Church discipline

Relevant passages

  • Matthew 18:15-20
  • 1 Corinthians 5:1-13
  • 1 Timothy 1:20
  • 1 Timothy 5:19

Process / Steps

Church discipline consist of a series of every widening circles as described in the links section below. To use Dan Frederick's scheme [3]

THE PROCESS In consideration of delineating the process of corrective care, there are a number of ways to outline the progressive steps. For this article I offer the following format, suggesting that four levels may be established. It must be emphasized once again that the goal is not punishment, but restoration to fellowship with the Lord and with the fellowship of believers.

The Personal Level It is first of all PERSONAL. As the result of any real offense by one person to another, a personal addressing of the issue is required. A one-on-one communication of concern which, 1) reveals the nature of the offense, and 2) does so with the purpose of reconciliation and restoration of the relationship. At this personal level the issue need not become known apart from the persons directly affected. The issue is dealt with biblically and the relationship is restored.

The Private Level If, however, there is not a positive response of confession, forgiveness and restoration, it becomes necessary to take the matter to a second level, involving one or two additional people, in an arranged, yet still PRIVATE manner. The matter remains restricted to a select few, again with the goal of reconciliation and restoration.

The Public Level Should all attempts at the first and second levels fail, which includes an unspecified length of time and an unspecified number of attempts, it eventually becomes necessary to make the matter known to the wider fellowship of believers at a PUBLIC level. Again, the purpose is to achieve humble repentance for the reconciliation and restoration of all concerned.

The "Putting Out" Level As the last step, the regretful final course of action, the erring person, or persons, may need to be put out of the fellowship, commensurate with the displayed disregard for biblical correction, and treated as an unbeliever. Again, this is for the purpose of correcting a disobedient believer and seeking repentance, reconciliation and restoration, while preserving and protecting the purity of Christ's Bride and Body.

This pattern, or process, is clearly reiterated in the epistles in such passages as 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; Titus 1:10-14. These passages reveal the elements of the corrective care process, including

  1. a motivation of concern for the purity of the body in doctrine and personal living,
  2. a careful and principled response to the discovery of error in the body,
  3. specific efforts made to correct the error (over a reasonable time span by necessary witnesses),
  4. the restoration to fellowship of believers who repent upon spiritual admonition and instruction, or
  5. separation of fellowship from the erring believer until repentance is achieved and restoration becomes possible.

Scope of Authority

Until the last generation essentially every church has agreed on the basics of scope of authority (that is jurisdiction):

  • Church courts could only discipline members
  • A person could not be considered a member of a church for purposes of discipline if they did not believe themselves to be a member ^[1]^
  • A renunciation of baptism (that is asserting you were not baptized into the church) immediately ended the trial. Trying people who had renounced baptism was a sin so serious it led to automatic excommunication. ^[_citation\ needed_]^ ^ [2]^

For full membership in the Church, besides valid baptism, one must by union of faith and allegiance be in fellowship with her, and not be deprived of the rights of membership by ecclesiastical censure. Hence, those validly baptized Christians who live in schism or, whether by reason of apostasy or of initial education, profess a faith different from that of the Church, or are excommunicated therefrom, are not members of the Church, though as a matter of objective right and duty they are still her subjects. In practice the Church, while retaining her right over all subjects, does not--except in some few matters not of moment here--insist upon exercising her jurisdiction over any but her members, as it is clear that she cannot expect obedience from those Christians who, being in faith or government separated from her, see no right in her to command, and consequently recognize no duty to obey. Over those who are not baptized she claims no right to govern, ^[3]^

Once church courts no longer had a close connection with the state (church sanctions are not physical) ^[4]^ the issue became more profound. Yet every Christian writer held to the same position, a person who does not declare themselves a member could be considered an apostate but not tried for any other sin.

