The present evangelical church culture that we live in is, in many ways, hitched to the train of pragmatism. Whatever works is what the church practices because it brings about results. What if a church grows larger and looks successful from the outside, but did it all without any functional church discipline taking place in the congregation? It would be like an athlete growing really large by eating something other than protein and lifting weights. If an athlete takes steroids, he can bypass the normal way of growing muscles, but in the end, it’s very unhealthy.
In some church circles, the practice of church discipline has been relegated down to the level of an ancient method of church life that’s been placed next to the old river baptismal services where the church gathered down by the river because they didn’t have a modern baptistry. In those same circles, the idea of practicing church discipline is not even a consideration, because it’s believed that church discipline somehow prevents a church from growing. Is that a helpful way of looking at church discipline?
The Purpose of Church Discipline
Although some cases exist in church history of people abusing authority and misusing the practice of church discipline, the real purpose of discipline is reconciliation. This is the loving thing to pursue in the life of the church. Contrary to popular opinion, church discipline is not a means of retaliation against someone who has wronged you. The overarching purpose of church discipline centers on the goal of reconciliation.
- Reconciliation between the church member and God.
- Reconciliation between the church member and the body of the church.
Therefore, as the church sees this practice taking place on a regular basis, it causes the church to grow. What type of growth comes from the practice of church discipline? First, the church will grow spiritually as sin is confronted and properly dealt with. Next, the church will grow in unity together as sins that have caused divisions are properly exposed and disciplined. Last of all, numerical growth will take place as the healthy church demonstrates a passion for God, a love for one another, a hatred for sin, and a love for their community. The church will be known as a genuine church in the community rather than a “bunch of hypocrites” as the world often labels the local church. Church discipline is not antithetical to church growth.
The Necessity of Church Discipline
If we read theologians and scholars from church history, we will see that the common belief among the church in former days was that if a “church” didn’t practice church discipline, it was not a true church. It may have a steeple and stained glass, but it can’t be a true church if regular, biblical, and functional church discipline isn’t being practiced. Gregory A. Wills who is a professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and noted historian commented, “To an antebellum Baptist, a church without discipline would hardly have counted as a church.” 
In the early church, Jesus commanded church discipline to be practiced in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul urged the church at Corinth to practice it. A man was sexually involved with his father’s wife and the people of the congregation knew about it. Paul told the church at Corinth to “purge out” and to “deliver his soul to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved” (1 Cor. 5). We see similar language in 2 Thessalonians 3 and in Titus 3 regarding the need to separate from those who persist in sin. In other words, church discipline is not an item on a spiritual buffet that we can choose if we believe it to be appealing. It’s an absolute necessity.
Having walked through painful situations of public church discipline and having seen it work as Jesus intended it to, I can firmly state that not only is the practice mandated by Christ, but it’s for the good of the church and the glory of God.
What if my church is not practicing church discipline? Don’t become a rogue church member who seeks to lead the church by usurping authority that was never given to you. Take time to sit with your pastors and discuss the subject and ask healthy questions. Try to work through the need for discipline in the life of your church by starting with your pastors. Don’t be divisive over the subject of church discipline.
What if I’m looking for a church, but the church we feel led to doesn’t practice church discipline? The simple answer is—don’t join it. Perhaps you “feel” led to the church for some other reason, but if they aren’t practicing church discipline, the health of the church has been greatly compromised over time. It will only be a matter of time before things compile and become much worse.
Albert Mohler has written, “Without a recovery of functional church discipline-firmly established upon the principles revealed in the Bible-the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism. Evangelicals have long recognized discipline as the ‘third mark’ of the authentic church. Authentic biblical discipline is not an elective, but a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity.” 
- Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 12.
- Albert Mohler, “Discipline: The Missing Mark” In Polity (Center for Church Reform: 2001, 43-62), 2001.
Try mentioning the subject of church discipline among fellow Christians in a mixed evangelical audience at a local coffee shop and you’re bound to receive mixed reviews. The overwhelming majority of churches in my town do not practice church discipline. If asked to review a history of their membership meetings (business conferences), you would not find one instance of public church discipline on their records for the last 50-100 years—if you found a single record to begin with.
