The Church’s Authority to Discipline

January 24, 2021 / No. 4073

Paul loved this congregation he had established in Corinth. Though he spoke sharply against her, it was for the purpose of correcting her. In order to overcome the many problems that plagued her, Paul started with the chief one. Men had divided into groups, speaking out against others, including against men who were in authority in the church, creating strife and division in the church. In order to disarm these men, Paul began by reestablishing the authority of the apostles, in particular that of his own authority as an apostle. Chapter 4:9: “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men.” In our last broadcast Paul gave sound instruction concerning the ministers and stewards of Christ, that is, those that labored in the Word and doctrine. Paul established the rule of I Timothy 5:17 and 19, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine…. Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.”

The members of the church also today need to understand that all of God’s saints belong to the office of believers by virtue of their anointing in Christ. Nevertheless, believers may not elevate themselves above the special offices in the church. Christ has ordained and instituted in His church ministers, elders, and even deacons to rule in the church. He has invested them with His authority to represent His rule in the church. The calling of the members of the church is to bow humbly before their rule. Even when it is believed that such officebearers are in error, the calling of God’s saints is to deal with them out of respect, honoring their position while following after the proper ecclesiastical way to expose their error. Paul began by establishing in the first several chapters of this epistle that particular truth as regards the office of minister as steward of Christ. Pastors and teachers are stewards of the mysteries of God. Christ has set them in the church to reveal those mysteries to His people. For that reason, they must be held in high esteem. If they are not, the result will be schism and strife in the church.

The same is also the case when elders are not counted worthy of double honor. Elders have been sent by Jesus Christ to rule the church. Included in that rule of elders is the need to discipline the members of the church when they are unruly. When members of the church secretly meet in groups or parties to undermine the work of the elders, they become guilty of mutiny. When individual members of the church band together with others who may agree on an issue in an attempt to force the elders to change their position or ruling, they become guilty of creating sects in the church. When a group of members join hands to attack the rule of the elders in the church vocally or in writing they create schism in the church.

This was happening in the church in Corinth. Not only was it making the preaching of none effect, but the work of the elders had become so difficult they could not even discipline properly. Such is the subject to which Paul turns his attention in chapter 5. We consider in particular Paul’s instruction in verses 3-5: “For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” These are the verses we consider today. Paul addresses here a matter of serious discipline that needed to be carried out in the church of Corinth, but had not been. This was the fault not only of the elders but of the congregation as a whole, as we will find.

I. What It Is

Everyone was so busy with quarrels in the church that the elders ignored a matter of the discipline of one of her members. Perhaps the church was even divided on the issue of what to do with the young man who was guilty of this sin. Paul received a report in Ephesus of something that was well known in the congregation in Corinth, namely that a man, presumably a fairly young man, in the church was committing fornication. The word fornication refers to any sin of a sexual nature. The particular sin of fornication this young man was committing was that of incest. He was lying, to put it mildly, with his father’s wife. Now, evidently this woman was not his mother. She was probably an unbelieving wife of an unbelieving husband—a Grecian man who had multiple wives. This wife may have been somewhat younger than her husband and had caught the eye of his son. So the two of them were fornicating. At the same time, however, this young man claimed to be saved in the blood of Christ and had joined himself with the Corinthian church. Yet, he continued in his sin—a sin, Paul explains, that for its horror was not even acceptable among unbelieving Gentiles. While walking openly and unrepentantly in his sin, this young man remained a member in good standing in the Corinthian church. No one was doing anything about it. And worse, the elders who had been appointed in the church to keep it in decency and good order were doing nothing about it.

The point of Paul in our text, and in chapter 5, was to admonish the elders and church to discipline this young man who openly and shamelessly was walking in sin. In verse 2 Paul states: “take away this man from among you.” In short, he was admonishing this church to discipline this member by means of excommunication from the church. The question we already began to answer in our introduction is, why did this church allow this man to continue in his sin without disciplining him? Why? It was not as if this church was proud of the sin this man was committing. The church was not glorying in this sin. But the church was puffed up in her pride and was glorying in herself as a church of Christ while allowing such sin to go on unimpeded.

