A True Lutheran Congregation Practices Church Discipline



I. God commands the local congregation to practice it;

II. It is to be practiced with regard to the faith and life of the member;

III. It is to be administered in an evangelical manner.

One of the most important characteristics of a true Lutheran congregation is that it exercises church discipline. Every sincere Christian knows that the devil, the world, and our flesh seek daily to lead us into sin, offense, despair, and unbelief. If this were allowed to continue unchecked, evils would mount, and the Church would soon founder and go to ruin. Hence discipline is a vital factor in the life and work of a true Lutheran congregation. While it does not constitute the essence of a Christian congregation, it serves to improve its spiritual condition.

We speak of church discipline in the wider and narrower sense. In the wider sense it means all preaching of the Word with its admonition, warning, rebuking, threats, and correction, 2 Tim. 3:16, whether done by the pastor in accord with the duties of his office’ or by an individual Christian in his daily contacts with others.

In the narrower sense it means the dealing carried on in a local congregation with a member according to the Word of God, with reference to a particular sin, for the purpose of leading that member to repentance, or if this fails, of excommunicating him from its fellowship. It is the order by which the local congregation testifies that a manifest and impenitent sinner no longer stands in fellowship with the Church of Christ. 2 Cor. 6:14.

It is this latter sense that is the subject of this essay. The essay is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment, but will endeavor to bring out the salient points of the Bible teaching on church discipline. This will be done under three major headings:

I. God commands the local congregation to practice it;

II. It is to be practiced with regard to the faith and life of the member;

III. It is to be administered in an evangelical manner.


 Our first consideration is that God commands the local congregation to Practice church discipline. This portion of the essay is divided into five parts

A. The divine command.

B. Who is to practice it?

C. Upon whom is it to be exercised:

D. Its purpose.

E. Its procedure.

A. Church discipline is not a man-made arrangement or human ordinance, but is based on a command from God, directed to the local congregation. The actual seat of doctrine (sedes doctrinae) is Matthew 18: 15-17: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone, If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. ‘And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” In addition, the following passages bear upon the subject of discipline:

Rev. 2:2: The congregation at Ephesus is praised that it did not allow evil ones in its fellowship

Rev. 2:14-15.20: The congregation at Pergamos is reprimanded because it did not exercise discipline on false teachers and such as lead ungodly lives

I Tim. 1:20: Paul’s excluding two men from the visible kingdom of Christ was done in the name of the congregation.

I Tim. 5:20: in the case of public offense discipline is to be exercised before all

I Cor. 5:1-13: Paul rebukes the neglect of discipline and emphasizes its importance.

Besides these, such passages as Romans 16:17,  II Corinthians 2:6,  II Thessalonians 3:6,14.15, and II John 10-11 also pertain to discipline.

B. Who is to practice it:

The Lord says, “Tell it unto the church!” Matt. 18:17. The local congregation is to practice church discipline, not the pastor alone or the officers. When we state under the Office of the Keys that “the called ministers of Christ…exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation,” this has reference to the carrying out of the action of the congregation by the pastor in the name of Christ and in the name of the congregation.

Neither shall a Synod or a Conference exercise church discipline. There is a great difference between discipline in a Synod and in a congregation. The former is a man-made organization, the latter a divine institution. Acts 20:28. Titus 1:5. Joining a Synod is not commanded by God, but when an individual member or an affiliated congregation refuses to abide by its rules and regulations as long as these are in accord with Holy Writ, it must be excluded from that body, but this is not excommunication.

Of course, church bodies are to see to it that discipline is exercised in their midst, but it is to be carried out alone by the individual congregations, else a right which belongs only to them will be abused. God has His reason for this arrangement:–It is for the salvation of the offender, it is an act of love BY ALL to win him back Thereby each member of the congregation learns how to act toward the offending person both before and after excommunication, should this be the conclusion of the case.

C. Upon whom is church discipline to be exercised?

On that member of the congregation that has offended. This includes not only formally accepted voting members, but all who are in altar and prayer fellowship with one another in that congregation. This includes pastor, teacher, men and women, young and old. These who are not yet confirmed are under the supervision of their parents or guardians. Eph. 6:4. All others are subject alike to church discipline regardless of age, position in the church, or social standing. (The prophet Nathan reproved king David.)

