About Don Whitney:
Don Whitney has been Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Senior Associate Dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, since 2005. Before that, he held a similar position (the first such position in the six Southern Baptist seminaries) at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, for ten years. He is the founder and president of The Center for Biblical Spirituality. Prior to his ministry as a seminary professor, Don was pastor of Glenfield Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), for almost fifteen years. Altogether, he has served local churches in pastoral ministry for twenty-four years. He is the author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, 1991), which has a companion discussion guide. He has also written How Can I Be Sure I’m A Christian (NavPress, 1994), Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church (Moody Press, 1996), Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health (NavPress, 2001), Simplify Your Spiritual Life (NavPress, 2003), and Family Worship (Center for Biblical Spirituality, 2006). His hobby is restoring and using old fountain pens.
This issue has been addressed on repeated occasions, and now there are many people in this room who teach on this subject of church discipline. When this conference began 26 years ago, it would be hard to find one church who practice church discipline, but now there are dozens who are doing it. There is always the need to teach again the doctrines we hold dear, especially the doctrine of the church and focusing on the change that needs to be brought in the reformation of the church.
Reformation always begins with teaching. The goal of church discipline is restorative, not punitive. It is not “banning people from the church” (as the Wall Street Journal puts it). The goal is to restore a believer to righteousness. We want to bring them back, to heal the breach, to restore them in love.
Let’s look at Matt. 18:15-20.
Text: Matt. 18:15-20
The need for church discipline is inevitable. Don’t think your church will never need to practice discipline. Sooner or later, God will test every church, every minister in this matter of discipline. You will come up against the opportunity and go into the desert or you will follow God.
First Step (15).
The meeting should be in private (in step one of church discipline). Part of the goal is to protect the reputation of the person. You may be incorrect about what you have been told or what you have seen or heard. The private nature of church discipline in the first step is most often violated. Love covers a multitude of sins, and love should cause us to think the best of people, to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The goal should be reconciliation. You cannot over-emphasize the goal of winning your brother back.
Second Step (16).
There may be rejection, rationalization, justification, denial, or threats when someone refuses correction in the first step. You can almost always expect the threat of a lawsuit. When that happens, it is usually a threat to keep you from following through with discipline. Yet must follow God’s command and obey him rather than men. When you have someone with you, they can be really helpful, especially when you go public (witnesses confirm the facts, events). But there is also wisdom, objectivity, protection, and solemnity with added witnesses.
Third Step (17).
The withdrawal of fellowship requires a persistent refusal to listen and repent. Step one and step two might occur several times before you come to step three. It is important to understand that we are talking about a persistent refusal to come to repentance.
This withdrawal of fellowship requires a corporate decision of the church. As a body of believers, we receive members into the church; as a body of believers, we remove members from the church. It is church discipline, not pastor discipline.
This withdrawal of fellowship requires the cooperation of the entire church. We treat them as a lost person because they continually act like one. This is the ultimate effort to restore them and to bring them back. We give them every opportunity to respond to their sin in repentance as they ought to respond. We don’t have the right to treat them unChristiantly or in an uncivil way; we are to love them seek to evangelize them (win them to Christ).
The Promise of Jesus (18-20).
Discipline done rightly will have already been ratified in heaven (v. 18). The presence and power of God is behind those who seek to be obedient (v. 19-20). Church discipline is the main context of Christ’s presence within the church.
Let’s also look at 1 Corinthians 5.
John L. Dagg: “When discipline leaves the church, Christ goes with it.”
The three marks of the church: (1) preaching of the gospel, (2) ordinances, (3) church discipline. If these historic marks of the church are indeed necessary, what are we think about the vast majority of churches today who do not have the last mark?
In cases of withdrawing fellowship, the church should mourn over the sin (5:1-2). The church must also act as a body (v. 3-4). Remember, this is a matter of church discipline, not elder or leader discipline. The church must act and decide together. The church delivers the person to Satan by removing him from membership (v.4-8), 12-13).
You can find more information on the importance of church membership as it relates to church discipline in my chapter in Spiritual Disciplines within the Church (which you can read online here).
We are commanded by Jesus to say that certain things are wrong, that we should “judge” as it is expected in the local church. It is not the self-righteous judging. Rather, the church as a whole and individually stops associating with the person. Yet, while we treat them as a unbeliever, we should allow them to come and sit under the preaching of the gospel should they be willing to come. It could be that the preaching of the Word is the very means God uses to bring them to repentance.
Miscellaneous Matters of Church Discipline
Whenever Christian love is violated by serious personal offenses.
Whenever Christian unity is violated by those who form factions and destroy the peace of the church.
Whenever Christian law is violated by those living scandalous lives.
Whenever Christian truth is violated by those who reject essential doctrines of the faith.
Dangers to avoid?
Inconsistency. Severity. Leniency.
Fear of judgmentalism. Fear of the outcome (1 John 4:8). Desire to avoid problems–the greater problem is to avoid discipline. Doubt about effectiveness.
Legally, the safest thing you can do is follow you church documents to the letter because you are only doing what you said you would do. That is why it is necessary to have a healthy constitution and church covenant.
Dever: It should mean something to a member of the church, not for our sake, but for God’s sake . . .
This is a Christological issue, a Lordship issue. This is about Jesus Christ as head of the church and his rule over our lives. God help us for His name’s sake.