There is probably no issue in Nordic Christianity that deserves the epithet “scorched earth” as the issue of how a biblical church should practice church discipline. Even the most conservative voices, which in other contexts stand for biblical values, hold a clear defeatist stance. When Olof Edsinger, Secretary General of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance, reasoned about the problem with Swedish churches’ inability to deal with sin within the church, he posited,
I willingly admit that it is difficult in Sweden today to exercise church discipline as done in the New Testament churches. We quite simply find ourselves so far removed from the biblical ideal both in this and other questions that it has become practically and socially untenable to hold to the biblical standard.1
I have never run into anyone who has made a serious attempt to argue that the New Testament does not admonish local congregations to exercise church discipline. No, even modern theologians seem forced to admit, as Edsinger does, that a realistic “biblical ideal” exists, even if they determine this ideal to be “practically and socially untenable”.
Since it is not the aim of this short article to explain how a local congregation can practice church disciple today, it will suffice to briefly state that it is, in the highest sense, doable. Multitudes of healthy churches throughout all ages and around the whole world can be put forth as proof; also in the West; also today. In this article I would like to dwell on the question: does the New Testament really exhort local congregations to practice church discipline? The answer is unequivocally “Yes”. Let’s take a look at a few of the bible verses.
The Greek word for church is only mentioned in two verses in the gospels. The first time is in the gospel of Matthew 16:18, when Peter confesses his Lord Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, after which Jesus recognizes Peter as the rock on which Jesus will build his church and gives Peter the keys of the kingdom to bind and loosen. The second time the word is used is two chapters later in Matthew 18:17, in the context of church discipline, where the church as a whole uses the keys of the kingdom to bind and release (Matthew 18:18). The text begins with the words: “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault . . .”
Make note of how any alternative course of action is missing from the text. It’s a condition that is indisputable. Jesus commands you to confront your brother if he has sinned: not to confide in someone else; not to harbor irritation and bitterness; not to solicit followers for your cause. No, go to your brother and confront him—that is the only alternative that Jesus offers. If your brother won’t listen to you, then take two or three with you. And if he doesn’t listen to them, tell the whole church. If he doesn’t listen to the church, he should no longer be regarded as a brother and should be put outside the church fellowship. This is Jesus Christ’s unequivocal command.
The Apostle Paul speaks the same language. There are more examples than this article has space for, but let us begin with the text where he gives the matter the most attention. In 1 Corinthians chapter five he addresses a problem that arose in the church, having to do with sexual immorality; that is, a man living together with his father’s wife. Paul uses the strongest language imaginable when he writes about this, blaming the church for not expelling this man from their fellowship and ordering them when they are gathered together to “hand this man over to Satan”; that is to say, they are to exclude him from the congregation. He goes on and likens this sin to yeast that, if not removed, affects the whole dough. This is a powerful illustration of how urgent and necessary church discipline is.
Paul writes in Galatians 6:1–2:
Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
When he writes “you who are spiritual”, he’s not speaking of some inner circle in the church as a spiritual elite that has come farther than others in their Christian walk. Neither is he referring specifically to the church leadership. No, he means “you who are Christians”—you who walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). You who have life in the Spirit (Rom. 8:11). If someone is discovered in a transgression, then it is your obligation to restore him; that is, to deal with the sin according to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew chapter 18. That is what it means to bear one another’s burdens and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.
In Titus 3:10 and Romans 16:17, Paul gives instructions as to how the church should regard leaders and teacher who, partly through false teachings, create division in the church. He charges the whole church with the responsibility to confront and warn these dissenters and, if they don’t repent, to eject them from the church fellowship.
We need not search long and hard to see that the New Testament’s admonition for church discipline is completely crucial for a church’s biblical health. We know of countless examples of churches that have gone astray under the leadership of one or more teachers who have abandoned the bible’s teaching as the true church has understood it through all of her centuries. This is illustrated in Revelation’s second chapter when the glorified Christs dictates short letters to some of his churches in today’s Turkey. He says in the letter to the church in Pergamum, verses 14–16:
But I have a few things against you: You have some people there who follow the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality. In the same way, there are also some among you who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore, repent! If not, I will come against you quickly and make war against those people with the sword of my mouth.
Jesus had a few things against this church, one of which was the lack of church discipline. It harboured members who held to false teachings. He admonished the church to repent; that is, to confront, correct and, if they didn’t turn back, expel these people. If not, he himself would come to the church and make war against them with the sword of his mouth.
The conclusions of these texts seem inevitable: the New Testament admonishes the local congregation to practice church discipline. The question is whether or not we are going to throw our hands up in the air, protesting that God’s commands are not good enough for us or that obeying them is too difficult for us—or whether we should accept that we can trust God’s commands, that they are good and that they show us the way we should walk (Psalm 119:1, 45, 105). Rather than to give way to defeatism, the road ahead is to search out how our churches can follow these commands in our day and age.