What action should the church take when its members continue in unrepentant sin? With the Corinthians as our example, Paul tells us,“Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:2b) Then he tells us we should not associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty. After which he lists a number of sins — sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, revelry, drunkenness, or swindling. We are not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11b)
Doing something like this may seem harsh or excessive, but it is what God’s Word tells us to do, which means we aren’t to sweep people’s sin under the rug. We aren’t to turn a blind eye, or avoid dealing with another's sin.
The Corinthians were avoiders. Their avoidance, their refusal to deal with the sin in their midst, led Paul to deal with them. He chides them for their failure to act, their apathy, and unwillingness to stand on God's Word.
While we want to look at the Corinthians and point the finger, the troubling thing is that many churches can’t because they are doing the same — refusing to deal with their members’ sin.
Church Discipline is Beneficial
While avoidance is the easy thing to do, it is not what's best because it is not what benefits the person or the church. Let's look at those two points in turn.
(1) Church Discipline is what is best for the disciplined
When you first read 1 Corinthians 5, you might not initially think church discipline is what is best for the person because Paul tells us to “deliver this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:5a). I don't know about you, but delivering someone over to Satan so he can destroy them doesn't lead me immediately to think this is something that is beneficial. However, if you keep going, the second half of the verse gives us the result: “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:5b)
You see what Paul is getting at? Do you see why it’s beneficial? This is the best course of action, because its purpose is repentance and salvation. Church discipline then is never punitive, it is instead restorative. Its purpose is always to drive the sinner to repentance and restoration with the Lord and the community.
Repentance and restoration are important results not only so the person can continue to be fed, nourished, and use their spiritual gifts in Christian community, but it's also important for assurance of salvation. In all likelihood, those who refuse to repent, prove they are an unbeliever. They prove the gospel has never pierced their heart. The last thing we want to do as a church is give someone, who may be an unbeliever, the impression they are a believer because we don’t want the headache of dealing with their sin.
You can think of it like this: I know all of you have seen, or at least heard of the show American Idol. At the beginning of every season they always show highlights from the auditions. Without fail their are some who audition that truly believe they can sing, but in reality can’t.
When they go on the show, what happens? They end up on national television so every one can laugh at them, they get an ear full from the judges, especially when Simon was on the show, and they are rejected as a contestant.
When I see that I always wonder: Why didn’t one of their family members or friends tell them they couldn’t sing? Why weren’t they honest with them? Why didn't they go to the audition and physically pull them out of line? Doing so would have saved them a lot of time, money, and embarrassment.
To be fair, I am sure there are some who did speak up, and there were probably others who tried pulling them out of line, but I know there were still others who didn’t do anything. While not doing anything is the easier thing to do, it is not what is best for the person.
Likewise, when it comes to dealing with people’s sin in the church, it's much easier for us to avoid it, but that’s not what is best. It's not what's best because we aren’t just talking about whether a person will make it on a show or not, we are instead talking about whether a person makes it into heaven or not.
In 1 John 1:6, John writes, “If we say we have fellowship with him [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth."
In verse 8 of the same chapter, John also says, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
But look at the promise in verse 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
That is what we are ultimately after with church discipline — someone confessing their sin in repentance to God and being restored back into fellowship with the Lord and the church.
(2) Church Discipline is beneficial because it is what’s best for the church
Paul primarily tells the Corinthians this by way of illustration. Every year when the Israelite celebrated Passover, they would remove all the leaven from their homes and start with a batch of unleavened bread for a week in what is referred to as the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The removal of the leaven was symbolic of them being cleansed by the spilt blood of the Passover Lamb.
Symbolism, however, wasn't the only reason they threw the leaven out. Leaven was limited in those days, so every time they made a new batch of bread, they would hold a little of the dough back. When they made the next batch, they would kneed some of the leftover dough in so that the bread would rise. As you can imagine, there were health risks associated with that practice. To mitigate the risk and keep any future batches from becoming contaminated, they removed the old leaven once a year.
Paul, with this yearly practice in mind, says starting in verse 6 says:
“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5:6-8)
By using something they were familiar with, Paul tells them, and us, that the church is to remove unrepentant sinners: (1) So the church won't be affected in a negative way. (2) As well as we are to remove unrepentant sinners so we can live as the new community Jesus has made us to be through His sacrifice.
So when someone in our congregation is actively rebelling against God by refusing to repent, we should take action not only for their benefit, but also for the benefit of the church.
Church discipline, then, shouldn’t be a taboo topic or action in the church today. It should be talked about and practiced because it ultimately brings the most glory to God and helps us accomplish our God given goal — to make disciples.