What is the goal of church discipline? Is it punitive? Is it revenge? Is it to demonstrate authority over people in a spiritual manner? What is the ultimate goal of church discipline and how do you know when you’ve become successful?
Confrontation with a Purpose
The process of church discipline is explained in Matthew 18:15-20. The entire purpose of confronting someone who is living in sin is to bring the individual to a place of confession and repentance to God. If the vertical relationship is restored, the horizontal relationship will be a natural fruit of repentance. The goal is never revenge or punitive damage upon the character of the person being disciplined.
If we examine Matthew 18, we see that Jesus is the One who has given us our marching orders regarding church discipline. This overarching purpose is for the purity of the bride of Christ. Contrary to the opinion of most evangelicals, church discipline is not harsh and mean-spirited. It’s done out of love. Consider the words of Alexander Strauch:
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). 
Excommunication with a Purpose
It’s one thing to confront someone in sin, but it’s quite a different thing to go through the steps to a final and divisive decision of excommunication. It seems so harsh and antiquated to the modern evangelical church. Would we really put someone outside of our church membership? That seems so counter productive to church growth – right? However, the purpose is to protect the purity of the bride of Christ and to demonstrate a desire as a local church to honor Christ with our lives. It’s one thing to claim to be a Christian, but quite another thing to live as a Christian. Too often evangelical churches put more emphasis on the words rather than the actions.
The entire goal of excommunication is to protect the purity of Jesus’ bride, to honor God, and to cause the people in the church to have a healthy fear of God. All of us should take heed of our own lives, because none of us are beyond a similar fall (1 Cor. 10:12; Acts 5:11). The goal is never revenge and it’s always with a goal of restoration. However, local churches cannot become local community clubs. In order to prevent a church from mission drift and becoming a community club, church discipline must be practiced. John MacArthur, in a blog post from February of 2003, wrote the following:
[Church discipline is] vital to the spiritual health and the testimony of the church. Ignoring church discipline is the most visible and disastrous failure of the church in our time, because it conveys to the world that we’re not really serious about sin. 
This past week we had a members’ meeting (business conference) on Sunday evening. We typically gather as a church and enjoy a meal together and then the elders of the church speak to the business and ministry of the church. During our recent meeting, a particular gentleman came before the church at the end of the meeting during the allotted time for church discipline and addressed the entire church. His goal was to explain himself publicly and ask for forgiveness. He was excommunicated from our church almost two years ago for committing adultery on his wife. After restoration between himself and God and restoration between he and his wife, he came before our church to ask for forgiveness and to request that his membership be reinstated. In my opinion, this is mission accomplished—almost.
It was a great thing to watch the disciplined member come back full circle and be accepted back into the membership of our church family. It was good for the young married couples to see this testimony of forgiveness, covenant keeping, and Christ honoring restoration. It was healthy for our church to see church discipline work as Christ designed. Too often, within evangelical churches, we see people who are held accountable simply move on and press the restart in another church where they’re allowed to harbor without any question or concern. That was not the case with this couple. After many months of difficult conversations, prayer, and ultimately a miracle from the Lord—their marriage was salvaged.
When I left the church campus and reflected upon the entire meeting, I was reminded that we’re not home yet. We must wake up tomorrow and fight the good fight of faith and persevere for the glory of God. We can’t slack off. We can’t afford to be lazy for one single moment in the journey of faith. It’s in those lazy moments that we find ourselves making catastrophic mistakes. We must keep fighting sin and work to become more conformed to the image of Christ until we arrive home.
- Alexander Strauch, Leading With Love, (Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 2006), 152.
- John MacArthur, “The Disciplined Church,” (Grace to You, February 5th, 2013).
Last week, I wrote an article about the problems that I personally perceive regarding the ministry of Andy Stanley. I learned a great lesson from that article. I can call out false teachers for heresy, but if I criticize someone within the bounds of evangelicalism for error, I’ve somehow crossed the line. Occasionally, on this blog, I write about books and ministries that people should avoid. For instance, I’ve written about Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. In both cases, I have openly referred to them as heretics. In my article regarding Andy Stanley’s problem with the Bible, I didn’t call him a heretic. I do have serious concerns regarding the trajectory of his ministry given some recent decisions, but at this point, I must still refer to him as a brother.
