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Sermon Resources

Formal Church Discipline


Main Scriptures
Book: Matthew
Scripture References


6 biblical principles for dealing with sin.

1: Sin is to be dealt with privately

2: Sin is to be dealt with personally

3: Sin is to be dealt with specifically

4: sin is to be dealt with lovingly

5: sin is to be dealt with objectively

6: Sin is to be dealt with corporately




According to the 2001 census - 80% of South African citizens claim to be Christians. When you consider the amount of bribery and corruption, of murder and rape, of drug and alcohol abuse, of sexual immorality and sin of every kind that takes place in this country on a daily basis – then we can know that something is seriously wrong with people’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian.


When you look at the state of the formal recognized church – then you can hardly see a difference between the church and the world. In fact, it almost seems that the state of immorality within the church is worse than what is taking place among pagans.


Paul encountered a similar scenario in the early church.


Read 1 Cor 5:1-2.

•      He is rebuking the church, not only for the rife immorality that exists among them, but also because they had done nothing about it.

•      The church had looked on and seemingly condoned blatant immorality of a kind that even those outside the church would frown upon.



Read 1 Cor 5:3-13

•      In vs 5 Paul refers to another letter he had written to them, which we no longer have. In it he instructed them not to associate with sexually immoral people. Here he clarifies – not meaning unbelievers, those outside the church – because that would be impossible. We live in a fallen world filled with sinners who love their sin. If we are to be a wittness to that world, we will obviously have to build relationships with people who are drunkards and liars and adulterers and idolators of every kind.

•      But they were to have nothing to do with so called believers who were still living like the world of unbelievers.

•      The church, is a community of saints, Holy ones. We are to be separate from the world, different from the world – we are to hate the sin that they love.

•      Christ calls us as a church to take sin seriously. Sin destroys lives, sin ravages families, it dismantles entire countries.

•      We have to take sin seriously, not only in our own hearts, in our own lives, but also among us, in our Christian communities. We can’t allow people to take the name of Christ and yet live in such a way that dishonours that name.

•      The warning here is that if we don’t take a stand against sin and worldliness of every kind, pretty soon sin and worldliness will infiltrate and corrupt the entire church like yiest works through a lump of dough.

•      For their own sake, for the sake of the purity of the church, for the sake of the reputation of Christ.


That is why, as a church we practice formal church discipline. Not only us, but all the churches who are part of the Sola-5 association of churches have committed themselves to practice formal church discpline. Mark Dever, in his 9 marks of a healthy church makes formal church discipline one of the essential marks of a healthy church. This is what protects the health and vitality of the church. It’s what stops us degernatating into a club where anyone can join and do anything they like.


This morning I have to bring to you another case of formal church discipline, so I thought I would use the sermon to remind you what it is and how and why we practice church disicpline.


Matthew 18 is the classic passage which provides Christ’s instructions on this issue. Matthew 18:15,



Much of this chapter has to do with how believers are to deal with sin. Life in a fallen world will always be marred by sin and effective Christian living must therefore know how to deal effectively with sin.

•      Matt 18:7-8: Sin is very serious and must be dealt with violently. We can never tolerate or justify sin in our lives – its to destructive to make any kind of truce with.

•      18:12,14: God is not just concerned with numbers but with individuals. When one of His sheep strays, He wants us to go after them to bring them back. Love doesn’t leave sheep to wander and stray and fall prey to sin.

•      18:21-22: We will sin against one another – therefore askign and granting forgiveness is going to be an integral part of our communal life. Get used to confessing your sin, get used to forgiving the sins of others – over and over and over again.


Then in the midst of this is specific instructions on how to deal with sin among brothers and sisters in Christ.


Read Matt 18:15-20


1: Sin is to be dealt with privately (18:15)

Not gossip and slander

•      We are not to gossip and slander and tell everyone else what so and so did.

•      When formal church discipline is lacking – gossip is rife. Members go around talking behind one another’s backs.

•      We can’t tolerate that. If someone has a gripe or an issue with someone else in the church, whether it me, or another elder, or another member – don’t give them any airtime. Direct them to the individual concerned.

•      Please don’t come to me about concerns you have with someone else until you have first gone to them.


2: Sin is to be dealt with personally (18:15)

•      I know it can be awkward and even scary at times – but its every members responsibility to address the sin they see.

•      Some later manuscripts have added “against you” but the most reliable manuscripts keep it more general than that.

•      This is not sin that is necessarily against you, but sin that you have personally witnessed.

•      We can’t leave this to the trained professionals. I can’t go and speak to someone about sin I have never observed in their life – that is your responsibility.


Sometimes that takes place in the family first because they are often the first to see.


Obvisouly there is a balance and tension here.

•      On the one hand we can be guilty of hiding and excusing sin.

◦    I know of one pastor who was a drunkard, another who was visiting prostitutes and their family helped them keep their sin hidden from the church and what destruction it caused.

◦    It’s not loving for a family to overlook or ignore the sin they see because that gives it a place to grow and flourish until it gets completely out of control.

•      On the other hand we can nitpick and become ungracious and judgmental.

◦    We all struggle with sin of many kinds.

