“Three Strikes, You’re Out!” A Reflection on Church Discipline Then and Now – Part 2

by Rev. Dr Adam White
24th March 2017

We saw in part one of this paper that the world of the New Testament was one highly concerned with local community stability. In this world, the most common, and indeed, most devastating punishment was exile from the community, making it a powerful deterrent against behaviour that affected the community. Now, in part two, we will examine how the Christian community adopted and adapted these practices to its own context. In the final section, we will consider the implications and challenges of this practice in the twenty-first century context, asking the question: is the same practice still possible today? In a time where culture is increasingly tolerant and universal moral boundaries are almost non-existent, can the church still outwork such discipline?


The Jewish community in many ways functioned the same as a voluntary association in that it was a self-regulating group within the broader city structure.[i] Jews were permitted (to an extent) to administer their own punishments in the event of community disruption and group violations.[ii] As with the broader culture, flogging or excommunication was the common punishment, with the administration of this taking place in the synagogue (cf. Matt. 10.17; 23.34; Mark 13.9; Luke 4.28–29; 12.11; 21.12; John 9.22; 12.42; 16.2; Acts 22.19; 26.11). But before a person could be punished, their condemnation needed to be established by at least two witnesses along with the proof that a warning had been issued. The person’s guilt was then to be determined by a judiciary of three judges (Bolton 2013: 368). This practice of community discipline coupled with witnesses and prior warnings carried into the Christian community.

Admonition was a common feature of both the broader culture as well as the Christian community.[iii] It was seen as the task of the Christian father to raise their children in the instruction (παιδεία) and admonition (νουθεσία) of the Lord. It was also a major responsibility for the church leaders (cf. 1 Cor. 4.14; 1 Thess. 5.12); it was also a responsibility that extended to the community members (1 Thess 5.14; Col 3.16), who are given the task of admonishing their brothers or sisters who are behaving inappropriately.[iv] If admonition failed to change the person’s behaviour, however, then further punishment was administered.

While corporal punishment such as flogging does not appear to be practiced in the Christian community, excommunication certainly was. However, unlike the broader ‘secular’ community, there was an added stipulation to the punishment based on Deuteronomy 19.15 that required the evidence of two or three witnesses for a charge be established. We see this in numerous examples (cf. 1 Tim. 5.19) and for a variety of issues. In Matt. 18.15–19, Jesus says that when a person sins against another, the one sinned against must confront the offender in private. If he does not listen, then one or two others should be taken along so that the charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he still refuses to listen, then it must be told to the church. If he still refuses to listen even to the church, he is to be treated as a Gentile and a tax collector. This final reference to treating the offender as a Gentile or a tax collector, it is suggested, refers to excommunication.[v]

Another example is found in Tit. 3.10. Here, instruction is given to the young minister regarding how to deal with a αἱρετικός, that is, one who causes divisions.[vi] In the context of Titus, it refers specifically to those who engage in, among other things, foolish controversies (μωραί ζητήσεις). Such persons are to be admonished (νουθετέω) twice and should they fail to heed the correction, are to be rejected (παραιτέομαι). Though this last term is somewhat ambiguous, it is taken by some commentators to mean removal of a person from fellowship (Knight 1992: 355; Towner 2006: 797).[vii]

But perhaps the clearest example of excommunication is found in 1 Cor. 5.3–5. Here, we read about a member of the Corinthian community who is guilty of an incestuous relationship with his stepmother. This person, Paul states, has engaged in behavior that not even the pagans would tolerate. In judging the offender, Paul appears to point to three separate parties who are all present at the trial: himself, present in spirit, the gathered congregation, and the Lord Jesus. These three parties, we might assume, are all acting as witnesses against the man.[viii] Paul then tells the church to hand the man over to Satan (cf. 1 Tim 1.20 for a similar response), and to ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’ Here Paul invokes the excommunication formula of Deuteronomy as additional authority for his pronouncement of the excommunication of the offender (Zaas 1984: 259).