We all, of course, deserve to be in discipline constantly because we daily sin much. But here are not meant those sins of weakness occurring every day in the life of the believer because of his sinful nature. These are called venial sins and do not forfeit the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But here are meant mortal sins, through which the Holy Ghost is expelled and faith and grace are lost.

Every sin is a transgression of God’s holy Law. 1 John 3:4. One must be able to prove what commandment has been broken before rebuke is administered. There are some matters too small for discipline, as a bad mannerism or a quick temper, occurring out of weakness and still clinging to the Christian. Here brotherly admonition is in place, but it is not a case for church discipline. If the rebuke is heeded, there need be no demand for apology, even as parents do not always demand apology from their children who have done wrong as long as they are aware of their sin and repent of it.

Matthew 18 deals with sin against divine laws and ordinances, with mortal sins and errors pertaining to articles of faith affecting the soul’s salvation. In 1 Cor. 5:11 the apostle Paul shows what public sins are worthy of excommunication, if no repentance takes place: adultery, idolatry, drunkenness, extortion, etc. Cf. Gal. 5:19-21 These sins harm the entire congregation and offend especially weak Christians and the youth in the Church, who, in the absence of discipline, can easily fall into thinking, “It does not harm to do this or that wrong, since no one takes it seriously, and I can still stay a member of this congregation” God preserve us from such a tragedy!

As to other weaknesses or emotional outbursts or deeds done out of ignorance, these are to be regarded as lesser offenses. To produce betterment in these instances one does not resort to church discipline or excommunication. A mild, fatherly rebuke will usually suffice, not embittering or producing embarrassment, but bringing the individual to the knowledge of his wrong so that he rejoices in penitence. Cf. Gal. 6:1.

D. The purpose of church discipline.

Its purpose is to win the erring brother and bring him to repentance so that he humbles himself before God and is willing to ask the congregation for forgiveness, Cf. 2 Cor. 13:10; 10:8; 1 Cor. 5:5. These passages speak of discipline as the power of edification and not destruction. Hence away with all pride and haughtiness! Instead, an earnestness and spirit of Christian love are to be revealed to win the sinner, even as Christ sought the lost and erring.

If repentance does not materialize, then the purpose of discipline is to purge out the evil leaven, to guard the congregation from further harm. This action should bring the offender to his senses. When excommunicated, he is cut off from the body of Christ and cast aside as rotten wood so that he might yet realize his wrong, repent, and be saved. 1 Cor. 5:5 (“that the spirit may be saved“).

E. The procedure.

Christ’s established order is given in Matt. 18:15-17 and should be carefully observed, Three steps are to be followed:

1) “Go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone!” When a brother has trespassed against you, go and admonish him in private! Do not tell others; speak kindly to him about his wrong with a view to bringing him to repentance! If he repents, forgive and forget’ The case is closed.

2) If the result is not favorable, the second step follows: “Take with thee one or two more!” Take witnesses along. Choose such persons as are agreeable to the offender, in whom he has confidence, who will have a good influence on him as individuals qualified for this serious task. If repentance is achieved, the case is concluded at this point.

3) If these two steps did not solve the problem, the third step follows: “Tell it unto the church!” The matter is now brought to the church, that is, the local congregation, and more particularly, the pastor and the voting assembly, who seek to win the erring member. If this is not accomplished, then he must be excluded from the congregation as a “heathen man and a publican.” The vote of excommunication must be unanimous.

Note well that while there are three grades of admonition, the Lord does not say that we should be satisfied to admonish only three times. We may do so oftener. Matt. 18:15; Matt. 18:21-22; Luke 17:3-4.

In this connection many advocate a spirit of gentleness and charitableness and refer to Jesus’ words in Matt. 13:28-30, especially His words, “let both (wheat and tares) grow together until the harvest.” The full reference reads: “He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, nay; lest while ye gather-up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.” Concerning this Luther writes, “This Gospel does not deprive the Church of her right to excommunicate evildoers, for the Lord speaks here of rooting out by force, with the sword. The Church, however, and the office of the ministry, do not wield the sword, but what they do is done through the Word alone. .. It is not the province of the Church to visit capital punishment upon offenders. Her office is to exclude the impenitent that they may be brought to a knowledge of their sin and be converted, and also that they may be an example, warning them to be cautious and to guard against sin.” Sermons on the Gospels, Vol. I, pp. 276- 277.

