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Church Discipline

Matthew 18:15-17

1 Timothy 5:20, As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.


The process of Church Discipline is well outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17, “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.” To set the context, the initial conversation of chapter eighteen starts with a question by His disciples in verse 1, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”. Jesus’s response in verse 2 starts with, “And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”






















Olive Press Millstone, Olea Essence,

Golan Heights, Israel

Jesus then tells the parable of the lost sheep and He ends the parable with verses 13-14, And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” So why is this preamble to Church Discipline starting with “humbling oneself”, to a dreadful punishment for causing a “little one” to sin, then to emphasize the importance to the founder of the one lost sheep? Could the Greek words be referring not just to a little child in stature but to a child in the faith, to quote from Meyers NT Commentary on this verse,

a way of designating modest, simple-minded, unassuming believers, that had just been suggested by seeing in the child

then present a model of such simplicity[1].”

If that is the case, the relevance to the importance of the steps of Church Discipline was made. There are eternal consequences for an unrepentant sinner in regard to that person’s relationship and testimony to the body of believers, the Church. Unrepented sin will cause divisions in the body of believers. John MacArthur in Biblical Doctrine states,

“Those who cause divisions in the church are to be confronted,  (Rom. 16:17-18, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out

for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For

such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts

of the naive.”; and 1 Cor. 1:10, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and

that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment”and disciplined if

they do not repent [2] .On the other hand, the New Testament also instructs believers to guard the truth [3], to contend earnestly

for the purity of the faith [4], and to watch their life and doctrine closely [5]. Scripture repeatedly warns Christians to be on the

alert against sin [6] and error [7]. They are not to associate with immoral people[8]  or those who propagate error [9]. In fact,

the New Testament reserves its harshest condemnations for false teachers who would seek to undermine sound doctrine

and promote immoral behavior [10]. Such purveyors of error are variously condemned as “ravenous wolves” [11], “dogs”

who return to their own vomit [12], “blots and blemishes”[13], “accursed children”[14], “slaves of corruption”[15], pigs that

return “to wallow in the mire”[16], “unreasoning animals”[17], “hidden reefs”[18], “waterless clouds”[19], “fruitless trees”[20],

“wild waves of the sea” that “[cast] up the foam of their own shame”[21],  and “loud-mouthed boasters”[22] [23].”

The first three of the four steps for confronting sin is found in Matthew 18:15-17 including;

  • First step, v. 15; a private reproof in the spirit of gentleness and humility.

  • Second step, v. 16; with no response, confront the brother a second time with one or two more believers/witnesses.

  • Third step, v. 17; with no response, bring the matter to the church (local body).

  • The Fourth and final step, v. 18-20; removal from fellowship.


MacArthur goes on to state;

“If the confronted brother still refuses to repent, the final step of church discipline is to formally separate and to ostracize

him from the fellowship. The unrepentant person is no longer to be treated as a brother but as “a Gentile and a tax-collector”

(Matt. 18:17) meaning as an outsider to whom the benefits and blessings of church membership are no longer extended.

The motivation is not to punish the person but to see him yet come to his senses and repent.” We see this specifically in

2 Thess. 3:14 “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with

him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (cf. 2 Thess. 3: 11–15).

 Consequently, the only contact with such individuals should be for the purpose of admonishing them and calling them

to repentance. In the early church, believers were not even to share a meal with those who persisted in unrepentant sin,

” as we see in 1 Cor. 5: 11, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother

if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such

a one."; {cf. 2 Thess. 3:6,14). Putting them out of the church protects the purity of the remaining members (1 Cor. 5:6,)

and safeguards the congregation’s testimony in the eyes of the world[24].”

The reason and authority for this drastic final step of confronting sin is found in Matthew 18:18-20. Again from MacArthur;

“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed

in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father

in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” “The phrases “bound in heaven”

and “loosed in heaven” were rabbinical expressions that spoke, respectively, of actions either forbidden or permitted in light

of God’s truth. In this context, the Lord’s meaning is clear. When the church follows the biblical procedure for church discipline,

its verdict stands in harmony with God’s revealed will. Consequently, churches that excommunicate unrepentant members after following the proper process for discipline can rest in knowing that their actions meet with God’s authoritative approval.

Church discipline is therefore an earthly expression of heaven’s holiness[25].”

