Church discipline accords privileges and benefits to every member in the local church. Sadly, however, 70% to 90% of all disciplinary cases in churches are never handled as a privilege, to the benefit of the erring believer and the church. They are usually non-restorative. This leads most of the erring believers to run away from the church rather than run to the church. And yet, church discipline should not be perceived as harmful but helpful. It is because of this perception that many church members dispute the necessity of church discipline. That explains why many churches continue to nurse particular sins that keep recurring because of the terrible neglect of church discipline. In this article, I write to show the necessity and nature of church discipline, and the offences liable to corrective discipline.

Church Discipline—Its Necessity

From its inception, God has called the church to holiness. Paul revealed to the Ephesians that Christ has been working on presenting the church spotless and without wrinkle, that she should be holy and blameless before God the Father (Ephesians 5:26–27). Therefore, if Jesus Christ is working towards that end, we also, as a church (the body of Christ) have a great responsibility to both disciple and discipline our members for the purpose of achieving this purity and holiness. Hence the necessity of church discipline.

                If the horror and negative attitude produced at the mention of church discipline can be done away with, one needs to understanding the word discipline. This will also enable the church members to realise its necessity, that it is both a privilege and a benefit in the church. A prolific writer on church discipline, Jay Adams, gives a basic understanding of the word discipline in his book Handbook of Church Discipline:“The term discipline and disciple obviously have a common Latin source. The source is a word family that has to do with education. Discipline is inextricably linked to education” (1974: 13). To continue as a disciple, there will always come a time when one must receive discipline—formative, and at times, in case one strays, corrective. With no doubt, the Great Commission has an educational language attached to discipline. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19,20, emphasis mine). Observe the following phrases: “make disciples”, and “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” These phrases call for discipline.

Edward Hiscox, an authority on principles and practices for Baptist Churches,wrote, “The church is the school of Christ; let the school be controlled with strict, yet wise and kindly discipline, or the pupil will learn more of evil than of the good, and anarchy and confusion will supplant good government” (1980: 163). He stretches this thought even further: “The church is a family; let there be law and order in the household, tempered with tenderness and discretion, otherwise the family fails of its mission, and becomes a reproach rather than a blessing to society. The church is the organic representative of the kingdom of Christ; unless law prevails in the kingdom and order be maintained, how shall the King be honoured, the kingdom be advanced, or the world be blessed by his coming and triumph?” (1980: 164). It is without doubt that Edward Hiscox equally alludes to the necessity for church discipline.

                Therefore, because church discipline is of great necessity it must properly be implemented in every Bible-believing church. Its neglect will surely hinder the rightful preaching of the gospel and, bring shame to the name of Christ. We should never forget that as a church we are representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ in this fallen and sick world. Hence we need to ensure that church members conduct themselves in a Christ-like manner, with proper discipline. For this to be learnt there is need for discipline in the church. As Jay Adams puts it, “Thus discipline is not as many have thought, simply the negative task of ridding troublemakers out of the church. Rather, it is God’s provision for good order in his church that creates conditions for instruction and growth of members” (1974: 17).

Formative Discipline

Edward T Hiscox defines formative discipline as, “The culture, training and development according to Christian law” (1980: 162). It is that part of the everyday life of discipleship in a church that includes the preaching and teaching from the pulpit, and all other teaching ministries in the church. The problem that exists in the church today is that corrective discipline is over-emphasised at the expense of formative discipline. Everyone views church discipline only as a corrective measure. This has led many to only see corrective discipline in Scripture when, in fact, the larger side of church discipline is formative discipline!

                Jay Adams says that “When Christians are fed a regular diet of truth from the Scriptures in such a way that they grow by it, they will be far less need for remedial (corrective) discipline in a church. Those matters in which one finds himself straying from the path will be met by the individual himself or, informally and early on, through the help of other brothers and sisters in the body, and formal church corrective discipline will be largely unnecessary” (1974: 23). However, he also continues to indicate that “today on the contrary where one uses the words ‘church discipline’ we will get responses that have wholly to do with correction. There will be no thought of good order, good doctrine, and smoothly functioning church life. In most minds today, discipline means ‘the way to get rid of troublemakers’” (1974: 23).