Every once in a while I receive an e-mail from a concerned reader of this blog asking me if I had taken time to contact someone before I publicly named them in my article. This past week, I received more than one e-mail asking me that very question. In fact, I received at least ten such e-mails and some were quite critical of my intentions as they accused me of sin for not following the model of church discipline found in Matthew 18. So the question remains – should I have contacted Pastor Andy Stanley before I made him the center figure in a critical article?
The Context of Matthew 18
As Jesus provides the detailed process of church discipline in Matthew 18, He uses the word ἐκκλησία translated church in our English Bible. This is not the first time Jesus has used this word in the New Testament. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” It’s clear from the context of Matthew 18 and Matthew 16, that Jesus is using the word church in two different ways. In His statement in Matthew 16:18, it’s clear that He is referring to the universal church. For we certainly know that the gates of hell have prevailed against some local churches throughout redemptive history. In Matthew 18:17, Jesus uses the word church in reference to the local church.
In the context of Matthew 18:15-20, we see that the sin is personal, private, and the person guilty of the offense is personally accessible. This all points to the local church as the context of Jesus’ detailed model for solving sin problems within the church. Most conservative Christians will agree that church discipline is nearly an archaic method that’s largely absent from the normal life of the evangelical church. This is an unfortunate observation indeed. John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential church manual of the nineteenth century, noted, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” 
In May of 2011, D.A. Carson addresses the abuse of Matthew 18 in a theological journal known as Themelios. According to Carson:
Person A writes a book criticizing some element or other of historic Christian confessionalism. A few bloggers respond with more heat than light. Person B writes a blog with some substance, responding to Person A. The blogosphere lights up with attacks on Person B, many of them asking Person B rather accusingly, “Did you communicate with Person A in private first? If not, aren’t you guilty of violating what Jesus taught us in Matthew 18?” This pattern of counter-attack, with minor variations, is flourishing.
Carson provides some well thought out answers to this popular scenario. Likewise, J. C. Ryle writes, “If this second course proves useless, we are to refer the whole matter to the Christian congregation of which we are members: we are to ‘tell it to the church’ (verse 17).”  It’s obvious that the context of Matthew 18 is referring to a local church and interpersonal relationships as opposed to the extended universal church.
The obvious dilemma is clearly seen when Matthew 18 is read within its proper context. In my case, suppose that I took time to reach out to Andy Stanley before I wrote my article and he graciously welcomed a conversation over coffee. What if after I confronted Andy Stanley he simply replied and suggested that we operate from a different ministry philosophy? What is my next step? Do I return with two witnesses? What if we sit down for a meeting again with witnesses and he sticks to his position? Should we demand that he allow me to publicly accuse him before his congregation that I’m not a member of?
If you think through the process, goals, and practice of church discipline in accordance with Matthew 18, it’s clearly reserved for local church matters. So, while I appreciate the care of people who have suggested that I should have reached out to Andy Stanley before I wrote the article, I disagree with their conclusion. I think the text is clear and the obvious dilemma of being outside of his congregation prevents the entire process of Matthew 18 from being possible. If I were a member or an elder within Andy Stanley’s church, I would have handled myself in a different way and followed the steps of Matthew 18.
The Freedom of Critique
In the end, we have the freedom of critique when it comes to public figures, authors, and preachers. I do think that at times polemic ministries can go overboard in their attempt to warn people regarding dangerous doctrines and heretics. I’ve certainly watched specific polemic ministries become so myopic that they tend to focus on the smallest difference as opposed to the big issues and false teachers that are plaguing the church.
As we study the context of Matthew 18, we see that church discipline is something that must be taken seriously and practiced today. How many people who insisted that I speak with Andy Stanley before writing my article actually practice Matthew 18 in their own life and church? How many of those people attend a church where someone has been publicly disciplined within the last five or ten years? The fact is, the church that I serve practices church discipline and we have seen positive fruit from this biblical method of confronting error. Following the Lord’s detailed plan for church discipline is essential for a healthy church.
