Church columnist: Should a church discipline its members?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 5, 2016

Norm Fields

Contributing columnist

I have the privilege of appearing on the “Know Your Bible” TV program periodically. That program airs Sundays at 8:30 a.m. on WLTZ NBC 38. Whether I’m on or not, I highly encourage my readers to tune in to that fine program. The preachers taking part do an excellent job of answering your Bible questions.

I will be going in to record two episodes that will likely air the last two Sundays of this month. We typically have more questions than we have time to answer on the program. I thought I would use my column this week to answer one of the questions coming later in the list that probably won’t be on the program. If it does make the program, then you will have a sneak peek at the answer.

One of the questions assigned to me is this: “Should a church discipline its members?” As with all the questions, I will give the Bible answer.

The term “church discipline” is typically used to refer to some punitive action taken to correct an erring member. It is almost exclusively used in reference to situations like Paul’s teaching to the church at Corinth regarding immorality in the congregation there (1 Corinthians 5:1-8).

Paul told the church at Corinth that they could not, in any way, endorse such gross immorality in the church. The person that was guilty of such was to be put out of the church.

Paul said that they were to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 5:4). This is the same action he terms as “[withdrawing] from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

That is, a “brother” who refuses to live in accordance with the apostle’s doctrine (Acts 2:42), is to be withdrawn from. Back in 1 Corinthians, Paul defines what “withdraw” means when he says, “not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is [a fornicator], or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person” (1 Corinthians 5:11).

This is certainly included in what we refer to as “church discipline,” and must be practiced by any church desiring to be the New Testament church; but it shouldn’t be all we think of as “church discipline.”

Think about that term, “church discipline.” The church, of course, refers to “called out people.” That is, those who have been “called out” by the gospel of Christ to be God’s own special people — His elect (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:12, 13; Romans 1:16; 10:17; Acts 2:37-41; et al).

So, the “church” part of the term isn’t really difficult to understand. But what about the “discipline” part of that term? Does “discipline” only mean “to punish”? Well, no, it doesn’t. It also means to instruct and train with focused indoctrination.

I know that “indoctrination” has become a bad word in our postmodern, relativistic, society; but it isn’t actually a bad word. “Indoctrinate” simply means “put the doctrine in.” How can it be just and right to “withdraw” from someone who has never had “the doctrine put in” them?

Paul said such withdrawal was for those “named a brother,” that is those who are supposed to know and live according to the doctrine of Christ. So, before any punitive disciplinary action would be justified, there must be instructive disciplinary action.

Christians are to live “soberly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12). This, especially the word “soberly,” refers to a disciplined lifestyle. Such discipline takes instruction.

The Hebrews writer rebuked his audience because they were not disciplined in the word of God (Hebrews 5:12-14). Christians are supposed to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). That is indoctrination! That takes discipline and it teaches a disciplined lifestyle.

So, “church discipline” begins with the work of indoctrinating its membership in the word of God for a disciplined Christian lifestyle.

When “church discipline” begins in the cradle roll on up in the Bible classes; when it encourages families to be studying the word of God in their homes; when it strives to truly indoctrinate its members in the word of God; then the punitive type of church discipline is rarely necessary. Sadly, that doesn’t mean it will never be necessary; and, when it is, it must be done in accordance with the word of God.

To summarize, yes, a church should discipline its members. But that means much more than just “punishing” conduct unbecoming a Christian. It must include, and begin with, instructive discipline.

If you have Bible questions, please do not hesitate to forward those to me. It is my personal commitment to you that I will always give a Bible answer for your Bible question.

Norm Fields is the minister for the Church of Christ Northside meeting at 1101 Hogansville Road in LaGrange. He may be reached at 706-812-9950 or