                In Proverbs 22:6, formative discipline is taught as a way of training up a child in the way he should go, not only in the home, but in the church also. When the believer has fed and matured in God’s Word, he will not depart from it. Firstly, the leadership must always ensure that individual church members are being helped, built up, and growing in the faith. The Bible says, “…and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith…” (Eph 4:11–12). Secondly, every believer is commanded to assist others in faith. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 4:16). And thirdly, when members are encouraged to attend to the disciplines of the faith and the general activities of Christian life, they learn to keep themselves away from sin and evil, and far away from corrective discipline.

In addition, if the disciplines of the faith and the general activities of the Christian life are seen as formative discipline, then church discipline as a whole will be deemed necessary and corrective discipline will be esteemed as restorative. The more formative discipline there is, the less corrective discipline there needs to be.

Corrective Discipline

Reference is again made to Edward T Hiscox. He has defined corrective discipline as “the management of difficulties and the correction of offences as they arise in church life and practice” (1980: 162). Corrective discipline is not only seeking for apologies from the erring believer, but it is the understanding that being in a fallen state is, first of all, sin before God. The erring believer needs to repent of sin and be right with God. Receiving God’s forgiveness is often tied up with the fellowship of believers. This is what Jesus meant by, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18). This is also what Paul meant when he said, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one…” (Gal 6:1). Mature believers must tirelessly labour before God to bring back the erring believer to the right path.

Sadly, corrective discipline has not only been mistaken for the whole package of discipline but it has also been viewed as an evil that is engaged in by those who do not care, love or carry the burden of restoring offenders. People think that discipline is only about getting rid of offenders through excommunication. This view needs to change. A biblical perspective of corrective discipline enables the erring brother and the church at large to appreciate its medicinal value. If corrective discipline is to be restorative and bring reconciliation, its purpose, its spirit, and its confidentiality must be defined.

The Purpose of Corrective Discipline: It is crucial that every church leader and the church at large continually remind themselves that corrective discipline is intended for restoration and reconciliation; the protection of the purity of the church in honour of Christ’s name; and the deterrence of sin from spreading to others. It is never a tool to just get rid of the troublesome believer. Though that may be the consequence, it should never be the initial intention. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, wrote, “Even when the final step of ‘excommunication’ (that is, putting someone out of the fellowship or ‘communion’ of the church) is taken, it is still with the hope that repentance will result. Paul delivered Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan ‘that they may learn not to blaspheme’ (1 Tim. 1:20), and the man living in incest at Corinth was to be delivered to Satan ‘that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus’ (1 Cor. 5:5)” (1994: 894).

The Spirit of Corrective Discipline: The spirit in which corrective discipline is carried out is equally important. The intent of the heart must be restorative and not merely expulsion. Every step in the discipline process according to Matthew 18 is restorative including the final stage when we hand over the unrepentant person to the world. Even the apostle Paul pleads, “…restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Edward Hiscox explains; “The justification and the effectiveness of [corrective] discipline depends more on the spirit with which it is exercised. It must not be exercised in a spirit of arrogance, nor of dictation, nor of assumed superiority, much less of vindictiveness, but of fraternal solicitude [consideration], of gentleness and love. If the impression given to the offender is that there is a disposition to condemn and punish, the whole purpose is frustrated” (1980: 168).

Confidentiality in Corrective Discipline: The level of confidentiality in corrective discipline is of great importance. Though it is not the intended purpose in this article to teach on the process of implementing corrective discipline, I will strongly emphasis the need for confidentiality—absolute confidentiality. The lack of this ingredient has the potential to hinder the smooth processing of corrective discipline. Jay Adams emphasises the need for church leaders to promise confidentiality, but not absolute confidentiality. “[Because of] the ever-enlarging number of persons involved in the ongoing process of [corrective] church discipline; (according to Matt 18:15–20) first one, then two, then three or four, then the entire church, and finally the world. The implication of this biblical requirement to seek additional help in order to reclaim an offender is that Christians must never promise absolute confidentiality to any person” (1974: 30–31). How do we reconcile what Jay Adams says and my appeal for absolute confidentiality? My appeal for absolute confidentiality does not mean that only the offender and the leadership should know about it. What it means is that only those individuals who are concerned in the matter should be privy to the details of the case. So, if any individuals need to be brought in for one reason or the other (e.g. as witnesses), they too must be told that the information they are going to know about must remain only within the closed circle until such a time that the matter is made public. In that sense, we are saying the same thing.