The Lord says through Paul, “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” 1 Cor. 5:13. This does not mean, wait till the offender leaves of his own accord, but take the matter in hand and use the power and right which Christ gave to His Church!! Such action and the final resolution, carried out by the pastor in the name of Christ and of the congregation, we confess “Is as valid and certain in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us Himself.” Office of the Keys, part 3.

In closing this portion of the essay, hear the clear confession concerning excommunication which our Lutheran Church gives in the Smalcald Articles, “The true Christian excommunication consists in this that manifest and obstinate sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin.” S.A. Part III, Art. IX.


Our second consideration is that church discipline is to be practiced with regard to the faith and life of the member.

A. With respect to faith.

Can anything be more important to the believer than faith in God’s Word? Luther says, The doctrine is not ours, but God’s, It is a jewel and treasure which He has entrusted to us. That there be discipline regarding faith is in accord with the Word of God Matt. 7:15, Rom, 17:17. 2 John 10:11, Titus 3:10. 1 Tim. 6:3-5. These passages are directed to Christians in general and to congregations, not just to pastors, officers, and church leaders.

If nothing were done to stem false doctrine, the Church would suffer greatly, for error is a leaven, Matt. 16:6, a poison, the tooth of the wolf (Satan) that tears the Church asunder. The devil is constantly seeking to falsify truth and cause a different Gospel to be preached so as to rob God of His honor, lead Christians from the true Word, and bring them into misbelief. A strong companion for Satan in this respect is human reason, for according to man and his reason doctrine is foolishness to him, he is opposed to spiritual matters, and is proud and haughty before God and His truth.

Reason is not pleased with God’s Law, for one thing. Man balks at its spiritual sharpness and strict demands of holiness and righteousness. The judgment of the Law which takes all honor from man is a cause for this rebellion against it. Reason is also opposed to the Gospel and individual articles of faith. 1 Cor. 1:18:23. The Word of the Cross is foolishness to human reason. Some reject it openly; others seek to make the Word palatable, and adapt teachings till they suit reason, and so error flourishes.

Church history bears out how the devil and reason react to this or that doctrine, and then controversies developed. These bold enemies are still busy leading many into error both from within and without the congregation Satan seeks to stir unrest and rob Christians of true doctrine.

Especially those who preach and teach in the Church have, because of their office, the solemn duty to uphold, defend, and spread the true Word of God. “The priest’s lips should keep knowledge.” Math 2:7. These servants of Christ are to be watchful and forestall error. They are to be workers and warriors. But sad to say; many are false leaders, deceivers, not living in humility and obedience to the Word, not taking their reason captive, not defending the truth. Through pride many become Satan’s prey and are misled to accept and propound something different, something more popular, but definitely false.

Not only shall pastors watch out for pure doctrine, but also every member of a Christian congregation is to see to it that he believes correctly, confesses rightly, all on the basis of the Word of God, but also watches for error and rebukes and shuns it when it appears.

A congregation should not be filled with doubt concerning its pastor, as though he might preach falsely to it. Rather, strong confidence is in place that he will, by God’s grace, keep his ordination vow and proclaim the truth in accordance with Holy Writ. Nevertheless, the members are to be alert, not lulled into false security, being constantly on guard in the event error arises in their midst. To that end each member should study his Bible well, review the Catechism regularly, and search and meditate on the Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church.

Were a warning is in place. Christians should not close an eye to false doctrine out of sympathy or pity. Personalities and friendships must always recede before the defense of the truth. Fleshly considerations and earthly advantages have no place in the God-pleasing method of dealing with error. Has it not happened that Christians have shown a faulty forbearance in the case of false doctrine, as e.g., toward Synodical officials and Seminary professors who have referred to their great learning and high position in the church as a reason for proceeding cautiously and not being too strict with them? Such an attitude betrays a spirit of pride that is an abomination in the sight of God.