After reading Matthew 18, we likewise come to understand that when someone writes a book or preaches a sermon and the content of the message is troubling, it’s not sinful to write an article about it. If your pastor preaches a sermon that you disagree with, it would not be biblical to take issue with him on your blog on Monday morning. If you have an issue with someone in your local church, you should likewise have access to that individual – even the pastor of a megachurch.
Writing articles to confront error can be helpful and promote greater health within the church as a whole if carried out in a biblical manner. We should avoid becoming overly critical, but we should not refrain from being critical when necessary. If someone leaves a church because they disagree with their former pastor and leadership, they don’t have open freedom to attack their former pastor and church online. Before writing an article or calling out someone on social media, think about your goal and ask yourself if you are exercising wisdom in your attempt to confront error. I’ve certainly ran too quickly to the blog in the eleven years that I’ve been writing this blog. Could I have reached out to Andy Stanley before writing my article? Absolutely. Was I mandated according to Matthew 18 to make contact with Andy Stanley before I called him out publicly? Absolutely not.
- John L. Dagg, A Treatise on Church Order (Paris, Arkansas: Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006), 274.
- J. C. Ryle, Matthew, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 162.
In our present day sea of church decline and failing church health, many people are focusing on the music styles, small group structures, and other elements related to the methods of “doing” church. When was the last time you attended a Monday morning fellowship breakfast among pastors where the main discussion was church discipline and how much it’s needed in our churches today? When was the last time you had dinner with another church member and discussed the value of church discipline? The fact is, most pastors will use illustrations in their sermons about how today’s parents no longer discipline their children properly, but they ignore the need for discipline in the church. This is not a new problem. In 1984 a survey was taken regarding the subject of church discipline. The survey targeted 439 pastors on the matter of church discipline. “50 percent acknowledged situations in their ministry where discipline would have been appropriate but no action was taken. Three major hindrances to the practice of church discipline were mentioned: (a) fear of the consequences or outcome, (b) preference for avoiding disruptive problems, and (c) ignorance of the proper procedures.“1
Gregory A. Wills who is a professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and noted historian commented, “To an antebellum Baptist, a church without discipline would hardly have counted as a church.”2 Predating the modern era of Baptist congregations was the early church. As we survey the New Testament, the Scriptures are very clear on the fact that the early church not only needed discipline, but they practiced it. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, a man was sexually involved with his father’s wife and the people of the congregation knew about it. Paul told the church at Corinth to “purge out” and to “deliver his soul to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved.” In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul instructs the Church at Thessalonica to refrain from keeping company with any brother (speaking of a church member) who refused to live in a Christ honoring manner. He said to refrain from having fellowship with them. He concluded by saying, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (1 Thess. 3:14-15). Titus 3:10 says, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” All of these instances of discipline stand upon the foundation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 where He provides the explicit way that discipline is to be carried out. Discipline is always done with the goal of restoration and God’s glory. Any other goal and any other method is faulty.
As we examine a rebellious culture and point to the lack of discipline in the homes, isn’t it possible that the unbelieving community could point a finger at the lack of discipline in the church today?
Why The Decline in Church Discipline?
The Rise of Church Growth
There is no denying the fact that the evangelical church today is drunk on church growth. Bigness is an epidemic that is sweeping through the church like a black plague. It isn’t necessarily a new problem either. For instance, in 1954, the Southern Baptist Convention popularized a phrase – “A Million More in 54.” Today, we have the multisite movement and other modern trends that continue to foster the idea that a big church is somehow a better church. Many congregations are willing to turn a blind eye to sin in order to achieve their goal of more members. We must remember what John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential church manual of the nineteenth century once said. He writes, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”3
The Doctrine of Tolerance
Our society is influencing the way we conduct ourselves within our local church. Like it or not, the ideology of tolerance is spilling itself over into the life of the church. We are being taught to tolerate others. We are being schooled by culture and taught to tolerate differing beliefs, faults, and habits of others. As we form our doctrine of ecclesiology, we must draw a distinct line in the sand between the factory and the local church. We may be forced to tolerate many things in the workplace, but we are taught by Christ to not tolerate sin in the lives of fellow believers (Matthew 18).
