Magazine Article

The Duty to Discipline

Institution and goal of church discipline

Johann Heinz
The Duty to Discipline
Photo by Dave Lowe on Unsplash

This article is adapted from a longer article by Johann Heinz, a German Adventist systematic theologian, titled “Church Discipline” and published by the Biblical Research Institute.1 Heinz died on January 27, 2021.

Church discipline was instituted by Jesus Christ,2 introduced into the churches by the apostles,3 and exercised by the authority of the local churches themselves.4 True discipline issues from God’s holiness and calls to the church to reflect Him (Lev. 19:2; 2 Cor. 6:16-18). The final objective is reform (2 Cor. 13:10) and reincorporation of the erring member (Matt. 18:15; 2 Cor. 2:1-11). Ellen White states, “All possible effort should be made to effect a reconciliation.”5

It is the task of the Christian church to investigate, proclaim, and preserve the contents of its faith, and to keep its standard of conduct pure. This means discharging duty and upholding right at the same time in defending/protecting the truth and in correcting error. Both are aspects of pastoral care. Therefore, pastoral care includes discipline and in a broader sense can be viewed as synonymous with it.

Church discipline (no matter how thorough) can never produce “a perfect church, for it has to ignore secret sins and hypocrisy.”6 As a matter of fact, the church has never achieved its ideal.7 Thus, only objective and open transgressions of God’s Word and commandments can be the subject of discipline.

A “Brotherly” Duty

Church discipline is not an act of revenge and condemnation. It does not have a juridical character but a pastoral one. This is demonstrated:

• By the meaning of the word “discipline,” which signifies “school,” and by its obvious equation with “pastoral care.”8 Therefore, discipline at its outset is a matter of teaching and learning, of advice, admonition, discernment, and consolation.

• By the lack of any kind of casuistry with its correspondent retributions.9

• By the responsibility the whole congregation bears.

• By its motive (agape: love) and goal (reconciliation).

• By its theological character. For example, church discipline is rooted in the Word
of God and therefore in Jesus Christ. The Word of God guides to repentance
and sanctification.

• By its effects. The exercise of church discipline in a compassionate and responsible spirit shows a living church that cares for its members.

Thus, church discipline can be interpreted as “brotherly duty.” The whole church bears responsibility for the open sin of one of its members (1 Cor. 5:2; 1 Thess. 5:11, 15), and the individual participates in the general responsibility for the brothers and sisters (Gal. 6:1; 1 John 5:16). At any rate, the brother’s sin and trespass is never an hour for triumph, but a challenge for service!

This is a general principle and is not to be limited simply to cases of personal offense (Matt. 18:15).10 Every Christian has to manifest the Savior’s pastoral attitude, caring for the “lost sheep.”11 On each of the disciples first, and then on the whole congregation, is conferred the pastoral duty of admonition and pardon. Every disciple has the right and duty to administer God’s pastoral counsel, and every disciple has an obligation to listen to his/her brother and sister (Matt. 18:15), to his/her brethren (verse 16) and to the whole congregation (verse 17).

The authority of the binding and loosing power of the gospel is given to all Christians (verse 18). The responsibility of binding, however, is greater than that of loosing (verses 16, 17). Binding does not belong to the individual’s authority; it requires the assistance of witnesses (verse 16),12 and finally the action of the local congregation (which alone has the right to remove from membership/disfellowship) is required if a member is to be cut off from communion (verse 17). Only within the assembly of the witnesses and the congregation is Christ present with His authority (verse 19).

But this binding and loosing authority does not reside in the church membership itself, but in the “keys” that Christ entrusted to the church (Matt. 16:19), that is, in the Word of God (Luke 11:52). Only a church guided by the Word and the Spirit can avoid the dangers of wrongly conceived and exercised church discipline that might be prompted by lack of compassion, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, or pettiness.

If church discipline is “brotherly duty,” it also is “missionary duty.” The disfellowshipped person is neither condemned nor separated forever. Considered as a “heathen man and a publican” (Matt. 18:17, KJV), he evidently does not belong to the community anymore, but he is nevertheless an object of care, an object of new missionary activity. Jesus did not accept pagans and publicans as such, but He did not reject them (Luke 15:1). He ate with them (verse 2). He called them to follow Him (Matt. 9:9); He preferred them to the impenitent priests and elders (Matt. 21:31); and the publicans recognized God’s gracious call by being baptized (Luke 7:29; Matt. 21:32).

The disfellowshipped person is in the class to which he belonged before becoming a member of the church. Esteem, love, and faithfulness for persons outside the Christian community not only excludes every form of social discrimination and civil persecution but also demands an intensive endeavor to reach those who have gone astray.

Differing from His Jewish contemporaries’ estimate of pagans and publicans (often discriminated against and condemned), Jesus accepted sinners. He repeatedly appealed to them, kindly called them to repent and to follow Him. Thus, the disfellowshipped church member is not considered a “son of perdition” like Judas, who closed his probation (John 17:12), but as a “pagan and publican” (Matt. 18:17), a person outside of the community until he/she becomes sensible and returns to it.

Just as sinners are called to draw near to God through the proclamation of the gospel, so in the same manner the former member is to be challenged to repent and to return through personal admonition. Thus, the passage (Matt. 18:21-35) that directly follows the guidelines on binding and loosing speaks of compassion and pardon. This missionary task can be accomplished only by faith (Luke 17:1-6) and love (Matt. 18:12-14), through prayer (verses 19, 20) and the Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16; Titus 1:9).

