Instruction 20: Exercise Church Discipline

By Adam Brown –

Sometimes chapter breaks are unfortunate disruptions to the flow of the text. Today’s passage (2 Timothy 2:22-3:9) is one such example. Neither 2 Timothy 2:22-26 nor 2 Timothy 3:1-9 should be read without conscious awareness of the other. Together, 2 Timothy 2:22-26 and 2 Timothy 3:1-9 give a balanced approach to church discipline.

Church Discipline Has a “Positive” Side

Like discipline in the home, church discipline include both reward and correction. Sometimes, church discipline is exhortative and not corrective. For example, the pure in heart simply need regular reminders to flee youthful passions and to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace (2 Timothy 2:22).

A second positive aspect to church discipline is that it is done in order to protect the weak and the vulnerable from the sin of others. It can feel un-Canadian to exercise church discipline against problem people. However, a failure to do so necessarily leaves large swaths of our membership vulnerable to the wicked influence of others (see 2 Timothy 2:3:6-9).

Church Discipline Has a “Negative” Side

Unfortunately, sometimes the elders of a local church need to exercise what might be considered “negative” church discipline. This does not mean that it is bad. It is, however, discipline that addresses wrong belief and wrong behaviour in the church.

Elders are called upon to correct opponents with gentleness with the hope that God may grant them repentance (2 Timothy 2:25-26). However, chapter 3 begins, “BUT understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. . .” Paul then proceeds to list 19 qualities that cannot be easily resolved by being “kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, and correcting opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Rather, Paul commands Timothy to “avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:5). By “avoid,” Paul does not mean, “ignore.” Rather, Paul is encouraging Timothy to break fellowship.

Church Discipline is Progressive

The above point necessitates some clarification. Breaking fellowship is not the beginning of church discipline. It is the absolute last step, to be avoided if at all possible.

As chapter 2 makes clear, church discipline begins with teaching and correction that is not quarrelsome, but is kind, patient, and gentle (2 Timothy 2:24-25). If required, however, it progresses to confrontation and, ultimately, to the breaking of fellowship.

It requires collective wisdom among elders to decide when discipline has progressed from the end of chapter 2 to the beginning of chapter 3. When does patience run out and the path toward the breaking of fellowship begin? Titus 3:10-11 may be helpful on this point:

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Such thinking is almost totally alien to our churches today. And yet it remains the Word of God.

Church Discipline Hopes for Restoration

The goal of all church discipline is “repentance that leads to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). The hope is that the offending members “will come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26).

Unfortunately, however, some people are never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Rather, they entrench themselves in sin and prey on the weak (2 Timothy 3:1-7). These members must be appropriately corrected and, if needs be, condemned.

And yet, church discipline must never be done from glad authority. The burden of headship should be obvious in the approach and demeanor of elders charged with such a weighty task. Nevertheless, the good of the church must outweigh the any proclivity to endure indefinitely with the sin and disruption of members that can be categorized by the list found in 2 Timothy 3:2-5.

Church Discipline Will Triumph If Done Biblically

When the elders engage in church discipline it is not always clear to onlookers – who do not have all of the information or the big picture in view – that what the elders are doing is right and good. The closing verses in this passage offer a note of hope for battle weary elders who wonder at the fruitfulness of church discipline.

Paul reminds Timothy of the conspicuous folly of Jannes and Jambres (names given to the two Egyptian priests who opposed Moses in Pharaoh’s court). Just as these two men were eventually seen for the counterfeits they were, so also troublemakers in the church will eventually be seen for who they really are (2 Timothy 3:8–9).

The goal of elders must not be to defend their actions, but to do what is in the best interest of the church. Like grown children who remember the discipline of their parents, those with eyes to see will eventually understand the love and responsibility that compelled the elders to discipline the church.

Instruction 20: Exercise Church Discipline

One of the most difficult responsibilities entrusted to elders is the exercise of church discipline. Second Timothy 2:22-3:9 gives helpful guidance in this important aspect of life in the church.

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