The American Individualism
Another prevailing reason for the lack of church discipline centers upon the individualistic mindset of many Americans. The tough “self-made man” of our American society has fostered the idea of an individualistic or self governed lifestyle. In other words, we don’t want people looking over our “spiritual privacy fences” and telling us what to do. Contrary to what many modern politicians say, we have a grass roots population of small government and that idea comes from a very private life. Dr. Albert Mohler writes, “Individuals now claim an enormous zone of personal privacy and moral autonomy. The congregation–redefined as a mere voluntary association–has no right to intrude into this space. Many congregations have forfeited any responsibility to confront even the most public sins of their members. Consumed with pragmatic methods of church growth and congregational engineering, most churches leave moral matters to the domain of the individual conscience.“4
The Benefits of Church Discipline
The benefits of church discipline are numerous. The church will become a more pure community of confessing believers as opposed to a hypocritical sin saturated community that brings Christ dishonor and shame. The members will learn to confront and confess and this will breed sanctification and spiritual maturity. All of this will bring God glory. What price tag can be placed on that?
A Tragic Example
One Sunday morning I met a couple who came to visit our church from another congregation across town. After meeting with this couple, I discovered that they had been disciplined and excommunicated from the church. A more accurate description would be that this family was excommunicated, but they were never disciplined. They assembled in the sanctuary for worship after their small groups met together and just before the service started a group of deacons stood up and announced charges against them. The charges were that this particular family had been teaching “strange doctrines.” They were excommunicated on the spot without the first warning, rebuke, or prayer in private. Needless to say, this family was in a state of spiritual shock. I researched the situation and discovered that they had some doctrinal differences with their former church, but they were certainly not teaching heresy. This situation may seem like a rare thing, but it does happen more than you might realize. Discipline must be followed in the way that Christ Jesus specified in Matthew 18.
A Personal Example
When I was in seminary in Kentucky, I became the pastor of a small and extremely rural church located in the farming regions 50 miles south of Louisville. I didn’t have an office, so on Wednesday evenings I would often arrive early and sit in a small classroom in the basement under the sanctuary to read and study over my lesson for the evening. One particular night a deacon walked in the room and asked if he could speak with me. He had been a member of the church for about 45 years and had been serving as a deacon for 40 years. I had only been serving as pastor for a little less than 2 years.
He talked with me about a decision he was wrestling with. He and his wife had both been married previously and when their spouses died, they later married one another. They had children who were now adults form their previous marriages. They also had two separate estates. This man was nearing retirement and was needing advice. He had discovered that because of his split estate and marriage to his wife, he was going to actually bring home less money during retirement than if he had remained single. His question to me was simple. “If I get a legal separation from my wife (but remain with her) for financial reasons, is it a sin?”
For this young seminary student and inexperienced pastor, this was a difficult situation to address. I responded by talking about Christ and His church. I pointed to the covenant keeping God and how He is mirrored in the marriage covenant. In short, I told him that it was indeed a sin and he shouldn’t go that direction no matter what the financial benefits were. Two weeks later, as I sat in that same room, he entered the room and told me that he had decided to go a different direction. He went ahead with the legal separation. I confronted him about it and he refused to accept my counsel. A few days later, I gathered three other men from the church and we traveled to his home to confront him. He eventually threw us all out of his living room and asked us to leave. We did as he asked. We went back to the little white country church and gathered in the center aisle, held hands, and wept for our brother as we prayed to God for his repentance and restoration.
After a few weeks passed, I tried to make contact with him but he refused to take my calls and he had stopped attending the church. A few more weeks passed and I informed him that I was going to have to present him for excommunication before the church in our next business conference. When the conference time arrived on that particular Sunday night, he refused to be in attendance. At the end of regular business, I brought the charge of discipline against our brother before the public assembly of our congregation. The charges were substantiated by the witnesses who accompanied me to his home. Once again, with tear filled eyes, the church voted unanimously to excommunicate him from the fellowship of our church. I was saddened by this entire process. I felt defeated at one level and relieved at another. If the truth were known, I was glad that this country church didn’t decide to excommunicate the young preacher rather than their 40 year deacon.