Firm in faith and life, the church has to act in compassion and humility (Matt. 7:1-5; Gal. 6:1) in order not to discourage the sinner (2 Cor. 2:5-8), and not to err by its own pride (1 Peter 5:5). Church discipline is, therefore, intended to function, not as an exclusion from salvation, but as a warning of possible perdition unless conversion takes place.

Causes for Church Discipline

While the church in its proclamation has to emphasize the vertical aspect of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, it has to distinguish between the vertical dimension and sin on the horizontal level. Secret sin cannot be made the object of discipline, but open sin is a challenge to act. The New Testament mentions several cases in which the local church is challenged to exercise its authority.

The challenge to the church is rooted in the conviction that sin risks the loss of belief and separates from God. Hence, every disciple has a responsibility for all his/her brethren (Gal. 6:1; 1 John 5:16) as has the whole community for each one (1 Thess. 5:11, 15; 1 Cor. 5:2).13 True discipline is the continual work of the Holy Spirit through the believer and the whole church, fighting against sin and appealing to reconciliation and peace.

Sharing the authority of Christ, the disciples (the church) have to apply the “rule of justice” to prevent sin from penetrating the community. At the same time the church must also apply the “rule of love,” which tends to restore. Where this does not happen, the authentic church of Jesus Christ is no longer there.

The church must oppose false teachers who introduce damnable heresies (2 Peter 2:1), which may lead finally to total apostasy (2 Thess. 2:3).

As in the Old Testament, where belief was founded on the law and not on the priest (Mal. 2:7, 8), so in the New Testament the doctrinal norm is not the preacher, but the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). The Scriptures of the Old Testament and the apostolic witness and proclamation which has found expression in the writings of the New Testament (1 John 1:3, 4) represent the norm of the Christian faith (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

When the uniqueness of Christ’s person and work is denied by “another gospel” salvation by Christ alone is rejected and the authentic proclamation of the church, the raison d’être of the Christian church itself, is denied. A believer who has espoused any other gospel has to be disfellowshipped. Such persons have condemned themselves (Titus 3:10, 11).

Where there is disagreement in the interpretation of Christ’s Word, for example, in questions concerning the basic contents of the Christian faith, the confessional church has to act in the same manner. Although it does not question the Christian attitude of such a person, it must separate the opposer from its communion in case of open opposition, in order to safeguard its self-understanding as a denomination and the spiritual well-being of its members.14

What is true in the domain of doctrine is also true in the domain of ethics. Scandal in a member’s life conduct (porneia, “sexual immorality” [1 Cor. 5:1]; ataktōs peripateō, “to walk disorderly” [see 2 Thess. 3:6-15]) cannot be tolerated by the church.


Church discipline is not a topic of the past. Rather, it is the continual expression of the church’s authority and charity. While preaching the gospel, the church also exercises a “supervisory purpose,” preserving the faith and life of its members. Because of its self-understanding and its testimony, the church cannot tolerate deviations from its life connection on the vertical and horizontal level. The church, therefore, has a continual task of preserving, calling back, correcting, and healing. Church discipline is “an aid and consolation against sin and a troubled conscience.”15

2 Matt. 16:19; 18:12-18; John 20:23.

3 Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 9-13; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14, 15; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:20; Titus 3:10, 11; 2 John 8-11.

4 Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:13; Ellen G. White: “On the church has been conferred the power to act in Christ’s stead” (Gospel Workers [Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915], p. 501).

5 Ellen. G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 241. According to Calvin, there is a threefold purpose in church discipline (Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 4, pp. 12, 5): (1) the preservation of the reputation of the church, (2) the protection of the member in good standing, and (3) the conversion and reintegration of the sinner.

6 R. N. Caswell, “Excommunication,” in The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (London: 1962), p. 402.

7 Acts 1:6; Rom. 14; 15; 1 Cor. 5; 6; Gal. 6:1; Rev. 2; 3.

8 Although paideia (upbringing, training) and paideuō (instruct, discipline, discipline with punishment) refer in most of the cases to God (1 Cor. 11:32; Eph. 6:4; 2 Tim. 3:16; Titus 2:12), the disciple has the duty to instruct (paideuō [2 Tim. 2:25]).

9 Hellenistic communities and Jewish synagogues penalized by fines or corporal punishment (2 Cor. 11:24). Later ecclesiastical discipline acted in the same way. The primitive church rejected such means of violence. The erring member was not excluded from the brotherly service of admonition and the Christian service of mission. See Albrecht Oepke, “Die kleineren Briefe des Apostels Paulus,” in Das Neue Testament Deutsch, vol. 8, p. 185.

10 The better manuscripts (B, Aleph) read, “If your brother sins,” and omit “against you,” which is found only in younger manuscripts (e.g., D).

11 The “brother” who “errs” is evidently the same as the “one sheep” that “went astray” (see Matt. 18:12-14). The SDA Bible Commentary, ed. F. D. Nichol (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), vol. 5, p. 447.

12 Cf. Deut. 19:15; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28, 29.

13 The church is the local Christian community (Matt. 18:17), represented by the disciples (verse 18) and not the hierarchie ecclesiastique, as Catholic authors have tried to prove. For example, J. Renié, Manuel d’Ecriture Sainte, 4th ed. (Lyon: 1948), vol. 4, pp. 497, 498. Against the Catholic interpretation, see Adolf Schlatter, Der Evangelist Matthäus (Stuttgart: 1948), p. 556.

14 See “Church Discipline,” SDA Encyclopedia, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1976), p. 298 (“denial of faith in the fundamentals of the gospel and in the cardinal doctrines of the church”).

15 M. Luther, Schmalkaldische Artikel III, p. 8, in Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, p. 453.

Johann Heinz

Johann Heinz was a German Adventist systematic theologian