Jay Adams says, when absolute confidentiality is sought we should say, “I am glad to keep confidence in the way that the Bible instructs me. That means, of course, I shall never involve others unless God requires me to do so. In other words, we must not promise absolute confidentiality, but rather, confidentiality that is consistent with biblical requirements. No Christian can rightly ask another for more than that. However, because of the widespread ignorance of church discipline and of the biblical position on confidentiality, it is often necessary to explain what you mean by biblical requirements in the matter and sometimes even to go into detail…” (1974: 31).

Offences Liable to Church Discipline

A quick look at the type of offences that are liable to church discipline is unavoidable when this subject is at hand. We cannot be so dogmatic and pigeonhole offences so as to put into operation corrective discipline because every offence is unique and different from the other. At the same time every offence will take its own path or course when handled, bearing its own fruit. However, that should not give us the leeway to compromise God’s Word in the relevance of corrective discipline.

Wayne Grudem’s position is worth listening to. He says, “If a situation involving personal sin against someone else cannot be resolved in a private or small group meeting then the matter must be brought to the church” (1994: 896–897). However, Wayne Grudem also notes that “[In the Bible] there does not seem to be any explicit limitation specified for the kind of sin that should be subject to church discipline. The examples of sins subject to church discipline in the New Testament are extremely diverse: divisiveness (Rom. 16:17; Titus 3:10), incest (1 Cor. 5:1), laziness and refusing to work (2 Thess 3:6–10), disobeying what Paul writes (2 Thess. 3:14–15), blasphemy (1 Tim 1:20), and teaching heretical doctrine (2 John 10–11)” (1994: 897). Nonetheless, Grudem also agrees that a specific principle appears to be at work: “all sins that were explicitly disciplined in the New Testament were publicly known or outwardly evident sins and many of them had continued over a period of time. The fact that the sins were publicly known meant that reproach was being brought on the church, Christ was being dishonoured, and there was a real possibility that others might be encouraged to follow the wrongful patterns of life that were being publicly tolerated” (1994: 897). On the other hand, Grudem admonishes, “There is always the need, however, for mature judgment in the exercise of church discipline, because there is lack of complete sanctification in all our lives. Furthermore, when we realise that someone is already aware of a sin and is struggling to overcome it, a word of admonition may in fact do more harm than good. We should also remember that where there are issues of conduct on which Christians legitimately disagree, Paul encourages a wide degree of tolerance (Rom. 14:1–23)” (1994: 897).

There are those offences that are seemingly small (we must be careful here, because no sin is small; sin is sin regardless of who, when, where, and how it is committed) or insignificant. With such, or even those which are significant yet justifiably private, Jay Adams says, “Sometimes the question is raised, do I have to go to my brother about every little offence? The answer is no. Love covers a multitude of sins (Proverbs 10:12). To cover sins, or to ‘overlook an offence’ (Proverbs 19:11b), is a glorious thing. If we had to bring up every rub between us we’d probably spend all our time doing so. Any offence that doesn’t get between us and the one who committed it—does not need to be raised. But anything that creates an unreconciled state between us and another must be brought up and dealt with. That is to say, any matter which is carried over to another day, any matter which makes you feel different toward that person for more than a passing moment, and any matter that throws love’s covers off must be brought up” (1974: 54–55).


At the end of the age, our Lord Jesus will present the church to himself, spotless and without wrinkle (Eph. 5:27). It is with this in mind that the church and its leadership must see the necessity for church discipline. To enforce formative discipline through preaching and teaching God’s Word, and at the same time, to be alert to corrective discipline in dealing with all manner of stubborn evil and unrighteousness, is the way in which the Lord will cleanse his church. Just remember that this must be done in a spirit of gentleness and sensitivity to confidentiality at every stage. Church discipline must be part of the life of every Bible-believing church and must be deemed a privilege and a benefit to all believers.


Adams, E. Jay, Handbook of Church Discipline, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1974

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois. 1994

Hiscox, Edward T, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1980