About 6 months passed on a Sunday morning I took the pulpit and noticed that on the very back row sat the man who had been excommunicated. I preached and he quickly exited out the back door without talking to me. The next week, the exact same thing happened. However, after I finished preaching he made his way down to the front and whispered in my ear, “Brother Josh, I have already asked the Lord to forgive me. I want to ask you to forgive me. I also want to ask the church to forgive me.” I immediately turned to the congregation and repeated what my brother had just said in my ear. The church responded with a hearty “AMEN!” Once again, we all left with tears streaming down our faces. This time it was tears of joy rather than tears of sorrow. Our brother was completely restored into the life of the church.
Carl Laney writes, “The church today is suffering from an infection which has been allowed to fester. . . . As an infection weakens the body by destroying its defense mechanisms, so the church has been weakened by this ugly sore. The church has lost its power and effectiveness in serving as a vehicle for social, moral, and spiritual change. This illness is due, at least in part, to a neglect of church discipline.”5 Today in the evangelical church, we have a very weighty decision to make. Will we continue to take in members without even calling to speak to the church they once attended? Will we continue to drink ourselves silly on church growth techniques? Will we continue to function on the ideology “whatever goes” rather than God’s Word? Dr. Albert Mohler also says, “Without a recovery of functional church discipline-firmly established upon the principles revealed in the Bible-the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism. Evangelicals have long recognized discipline as the ‘third mark’ of the authentic church. Authentic biblical discipline is not an elective, but a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity.”6
If we will love people to Christ with the gospel – we have a responsibility to continue that love when they turn down the pathway of sin. If we will do that faithfully and biblically, the glory of God will radiate from our church body. If we choose to follow the modern trends of our day – we will find ourselves consumed in the “Ichabod Syndrome” – a church with no glory. To love is to discipline. The church without discipline is a church without love. We as Christians praise discipline in the home, but why do we isolate discipline to the home and prevent it from the life of the local church? We must avoid this idea of churchless discipline.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Josh Buice
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
1. Carl J. Laney, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (O-D 1986): 357.
2. Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900, 12.
3. John L. Dagg, A Treatise on Church Order, 274.
4. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Disappearance of Church Discipline–How Can We Recover? Part One”
5. Carl J. Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline, 12.
6. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Discipline: The Missing Mark” In Polity (2001): 43-62.
The Thursday series titled, “Butchered Bible Verses” continues today with a popular verse that is often abused and misused in the life of the church and secular community. I have tried to emphasize the importance of proper interpretation of Scripture through this series, and I pray that God will help us become Bereans as we approach the sacred text of Scripture rather than simply ripping out random Bible verses and using them for Facebook status updates and bumper sticker theology.
As we approach the Bible, we must remember that it is God’s Word in totality. Every book, paragraph, and verse belongs to God and was literally breathed out by God. Therefore, just as we have no right to abuse the intention of anyone who writes a letter to us or a story in the local newspaper, we have no right to twist the words of holy Scripture into an agenda that serves our fleshly motives. We must always seek to interpret the Bible within the immediate context while seeking to discover what the original author intended by writing the words to his original audience. This method will lead you to discover the single and authoritative meaning of the text. That too must be done as we approach Matthew 7:1.
Matthew 7:1 – Judge not, that you be not judged.
Explanation of how the text is misused
No longer are we living in a culture that knows John 3:16 as the most famous verse. We are now living in a culture that recognizes Matthew 7:1 as the most famous verse. Why? Because of religious pluralism and postmodern thinking. We are living in a postmodern world that promotes individualistic rules and subjective commands. Most people in our present culture, especially in America, desire personal space and expect people to “mind their own business.” Our present culture does not like moral and religious absolutes. They are fine with the absolutes of gravity, but they are not fine with absolutes related to sin and salvation. Our culture lives with an attitude that says: Who are you to tell me that I am wrong?