So, do these steps also cover those positions and qualifications listed in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3? I believe so, first looking at James 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” So, James points out that teachers will be held to a higher standard. In 2 Timothy 2:15-19 Paul first list what a “worker” is to do, than discusses what they need to avoid and names two who swerved from the truth and finally gives a warning, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. 19 But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”


In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 Paul is very clear in explaining the veracity of God’s Word and how it is to be used, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” We plainly see that all scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness and there are no limitations of who that applies to. As we saw in the “Rebuking an Elder” article there is no believer exempt from confronting sin, it is everyone’s responsibility in matters of sin or salvific issues. In 2 Timothy 4:1-2 Paul again charges us in this matter, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” Here again we see reprove, rebuke and exhort, being careful of turning away from the truth and accommodating social mandates and pressures that face our Christian leaders and teachers. They will be held to a higher standard (James 3:1). In both Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 we see Paul listing the conditions for those in leadership/teaching positions and they are told to be above reproach which would make them answerable to someone when they sin, thus the conditions and instruction of Matthew 18:15-17 are inclusive of every believer. Similar qualifications and exhortations are found in 1 Peter 5:2 and Acts 20:28-31.


We see from above we are all subject to reproof, correction, rebuke, exhorting and the examples can be seen in scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 4:1-2). In Romans 3:23 it says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” this includes the common along with church leadership, we are all fully capable of sin and are all commanded to avoid it and repent.  Specifically, regarding church leadership, from 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 we understand the qualifications of church leadership and the imperative that they remain in that status of qualification. In Acts 20:29-30 we are warned of “fierce wolves will come among you not sparing the flock” …” teaching twisted things to draw away the disciples after them”.  In this process of confronting sin Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 5:5, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” While these warning should temper our confrontation of sin with a pure heart of humility, they by no means restrict the verses that implore us to rebuke, reproof, correct and exhort those in sin, regardless of the sinner’s position (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 4:1-2, Rom. 16:17-18, Titus 3:10-11, James 3:1, 1 Peter 5:2).

The goal of our actions is seeing repentance and reconciliation with the sinner and the granting of forgiveness. That forgiveness does not wash the requirement to continue as an elder/teacher/leader, the obligations of those positions remain in force as part of the consequences of those sin that occur as a believer or while in a leadership role.

In Isaiah’s vision he writes about being free from sin which should become our goal along with our responsibility to rebuke, reproof and correct. Is. 1:16-17a, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;”. In verse 18 he  concludes, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson,they shall become like wool."

From Matthew Henry we see the desired effect of this cleansing.

Is. 1:16-20 Not only feel sorrow for the sin committed, but break off the practice. We must be doing, not stand idle. We must be doing the good the Lord our God requires. It is plain that the sacrifices of the law could not atone, even for outward national crimes. But, blessed be God, there is a Fountain opened, in which sinners of every age and rank may be cleansed. Though our sins have been as scarlet and crimson, a deep dye, a double dye, first in the wool of original corruption, and afterwards in the many threads of actual transgression; though we have often dipped into sin, by many backslidings; yet pardoning mercy will take out the stain, Ps 51:7. They should have all the happiness and comfort they could desire. Life and death, good and evil, are set before us. O Lord, incline all of us to live to thy glory[26].

For each of us, commoner, overseer, elder, teacher, pastor, evangelist we are all subject to the same rebuke, reproof or correction from anyone we sin against. “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality”, Acts 10:34. We see examples of this through out the whole bible with mighty men of God. While we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23), living in continual sin and a state of unrepentance is unacceptable to God, especially leaders (Ja. 3:1) and thus "all" of us are not exempt from Matthew 18:15-17.

Lastly, regarding this issue, a friend, author and Biblical Scholar once said, “When cash flow collides with convictions, cash flow always wins”. Sadly, this often seems to be the case regarding Church Discipline when it involves church/ministry leaders, influential people in the church or large donors. They are either shielded from public rebuke, their sin is covered up or dealt with behind closed doors and not in accordance with 1 Timothy 5:20, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.





[2] Titus 3:10–11; cf. James 3:14–18

[3] 1 Tim. 6: 20; 2 Tim. 1:14

[4] Jude 3

[5] 1 Tim. 4:16

[6] Eph. 6:10–18; 1 Pet. 5: 8; 1 John 2:15– 17

[7] 2 Tim. 3:1– 9; 2 Pet. 2:1– 2; 1 John 4:1– 3

[8] 1 Cor. 5:9; Eph. 5: 11; 2 Thess. 3: 6, 14

[9] 2 John 10; cf. Gal. 1:8– 9; Titus 3:10

[10] 2 Pet. 2:1–3

[11] Matt. 7:15; Acts 20:29

[12] 2 Pet. 2:22; cf. Phil. 3:2

[13] 2 Pet. 2:13

[14] 2 Pet. 2:4

[15] 2  Pet. 2:19

[16] 2 Pet. 2: 22

[17] Jude 10; cf. 2 Pet. 2:12

[18] Jude 12

[19] Jude 12; cf. 2 Pet. 2:17

[20] Jude 12

[21] Jude 13

[22] Jude 16

[23] MacArthur, John; Mayhue, Richard. Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 795-796)

[24] MacArthur, John; Mayhue, Richard. Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 794).

[25] MacArthur, John; Mayhue, Richard. Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (p. 794).


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