Excommunication in Corinth is made explicit again a few decades later. In 1 Clement we find that some of the younger men have incited a revolt against the leadership of the church and deposed them. Clement encourages the one or two involved to enter voluntary exile (54.2).[ix]

The Christian community, in other words, mirrored its own broader community in its practice of admonition and excommunication. The main difference being an additional policy of two warnings followed by expulsion of the guilty party. This excommunication was applied to those who sinned against the individual or the community, those who caused divisions through false teaching or challenges to authority, and especially those who threatened the moral and legal standing of the community. But in a 21st century, global community—a world where, for some, church is a community of tens of thousands and for others even online—is this sort of practice still affective, or even possible?


Most would agree that church discipline is still a necessary response to any offense that cannot be safely overlooked without harm to the offender or to the body of Christ. Even “watchdog” websites who decry the practice of church discipline exist exclusively for the sake of correction, or discipline. Admonition or excommunication is at times the only solution when a member’s behaviour threatens genuine harm to the rest of the community, be it physical, emotional, relational, or otherwise; and when a sin is simultaneously unrepentant, outward, and significant. In such circumstances, it must be dealt with. Yet the practical outworking of such discipline in today’s church is far more complex than what it was in the first century.

We have seen above that, in the ancient world, there was a greater concern with community stability and the individual saw their role as part of a larger whole. In this context, exile was normal and accepted. Moreover, social and moral boundaries were more clearly defined. Here there was little or no tolerance for alternative attitudes or behaviour. In almost complete contrast, however, we live in a culture of rapidly changing attitudes towards most issues and one that increasingly enforces tolerance of all beliefs and behaviours. In this environment, to even challenge a person’s views, let alone discipline or excommunicate a person for them, is likely to be deemed discrimination and easily become a legal matter. Perhaps ironically, our attempts to engage these issues only deepens the divide between ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ Christians.

Again, in the ancient world, community was central. A person’s identity was determined by their family, specifically, who their father was. People were identified by their social groups, who their friends and associates were. In this context, an individual’s primary concern was to maintain the honour and status of the groups to which they were associated. Members who brought shame to the group were excommunicated. The first Christian community understood themselves in these terms, referring to the church as a body or a family that was expected to be concerned with each other’s wellbeing.

In contrast, our modern culture, and within it, the church, is highly individualistic and consumerist. We identify ourselves more by our jobs and personal achievements than our social groups and associates. When we meet someone for the first time, almost invariably the question is asked, “So what do you do?” Our concern is less community focussed and more personally focussed. What we do in our private life is not the business of the church.

Moreover, we are a consumerist society, one that suffers from ‘Affluenza’, with the attendant symptom being the belief that too much is not enough. We live, and move, and have our being in an atmosphere where individualism, consumerism, and felt needs shape our approach to the Church. When choosing a church, the question is often asked, ‘What’s in it for me? How does it make me feel? What are the personal benefits?’ In this context, churches that fails to market themselves adequately or fail to have a high-quality band that’s up on the latest worship songs will see its numbers start to drop off. Churches become more focused on retaining people at whatever cost rather than on their transformation or correction.

Another complexity is that, in the first century, church was extremely small and localised. There was only one show in town. The Christian community in Corinth, for example, consisted of numerous house meetings that came under the leadership of Paul. There was no alternative church down the road where one could go to instead. By contrast, particularly in Pentecostalism, we have a multitude of autonomous churches in each city, and any relationship amongst then is often only incidental. We do not have membership or an overarching diocese where church discipline or excommunication can be formally monitored across churches. Moreover, we have many megachurches in which a person can hide without accountability to a community. In churches with thousands of members, it is impossible to know who might be a threat. In this context, to remove a person from one congregation might simply result in the person continuing their behaviour unmonitored somewhere else.

Again, as we have seen above, in the first century, exile in both the broader community and the Christian community was applied to similar moral issues, such as adultery or divisive behaviour. By contrast, much of what the church would excommunicate a member for today is both normal and encouraged in the broader society. The minister, who functions in many respects like a company CEO, is held to a completely different set of standards to the secular equivalent, and it is sometimes easy for the lines to be blurred.

