Assembly Characteristics - 06 Discipline

Chapter 6

Discipline in the Local Assembly

1 Corinthians 5

A local company of believers could hardly function spiritually for the Lord without maintaining conditions that the Lord in the midst requires. God has purposed that in this world, sunk so deeply in rebellion and sin against Him, there will be such companies that practice what He desires and maintain that order which is honoring to Him.

Assembly discipline in its various forms is not a negative truth; rather, it has been designed by God for the blessing of believers and is absolutely essential for the continuation of an assembly testimony. It is a guard, a preservative, a means of keeping before a Christian the seriousness of sin in the sight of God and the need for holiness in all that is connected with His presence. A Christian who fails to judge sin personally in the light of God's Word and is disobedient to His will is one who has gotten far away in truth and practice. An assembly which fails to carry out discipline in its various forms has also gotten far away from divine principles and from the truth of the Word.

“Discipline” is a word that encompasses a large area of spiritual exercises on the individual and corporate level which are needed to maintain conditions required by the Lord. We usually speak of discipline with regard to actions of the assembly to correct one who is guilty of some wrong. However, it also includes preservative and instructive ministry to the saints, elders visiting individuals in their function as shepherds of the flock, and it also includes personal care of believers for one another to preserve and edify each other in the ways of the Lord.

Discipline in the assembly is never optional. It is expected by the Lord and taught in the Scriptures. God gives the first example of discipline involving the loss of fellowship and privilege because of sin when He drove Adam and Eve from the garden in Genesis 3. Their sin was dealt with completely and exposed as only God could expose it, the penalty was exacted, and restoration was initiated (in one sense) through the provision of the coats of skins as a covering. It was not carried out in anger nor did it go beyond the requirements of God's justice. It was tempered with grace and love to the fallen, and had in view the accomplishment of their ultimate blessing.

Not all discipline involves putting away from an assembly fellowship. “Read out” is an expression that has crept into our terminology, but it is not a Scriptural one. The scriptural term is to “put away” (1 Corinthians 5:13). It involves the removal of a believer from the enjoyment of assembly fellowship and its privileges as well as responsibilities. It is the extreme form of discipline that must be taken when a Christian is guilty of particular sins. Brethren in responsibility in an assembly should be familiar with all aspects of assembly discipline if they are to function in the capacity of elders with this heavy responsibility. The elders do not put one away from an assembly, but they function on behalf of the assembly to deal with the person who is guilty of the sin. The entire assembly is actually involved in a disciplinary action because what has taken place involves the entire assembly and its testimony. Though there may be times when individual saints may not fully agree with the action taken, they must at those times be willing to yield to the decisions of the elders, trusting their judgment as the entire assembly acts to deal with sin in an erring saint. While the elders of an assembly are responsible to assess each particular case requiring discipline and to bring it before the assembly with their recommended course of action, in reality it should be the action of the assembly rather than only the elders when discipline is carried out. Because of this reason and also in order to preserve us from possible cases of men of a “Diotrophes” character rising to dictate, the assembly should be allowed to come to agreement concerning a case of discipline and to act unitedly if there is to be an action of this character.

The Need for Discipline

In the light of scriptural teaching, it is surprising that some teach that the assembly does not need to act in discipline when there has been personal repentance on the part of the sinning one. We agree that one purpose of discipline is to bring restoration through repentance on the part of the offender, yet restoration is not complete without the action of the assembly. It is through this means that the individual realizes the enormity of what he has done and how it is seen by the assembly and the Lord. The seriousness of the sin is deeply impressed on the offender. Restoration is only one purpose of discipline. Discipline is also required to absolve the assembly of any implication in the sin, to cleanse the company from defilement as well as to reflect the mind of God toward sin. Action by the assembly shows that it is not in agreement with that sin and that it must act in discipline toward the one who is guilty.

Discipline also acts to preserve others from sin as they realize its terrible consequences. In the cases listed in 1 Corinthians 5 (and we believe also in Matthew 18:17), the offender must be put away from the assembly and its fellowship until repentance is seen and restoration is complete. The length of time necessary to accomplish this is not mandated by Scripture, and it depends on the nature of the individual case. It could be that it would be only for a brief time if there is genuine repentance on the part of the erring one. The carnal condition of the Corinthian assembly is reflected in the fact that they failed to carry out discipline, even though it was so heinous as to go beyond the immorality of the world around. This action of putting one away from an assembly has not in itself broken fellowship with the person; rather it expresses publicly that because of the sin, fellowship has already been broken and the results of it are being recognized. This action means that the saints are not to continue to outwardly express fellowship with the individual who is put away, but they are to realize that the assembly has acted and their fellowship is with the assembly in this matter. To carry on a normal relationship as if nothing has taken place is to disregard the command of Scripture (1 Corinthians 5:11; Matthew 18:17), denying the action of the assembly and showing fellowship with the one put away rather than with the assembly. This spirit should not be seen in a believer.

In these days when the prevailing attitudes of the world and even of many professing Christians are lax concerning sin in the life, it is all the more imperative for the assembly to carry out scriptural discipline. Saints and the unsaved of the world see leaders of “Christian” organizations taken in the kinds of sin that call for discipline but without proper Scriptural action being taken. These conditions tend to erode the principles we seek to maintain, yet God's principles are unchanging. Very few religious groups carry out scriptural discipline today. Does that mean we are to change our practices and conform to them? NO! We are to stand for the truth of God's Word and not accommodate the changing standards and practices of men. These days require those who enjoy assembly fellowship to recognize the serious responsibilities that accompany that fellowship and to seek to uphold scriptural and spiritual standards that are honoring to the Lord. He still walks in the midst of the golden lampstands, knowing and seeing all (Revelation 1:13). He judges with divine authority and according to a divine standard. May we rise to fully appreciate what is involved in being gathered to His Name and seek to maintain these principles for the honor of His Name!