Changing churches for any reason was frowned upon , as Calvin put it ^[_citation\ needed_]^: The Lord esteems the communion of his Church so highly that he counts as traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of the Word and sacraments

Thornwell gives the standard reformed position:

Every man has a right to withdraw from the Church whenever he pleases, in the sense explained in our former article -- a right in the sense that no human authority has the right to detain him. As before God, he has no more right to apostatize than to commit any other sin. He is bound to believe and keep the commandments. But men have no commission to force him to do either. If he wants to go, they must let him go. "They went out from us," says the Apostle -- not that they were expelled, but they went out of their own accord, freely, voluntarily -- "because they were not of us." They found themselves in the wrong place, and they left it. ^[5]^

Dabney disagreed arguing that the session should do judicially, on the ground of his own avowal, what he had requested, except that they should debar him from the Lord's table until repentance, instead of giving him license to neglect it. Adding further:

Are not avowed impenitence and unbelief incompatible with Christian character, and does not their tolerance in communicants "bring disgrace or scandal" on the Romish and other communions, which formally allow it, in the eyes of all enlightened men? They are, then, a disciplinable offence. But hear Paul (1 Cor 16:22), "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha." Here we have the very formulary of excommunication pronounced, and it is against the man who "loves not the Lord Jesus Christ;" that is, just the man who, in modern phrase, avows himself as "lacking in the suitable qualifications for the Lord's supper." The church, we hold, is solemnly bound to teach the same doctrine in her discipline which she preaches from her pulpits, otherwise she is an unscriptural church. She is bound to testify by her acts as well as her words, against the destructive and wicked delusion so prevalent in consequence of the wresting of the doctrines of grace, that because grace is sovereign, therefore, the failure to exercise gracious principles is rather man's misfortune than his fault. It is this dire delusion which hides from men the sinfulness of their hearts; it hath slain its ten thousands. With what consistency can the pulpit proclaim that unbelief is sin, and then send forth the same pastor into the session room to declare to the misguided transgressor, in the tenfold more impressive language of official acts, that it involves no censure, and that its bold avowal is rather creditable than blameworthy? Shall not the blood of souls be found on such a session? ^[6]^ Across the political and religious spectrum within the United States there has been almost universal concurrence on the idea that church authority extends only to members. Almost 100 years ago the very conservative Southern Baptist convention declared that they aimed not just for toleration for differences in conscience but that this was a fundamental right:

Baptists have one consistent record concerning liberty throughout all their long and eventful history. They have never been a party to oppression of conscience. They have forever been the unwavering champions of liberty, both religious and civil. Their contention now, is, and has been, and, please God, must ever be, that it is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of his conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty. Toleration implies that somebody falsely claims the right to tolerate. Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle. Toleration is a gift from God. It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel men to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe. God wants free worshipers and no other kind.^ [7]^ This notion has been enshrined in international law, and thus extended outside of a Christian framework, Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. ^[8]^


A question confronting many churches is their duty to recognize the excommunication of another church. Christian literature has traditionally held that refusing to recognize the discipline of another church is to refuse to recognize that church's legitimacy. An excommunication can only be lifted by those who impose it or by a recognized higher authority. Aquinas for example addresses specifically the case of a person who is excommunicated for something they objectively did not do and still holds that everyone is bound to recognize the excommunication until it is licitly lifted (including the person excommunicated). ^[9]^

In practice excommunication seems to be subdenominational in effect. In the broader community Churches that recognize one another's discipline are referred to as Sister Churches

However, there is a growing and prevailing tendency toward disrespect among the Lord’s churches for the disciplinary authority of sister churches. The autonomy and independence of the local church should never be infringed upon by any external power, and we need to remember that church independence does not include the right for a church to ignore the disciplinary authority of churches of like faith and order....It is possible for a church to err in its practice of excessive discipline, but it is not likely. Moreover, no sister church is better qualified to judge in the matter than the church that administered the discipline.^ [10]^ Reformed church's that recognize one another's authority in this matter are said to have Fraternal Relations (in particular the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC)).

