Who is Responsible for Church Discipline? (1 Corinthians 5:1–5)

by Jun 24, 20190 comments

Church discipline is painful and messy. Even the very lowest levels of church discipline are agonizing, when we admonish someone we notice to be sinning. The pain of church discipline only ratchets up, though, as we approach the ultimate censure of the church: excommunication.

Excommunication is a terrible step in the life of a church. In excommunication, the church delivers an unrepentant sinner to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:5). That is, the church formally treats a person as a Gentile and as a tax collector (Matt. 18:17).

Formerly, this person was embraced in the church. Moving forward, however, this same person is recognized as being separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of God’s people, and a stranger to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12).

If church discipline is this painful, why do we need it at all? And, assuming we need church discipline, how should we handle it?

The Purpose of Church Discipline

The Bible tells us that all church discipline is for two purposes.

First, church discipline is for the peace, unity, and purity of Christ’s church  (Matt. 7:6; 1 Cor. 5:1–13; 1 Tim. 5:20). Second, church discipline is for pursuing the repentance, reclamation, and restoration of the offender (2 Cor. 2:6–8; 1 Tim. 1:20; Jude 23).

In sum, the Lord Jesus commands discipline to sanctify his holy church and to save hard-hearted sinners. Or, to put this another way, Jesus institutes church discipline to aid in the perseverance of the saints.

The Administration of Church Discipline

Who, though, administers church discipline? As a Presbyterian, I understand the Scriptures as teaching that Jesus Christ administers his kingly authority through his ministers. The Scriptures say that the elders “rule” in the church on behalf of Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 3:5; 5:17).

The elders exercise this rule by administering the two Keys of Christ’s Kingdom: the Key of Doctrine (preaching the gospel to open the kingdom of heaven to sinners) and the Key of Discipline (removing unrepentant sinners from church membership to close the kingdom of heaven to them).

Presbyterian Church Polity

Now, this does not mean that the elders possess this authority, for they only derive it from Jesus’ own authority. Furthermore, it is not that this authority is vested in the elders, for this authority is vested in the whole church. Instead, this means that the elders are the organ in the body of Christ which exercises Christ’s authority on behalf of, and for the benefit of, the whole church.

If the exercise of Jesus’ authority is like his sight, then the elders are like Jesus’ eyes (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12–30). Neither the ears nor the hands nor the feet of Jesus see for the body, but only the eyes. The eyes, however, do not see for their own sake alone, but on behalf of, and for the benefit of, the whole body.

To be sure, the authority of elders is limited to ministering and declaring what Jesus himself commands in the Bible; however, it is in ministering Jesus’ commands that we enter into the territory of church discipline and excommunication.

Congregationalist Church Polity

Not all people understand the Scriptures in this way. Against a Presbyterian, elder-ruled view of the church, Congregationalists argue that it is the congregation, not the elders, who administer the Keys to the Kingdom of Doctrine and of Discipline.

They believe that when Jesus entrusts the exercise of his authority to the church, he entrusts the exercise of the authority to the whole body, and not to one organ of his body alone.

Who is Responsible for Church Discipline?

So, who is correct? Do the officers of Jesus’ church (i.e., the elders) administer this authority, or does the whole congregation act together in administering this authority?

In 1 Corinthians 5:1–5, Paul articulates how the whole church carries out Jesus’ commands regarding discipline in the church. There are three aspects that are worthy of our close attention in this passage.

The Responsibility of the Whole Church in Discipline

First, we should note that Paul holds the whole church responsible for failing to discipline the man living in a sinful, incestuous relationship with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:1–2). They are arrogant and boasting when they ought to be mourning.

While Presbyterian churches are elder-ruled, this does not mean that the rest of the congregation sits passively until the elders do something. Indeed, in the classic text on church discipline, our Lord Jesus begins the process of church discipline with you: “If your brother sins against you, [you] go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). 

