And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven..
1 Corinthians 5:11
But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.
The city of Corinth was a center for intellect, culture, and trade; but unfortunately it was also a city given over to sexual lusts. The church at Corinth suffered from this sinful influence as seen in 1 Corinthians 5. In this part of Paul's letter, he discusses a member who was committing open fornication with his father's wife, and this had become information so common as to reach the ears of Paul all the way over in Ephesus. Paul rebuked the Corinthian church because they had boasted about this sin rather than punishing the member in sin. This provides us with a powerful context for studying the church's duty and right to discipline it's members. It is important for the normal Christian to fully understand this subject especially in this day and age where so many churches are spineless and weak, not fulfilling their obligation.
The very first thing that we need to make clear is the result of church discipline. Paul made this very clear to the church at Corinth - they were to excommunicate this member who was in sin (verses 2, 7, 11, and 13). Excommunication is the complete breaking off of all fellowship and communion with the church for an indefinite time. The Bible uses words and phrases like, "withdraw from", "reject", "avoid", and "have no company with". This would not have been something new to the Jews for God mentions it several times in the Old Testament (Exodus 12:15, 30:33; Leviticus 7:20) and it was practiced at the time of Christ (John 9:34). It is also something that is found elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 18:17-18; Romans 16:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Titus 3:10-11).
In addition to excommunication, Paul says that the member should be delivered "unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh" (verse 5). It is clear from this verse and from the reference to being a "brother" in verse 11 that Paul did not doubt this member's salvation. Now, it is impossible for a Christian to lose their salvation, but it is possible to commit a sin that is unto death (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:26-30; 1 John 5:16). In other words, God may take away their physical life. The result of church discipline ought to be a serious reminder about heart attitude toward those who need it. Like spanking a child, church discipline is not something we should enjoy. We should rather enforce such discipline with the spirit of meekness realizing that we are all capable of sin (Galatians 6:1, 2 Thessalonians 3:15).
For some people the subject of church discipline causes a negative impression for they see this as a way for the church to rid itself of unwanted members or because the pastor is too overbearing. Yet we truly ought to think of church discipline in the same way we would the discipline of children. This becomes quite obvious as we study the Scriptural reasons why a church should discipline is members. Some may feel that church discipline will run people off or drive them further into sin, but as evidenced in Scripture, when it is correctly practiced it makes the church stronger and more pure.
The first and most obvious reason for disciplining a member is to protect other members from committing the same sin. Paul asks the question, "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?" (verse 6). He was no doubt very concerned that others would follow this man's sin and was anxious that they remove the leaven.
In addition to protection, church discipline will restrict sin acting as a great deterrent. Separation from the fellowship and communion of the church is a serious loss that no born again believer would want to endure. In addition, most people would rather not have their faults aired out in public and would hopefully repent first or restrain themselves altogether from sin. Paul told Timothy, "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear" (1 Timothy 5:20). Like a public hanging helps deter crime, church discipline is a great deterrent for sin.
The ultimate end of discipline is to correct and this is true with respect to the church. Church discipline is in reality a blessing to the church in the same way that discipline of children is a blessing to the home. The member that loves their sin will not like this any more than the brat would enjoy strict parents. However, there are very few born again believers who will not come back for restoration of fellowship when it is withdrawn. Indeed, from what Paul has to say in 2 Corinthians 2:6-11, this member at Corinth got right after he was disciplined.
What sins should be punishable through church discipline? Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking questions is when should discipline be applied, especially considering that no Christian is without sin. Fortunately God gives some examples to follow:
Paul says in verse 11 that we should break fellowship with a member that is "a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner". God has always demanded holiness on the part of His people (1 Peter 1:15-16). We could perhaps view the death of Ananias and Sapphira as falling under this category.
Jesus instructed that when a member of the church had sinned against another and would not repent after the matter had been brought before the church, that member was to be disciplined (Matthew 18:15-17). Paul likewise says to withdraw from brethren who "walketh disorderly" (2 Thessalonians 3:6). These are brethren who are not just guilty of an occasional disobedience to God, but they walk or continually live in disobedience. Such are to be excommunicated from the church (see also 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
Paul told Titus, "a man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject" (Titus 3:10). Those who teach and practice heresy should not be allowed to commune with the church (see also 1 Timothy 6:3-5 and 2 Timothy 2:16-18).
Many church members and religious people hide behind the phrase "judge not lest ye be judged". Obviously, Paul felt like the church had the right to discipline members and he even says, "do not ye judge them that are within?" (verse 12). Jesus gave the church the authority and power to discipline its members in Matthew 18:18, "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven". To bind is to forbid and to loose is to allow. In the matter of membership, what the church decides on earth is given the authority of having been done in heaven.
As a final point, it is important that we recognize that church discipline is not just a suggestion - it is a command. As a parent is obligated to discipline their children, it is the responsibility of the church to discipline members when they fall into sin. Paul was disturbed that the church at Corinth had not dealt with the fornicator, how much more so will God be to those churches who have failed to apply discipline. Many churches brag about their property or offerings while their members are openly in adultery, fornication, drunkenness, selling liquor, gambling, and stealing. Church discipline is plainly taught and ought to be followed as much as any other doctrine!