Should a pastor be guilty of false doctrine and this fact be noted by one member, that person is bound by Matthew 18 to confer with the pastor on the matter in question. If the error is repented of, the case is closed, and nothing more need be said. But if no God- pleasing solution is reached, then others enter the case, such as neighboring pastors and Synodical officials. If their discussion with the pastor fails to produce results, then the congregation must take up the case, for its duty to watch over doctrine and to dismiss the pastor, when this is required by Scripture, supersedes that of the Synod.

If a member of the congregation promotes false teaching, seeks adherents, and works toward division within the congregation, he must be dealt with according to Matthew 18 so that God’s truth prevails and the leaven of error is removed.

B. With respect to life.

The purity of Christian life is second only to doctrinal purity. To exercise discipline in this respect is also commanded by God.

It is His will that we be holy, Lev. 19:2. There is a double obedience demanded of the believer: obedience of faith, that is, acceptance and perseverance in true doctrine, and obedience of life, that is, the will and zeal to lead a life according to the commandments of God. The Law must be our rule and guide. “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Ps. 119:105.

The life of the believer remains imperfect because of his frailties. A Christian should discipline himself and his fellow-believers in brotherly love, but if sins occur that give grave offense, where a distinct fall has occurred, there church discipline is in order, for if this did not take place, weeds would grow, leaven would spread, and offenses would increase. Soon no one in such a congregation where discipline is lacking would desire the revelation and rebuke of the Law nor seek to taste the sweetness of the Gospel. Also where sins are public with respect to life the congregation must do its duty as a deed of love to the offender. Especially shall pastors, teachers, and officers of the congregation be on guard against offense lest others follow and fall from grace.

Discipline pertaining to Christian life centers on the Ten Commandments and is to be exercised on such as transgress the respective law of God and are impenitent, as, for example, against the 1st commandment–such as speak of unbelief in their lives or show it with deeds; 2nd, blasphemers, such as curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie and deceive by God’s name; 3rd, despisers of God’s Word and the Sacraments; 4th disobedient children and neglectful parents, rioters and all who disobey government and law; 5th, murderers, such as hate, hurt, and harm, as have an unforgiving spirit; 6th, fornicators and all who engage in acts that militate against God’s principles of morality and temperance; 7th, robbers, thieves, those guilty of fraud etc.; 8th, such as commit sins of the tongue; and 9th and 10th, all who are guilty of covetousness.

Thus a true Lutheran congregation will practice church discipline with regard to the faith and the life of the member:.


Our third and final consideration is that church discipline is to be administered in an evangelical manner.

Let us note first what the opposite would be, namely, a legalistic manner.

The Law is harsh and strict. It threatens, rebukes, knows no compassion, puts down its demands, and offers no power to fulfill them. Rom. 4:15. The legalistic manner of discipline develops from the Law and would be proper if the Church were to be ruled by the Law. But Christ and His Gospel are to rule. His kingdom is one of grace and requires that the mercy and goodness of Jesus be employed. Therefore discipline dare not be administered in a legalistic way. Here is where many congregations have failed, believing that the Law is in place and regarding discipline as a church punishment. Especially in the Middle Ages the Church felt that it was a judge and could dispense penalties on the guilty sinners, even though they were penitent. This was following the Law; this was darkness when the Church did not walk in the light of the Gospel.

The legalistic manner of discipline observes the outward form of discipline very severely and strictly, admonishes in each step only once, and proceeds quickly to the end of the process so that the sinner can hardly bethink himself. It makes no distinction between sins of weakness and mortal sins, does not put the best construction on everything, and uses only the Law for the purpose of getting rid of the offender and preserving the good reputation of the congregation. God preserve us from such tactics.

To proceed in an evangelical manner is to keep in mind the actual purpose of church discipline: the honor of God and the welfare of the soul! It is true, the Law plays its part in this procedure. Paul informed the Corinthian congregation that the Law must be used, but in an evangelical manner. It remains law, yet is not used to harass and torment, but to rescue, not to press one further into the dust, but to arouse one to a right knowledge of his sin and bring him to repentance. This must be accomplished first, else the sinner cannot grasp the grace of the Gospel and be rescued. The Law must be used in much the same manner as a doctor uses a knife to cut as deeply as necessary, all for the purpose of helping and healing the patient. Spiritual help comes from the Gospel so that the offender desires grace and seeks to leave off sinning and begin anew.