The answer to the question, why did the church allow such a sin to go on without disciplining this member, is found in the division and strife in the congregation. The church was too preoccupied with the different parties vying for a prominent position in the church. The result was that every time the elders made a decision in the church, it was openly criticized and denounced by a group of saints. The elders had become timid and hesitant to do their work in the name of Jesus Christ. Perhaps there may have been such division within the body of elders themselves. Perhaps the elders could not come to any kind of agreement in the matter of discipline. But even if it had not gone this far, the elders were so preoccupied with settling other differences in the church that they ignored what was a pressing problem in the church. This is what happens in a church where the authority of the elders is brought into question by the members of the church. The elders cannot function properly.

Paul now takes the lead. Paul was not indecisive in his judgment of this young man who was guilty of fornication and incest. Paul explains: I am not with you in body, that is, I am not present with you in the church there. I am in Ephesus. But that does not mean I am not with you in spirit, that is, in my thoughts and desires. I have begotten you through the gospel. I am your spiritual father, who always thinks about you and prays for you. I am with you in spirit as though I were present with you now. As an apostle and preacher in the church I make a judgment that you must follow as a church. My judgment is this: excommunicate this man from your midst for his sin! Do not let him remain in the church one moment longer! Discipline him for his blatant sin against God and His commandments.

Although this admonition seems to be to the church of Corinth as a whole—and it is, as we will find—nevertheless Paul admonishes the elders of the church, first of all. We say this on this basis: when Paul commands the church in verse 4 with these words, “when ye are gathered together,” the reference must be to the assembly of the elders. When you elders are gathered together as elders, you must deliver such an one to Satan and so on. The elders are enjoined by Paul that when they are gathered together they must exercise proper discipline. When they do, Paul would be with them in spirit. Paul encouraged them by saying that though he was not present, he would be with them in their decisions in spirit.

But here is the real point: they must do this, Paul says, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Or, at the end of verse 4, “with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.” These are important for the elders and the members of the church to keep in mind when the elders meet together to make decisions on behalf of the church. They do so in the name of and with the power of Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of the church. The elders have vested authority! When Paul writes “in the name of,” it denotes authority. The elders of the church are given by Jesus Christ, who is Lord of His church, the right and authority to discipline in the church. The elders of Corinth need not be afraid to exercise the authority of Christ in matters pertaining to the church.

The elders that serve the church of Jesus Christ today ought not to fear to perform their work with the authority of Christ. Neither ought the members despise that authority, because by doing so they despise the very authority of the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ. Christ, as Lord of the church, rules over His church through men He has appointed to the office of elder. It is in the power of Jesus Christ, therefore, that they perform their labors. They exercise, in the discipline of impenitent sinners, the power of Christ. Christ promises the elders that when they perform their labors faithfully, He will exercise His power through them. What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, Christ tells the elders. The work of discipline is powerful to accomplish Christ’s will. The elders need not doubt that. Jesus Christ, the Lord of His church, will perform a powerful work through them.

II. How It Is Done

But then, though the elders represent the church in their labors, this does not dismiss the members of the church from their responsibility in the discipline of an impenitent sinner. Paul was indeed addressing this congregation as a whole—not just the elders. Because of the divisions in the church the members were participants in the lack of discipline. They were responsible for nothing being done. For that reason, Paul enjoins the entire church to be active in the discipline of this erring member. This too expresses a fundamental point in proper biblical church discipline. When a member is excommunicated from the church, the entire congregation approves of it. This is why, according to Reformed church polity, there are three steps in discipline. With the first step, the elders announce that they are laboring with a member. In the second step, his or her name is announced and the members of the church are encouraged to go and speak with that member. Notice the involvement of the entire church in the matter of discipline. The final step that leads to excommunication also involves the church. A date is set prior to the reading of the form for excommunication in order that the members of the church can raise any lawful objections. If no objection is brought, it is assumed the entire congregation approves of the excommunication of such a member. When the form for excommunication is finally read, it is the entire church that performs the work of discipline. Such too, is certainly implied in this Word of God before us.