◦    As believers we should be encouraging one another to fight against sin and supporting one another in that fight.

◦    The last thing we need is judgmental condemnation every time we have fallen short. Sometimes we don’t need the pointing finger of accusation but a hand-up from a loving brother.


That’s a very real tension – when does being patent with sin move from patience and encoruagement to condoning and supporting sin? The line is not always easy to draw.

Which leads to the third principle


3: Sin is to be dealt with specifically  (18:15

The text says – if you brother sins

•      So we are talking about specific identifable sin.

•      This is not a preference issue, this is not a matter of conscience or interpretation.

•      This is something where you can open your Bible and say – God calls this sin and you need to turn from it. 

•      The text says - “show him his fault” this is something that you can specifically point out to him

•      The Greek word there means expose, point out, convict, set forth, bring to light.


Are you aware that you are doing this, or that you said this? Are you aware that this is against God’s will and ways?

•      Maybe he is not aware of his sin, maybe he is not aware of what God’s Word says about his actions or words.


This obviously means that sin has moved from the heart to the behaviour. We can’t accuse someone of greed or pride, we can only come to them with the fruit that flows from those sinful attitudes. The observable effects of what might be pride, or greed or some other sin that hasn’t been put off at the heart level.


4: Sin is to be dealt with lovingly (18:15)

The point of this is not to show your brother up, not to get even. The point here is to win your brother back. Win him back from sin, win him back to God, win him back to the fellowship.


Restoration is the goal of church discipline – the motive is love and the goal is restoration.


Mud-slinging and accusations are the opposite of what Jesus describes here.


This obviously requires that we examine our own hearts and motives, that we confess our own sin, that we take the log out of our own eye before we try to go show our brother the spec that is in his or her eye.


Illustration – anger in a child

If your child has a problem with anger it will do them no good if you justify and excuse their behaviour every time they throw a tantrem. Eventually that anger will grow and gain strength and power over them until they have little control over it.

How will they have a happy marriage or raise godly children if they lash out in verbal and physical assualts toward their spouse and children every time things don’t go their way.

So every loving parent will take action against sin they see in their children’s lives, even though it paints them to do so.


It’s the furtherst thing from love to leave people in their sin – you are only consigning them to self-destruction.


5: Sin is to be dealt with Objectively (18:16)

If you approach someone about sin – there can be two possible responses

•      One or more versions of yes and amen. They can agree with you, acknowledge their sin, ask for prayer, or for help. Maybe they hadn’t seen it before, but in the course of the conversation they are convicted and they agree with you and with God about their sin.

•      Otherwise there can be one or more versions of denial. I didn’t do that, I don’t think its sin, I think you’ve misunderstood me or my motives.

•      Sometimes they might convince you or clarify things for you – but if not, then you cannot just leave it there. Sin is too dangerous to leave.

•      The language takes on a more formal note here – that of the court room. Vs 16 talks about witnesses and facts or charges being confirmed or established.


•      This is the language of the courtroom taken from the O.T where witnesses had to hear the case and render a verdict.

◦    Again they will either agree with you that this is sin, or agree with the other person that you have misunderstood or misinterpretted the facts.

◦    The witnsess bring a measure of objectivity to the process to prevent personal dissagreements and misunderstandings from becoming public spats.

•      The other 4 foundations for church discipline should be going on all the time. If you have never had another believer point out sin to you, or never gone to another believer with some sin you have observed in their life = something is wrong. You are not living in community – because this is a normal, healthy ongoing reality in any Chrsitian community. We are sinners and we struggle with sin and against sin and God has put other believers around us to help with that struggle. Someting is seriously wrong if you are not experiencing this informally, in the context of your relationship with other believers.

•      Here things get a bit more formal because the two people are not agreeing together about the sin – a verdict must be readched.

Sin must dealt with privately, personally, specifically, lovingly, objectively


6: Sin is to be dealt with Communally (18:17)

This is the part that makes us most uncomfortable. Until here we can easily see the wisdom and benefit of this procedure – but tell it to the church! That sticks in our throat.

The word here is “ekklesia” the assembly or meeting or gathering of believers. Take this private matter to the assembled church? This seems a little extreme and possibly even unloving.

But think about the alternatives?

•      Nothing more gets done and this person’s sin continues to grow and result in destruction in their own lives and the lives of others.

•      The relationship is never restored, the real issue is never addressed leaving this person with unresolved sin or hurt or offense.

◦    What if its a man who has sexually abused a child?

◦    Or a women who is addicted to drugs and forcing her children to work for drug money?

◦    What if its a believer who has stolen money from his business parter and the whole business is going bankrupt as a result?

◦    Surely we can’t leave things like that alone? The Corinthian church wasn’t dealing with sin so their members were taking the matter to court. In 1 Cor 6 Paul rebukes them for that – what message does this send to the world if we can’t resolve our issues and differences within the church? First take it to the church and try resolve the issue there so that Christ’s name is not dragged through the mud out there in the world.

•      The alternative is that the world looks on at the church and shakes their head at our hypocrisy because we say one thing and do the opposite and all the time Christ and the gospel gets undermined and people get hardened against our message.