To exercise discipline in an evangelical manner means to live according to the Gospel. There the love of Jesus is poured out, there the Christian recognizes Jesus’ grace and lover and this produces love to the neighbor, also to the offending neighbor. The believer hates sin, but not the sinner. He desires to rescue him and shows love and patience. But as a sinful person he knows that he has no reason to be proud and exalt himself like the Pharisee. How the Lord rebuked the self-righteous in His days He, best of all, could distinguish between hardhearted sinners and those who did wrong out of ignorance and weakness. Those who are ruled by the Gospel can rebuke better than persons of a legalistic bent, for the Gospel attitude, the evangelical manner, excluded laxity and false love which overlook and excuse sin. Longsuffering according to the Gospel does not precipitate, but will repeat steps of discipline and even in cases of public sins hold private discussion first. Walther writes that love, Christian charity, is the highest Law. If it demands a private talk with a public offender a grave injustice would be done to proceed against him publicly. (Pastorale, 326.)

The best example in evangelical discipline is our Lord and Savior. Note well the Lord’s reply in Luke 9:56 to James and John, who sought to bring fire upon the Samaritan village that did not receive Christ. He said, “The Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” The disciples had the call to preach the Gospel and to deal patiently with sinners. Thus Jesus dealt with the sinner–harshly with the obstinate, but meekly and sweetly with the saddened and depressed. Although Peter denied the Lord three times and repented of his wrong, Jesus did not bring him into the dust before restoring him to the apostleship. He asked him three times, “Lovest thou Me?” and then told him to feed His sheep and lambs. To the fallen woman Jesus said, ”Neither do I condemn thee! Go, and sin no more!” John 8:11. So also a spirit of heartfelt love must prevail in the exercise of church discipline.

As to the conduct to be shown toward the excommunicated person, Walther writes that Christians should be careful not to give the impression that they are making light of such a serious matter or that they are partakers of other men’s sins. Any association that excludes such a wrong impression is permitted. (Pastorale, 350.)

Evangelical discipline also shows itself in receiving the penitent member again. In this respect the Corinthian congregation sets a fine example, 2 Cor. 7:7.8. But this is not an easy task, especially when insults are hurled at the congregation that has dealt with the offender, even as the Lord was called a “friend of publicans and sinners.” Luke 7:34. Some have felt that the return of a penitent member should not be made too easy, and they press for a painful form of apology. But did Jesus make the return of a penitent sinner difficult? The Prodigal Son is welcomed with open arms. Where public offense occurred and penitence followed, public apology must be made, whether in person or in writing, whether by the pastor before the congregation or before the voting assembly or council. Each case is to be dealt with separately. This takes patience and instruction. True Christians must always demonstrate their hatred of a sin, their zeal in battle against evil, and their fervent love and desire to win back the erring.

In the 4th century abuses developed with regard to the reinstatement of penitent members in the congregation whereby they had to observe the following four stages: weeping -a form of beseeching for reception; listening–hearing God’s Word from a certain place in the church building; kneeling during Prayers; and standing during the service and celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Then the penitent person confessed his guilt before the congregation and received absolution. The stages described lasted from 2 to 7 weeks, and several cases on record took 2 years and longer before they were concluded. How could true Christian joy have prevailed in such instances? It is not surprising to learn that many did not seek reinstatement because of such unscriptural demands and abuses. God forbid that anything but an evangelical discipline be exercised among us!

In summary, it is characteristic of a true Lutheran congregation that it exercises church discipline as God has commanded in matters of faith and life of its members in an evangelical manner. Let there be no laxity or neglect in this respect, but let us be encouraged in this vital work of the Church by the solemn words of hymn 331:

Yea, as I live, Jehovah saith,
I would not have the sinner’s death,
But that he turn from error’s ways,
Repent and live through endless days.
All those whose sins ye thus remit
I truly pardon and acquit,
And those whose sins ye do retain
Condemned and guilty shall remain.
What ye shall bind, that bound shall be
What ye shall loose, that shall be free;
Unto My Church the keys are giv’n
To open and close the gates of heaven!