• johned@aibi.ph

Apostles And Church Discipline
The Management of Sin and Sinners In The First Century AD

by John Edmiston

[This connects with the rest of Beyond Denominations in showing how a local area network can manage church discipline and in particular how such a local area network might function if the office of apostle was restored as C. Peter Wagner predicts.]

Over the past few years people I know have been involved in adultery, prostitution, credit-card fraud and pedophilia with little or no church discipline. Two of these cases have been public in the courts. We seem unable to manage major sin in the church. Either we react swiftly in condemnation or we counsel the sinner with a minor slap over the wrist. Sin is no longer strongly rebuked and sin, especially sexual immorality is now rampant in even the most conservative and Spirit-filled churches. I feel that this is grieving our God -who is holy and has called us to be holy as He is holy.

While reading and studying 2 Corinthians I noticed how stern Paul's tone was and how he was obviously coming to set up some kind of court in the church ( 1 Cor 12:20-13:10). This prompted a wider study on how the apostles regarded sin and how the apostles managed the problem of sin and sinners in the New Testament church and these are the startling conclusions.

1. Sin was not absent in the early church particularly among the pagan converts. The Corinthians were tolerating incest (1 Cor 5;1ff), visiting prostitutes (1 Cor 6:15-17), being drunk at communion (1 Cor 11:21) , engaging in sexual immorality (1 Cor chaps 6&7), visiting idols temples (1 Cor chaps 8 & 10), compromising their faith ( 1 Cor 10:18-22) and following false apostles (2 Cor 11:1-15), and the recipients of James' epistle were quarreling, fighting and committing murder (James 4:2).  Many churches were divisive or legalistic (Galatia) and embroiled in what we would call "New Age" teachings (Colossae and perhaps Ephesus). John had to warn his readers to flee from idolatry (1 John 5:21)

2. The sinners were called "saints" or holy ones even in Corinth. ( 1 Cor 1:1-3)

3. The sin was condemned and the sinners were sternly rebuked.(2 Cor 13:1-3)

4. The sinners were tried by the apostles in church courts. (Acts 5;11, 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, 2 Corinthians 12:20 ff). Having these trials adjudicated by itinerant apostles may have been a very wise move as they a) had the authority and b) were external to the fellowship and thus perceived as objective.

5.  There were proper standards of evidence. Hearsay and gossip were not admissible. (2 Cor 13:1)

6. Punishable sins included: Strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances, impurity, immorality and sensuality (1 Cor 12:20,21) as well as numerous others such as those listed under point 1 and spiritual sins such as "lying to the Holy Spirit" (Acts 5:11) and being a wayward prophetess (Rev 2:20-24).

7. The penalties included death (Annanias and Sapphira Acts 5:1-11, Jezebels children Rev 2:20-24, those who were disorderly during the Lord's supper 1 Corinthians 11:30), illness (1 Cor 11;30, Rev 2:20-24)and the mysterious "being handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh" ( 1 Cor 5:5) as well as being banned from fellowship ( 1 Cor 5:11).

8. Christians were exhorted not to associate with immoral Christians. (1 Cor 5:1-11)

9. Heretics were not even to be given the time of day. (2 John 10,11)

10. Churches were warned in advance of the arrival of an apostle and were given time to repent. Titus was thus "received with fear and trembling". (2 Cor 7:14,15) and Paul gave advance warning of his visit to Corinth to set things right in the church (2 Cor 12:20-13:10).

11. If the person had not repented of their sin they were not spared. (2 Cor 13:1-4)

12. Once they had repented then loving restoration was in order. ( 2 Corinthians 2:5-11)

Forbidden Approaches To Church Discipline

  • Judging outsiders. Christians are only to judge Christians. ( 1 Cor 5:9-13)
  • Failing to reconcile and forgive after repentance. ( Matthew 18:15-35, 1 Cor 2:5-11, Galatians 6:1)
  • Tolerating false teaching, idolatry or immorality. (2 John 10,11, 2 Cor 11:4, 1 Cor 5:1-13, Rev 2:20)
  • Taking matters to non-Christian courts. ( 1 Corinthians 6:1-11)
  • Taking minor matters of personal defrauding and cheating to court. ( 1 Cor 6::7,8)
  • Being hasty to judge others and not following a process likely to lead to reconciliation. (Matthew 5:25,26 18:15-35)

Pastoral Applications Of The Above

  1. The Church is to be holy, the pure Bride of Christ. ( 2 Cor 11:2).
  2. Sin is serious and sin is wrong and unrepentant sin should be punished.
  3. It is appropriate for Christians to set up proper courts with proper standards of evidence and preferably the presiding judge should be someone of authority from outside the fellowship. If apostles are raised up soon as some predict then this could be one of their functions.
  4. The evident purposes of church discipline are: 1) The purity of the Church which will be presented to Christ as His body and His bride. 2) To make people fear God and grow in Christian maturity 3) To keep Christians from being contaminated and defiled by sin. 4) To get the sinner to repent. 5) To prevent future judgment by God. (1 Cor 11:30-32)
  5. There are right and wrong ways to go about church discipline as outlined above. Church discipline flows from integrity and is never manipulative. (2 Cor 4:2) It is not there to get people obedient to the pastor or to the church or to the organisation but only to be obedient to Christ Jesus. (2 Cor 10:1-6)
  6. Forgiveness and restoration can only follow true repentance. Refusal to repent leads to judgment.
  7. There needs to be an urgent restoration of church discipline obviously preceded by educating the congregation as to the correct approach and the proper standards of holiness for the Christian life.

This article may be freely reproduced for non-profit ministry purposes but may not be sold in any way. For permission to use articles in your ministry, e-mail the editor, John Edmiston at johned@aibi.ph.