The first step of church discipline is not for members of the church to tattle about sin to the elders. No, the first step of church discipline is for individual members of the congregation to confront sin they encounter firmly, lovingly, and privately.

Every member of the church is responsible for the peace, unity, and purity of Christ’s church. Every member of the church is responsible for the church’s discipline.

The Role of the Officers of the Church

Even though the entire church has responsibility for discipline, the Apostle Paul does not wait to consult with the whole congregation about what to do. When this sin comes to Paul’s attention, he acts immediately and independently of the congregation to excommunicate the offender: “For 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” (1 Cor. 5:3).

The principle we see here is that officers act on behalf of the whole congregation without first consulting the whole congregation. Now, while all elders are not apostles, all apostles are elders (cf. 1 Pet. 5:1). So, by excommunicating the unrepentant sinner, Paul was not acting with special authority as an apostle, but with the normal authority of the elders.

The elders are the officers of the church charged with keeping oversight of the flocks, and, if necessary, removing unrepentant sinners from those flocks by excommunication. Paul is shocked that the church (through their elders) have not already taken this step.

Thus, when Jesus instructs us to “tell it to the church” if a sinner does not listen to you or to the two or three witness you bring back with you (Matt. 18:17), this does not mean that you should gossip about someone’s sin through your congregation. Rather, this means that you must bring the sinner to the officers in the church tasked with giving oversight and establishing discipline in the church: the elders.

If the sinner does not listen to the elders, the elders are to excommunicate him so that he is treated like a Gentile and a tax collector (Matt. 18:18).

The Role of the Congregation

Even at this point, though, the congregation still has a part to play. After Paul excommunicates the offender, he instructs the church to assemble in the name of the Lord Jesus: 

[4] When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, [5] 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. (1 Cor. 5:4–5)

Now, Paul has already made the decision to excommunicate the offender, so he is not assembling them to give this man a trial. Rather, Paul is commanding the church to assemble so that the verdict of the trial may be read in their presence.

Why must the verdict of this excommunication be made publicly in the church? The Bible gives us two reasons:

For the Benefit of the Congregation

First, reading the verdict publicly is for the benefit of the congregation. Elsewhere, Paul writes, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). 

By declaring this verdict in the midst of the assembled congregation, every other member of the church may learn to fear.

Notice, this isn’t an opportunity to gossip or to judge the sinner with self-righteous disdain. Rather, this is an opportunity to remember the words of Jesus: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

For the Accountability of the Officers

Beyond the fear of the congregation, there is another reason for making this announcement publicly: to hold the officers accountable. If the elders of a church could excommunicate someone privately, without accountability, they might be tempted to abuse the authority that Jesus has entrusted to them.

Here is what John Calvin writes about this passage:

Paul’s course of action for excommunicating a man is the lawful one, provided the elders do not do it by themselves alone, but with the knowledge and approval of the church; in this way the multitude of the people does not decide the action but observes as witness and guardian so that nothing may be done according to the whim of a few. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Book IV, Ch. XII, § 7, p. 1235.)

The role of the congregation, then, is to give tacit approval to the actions of the officers. For example, if a member in a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America feels that the elders have acted wrongly in excommunicating someone, that person has the right to file a complaint about the action (PCA BCO, Chapter 43).

Then, if the Session does not believe their decision to be in error, the complainant has the right to appeal from the Session’s decision up to the Presbytery—and, if necessary, even up to the Standing Judicial Commission of the General Assembly.

The Elders and the Congregation Together

It is not that the elders administer discipline apart from the congregation, or that the congregation administers discipline instead of the elders. Rather, the elders administer discipline on behalf of, and for the benefit of, the whole congregation.

The congregation, though, is not passive. Every member has an active responsibility to admonish fellow members who are wandering off into sin, and every member has the responsibility to hold elders accountable for executing church discipline.

In this way, the whole body works together properly right down to the very last joint, so that the body may build itself up in love (Eph. 4:16).

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