Morality Ch. 18: Church Discipline

Because Paul told Christians to avoid Roman courts, many Christians have failed to report things such as abuse. Jesus showed the true role of church discipline was to help reform and prevent exclusion, not to deal with criminals.

Child abuse in churches has become such a terrible scandal not just because of the malicious harm done to children, but also because of the cover-ups. Church officials who don’t want these things to become public simply move the perpetrators on to another parish where, sometimes, they repeat the offense. It is this failure to deal seriously with crime and prosecute the offenders that has created a continuing climate of mistrust.

This church practice was inspired by Paul’s teaching that believers should not be taken to secular courts, because the church should be able to deal with such problems internally (1 Cor 6:1-7). Historically this has given rise to church courts, which still exist in Catholic, Anglican, and many other churches. They can no longer judge cases that come under the purview of secular courts, but they still hear cases of church discipline. They have dealt with all kinds of offenses, from “playing games on Sunday” to sexual misconduct by clergy. But do Paul’s words mean we should not take believers to secular court and use church courts instead?

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Lucrative prosecutions

The Roman courts, which Paul didn’t want believers to use, were very different from courts today. Prosecuting someone was profitable in Roman law because the fine (which could be half the estate of the guilty person) went mostly to the successful prosecutor. This meant that the state didn’t need to bring prosecutions, because private citizens could be relied on to prosecute each other for profit. But the high stakes made bribery commonplace, and the system soon became corrupt. Courts became the sporting ground where the rich fought using oratory and money against their enemies and anyone else whom they wished to humiliate. As James says about the rich: “Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?” (Jas 2:6).

One way out was to use private arbitration, which was allowed in Roman law if both parties agreed. So Paul said that the church should itself arbitrate internal disputes and misconduct. Crimes such as murder or treason would still have been dealt with by the Roman courts, but cases of immorality or refusal to pay debts could be dealt with internally.

However, even in countries where secular courts are open and fair, churches have continued to hide their scandals by using their own discipline procedures. Child-abuse cases are just the tip of the iceberg. In private hearings of church courts today, ministers can be removed from their posts on grounds that would be dismissed by any employment tribunal. At the same time, other ministers can be privately “disciplined” for serious offenses with no more punishment than a caution and removal to a new parish.

For Paul, the scandal lay in the way that Christians took each other to court for profit. Today, the scandal lies in the way the church tries to hide that a member of the clergy has committed an immoral and/or criminal act. Their motive is to prevent the church being tarnished by these crimes, so they say things like: “He’s just one bad apple.” However, the last thing you do with a real bad apple is put it back in with the good apples.

A church can also move to the opposite extreme and excommunicate all sinners in an effort to “purify” itself. At times in the past, and sometimes today, churches expelled members for minor moral offenses or small differences in doctrine. This too could be blamed on Scripture, because Jesus teaches about how to excommunicate believers in Matthew 18:15-17: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’ [Deut 19:15]. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

The italicized repetitions tell us Jesus’ emphasis. For Jesus, every stage is hopefully the one at which the offender will listen and return in repentance. If he listens to a private rebuke, the matter can stop there; if he listens to an official rebuke from two or three, then others need know nothing about it; and finally the whole church shares the task of helping him to change his ways. Only if all this fails does he “become like a Gentile and tax collector.”

Provide a way back

At this point, we have to consider how Jesus treated “Gentiles and tax collectors.” Most Jews avoided them, but Jesus ate with them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God. Anyone who was expelled into this group became part of Jesus’ parish. He wouldn’t give up on them.

Paul was equally concerned about those who had been disciplined by the church.

Although Paul said that those who lived immoral lives should be expelled from the fellowship, he was also concerned that they should be helped to return. When Paul discovered that a member of the Corinthian church was sleeping with his stepmother, he insisted that the church should “hand this man over to Satan” and “Do not even eat with such people” (1 Cor 5:1-5, 11).