However some US Baptist disagree and argue that an excommunication as no supernatural effect, Pertaining only to matters upon earth. The church cannot open and close the doors of heaven at will. Only Christ "openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth" (Rev. 3:7) and more directly that Pertaining only to matters within a given church; i.e., there can be no inter-church discipline. ^[11]^

Another very serious question confronting churches is their legal duty to protect the privacy of its members and to refrain from interfering with the privacy of non-members. Both state and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have addressed the question of church discipline in the context of tort liability.

One tort often alleged by a disciplined party is defamation. Defamation involves the intentional "publication" of a false fact to persons other than the plaintiff. "Publication" is a legal term that can include dissemination of a fact by any means. Truth is an absolute defense to allegations or defamation, so a true statement will never give rise to liability. However, if the statement asserts a spritual or doctrinal point that is not clearly "true" or "false", the court is essentially being asked to determine the truth or falsehood of a religious belief. For this reason, courts routinely refuse to hear such cases citing the protections and prohibitions in the First Amendment. However, some courts have agreed to decide defamation cases involving churches based on technicalities of tort law.

Another tort often alleged is invasion of privacy. This legal theory requires the plaintiff to prove that the church disclosed personal and private facts to others in a manner that a reasonable person would find highly offensive. This cause of action, where available, exposes the church to potential liability especially when church discipline involves matters of sexual behavior such as fornication, adultery and homosexuality.

The key constitutional principle affecting church discipline was announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Watson v. Jones: "All who unite themselves to such a body [a church] do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it." The problem facing many churches in America today, then, is in determining who has consented to the authority of the church's governing authorities and who is merely checking the church out before making so consenting. It is absolutely clear that those who request and receive "membership" within a religious community have consented to the governing authority of that community. What is not so clear is the status of those who regularly participate in the activities of the religious community without becoming "members". The Oklahoma Supreme Court has further complicated this issue by holding in a 1989 case (Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville) that a church may not carry out church discipline procedures regarding a former member who has withdrawn his/her membership. This case claims to conform to the U.S. Supreme Court holding in Paul v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (1987) which supported the Jehovah's Witnesses in their practice of "shunning" a former member that had withdrawn from membership in their religious community. There is disagreement within the legal community regarding whether or not the Oklahoma Guinn case violates the holding in the U.S. Supreme Court's Paul ruling.

The law pertaining to church discipline, therefore, may be summed up under the headings of the "right of exit" and the "Power of the Gate." Any participant in a religious community has the "right of exit", meaning they may leave the religious community at any time of their choosing. On the other hand, the religious community holds the "Power of the Gate", meaning that it may refuse to allow a person from participating in its activities on the basis of its sincerely held religious beliefs. See The Law of Church and State in America by Rev. Dean M. Kelly, vol. 1, pp. 153-74 (available online at


  1. Aquinas S2Q12P2, Further, an apostate from the faith is an unbeliever....Now it is not within the competency of the Church to punish unbelief in those who have never received the faith, according to the saying of the Apostle (1 Corinthians 5:12): "What have I to do to judge them that are without?"
  2. This was codified with respect to Cathars who while baptised did not believe they had been baptised into the Catholic Church. It continued throughout history to other "schismatic heretical groups". It was also frequently applied regard to Jews forcibly baptized.
  3. Catholic Encyclopedia, State and Church
  4. Timothy Harris [1] The most surprising element of church discipline can now be appreciated more fully: the fact that no outward or physical compulsion of any kind is involved. Much of the cumbersome trappings, even nuisance, of the civil court system is to be found, but with this difference: there is no bailiff, no jail: so far as anything outwardly observable, the convict walks away as free as the one who is exonerated.
  5. The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, Vol.4: Ecclesiastical, p. 370.
  6. R.L.Dabney, Discussions p. 336
  7. Southern Baptist Convention, May 16 1920[1]
  8. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.
  9. Summa Theologica , Supplementum Tertiæ Partis #21A4
  10. Church Purity by Oscar Mink. It should be noted that Mink is non Arminian [2]
  11. Davis Huckabee Studies in Church Truth, ch. 7

See also