Let’s examine for a moment the types of sins that would be severe enough to merit church discipline to the highest degree, even an ultimatum in v11.
11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
Sexual immorality. The Greek word is porneia from which we derive the word, pornography. It is defined as any sexual practice outside of a heterogeneous marriage.
The next one is rather shocking for us Americans. Greed. People whose lives are are controlled by their desire to earn money at any cost. Those who lack self-control and run up their credit card bills and live way beyond their means. They are living for the riches in this life. This may lead to a confrontation.
Idolaters. Idol worshippers. This word implies those who pursue other religious views. But they like to hang around with Christians on a social basis. There comes a point, every person has to decide, are you going to be into this or not? Because we are not a social group, we are talking about truth here.
Slanderers. Those who revile, those who love to engage in verbal attacks, insults and abuse. Why is this such a serious sin? Because it breaks down the unity of the body of Christ–unity in the Bible is really important. There are some people who thrive on controversy and negative relating. Negative relating with someone else is a form of love feeling. For some, they feel connected when they engage in this type of negative criticism. It’s really immature and destructive. And it has no place in the body of Christ. For a bad mouther, a back biter, a slanderer, a gossip – such behavior may lead to an ultimatum.
Drunkenness. No matter what some may say, drinking is not a sin. But drunkenness is. It’s like greed. There is a point where you are mastered by greed or by alcohol and you lack self-control. This can of course include addiction to other forms of substance abuse. As a church, it’s our responsibility to confront and help our people get out of their addictions.
Swindlers. Those who snatch or seize. Thieves. Con-men. For example, those who borrow large sums of money from other Christians because you tell a sob story and we feel compelled to give. And after getting this money, these swindlers have no intention to pay them back. They are essentially thieves. This could lead to an ultimatum.
Other passages that talk about church discipline.
2 Thess 3:6-15. Paul warns the Thessalonians to keep away from brothers who are idle. These are brothers who are capable of working and who have opportunities to work, but instead of being busy, they’d rather be busybodies. It’s like some guys who move back into their parent’s home after college and instead of looking for a job, they play video games all day. That’s the kind of person that Paul is telling the Thessalonians to deal with. They are busybodies. They just like to talk. They like to meddle. They like to criticize. And they’re idle, they can’t provide for themselves and they end up draining resources from the community. And how are we to deal with such a brother? The answer is given in 2 Thess 3:14-15.
2 Thess 3 – 14 If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Titus 3 is another example. Paul is writing to encourage the local pastor, Titus, as he leads his congregation on the island of Crete. Titus 3 starts with a reminder that as Christians, we are to be obedient, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men. Then, Paul reminds them of who they were before they knew Christ. Their lives were characterized by deception and being enslaved to all kind of passions and pleasures, malice, envy, hating other. But all of that changed when the gospel came, when Jesus saved them. And the chapter ends with a warning against those who love engaging in foolish controversies and arguments and quarreling. Paul warns that divisive people, if not dealt with, will eventually rip a church apart. Paul gives advice to Titus on how to deal with such people in Titus 3:10-11 —
Titus 3 – 10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. 11 You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
Warn him once, warn him twice, then have nothing to do with him. Do you see a pattern?
Another passage, 3 John, describes a case of a church leader who was abusing church discipline.
3 John – 9 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. 10 So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
Diotrephes – quite an interesting description of his character. He loves to be first. If someone disagrees with him, he would kick them out of the church. He is a dominator. One clue that he is a bit off is that he gossips about others maliciously. Even when carrying out church discipline, I pray that we would not do it like Diotrephes. Discipline should be carried out with much prayer, it must be gentle, yet firm. And never malicious or a topic of gossip, but protective of the person because we really want that person to turn around. They should never feel like we have abandoned them.
I don’t believe Paul is giving an exhaustive list in 1 Cor 5 of sins that warrant church discipline. I think non-attendance is an obvious sin that can lead to church discipline. The whole point of being a member of a church is to keep you accountable and there is no way that the members of this church can keep another member accountable if that person refuses to show up on Sundays and our weekly prayer meetings. Usually, if someone is missing for several Sundays, that means, they are already in sin and don’t want to deal with it. Or they are blind to their sin. Either way, because we don’t see them, we have no way of knowing where they stand. So non-attendance is a common reason for church discipline. In that case, there is no confrontation. Members of this church make attempts to reach out to that member and if he or she doesn’t respond, we just have to take him or her off the membership roll.
