God has always disciplined His people, going all the way back to the garden. He has always established systems of discipline, beginning with the patriarchs being the heads of their families. The law of Moses (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) contained pointed guidelines of discipline in regards to those who violated various points of the law. Moses appointed an extensive system of judges, himself being the chief judge, to judge the people (Ex. 18:25-26). Hundreds of years later, when God allowed kings to be appointed over Israel, part of their responsibility was to exercise discipline in leading the people to follow God faithfully.
Discipline is a naturally understood aspect of leadership. In the home God instructed fathers to bring up their children in “the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (RSV Eph. 6:4). We understand that principle in the workplace and in society, as well. Civil authority, and the exercise discipline that goes therewith, is sanctioned by God (Rom. 13:1-7).
It’s not surprising, then, that God’s word instructs the leadership of the church to exercise discipline. Christians are told to “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Heb. 13:17).
Watching out for the souls of the members of the church is fundamental to the work of elders. Paul identified the elders at Ephesus as being “overseers” and “shepherds” of the church, and as such they needed to guard against false teachers that would arise to draw members away from faithfulness (Acts 20:28-30). In writing to Titus, Paul stated that the elders must stop the mouths, or silence, false teachers. He said further, “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith,” (Tit. 1:10-14). Thus, elders must watch out for the souls of the congregation as a whole, and at the same time be concerned for the soul of each individual member.
The ultimate step in church discipline is the instruction to withdraw fellowship from the disorderly and unfaithful who refuse to repent. Paul instructed, “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.” (2 Thess. 3:6). To the Romans he wrote, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” (Rom. 16:17). Paul put it in even stronger terms to the Corinthians, regarding a member of the congregation who was caught up in a sinful relationship and would not repent: “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Cor. 5:5).
Some consider such action as harsh, even unloving. But they need to realize that it’s God whom they’re charging with being harsh and unloving, for it’s His word that instructs such discipline. It’s actually God’s love for the wayward soul that is behind church discipline. Notice that the goal is to shake a sinful, disorderly Christian to his senses, motivating him to repent. God does not want anyone, certainly none of His precious children, to be lost (2 Pet. 3:9).