CLAIM: Some Christians interpret this passage to refer to excommunication. When a believer is removed from fellowship, they are sent to hell with Satan (v.5). Does a Christian community have the authority to cut someone off from salvation in this way?
RESPONSE: This passage does not refer to excommunication; it refers to church discipline. The Christian community does not have the authority to cut someone off from salvation, but the Christian community does have the authority to remove someone from fellowship for serious, unrepentant sin. Paul commands that this man should be “removed from your midst” (v.2; see also v.13). Elsewhere, Paul speaks about putting “Hymenaeus and Alexander” out of the church (1 Tim. 1:20). Paul commands the Thessalonians to “keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life” (2 Thess. 3:6). Later, he writes, “Do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. 15 Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:14-15). Paul explained that we need to “reject a factious man after a first and second warning” (Titus 3:10). He wrote to the Romans, “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Rom. 16:17). Jesus taught that someone in unrepentant sin should be brought before the church. If they do not listen, they should be asked to leave the group (Mt. 18:15-17). Of course, from these passages it is clear that church discipline only applies to believers—not non-Christians, as Paul makes clear in this passage (1 Cor. 5:9-10, 12). A number of other caveats should be made, regarding church discipline.
First, church discipline is based upon divine discipline. Divine discipline is an act of caring love (Heb. 12:5-12). However, while church discipline is based on God’s character (i.e. disciplining love), it is different from divine discipline in many ways.
God’s discipline is for all Christians (Heb. 12:6-8). Church discipline is for specific Christians, who are engaged in unrepentant and severe sin (Mat. 18:16-17; 1 Cor. 5:11).
God’s discipline is proactive (Heb. 12:3-4, 10; Jn. 15:2). He disciplines us to change our character in the future. Church discipline is reactive, when a church responds to unrepentant and severe sin.
God discipline is always perfect (Heb. 12:10), while church discipline is not perfect. Christian groups should never pretend to be the perfect mouthpiece for God, when they are carrying out church discipline. Sometimes, Christians can be too hard or too soft, regarding church discipline. However, we need to remember that the church isn’t perfect at anything that it does (e.g. evangelism, teaching, discipleship, etc.). It should be enough that God calls on the church to follow what he says—even if we do not carry it out perfectly.
Second, church discipline is not retributive punishment. When someone is asked to leave fellowship, they are not “getting what they deserve.” All sin has been paid for on the Cross of Christ. Therefore, there is no need to punish Christians for their sin, because God doesn’t even do this.
Third, church discipline is for the greater good. Church discipline is enacted for the good of the person (that they would change), the good of the Christian community (that people would not be harmed), and the good of the Christian witness (that non-Christians would not see Christianity as hypocrisy). Without church discipline, churches become places where hypocrites gather and abuse others in the name of God. This is far from what Christ had in mind for Christian community (Jn. 13:34-35).
Fourth, church discipline is reserved for only severe sin. Churches that try to “police” sin are typically legalistic and bizarre. The Bible only prescribes church discipline for serious and harmful sins, such as:
Sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:11)
Covetous/swindling (1 Cor. 5:11)
Idolatry (1 Cor. 5:11)
Reviling/factiousness (1 Cor. 5:11; Titus 3:10)
Substance abuse (1 Cor. 5:11)
False doctrine (1 Tim. 1:20)
Unwillingness to work (2 Thess. 3:6)
Church discipline is mentioned in several passages in the NT (Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 1:20; Titus 3:10), and the mention of “discipline worthy” sins is always different. From this, we can infer that these are not exhaustive lists. Instead, other serious sins could be added as well (e.g. physical violence, spousal abuse, etc.). This would not include less serious character issues and sins of omission.
Fifth, church discipline should always cease, if the person is repentant. There are cases of church discipline in the NT, which go overboard. For instance, the Corinthians were hesitant to take back the man sleeping with his stepmother, but Paul commanded it (2 Cor. 2:6-8). John planned on rebuking Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9) for his abuse with church discipline (3 Jn. 10). For this reason, we should be sure to end church discipline, if the person in question is repentant.