We need an answer, so where do we turn? We turn to Holy Scripture. The Word of God is our absolute standard. It is holy, inspired, inerrant, and without any mixture of error. God has revealed Himself and His standards to us in His book – the Bible. Therefore, after inspiration – God has preserved His book over the years and it stands as our absolute and final guide. We don’t need other source outside of the Word of God to provide additional revelation about our God. The Word is sufficient alone.
Explanation of the text
I still remember being at summer camp as a kid with the church and seeing this guy walk down the aisle with a long beam sticking out of his eye. He was walking up and down the aisle telling people that he could see a speck in their eye and that it was dangerous and should be removed. The beam protruding out of his eye was hitting people in the face as he was trying to point out their small speck. How silly that man looked. Everyone laughed. But it left a burning imprint into my mind about this passage of Scripture. I will never forget that.
There is a right way to judge and a wrong way to judge – but Jesus says, “Judge not…” What should we do? Can we judge? Can we hold one another accountable in the Christian life? Exactly what does Jesus mean by this verse? As we look at the Scripture, we must come face to face with the reality of many other Bible verses that teach us to point out error. The Bible commands us to confront unbelievers with their unbelief and rebellion against God while pointing them to Jesus Christ for salvation. So, judgment must be rendered in some essence through evangelism (Matthew 28:18-20). Furthermore, a certain judgment must take place in pastoral ministry. For instance, the pastor is to preach the Word in order to reprove and rebuke those in his congregation (2 Timothy 4:1-5). The Bible clearly commands church discipline in Matthew 18, and this process begins in a private confrontation before it ever makes it to a public church setting. In all stages of church discipline, it would seem that judgment is taking place on the part of the accuser who confronts his brother or sister regarding sin. So, either the Bible contradicts itself or the meaning of Matthew 7:1 is often misinterpreted. Mark Dever, in his book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, writes:
Certainly, in Matthew 7:1, Jesus did forbid judging in one sense… But for now, note that if you read through that same gospel of Matthew, you’ll find that Jesus also clearly called us to rebuke others for sin, even rebuking them publicly if need be (Matt. 18:15-17; cf. Luke 17:3). Whatever Jesus meant by not judging in Matthew 7, He didn’t mean to rule out the kind of judging He mandated in Matthew 18… If you think about it, it is not really surprising that we as a church should be instructed to judge. After all, if we cannot say how a Christian should not live, how can we say how a Christian should live?”1
The word translated “judge” in Matthew 7:1 is “κρίνω” which literally means to prove someone as guilty before God. While that is what is taking place in church discipline, it is God who has already judged through His Word. The process of church discipline requires us to confront a fellow believer of sin. That involves having discernment on whether or not something is right or wrong. We must be able to choose if something is right or wrong in order to confront someone of sin. Now, the way we do that is through the Word of God. We are not making judgments based on our own ideas, emotions, or standards. We are making judgments upon people and holding one another accountable based on the clear teachings of God’s Word.
The point is clear – false judgment is wrong! The practice of a judgmental attitude is wrong and is judged as a sin by Christ Himself. Jesus promised that those who judged (in a wrong manner) would also be judged. In other words, their judgment would be like a boomerang. Like the old saying, “What goes around, comes around.” Jesus is not forbidding any judging on behalf of the Christian, because in Matthew 18 He clearly gives keys to bind and loose in the area of judging sin within the church. We cannot forbid any attempt of biblical correction in our lives as a violation of Matthew 7:1. Hebrews 13:17 commands us to submit to our elders (pastors) in the church. The attitude that says, “mind your own business” while I live my life “my way” behind my privacy fence is the exact opposite way of life intended by Jesus for His redeemed children. Jesus never intended His children to be private people living private lives. Jesus founded the church, and the church is a visible body of believers who are to be involved in one another’s lives. This process is for the purity of His church until it is presented to Him as a bride prepared for her husband. Alexander Strauch writes, “What Jesus prohibits…is sinful, improper judging. It is the hypocrisy of condemning others but failing to see one’s own glaring sins. Jesus forbids self-righteous criticism, a hypercritical spirit, and a harsh, fault-finding mindset.“2
Judgment is a two edged sword. It can be good, but it can also be something that crosses the line of sin. It is our duty as redeemed children of the King to guard our heart against the tendency of false judgment, a judgmental attitude and speech, and practices that will cause us to receive that same type of judgment from our God. Any confrontation we make in a private setting or in a public act of church discipline must always be based on the Word of God alone rather than our ideas, thoughts, or assumptions. John MacArthur writes, “Whenever we assign people to condemnation without mercy because they do not do something the way we think it ought to be done or because we believe their motives are wrong, we pass judgment that only God is qualified to make (Jas. 4:11-12).“3
As we walk the broken road of life – let us strive to love one another and glorify our God who deserves all praise and honor!
