“Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)
In an age when tolerance is the chief virtue and intolerance the chief evil, it comes as no surprise that the church practicing biblical church discipline may be sued in secular courts. So the fundamental issue may be ideological: when is tolerance biblical, when is intolerance demanded?
God is holy and he intends us to be holy. And not just us as individuals – but holiness as a congregation. As a result, the Bible is very clear in teaching that there should be church discipline and that the ultimate discipline is the breaking of fellowship, or separation. Certain people should be separated from the church.
I take it that those who speak of a doctrine of “separation” base the doctrine on this New Testament principle of church discipline. When one does not have power to put out the person who should be put out, the only way to separate is to leave oneself.
How does one identify a congregation that is guilty of unholy unity, the sin of unbiblical compromise? The New Testament clearly outlines a pattern for church discipline – who is to be disciplined, why they are to be disciplined, and how they are to be disciplined. If for any reason such a person or persons is not disciplined, the congregation is sinning against the revealed will of God.
How does one identify a congregation that is guilty of unholy separation, the sin of schism? Since God has told us who should be disciplined, why they should be disciplined, and how they should be disciplined, if that discipline or separation is of the wrong person, of the right person for the wrong reason, or of the right person for the right reason but in the wrong way, the Christian or congregation is guilty of the sin of schism.
- Who should be disciplined? The New Testament teaches that a person must be disciplined if he is guilty of unrepented, overt, moral delinquency (for example, I Corinthians 5:1,11) or one who is guilty of teaching heresy (Galatians 1:6-9; 2 John 7-11). It is important to notice that the discipline is not for one who fails in some sin of the spirit or who sins and repents, but for one who sins deliberately and continues in it. Discipline in matters of faith is not for one who has doubts. Jude 22 says clearly that we should show mercy on those who have doubts and save them. But when one teaches heresy, he must be disciplined.
When a congregation does not discipline in either of these cases, it has an unholy unity and is guilty of the sin of impurity, standing under the judgment of God. On the other hand, when a congregation or when individuals discipline for reasons other than moral dereliction or the teaching of heresy, they are guilty of an unholy separation, the sin of schism, and come under the judgment of God.
In the light of this biblical teaching, it does not take much discernment to see that a great deal of ecumenical promotion is uniting the wrong people and a great deal of separatist agitation is dividing the wrong people.
The only point on which Bible-committed Christians can legitimately differ on this clear teaching is the question of what constitutes heresy. I suggest that the biblical example would seem to limit a definition of disciplinable heresy to a denial of one of the great fundamentals of the faith, those doctrines confessed by the Church at large in all ages. Disciplinary action for teaching deviant doctrines of a lesser kind is schismatic.
- Why should one discipline? The primary purpose of discipline in Scripture is to save or restore the person who has sinned. Discipline is designed as a means of grace, not of destruction; as an evidence of love, not of hate or of fear. A secondary legitimate motive is that discipline may serve as a warning to others: it has a deterrent value (1 Timothy 5:20).
We may derive a third legitimate motive from biblical principles in general. Church discipline can be useful in protecting the reputation of Christ and of the Church. It is also useful in protecting other believers from defilement. Jude, who uses stronger words to denounce heretical teaching than any other biblical author, does not end with an injunction to begin disciplinary procedure or to separate from such people but instead exhorts the Christians who were faithful to keep on being faithful (20,21). He then concludes the passage with these words: And on some have mercy, who are in doubt; and some save, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh (22,23, ASV). Following this, Jude again turns to the faithful ones, assuring them that God is able to guard them from stumbling and to keep them till that day when they will stand in the presence of his glory without blemish in exceeding joy (24).
Note that one motive is excluded as a motive for discipline or separation. Church discipline is not to be punitive, retributive. God clearly reserves this motivation to himself – Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:19).
From this brief outline of biblical teaching on motivation for disciplining an errant brother or sister, when Christians discipline or separate from motives of legalism, vindictiveness, fear, or pride rather than with the basic motivation of saving the brother, they are guilty of the sin of schism.
- How is church discipline to be administered? Before any thought of discipline, of course, there must be prayer and self-examination (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 7:1-5). If a person has not given himself to prayer for the brother or sister and if he or she has not carefully examined his or her own life, they are disqualified because they do not have the love and humility necessary to be God’s agent in discipline.
Throughout most of the twentieth century the purifiers who were weak on love and the unifiers who were weak on faithfulness wreaked havoc with the image of God seen by the lost world. Furthermore, those who follow in their train are guilty of something else as well, inside the church. They are in danger of creating a climate that makes growth to spiritual maturity exceedingly difficult. Amid this strong polarization, is biblical balance possible?
 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:19,20; 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15
 The reader is encouraged to seek an in-depth treatise on church discipline in Five Smooth Stones by Robertson McQuilkin published by Lifeway.