Church Discipline in Conflict
Does conflict reach a point where church discipline becomes necessary? Before this question can be answered, it is first necessary to define church discipline and understand its purpose. Church discipline is an ecclesiastical function mandated by the Great Commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20 ESV). A disciple is one who voluntarily places himself under the discipline of another. In the case of the church, this means the believer is learning to do all that Christ commands and the church is teaching the believer about the revealed will of God.
The purpose of church discipline is threefold. First, church discipline should seek restoration and reconciliation of the believer who is going astray. Sin hinders fellowship among believers and with God. Parents teach children discipline (Prov. 13:24) just as God disciplines those whom He loves (Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19). When applying discipline, the church should also act in love.
The second purpose of church discipline is to keep sin from spreading to others. Restoration and reconciliation may or may not occur but we know from the author of Hebrews (12:15) that a bitter person can spread that bitterness to other people causing division within the church. The third purpose, much like the second, is to protect the purity of the church and honor of Christ. A church member who continues to sin in a public way brings dishonor to Christ. This simply cannot be tolerated.
Since discipline in the church has been delegated to the church itself (1 Cor. 5:12-13; 2 Cor. 2:6), it must be the church that determines which conflicts rise to the level of requiring the use of discipline. Simple disagreements are unlikely to rise to such a point as to require church discipline but Scripture does give some general guidance in this area. If one sins against another (Matt. 18:15-17) or if someone is offended by us in some way (Matt. 5:23-24) could include minor matters between individuals. Something a bit more serious might include disagreements large enough to cause divisions within the church (Rom. 16:17-18; Tit. 3:9-11). These could include emotional conflict over essentially minor issues that members of the congregation feel strongly enough about to cause division.
Finally, something very serious such as false or perhaps erroneous teaching concerning the core doctrines of the Christian faith certainly rise to the level of requiring church discipline. The Apostle Paul addressed this very type of thing in his epistles to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17-18). Teaching of false doctrine can never be tolerated and must be addressed quickly and firmly. It should be noted that this does not include differences of opinion concerning varying interpretations. Throughout the Bible there are passages that have more than one valid translated meaning. The hermeneutic used by an individual plays a large part in arriving at the interpretation of a passage.
There are conflicts that require discipline and there are biblical guidelines that are to be followed in the use of discipline. Matters of preference need not involve such discipline however, the behavior of those who are in disagreement can become such that discipline is necessary. Many a church has been divided needlessly over the color of carpet, style of music, or Bible translation used from the pulpit.