Another sin that is not listed is violence. If someone is violent, if someone is a murderer, that just might merit church discipline.
What does it say in the last half of v11 after listing the sins that could warrant church discipline?
v11 …With such a man do not even eat.
Don’t even eat with the person. Sounds harsh. Remember the point. The point is to rescue that person from sin. And in order for the rescue to have a chance at being effective, we need to demonstrate solidarity as a group. That means, if the person under discipline wants to meet, I’ll meet them if they are willing to repent, but I’m not going to meet up to go bowling.
Of course, church discipline is case by case. We have been fortunate enough not to have a case that warranted church discipline. Partly, we haven’t had a case of church discipline because we didn’t really define what membership to our church looks like. Now over this past year, I hope you are getting a clearer picture why membership to a local church is necessary. You won’t be able to practice church discipline unless you have a clear boundary of who is in the membership and who is not. Church discipline and membership are 2 sides of the same coin. You can’t do church discipline without first defining church membership.
Of course, the problem is, even after we might discipline somebody as a church, the unrepentant person can just join another church down the street and sweep the sin under the rug. At least on our end, anyone who is interested in church membership, I will find out about their previous church experience and try my best to discern whether or not this person wants to join our church because he/she is trying to dodge church discipline from their previous church. If there is a case of church discipline from a previous church, I would advise the person to work it out at their old church and then afterward, if they still want to join our church, then they are more than welcome.
There was a case a few months ago when a couple came up to me for counseling. They were not married and she was pregnant. They met at a large church in the area. She worked for the church in their multimedia department. And so when this happened, they were so ashamed that they couldn’t face anyone at the church. Plus, the church was so large that they said they didn’t know any of the 50 or so pastors there. And I was sad to hear when they said, nobody would even notice that they were not there. So because I had no choice, I began counseling them and I tried at first to get them to return to their previous church and confess their sin. When they refused, I pushed them to get married. But the man’s parents were flipping out so he was dragging his feet. In the end, they decided to go to a small church in their neighborhood. There, nobody knows them. They just listen to a sermon and slip out the back door. And they will be left alone. This is a sad testament to churches in our day.
Although it is not 100% certain, I think this case of church discipline at Corinth has a happy ending. Turn to 2 Cor 2:5-11.
2 Cor 2 – 5 If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you, to some extent—not to put it too severely. 6 The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. 7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. 9 The reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. 10 If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, 11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.
This is probably the same guy who was disciplined by the church in 1 Cor 5. It sounds like this guy has repented and come back. When a person repents, the past is left behind. As a church, we embrace them. God’s will has been done and your brother has been rescued. That’s when the church has to have short term memory and forgive and forget. And the church is called to reaffirm their love for the prodigal.
Biblical love is surprisingly much more forgiving and accepting than secular love. If you are offended in the world, you will have nothing to do with that person. In families, one fight causes siblings to stop speaking to each other for decades. On the other hand, biblical love may be tougher than secular love. It’s tough love. The world says, do whatever you want. It’s permissive. Biblical love is I care about you. I care about how you are living your life. I will put myself on the railroad tracks and risk our relationship to warn you about the path that you are on. I am willing to absorb whatever reaction you may have toward me when I confront you. This is biblical love. It’s tough love, but it is also much more forgiving and accepting and self-sacrificial.
It’s a love that is redemptive. Church discipline is not punitive, it’s redemptive. If you are drifting toward the waterfalls and you are about to plunge toward spiritual death, then fellow brothers and sisters ought to do whatever we can to keep that person from destroying his life. It’s caring enough to confront. That is the role of the local church.
Every member, we belong to one another (Rom 12:5). This means that the members here are concerned for each other’s final salvation. And whether we are together for 4 years or 40 years, may this church be a tool in God’s hands to prepare you and me for our final salvation and membership as part of God’s universal church. Because in heaven, there is only one church. And you’re either in, or you’re not.