Church Discipline: six steps

(Read: Matthew 18:1-35)

When someone becomes a follower of Jesus Christ, he also becomes part of a spiritual family. He belongs, as Jesus said, to “these little ones who believe in me” (Matthew 18:6). “In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (see: Romans 12:5: cf. I Corinthians 12:24-27). Among the followers of Christ, there is a powerful spiritual unity that overcomes social and ethnic distinctions that separate people in the larger culture.

Believers form a spiritual family of brothers and sisters in Christ. Our loyalty to Christ and to those who belong to Him is so significant that we will not allow mere earthly relationships to compromise it. It is not uncommon for those earthly relationships to become strained when a person becomes a follower of Christ. (see: Matt. 10:32-37) Our love for Jesus Christ, which is demonstrated in our love for those who belong to Christ, is superior to the love we have for mere earthly relationships.

In Matthew 18:15, Jesus opens with a family reference: (v. 15), “if your brother sins…” “Brother” is not meant as an exclusive reference to male members of the Church. (The same teaching applies to “sisters” in Christ). It could be understood this way, “If a fellow member of the church sins….”

What should our response be when a fellow member sins? (whether “against us” or not) Should we say, “That’s his business, who am I to judge him?” No. Jesus said, “Go and show him his fault just between the two of you.” Jesus’ requirement begins with “private confrontation.” But, before this step, there needs to be “personal preparation.”

The first two steps must be followed. They are:

1. Personal preparation (see: Matthew 7:3-5)

Jesus forbids looking at the faults of others without first dealing with our own sins. Remove the log from your own eye, Jesus insists, before you notice and remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Jesus clearly encouraged involvement in other people’s lives, but only after careful self-examination. This will help facilitate the attitude described in Gala. 6:1-2.

2. Private confrontation (Matthew 18:15; cf. Lev. 9:17).

Through proper preparation, we should prayerfully and patiently desire to resolve matters at the step of private confrontation. This is where the teaching of Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15 should merge (See: “Two Principles for Resolving Conflicts”). Church leaders should repeatedly teach people the principles of confronting in love and covering in love before applying Matthew 18:15-17. See: 

If private confrontation does not lead to true repentance and restoration, a third step is required by Jesus: (For a description of true repentance

3. Private conference (Matthew 18:16; cf. Deut. 19:15; Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6)

If the third step, “private conference” is needed, it is not merely based on the sin that originally occasioned the confrontation. Instead, it is activated because of an obstinate attitude of the one confronted (v. 16). When a sinning member of the church refuses to heed the confrontation of a fellow believer, thus refusing to be restored to proper fellowship, the circle of confrontation needs to broaden so that it includes one or two others (This is based on an O.T. principle from Deut. 19:15; Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6). Assuming that the one who made the initial confrontation kept the matter between himself and the sinning member, whom should he enlist for this third step? “One or two others” right? Yes. But who should these people be?

  • People who are spiritually prepared (Matt. 7:3-5)
  • People who are spiritually mature (Gal. 6:1)
  • People entrusted with spiritual oversight (I Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:28)

Nothing in the text requires that these people be eye witnesses to the sin being confronted. If they had been, they should have gone to confront. Ideally this step should include people who are known and respected by the erring member (e.g. small group leaders).

What is the function of the one or two others? According to v. 16, they engage the situation, “so that every fact may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Their purpose is not to threaten or intimidate, but to help the erring brother to understand the seriousness of the matter. They do not get involved only to evaluate the truthfulness of the charge, but to strengthen the rebuke and the call to restoration. After private conference, if the erring member remains obstinate and unwilling to acknowledge and repent of the sin and be restored to proper fellowship, Jesus teaches a fourth step (3rd in the text itself).

4. Public Announcement (v. 17a)

“Tell it to the church (i.e. to the “ekklesia,” the assembly). This step is a sobering reminder that sin is not always a private or personal matter for a Christian. When sin separates and alienates believers, it must be dealt with and resolved. But how do we take the step of public announcement? This might depend on the size of the church. In our church (500+ people), it would be communicated to the covenant members through a special meeting of the membership. These meetings would be precipitated by a letter to the members emphasizing that an urgent matter must be addressed. It is wise to make public discipline announcements at a service that includes communion. This helps the entire body remember that we all need the Savior and His forgiveness. It also helps to protect the body from a sinful pride. Further, it affords opportunity for congregational instruction about repentance and restoration.

It is important for churches to specifically outline these steps in their constitutions to avoid law suits. Churches have been sued for following the steps of Matthew 18:15-17 and have lost in court, because they lacked specific reference to the steps in their official documents. (Note: It is not enough to say, “We follow the bible.”) Churches are wise to limit the public announcement to those who are actual members. Discipline of non-members is sticky territory. This is another reason why most churches need to become more intentional about membership (see: Membership Matters, Chuck Lawless, Zondervan).

5. Public confrontation (v. 17b),

This implies that the church (as an assembly) has made an appeal to the erring member. When the church is informed, it seems to imply that the pastors will be involved. And when this happens, it should be accompanied by warnings about the need to avoid:

  • Gossip and slander
  • A proud, critical spirit (Mattt. 7:3-5; Gal. 6:1)
  • A lenient or punitive attitude
  • Playing spiritual detective

People should be encouraged to pray for repentance and restoration. They should also call the brother or sister to make things right by responding in a godly manner. For those uncertain what to say, we recommend that they say, “I don’t know all the details, nor is it my place, but I do want to encourage you to make things right with the church.”

No one should give this brother the feeling that everything is fine (cf. II Thess. 3:12-14). Don’t act in cross purpose with the church. This would be disrespectful to the Church. Remember the goal, “Win your brother.” It is redemptive! We should long for and pray for true repentance.True repentance is described in II Corinthians 7:10-12: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 11 See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter. 12 So even though I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong or of the injured party, but rather that before God you could see for yourselves how devoted to us you are.”

If true repentance becomes clear, the goal is restoration. This is described in: II Corinthians 2:6-8: “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.”

6. Public exclusion (v. 17c)

When the sixth step becomes necessary, the focus shifts from the individual to protection of the Church. The emphasis moves from redemptive to judicial. This decision protects the unity and purity of the Church but it is also best for the individual.

“If we can restore to full and intimate fellowship with ourselves a sinning and unrepentant brother, we reveal not the depth of our love, but its shallowness, for we are doing what is not for his highest good. A forgiveness which bypasses the need for repentance issues not from love but from sentimentality  (John R. W. Stott. Confess Your Sins, p.35).

This final step is powerfully illustrated in I Corinthians 5.

Steve Cornell


About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
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2 Responses to Church Discipline: six steps

  1. Heretic says:

    Good concise description of how the discipline process should work. The goal is always the repentance and restoration of the transgressor.



    This is an awesome article on churh discipline. It wi wa


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