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Crossway, 2000, p. 155-156.
2. Leading With Love, Lewis and Roth, 2006, p. 158.
3. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Matthew 1-7, Moody, 1985, p. 433.
In 1 Peter 4:7-19, Peter instructs the Christians of his day to serve and suffer – all for the glory of God as the end approaches. These Christians were experiencing trials, but the most difficult and fiery trials were still to come. Yet, Peter encouraged them to remain faithful in their service and in their suffering in order to bring great glory to God and to prevent the Word of God from being blasphemed.
Love in the Midst of Discipline
Peter emphasizes love and continuing in “fervent love” one toward another within the church. According to 1 Peter 4:8, love covers a multitude of sins. Now, it is important to realize the context of this passage before just lifting that sentence out of the surrounding text and using it to say something that Peter did not intend. Peter was not encouraging the church to sweep sin under the rug, turn a deaf ear to sin, or to pretend that a fellow brother in Christ is not committing adultery on his wife. He was not saying that at all. He was merely emphasizing the fact that as brothers and sisters in Christ, we are all full of imperfections that should be laid to rest when possible in order to love one another and worship together.
What Peter was not saying was that we should overlook a brother or sister who is living in rebellious and unrepentant sin. Those who use this passage to override church discipline are seeking to align Christ and Peter against one another. In fact, church discipline is not the opposite of love – it is love. John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential church manual of the nineteenth century, noted, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it” (A Treatise on Church Order p. 274). For a body of believers to allow a person to continue in a pattern of unrepentant sin is the opposite of love. The very people who claim that church discipline is a bad thing do not understand biblical church discipline. Dr. Mohler also says, “Without a recovery of functional church discipline-firmly established upon the principles revealed in the Bible-the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism. Evangelicals have long recognized discipline as the ‘third mark’ of the authentic church. Authentic biblical discipline is not an elective, but a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity” (Discipline: The Missing Mark In Polity (2001): 43-62.). Therefore, those that Peter was writing to were able to allow genuine love to permeate the church, cover sin, and reign in their hearts at the same time as they practiced discipline upon those sinning members who were unwilling to repent.
Love in the Midst of Suffering
If there is one place in the world where Christians should be able to find a safe haven from the world – it is in the community of the church. In Peter’s day, the Christians were suffering greatly under trials and persecution. When they came together, love was essential for healing the wounds caused in the world. It was a support group. It was a place of love and support where hurting hearts could experience healing. Peter encouraged these suffering Christians to continue in fervent love in order that their love would cover sin.
Unfortunately, today’s church seems to do the exact opposite. Often Christians find themselves being beat down, discouraged, and further stressed out by the gossipers, backbiters, and complainers that assemble with them for worship each week. In many cases, young Christians either slack off greatly or find another church in hopes that their problems will be solved. Most of those Christians end up figuring out the pattern within the local church. That pattern is often not summarized by the word “love.” Is it any wonder that pastors leave churches every two years? Is it any wonder that most churches are not growing and remaining strong? The majority of the churches today are focused on problems, critical toward one another, gossiping about one another, and involved in practices that do not honor God and bring glory to His name. Love is the key to having a great church that glorifies God and cares for one another. The assembly of believers is the one place that all Christians should be able to retreat from the suffering and problems of the world. The church should be a place of love.
1 Peter 4:8 – Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins (ESV).
Pastor Josh Buice