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Church Discipline: The Missing Ingredient Today

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 5

Open, unrepentant sin in the church cannot be condoned or tolerated. It must be confronted and properly dealt with. Anything less is to bring Christ’s church down to the level of the world and mute its message that Christ delivers us from sin and its power.


Some time ago I read a survey that was given to 400 pastors on the subject of church discipline. Fifty percent of the pastors surveyed responded that they never intervened or got involved with a church member who was living in unrepentant sin. Now this survey result does not mean that the other 50 percent actually do something; it simply means that half of them do nothing at all.

The church today has effectively abandoned wayward believers to wander into the clutches of sin without any warning, without any reproving, without any rebuking or challenging. 

While the mission of the church is to reach out to every sinner with the gospel of grace, we need to remember that the gospel delivers us from our sin; it doesn’t affirm us in our sin. It challenges us and corrects us and even disciplines us when we refuse to repent of our sin. But that is not the popular opinion in the church today. It is as if the command of Christ to the adulterous woman to “go and sin no more” has been replaced today with “judge not lest you be judged.”

I have heard people say that to discipline someone from the church is offensive—it is unloving. Well, imagine your friend’s home catching on fire tonight. You notice their living room curtains are ablaze, and smoke is pouring out of the windows. Would you stand there and say to yourself, “They would rather not be disturbed—besides they are probably sleeping. I just love them too much to bring this fire to their attention.” No, beloved, the most loving thing you can do is bang on their door and wake them up.

Let me tell you, discipline is a loving wake-up call to those who are in grave danger.

I have also heard people say that what somebody does in private is that person’s business. The Bible does not teach that at all. In fact, our private lives are to be the concern of the church as we hold one another accountable to doctrinal and moral purity.

By the way, we are all guilty of sinning every day, aren’t we? If sinners cannot come to church, then none of us can show up next Sunday. The key point to remember here is that a believer who is openly sinning, defending his or her sin, refusing to repent, cannot, at the same time, be a member of the church.

But that is exactly what is happening here in Corinth. Something needs to be done, not just for the sake of this man, but for the sake of this local church.

Paul begins here in 1 Corinthians 5 by exposing the sin:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. (verse 1)

The verb tense indicates this is an ongoing relationship between a young man and his stepmother. We do not know anything more than that this was an incestuous relationship.

Now I must tell you that the population of Corinth had very low moral standards. Their worship of Aphrodite emphasized sexual relations with temple prostitutes. But this man is doing something that even the pagans in Corinth would not tolerate—and he thinks he can live this way and be a happy member of the church in Corinth too.

But he is not the only one sinning. Paul writes to the church in verse 2, “You are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”

Listen to Paul’s judgment on this church—and the church today. The church that accepts immoral members might think they are being tolerant, but the Bible calls them arrogant. They think they know better than God and His created design for moral relationships.

Beloved, the gospel does not tolerate sin; the gospel transforms sinners.

Now after exposing the sin involved, Paul explains the solution:

Though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. (verses 3-5)

The church is to remove this man from their midst. In practical terms, his membership is to be revoked, and he is to be removed from the meeting of the assembly.

When Paul writes that they are “to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” he is simply describing handing this man over to experience the consequences of his sin. In other words, if he chooses to ignore the warning and he wants to stay in his house that is on fire, he is going to feel the effects of that fire.

People might say, “Disciplining immoral and unrepentant people from the church will not help them—they need to be in church.” Let me remind you that in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15), the prodigal did not come to his senses in the father’s house; he came to his senses in the pigpen. He came to his senses after he had lost everything and realized what he had had all along. The father did not send care packages over to the pigpen to give his son a good homecooked meal. No, it was the hunger and the loss and the filth of the pigpen that opened his eyes.

We should not be praying for prodigals to have a good life; we should be praying for a famine. And as prodigals realize what their sin has cost them—the loss of fellowship with other believers, the loss of community in the church family, the loss of peace and joy with the Lord—God may use that to bring them to their senses.

There is another danger to allowing an unrepentant believer to remain in the church as a defiant and immoral person. Paul writes in verse 6 that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” In other words, this man’s compromise with sin is not only going to ruin his reputation; it is going to ruin the reputation of the church—and ultimately, the reputation of the Lord.

Now Paul clarifies here that he is not intending for us to cut off all contact with immoral unbelievers. That is entirely different. Our treatment of immoral unbelievers is very different from our treatment of immoral believers who refuse to repent. Notice what Paul writes here in verses 9-10:

 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world [unbelievers], or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.

Paul is saying that we are not to avoid unbelieving sinners; we are to reach them with the gospel. 

Paul then writes in verse 11, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother.” He is speaking here of someone who claims to be a Christian. In that case, Paul writes, do not associate with him “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.”

Beloved, fellowship is broken. If a sinful believer wants his sin and the fellowship of the church, Paul effectively says here that person cannot have both.

Paul ends this chapter with very strong words in verse 13: “Purge the evil person from among you.”

But what if that person repents and wants to be restored? Well, kill the fatted calf, so to speak. Have a church potluck and welcome that person back. Celebrate together, because the prodigal has come home.

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