives us the famous four steps in Matthew 18:15ff, he tells us a shepherding story about a lost sheep, and in doing so he provides a picture for us of how a good shepherd’s heart is turned in the direction of his lost sheep, even leaving his remaining ninety-nine behind with an attendant to search out the missing one (Mt 18:12).

We can see in this story that the goal of a good shepherd pursuing his lost sheep is for the good of the sheep—its recovery and restoration.

What does the restoration process look like?  It looks like the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep and the sheep responding positively to the will of the Father (v 14) by returning to the good shepherd and to the fold. Isn’t that what God does with us when we stray? And isn’t this also what we are tasked with as God’s people? We who are Christ-followers have as our duty and responsibility the recovery of lost sheep.

2. The Steps: Matthew 18:15-19

How do we recover the strays? Four steps.

Step 1: Go and have a private meeting with the person to specifically address the sin.

Really? Yes. You’ve got to be kidding! No. God instructs you (not your pastor) to go.  But keep in mind, you should never enter into this uncircumspectly (Mt 7:1-4).

Here are three things to keep in mind as you are going:

  1. Go quickly. Present imperative command – “be going”  (illustrated in Mt 5:23-24). Speak purposefully “and tell him his fault.” This is a purpose-driven meeting; the verb here (elegxon) speaks of convincing someone of something with words.  Meet privately. “In private” means a closed meeting (Prov 25:9-10).
  2. What kinds of sins are serious enough for step 1? The Bible does not provide an extensive list here in Matthew 18. Really, any sin could start the process, but perhaps a little example from a faithful church started over 130 years ago will help.
  3. The founding members of Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. constructed a list of sins which were worthy of confrontation and church discipline. This list was drafted in 1878 when the church was founded:

Members shall be liable to the discipline of the church for the following causes:

For any outward violations of the moral law.
For pursuing any course which may, in the judgment of the church, be disreputable to it as a body.
For absenting themselves habitually without good reasons, from the church at the seasons set apart for public worship.
For holding and advocating doctrines opposed to those set forth in [the statement of faith].
For neglecting or refusing to contribute toward defraying the expenses of the church according to their several abilities.
For treating the acts and doings of the church contemptuously, or pursuing such a course as is calculated to produce discord.
For divulging to persons not interested, what is done in the meetings of the church.
For pursuing any course of conduct unbecoming good citizens and professing Christians.

This was a church that took its health and holiness seriously. I wonder if our church would consent to this level of accountability? Discipline for not showing up? Discipline for not giving? Hmm. By the way, please understand that the goal here is the same that Jesus has: to win the person.

If he does not hear you, continue to Step 2 (v 16).

Step 2: Have a follow-up meeting with the person and take one or two witnesses along with you (18:16).

Take one or two more.  Based on Deuteronomy 19:15, this was the rule in Israel for adjudicating case laws. The accused could only be charged in a court of law in the presence of two or more witnesses. The dictum “innocent until proven guilty” did not begin with the founding fathers but with God.

And if they won’t hear the group? Take it before the floor of the church and enter Step 3.

Step 3: Tell it to the local church (beginning with the elders) (18:17).

This is a devastating consequence of sin because in Step 3, what may have been done in secret goes public!

What do we do in step 3?  Through the administration of the elders, the church is to be brought in as a witness to the process of discipline.

This is intense so perhaps a little story can break the tension a little. I remember it like it was yesterday, the first time that I witnessed Step 3 of discipline. The worship center was quiet. The pastor was brave, broken-hearted, yet composed. His moist eyes looked out on the congregation that morning and he said something like this:

Our professing brother______ has left his wife unlawfully for another woman; he has been confronted on multiple occasions for this sin and refuses to listen. We now have no choice but to call you, the body of _______church, to pray for him and to call him to return home to his wife. Please put a stop to all fellowship with ________until he repents. Treat him now as a “heathen.” He needs salvation so we must evangelize him.

Remember, sin is never a private matter. Sin always affects the glory of Christ by diminishing it, sin always affects the purity of the church by defiling it, sin always affects the unity of the church by dividing it, and sin always affects the testimony of Christ by practically destroying it.

What if he won’t hear the church? Then put him out.

Step 4: Treat him as an unbeliever (18:17).

