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 [The following is excerpted from the book, Gather: Getting to the Heart of Going to Church, Copyright © 2021 by M. Hopson Boutot. Click here to download the entire book for free.]   

One of the most painful realities in a local church is the difficult doctrine of church discipline. And yet, any faithful reading of Scripture cannot ignore the importance of this doctrine.[1]

But how should church discipline normally be carried out? Jesus outlines a clear process for church discipline cases in Matthew 18:15-17:

15 “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. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Before we outline the normal process for church discipline, I think it’s important that we refer to Jesus’ teaching as referring to phases and not steps. When a step is taken the next one usually follows quickly on its heels. But a phase is different. A phase implies time, effort, and energy before moving on. That’s the way it should normally be with matters of church discipline.

Phase One occurs when the sinning member is confronted by a fellow church member one-on-one (Matt. 18:15). This sort of loving biblical confrontation should happen regularly in a healthy church (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; Hebrews 3:12-13). Most of the time church discipline should stop here as the sinning member repents and is restored without anything being made public and the process ends. If the sin in question is non-attendance, restoring the sinner likely means a gentle conversation with the individual about your concerns. Perhaps he or she doesn’t realize the seriousness of the sin. Maybe it would be helpful to read and discuss this book together.

Phase Two should only occur if the sinning member did not repent after phase one. A fellow member should take one or two others along with him or her to confront the sinning member again (Matt. 18:16). If the sinning member repents and is restored, the process ends. If the sin in question is non-attendance, you should expect evidence of repentance to follow (Matthew 3:8). This should likely include a greater evidence of commitment to the sinner’s local church.

Phase Three should only occur if the sinning member did not repent after phase two. Think of this phase as an intermediate phase between Matt. 18:16 and 17a. Rather than individual members presenting their discipline cases before the church in a Members Meeting, it seems best to many to first recruit the help of a church’s elders if they are not already involved. This helps ensure that all things are done decently and in good order (1 Corinthians 14:40).[2] Furthermore, it should serve to effectively slow down the process a bit, ensuring that the church is not too aggressively rushing sinning members through the discipline process. If the sinning member repents and is restored after the elders are involved, the process ends.    

Phase three is slightly different if the sin is non-attendance. Failing to gather is a public sin, since all it takes is a look around on a Sunday to know the person is missing. Of course, this becomes more difficult the larger the church becomes, but by and large the church’s pastoral leadership should know who is and isn’t attending. In most cases other members should not need to alert the elders that a member is MIA. The elders should already be aware and be praying for and pursuing that individual.

Phase Four should only occur if the sinning member did not repent after phase three. In this phase the elders recruit the help of the entire church in pursuing the sinning member (Matt. 18:17a). A member is only to be excommunicated if he “refuses to listen even to the church,” implying that the church was involved in pursuing the sinning member. Since at this point the sin has now been made public to the entire church, repentance and restoration should also be public as well. The circle of confession should be as wide as the circle of knowledge. In our church this would mean the sinning member publicly confesses and asks to be restored at a meeting of the membership. If this happens, the sinning member should be restored to the church.

Phase Five should only occur if the sinning member did not repent after phase four. In this phase the church takes the decisive action of removing the sinning member from membership (v. 17b). If after his or her removal the sinning former member publicly confesses and asks to be restored, he or she should be joyfully welcomed back into the church (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 2 Cor. 2:6). The only exceptions to the ordinary church discipline process seem to be cases of egregious sin (for example, sins that would not even be tolerated “among the gentiles” as in 1 Cor 5:1-5) and exceptional divisiveness or false teaching (Titus 3:9-11). In these instances, the elders may lead the church to move more quickly.  

[1] The following passages address this doctrine either directly or indirectly: Deuteronomy 5:11; 1 Kings 11:2; Ezra 6:21; Nehemiah 9:2; Psalm 119:115, 141:5; Proverbs 13:20; 15:5, 17:10, 25:12, 27:5, 28:7, 29:15; Ecclesiastes 7:5; Isaiah 52:11; Ezekiel 36:20; Matthew 5:13–16, 7:1-6, 18:15–17; Luke 17:3; John 15:8; Acts 5:1–11; Romans 2:24, 15:14; 1 Corinthians 4:14, 5:1-12, 15:33; 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1; Galatians 6:1–5; Ephesians 1:4, 5:11, 5:27; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians  3:6, 14–15; Titus 1:10-16, 3:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:20, 5:19-20; Titus 1:13–14; Hebrews 10:24–25, 12:4–11; James 1:22. 1 Peter 2:12; 2 Peter 2:2; 1 John 3:10; 2 John 10; Revelation 21:2.  

[2] For a more thorough explanation of this phase, see Jay Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 70–71.