•      The alternative is to drive people toward gossip and slander and retalitation and other more ungodly means of dealing with sin.


It might seem harsh or unloving, but the alternatives are more harsh and unloving.


Obviosuly the church here represents the highest court of appeal. This is where private sin is not being confessed and foresaken and must be taken to taken to court and court obviously makes things more public than they were before.


God invests the church, the assembled body of believers with the highest authority. If the church is disregarded then that person is to be treated like a Gentile and tax collector which means that they are to be regarded as an unbeliever, who rightly belongs outside the believing community.


These days people have such a low regard for the church, they often don’t care. They don’t like the embarrisment or shame of their sin being publically exposed, but they show little regard for what the local church thinks or says.


At this point – the hope is still restoration, the appeal is still for repentance. It’s only if the church continues to be ignored that the fourth or final step of church discipline is taken, which is excommunication. They are put outside of the church.


Vs 18 makes this a very serious matter – whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.... Jesus is using language which would have been familiar to his listeners but is not as familiar to us. In Jesus days, when an issue of the law was debatable and the Jews were not sure if something was sin or not, they would go to the Rabbi’s or Scribes for an authoritative judgment. What they pronounced concerning the matter was referred to as binding or losing. They made an authoritative decision about whether something was indeed sinful or permissible according to God’s Law.


If things get to this point and the church speaks with one voice that this particular course of action is sinful, then the church can have the assurance that they are speaking prophetically at that point. They are merely declaring what heaven has already declared. Heaven is a euphamism for God. What the church collectively and corporately declares to be sinful – God declares sinful.


There is no higher court of appeal – if this person were to take the matter up with God Himself – God would say – listen to verdict that the church has rendered.


Jesus is building His church and He loves His bride and longs for her purity. When the church speaks out against sin – Christ will surely have regard for their verdict and their prayer.


How the church acts

Most churches don’t practice formal church discipline – at least not as we see it laid out here and I believe that is why the church and Christians lives are in such a mess.


It’s not that some sin is more serious than other sin – its that all sin is serious and cannot be ignored either personally or communally. If we ignore sin among us than soon we are allowing that sin to take root and grow among us.

Sin like the plague

•      Sin is not like the flue – just give it a few days and you’ll be over it.

•      It’s not like cancer – it might take over your body, but there is no danger of it spreading to me.

•      It’s more like the black plague – it will cause you death and your infection can easily spread to me.


Examples in Scripture

•      In Acts 5 we see Peter calling Annanias and Saphira out on their sin.

•      Gal 6:1 we have spiritual believers rescuing straying believers and 6:2 calls this a fulfillment of the law of love.

•      In Phil 4 we have Paul publically calling on Eudia and Syntechy to settle their differences and he’s asking Epaphrodutus to help them.

•      In 2 Thess 3:11-15 lazy, undisciplined believers are to be warned and if they don’t repent, put out of the church. Having nothing to do with them Paul says.

•      In 1 Tim 5:19-21 Paul charges Timothy not to give elders any special treatment. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are leader, or a member – if you continue in sin, you are to be brought before the congregation and called to repent.

•      Tit 3:10 instructs Titus to reject a factious man after 2 warnings. Heresy in the church, false teaching cannot be allowed to go on. The word means refuse, reject, having nothing to do with.

•      Heb 10:24 urges us to stimulate one another toward love and good deeds and vs 26 warns against the danger of continuing in willful sin as a believer

•      And of course in Christ’s letter to the churches in Asia minor he says to the church in Thyatira, in Rev 2:19  I know your deeds, your love, your service, our perseverance – but I have this against you that you tolerate Jesebel who is leading my people astray. Christ rebukes the church for not dealing with the false teaching and immorality of a Jesebel among them.


All of this to remind you that although this is one of the key passages which deals with church discipline – its is by no means an isolated exception. The church needs to pursue holiness and protect our holiness by taking a stand against sin and fighting against sin wherever and whenever it takes root.



6 biblical principles for dealing with sin.

1: Sin is to be dealt with privately

2: Sin is to be dealt with personally

3: Sin is to be dealt with specifically

4: sin is to be dealt with lovingly

5: sin is to be dealt with objectively

6: Sin is to be dealt with corporately.


I could add, that it is not only in this text, but the context of the whole chapter– sin is to be dealt with violently at the heart level.

•      Matt 18:7-8

•      18:12

•      We should not fear church discipline, we should fear God and deal with sin at the heart level so that it doesn’t and cannot take root in our lives.


That’s the point of this whole chapter – sin is serious and must be dealt with by beleivers living in a sinful world, with the remnants of the sinful nature. Sin is the great enemy of our souls.


A quote by Alexander Stauch:

Love is not just happy smiles or pleasant words. A critical test of genuine love is whether we are willing to confront and discipline those we care for. Nothing is more difficult than disciplining a brother or sister in Christ who is trapped in sin. It is always agonizing work – messy, complicated, often unsuccessful, emotionally exhausting, and potentially divisive. This is why most church leaders avoid discipline at all costs. But that is not love. It is lack of courage and disobedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself laid down instructions for the discipline of an unrepentant believer (Matt. 18:17-18).