So, what starts with the work of the elders, is now completed by the entire church. Our text and the entire chapter before us emphasizes the necessity of Christian discipline in the church. There were those in Corinth, as there are today in the church, who believe that Christian discipline is wrong. They insist that the church ought always to show love in the way of permissiveness. The church must not judge her members, but allow them to live their lives in a way they feel is right. A church that disciplines is judgmental, it is said. Such criticism is contrary to the Word of God before us. Notice in verse 3, Paul states, I have while absent from your midst judged this young man already. At the conclusion of this chapter he writes once again in verses 12, 13, “For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” Discipline is a necessity in the church of Christ. It reveals that the elders of the church are exercising their rule properly on behalf of Jesus Christ.

Paul continues his explanation of discipline in verse 5. He explains that the church must deliver such an unrepentant sinner to Satan. This does not mean that the church now says in effect: “we are giving this soul to you, Satan! Do with him or her what you will!” “Work in his heart, destroying him, so that he will spend an eternity in hell with you!” What God’s Word here means is that when one is excommunicated he is taken away from the church and is sent out into the realm of Satan—the wicked world where Satan reigns in the children of disobedience. Membership in the body of Christ, where believers dwell together under Christ—the sweet communion of the church—is cut off. Such a person is cut off from the fellowship of the saints, but, worse, from the fellowship of God and Jesus Christ.

Now, if the one excommunicated is indeed an unbeliever, then this will not bother him at all. He is where he belongs: in the unbelieving, wicked world of sin together with other unbelievers. But if one is a believer and values fellowship with Christ and His body, then such measures are devastating to him. Alienation from God and His Son is a horrible place to be! After all, to live apart from God is death. Such is the purpose of putting away the wicked person who walks openly and rebelliously in the way of sin.

Discipline is intended to serve as a remedy, something that corrects or rights a situation. It is truly a remedy of love therefore. The church and her members love each other and are concerned about the soul of each member. The desire is to stand in heaven with each other. When one openly, without any sign of remorse, walks in the way of sin, the church disciplines, because she is concerned about the soul of such a saint.

III. Why It Is Done

Our text, in turn, teaches us why Christian discipline is administered: for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ. When one’s membership in the church is taken away, the believer is horrified that he will now perish with the wicked in his unbelief. He may live for a time in fellowship with wickedness and apart from God’s people. But if one is a believer, such a life will plague his conscience. God will give him no peace in the world. In this way his flesh, that is, his sinful flesh or sinful nature, the old man of sin, is destroyed. If a believer is indeed excommunicated from fellowship with God, he will consider his sinful flesh that led him into his sin and despise it. Christ will visit him in that day. It is a day when the Lord Jesus Christ will work in his heart, bringing him to his knees in sorrow over sin. He will then, upon the way of repentance, turn from his sin and confess that sin before God. When this happens, he will turn back to the church and plead for readmittance.

Having visited him in the way, the Spirit of Christ will so turn his spirit, so that his thoughts and desires are to be a part of the church once again. In that way his spirit will be saved in the day of Christ. From Paul’s second letter to this church, it seems that the discipline of this young man was indeed effective in this way. We read in II Corinthians 2:6-8 that the church in Corinth must receive him again in the spirit of humility. It seems that this young man repented and turned from his sin. Paul now enjoins the congregation to forgive him, and comfort him, and confirm their love toward him.

Such then is the purpose of discipline in the church. Such also is the work of the elders. Such is the authority and power of Christ given them to labor. To them then is given double honor for their faithful labors in the Lord. God bless the work of faithful officebearers in His church. With these labors Christ is well pleased.