A further difficulty is presented in that the bible offers no clear list of sins and their treatment. Situations in which discipline must be administered are always complex, and, if badly handled, can alienate the person for whom good is intended. Feelings are likely to get hurt, sometimes irrevocably so. For this reason, it requires courage, wisdom, prudence, and discernment. It is difficult for leaders who wish to be seen as loving to have to confront a person and challenge them, and so instead they might try to avoid potential conflict and neglect to confront the situation altogether. But the result of this passivity can only lead to rampant sin in the church. The pastor becomes like an ineffective bomb squad, taking a passive wait-and-see approach to sin; then when the inevitable ‘explosion’ happens, they’re left with deeply hurt people and collateral damage.

Again, then, as with now, leaders can easily abuse positions of authority. In 3 John 9.10 we read about Diotrephes, who, the author says, did not receive the brethren, and forbade those who desired to do so, putting them out of the church. Still today, pastors can, and sometimes do, wield power abusively, using excommunication as a means of control. In these scenarios, any member who dares to question their decisions or challenge their leadership or doctrine is threatened, or even punished, with removal from the church. Discipline can be used as a form of retaliation, rather than restoration. At the opposite extreme, we can see correction of others as synonymous with being ‘judgmental’ and therefore avoid it altogether.

Finally, in the ancient world, there was a culture of dealing with issues ‘in house’. Families could deal with errant members through ‘family courts’, associations and religious cults could deal with members according to their own standards and measures. It was also a world where public shaming was common and accepted as a form of discipline. In the context of the church, Jesus says to go to a sinner in private, then to take along witnesses, and finally to expose the person’s sin publically. Paul gives similar instruction in 2 Thessalonians (3:14): ‘If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.’ The attendant shame of this punishment would be immense and appropriate in that culture. Yet such practice is almost inconceivable in today’s world. Certainly, a more serious, criminal offence should (rightly) be dealt with publically by the authorities; churches are legally obligated to report such threats and not deal with them ‘in house’. But in the case of moral error, to publically expose a person’s sin in the community would be deemed, at the very least, harsh and offensive, not to mention embarrassing for the person being disciplined. But, more seriously, it straddles strict, legal boundaries. Today’s churches are governed by strict privacy laws, where a pastor must exercise extreme caution when handling a person’s private information. The outworking of Jesus’ instructions for discipline, in other words, could, in some cases, result in legal action.


The practice of church discipline has clear biblical warrant. Moreover, most would agree that it is still a necessary part of the modern church. In order for the church to maintain its unique witness in the midst of an ever-changing society, boundaries need to be maintained and at times protected. Yet there is an increased complexity in today’s culture that makes the practice of it difficult. There is perhaps no solution to this other than the need for increased wisdom, courage, and discernment in how to navigate the potential minefield of issues.



[i] The extent to which the synagogue modelled itself on the voluntary association is a matter of debate and beyond the purview of this paper. For discussion, see Baumgarten 1998; Fitzpatrick-McKinley 2002.

[ii] In civil cases, the Romans were quite happy for the Jews to administer their own justice (Oppenheimer 1998: 187–191; Williams 1998: 37.

[iii] For admonition in schools, see See e.g., Plato, Leg. 729C; Plutarch, Adol. poet. aud. 20C. For the same in adulthood, see, e.g., Dio, Or. 32.27; Plato, Prot. 323D; Resp. 399B; Demosthenes, Chers. 76; Philip. 73; Plutarch, Rect. rat. aud. 46A. Admonition was also commonly attributed to the teaching practices of philosophers. See Plutarch, Rect. rat. aud. 39A, 46A; Virt. prof. 82A; Dio, Or. 31.122, 33.10; Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 6.34–35; et al.

[iv] Cf. Ciampa and Rosner 2010: 186.

[v] See, e.g., Derrett 1983: 116; Hagner 1995: 532; Hiers 1985: 246.

[vi] BDAG, 28. The term is also a cognate of αἵρεσις (faction/sect), a term Paul uses to describe the various groups in Corinth (1 Cor. 11.19).

[vii] Cf. BDAG, 764.

[viii] For the designation of the three separate parties, see Lindemann 2000: 125.

[ix] For discussion, see Welborn, 2014.