This is the final step. This step presumes a debarring from the Lord’s Supper, from fellowship, and from other church-family privileges. This step limits the church’s involvement with the person to evangelism. By his actions, he has become our mission field, not our family.

3. The Supports: Matthew 18:18–20

Great Authority

The binding and loosing Jesus speaks of in verse 18 is a specific application of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 16:19. The church has the authority to “bind” a person under church discipline and the authority to “loose” a person from church discipline when they repent. That is your authority, Christian. According to Matthew 18:18, the church’s role is to declare on earth what God has already done in heaven. What authority!

Great Assurance

I think the hardest interaction a Christian can have with a non-Christian is to talk to a non-Christian about his soul. I think the hardest thing in Christian relationships is to talk to a brother about his sin. These are the toughest jobs, and are therefore happily accompanied by awesome promises! Is it not reassuring that these hard jobs are joined by a great promise of assurance—the promise of divine presence?

When you are doing evangelism with a non-Christian, Jesus is with you in a particular way with his presence (Mt 28:20). When you are doing discipline with a professing Christian, you can be assured Jesus is with you, “for when two or three are gathered in [his] name [he is] in their midst” (Mt 18:20).


Friends, let’s bear in mind that while the church today is weak in maintaining this discipline, it has been established by believers in the past as the third mark of the true church. For example, the Belgic Confession (1561), a standard document by which many Reformed churches subscribe, reads:

The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.

As strange as this process sounds today, it was not so during the 19th century, particularly among the Baptists. In an article called The Disappearance of Church Discipline: How Can We Recover? Part 1, theologian Al Mohler describes just how far the modern church has drifted from the practice of church discipline.

The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. No longer concerned with maintaining purity of confession or lifestyle, the contemporary church sees itself as a voluntary association of autonomous members, with minimal moral accountability to God, much less to each other.

Mohler offers the 19th century Baptists as an example of faithful discipline.

As ardent congregationalists, the Baptists left a particularly instructive record of nineteenth century discipline. Historian Gregory A. Wills aptly commented, “To an antebellum Baptist, a church without discipline would hardly have counted as a church.” Churches held regular “Days of Discipline” when the congregation would gather to heal breaches of fellowship, admonish wayward members, rebuke the obstinate, and, if necessary, excommunicate those who resisted discipline. In so doing, congregations understood themselves to be following a biblical pattern laid down by Christ and the apostles for the protection and correction of disciples.

No sphere of life was considered outside the congregation’s accountability. Members were to conduct their lives and witness in harmony with the Bible and with established moral principles. Depending on the denominational polity, discipline was codified in church covenants, books of discipline, congregational manuals, and confessions of faith. Discipline covered both doctrine and conduct. Members were disciplined for behavior which violated biblical principles or congregational covenants, but also for violations of doctrine and belief. Members were considered to be under the authority of the congregation and accountable to each other.

By the turn of the century, however, church discipline was already on the decline.

Let’s pray that such a return to the priority of discipline is reinstated in the church. Let’s be honest, we are wilting in cowardice in this area.

So, remember the story of a good shepherd reaching out to rescue a stray sheep.  And remember the steps. Jesus knows what He is talking about and His wisdom cannot be bested. Who is God leading you to rescue? Are you going?

These sins were tarnishing the testimony of the church, dividing its unity, defiling its purity, hindering its ministry, and diminishing its glory.

As you know, nothing survives without discipline. The 16th century reformer said,

“If no society or even a moderate family can be kept in a right state without discipline, much more necessary is it in the church who state ought to be the best order possible. Hence as the saving doctrine of Christ is the life of the church so discipline is as it were its sinews; for to it is owing that the members of the body adhered together each in its own place. Wherefore all who either wish that discipline were abolished or who impede the restoration of it, whether they do this of design or thoughtlessness, certainly aim at the complete devastation of the church.” (John Calvin)

Concluding Charge:

Don’t let discipline leave your life.

Remember the setting (recovering a lost sheep).

Remember the steps (1 on 1, 2 or more, on the floor, then out the door).

Remember the standpoint (your authority and your assurance of presence).

Prayer:  May God glorify Himself in His churches. May believers quit running away from the hard things and instead face them with new-found power, authority, and responsibility. May sin be seen with new eyes. May it be seen as nothing less than the most devastating thing in the world and in the church. Now, let’s defend the unity and purity of your church to the glory of God!

The Glory of God changes everything


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