This kind of excommunication was even more serious than it sounds because he was to be thrown out of his association. In Roman society, associations (also known as fellowship groups) were extremely important, because they provided social welfare for a member who lost their job or had an unexpected bereavement. They met regularly, usually eating a meal together in a temple and renewing their pledge of support for each other. When people became Christians, they had immediate problems with the religious elements of these meetings. So they left their associations – just as Christian may leave secret societies, from the Freemasons to Skull and Bones, for similar reasons. Christians had to form their own Christian fellowship groups to replace the security that their old group had provided. So, when this immoral man was thrown out of the Christian fellowship group, he was bereft – there was no state social security net, and he was on his own.

Paul was concerned for him, and in his next letter to Corinth Paul said he was horrified that the church was doing nothing to try to rehabilitate him. “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow … in order that Satan might not outwit us” (2 Cor 2:6, 11).

Some churches make this same mistake because they interpret “do not associate or eat with him” to mean that they shouldn’t even speak to him. Paul’s original readers understood what Paul meant: that he shouldn’t be a member of their association and so he shouldn’t share in their special meals. The nearest equivalent discipline that we can apply today is exclusion from Communion. This is the meal that represents membership of the church, and this is a fairly public means of showing disapproval.

The Old Testament contains no concept of religious courts or excommunication, because the state and religion were so closely connected, and courts were not really established. If someone had a dispute, they took it up with local leaders, who met “in the gate” – a literal reference to the large shaded area within the structure of a city gate. Here the case would be heard by elders (Deut 22:15; Prov 31:23) or perhaps even by the king (2 Sam 19:8), and people hoped to find vindication and justice there (Ps 127:5; Isa 29:21; Amos 5:10, 12, 15). The original elders were deputies of Moses (Exod 18:15-23) and specifically received the Holy Spirit to do this task (Num 11:16-17, 24-25), so it clearly wasn’t regarded as a merely secular task.

There was a kind of excommunication in the Old Testament, but we have no idea how it worked. There were many offenses that were punished by being “cut off from the people.” This was the punishment of someone who used holy anointing oil or incense simply to smell nice (Exod 30:33, 38) or ate a holy offering or blood (Lev 7:20-25; 17:27), or failed to keep the Passover (Num 9:13), or didn’t repent on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:29). These are all private sins, which they’d be likely to get away with – after all, who can tell if you have actually repented of your sins except God? So, instead of a court case ending in exile, they simply waited for God to act. If someone died before the age of fifty, it was generally assumed that God had “cut them off from the people”1 – i.e., the Israelites left God to judge and punish these crimes.

Rescue, not rejection

It is difficult to decide if excommunication is a timeless practice. It is certainly found in both Testaments, but it is significantly different. In the New Testament, the church was actively encouraged to be involved, mainly in order to try and help the individual repent. But in the Old Testament there was no procedure for people to judge, even though the first elders were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Are religious courts a timeless institution? Again, both testaments had them, but they were very different. In the Old Testament they were secular courts – so they didn’t act instead of them. And in the New Testament, Paul was using a provision of the secular law (allowing for arbitration) to let the churches avoid the corruption that was so easy in Roman law cases. And other organizations or families did the same thing. That is, his solution was reflecting the culture of his day.

The purpose of these laws in the Old and New Testament was fair and affordable justice. The legal situation today is very different. Most countries now have an open and fair judiciary, and avoiding it will only create suspicion or even scandal – as it has done. But justice is often not affordable, and arbitration is probably the best way to avoid high legal costs. Thanks to Paul’s guidelines, the church is at the forefront of providing low-cost expert arbitration with organizations such as RESOLVE,2 but these do not (indeed cannot) be used to avoid criminal cases being heard.

However, Jesus and Paul were more concerned with what happens before and after discipline is applied. Whatever the means by which a church dissociates itself from the immorality of members, this should always be preceded and followed by pastoral care. Jesus emphasizes that every stage should be designed to help a sinner repent and remain inside the fold. And Paul emphasizes that after excluding someone, there should be an all-out effort to bring them back.

The church exists for reforming sinners and shouldn’t aim for perfect purity before Jesus returns. Church discipline is sometimes necessary, but the aim should still be that of rescue rather than rejection. As Rambo said: Leave no man behind!

1^ Babylonian Talmud Moed Qatan 28a (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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