The severity of God is kinder than the easygoing tolerance of the world. That is the great lesson of I Corinthians 5:1-13, in which Paul demanded that the church at Corinth expel a member engaged in immoral behavior. Such a step was important for two reasons. First, it was crucial for the spiritual well-being of the Christian community. Those who carried the name of Christ had to live holy, separated lives. A church that tolerated open sin would lose its testimony in a city that needed to see the changes Christ could make in people’s lives.
It was also important for the man guilty of immorality. Paul hoped that such discipline would have the effect of returning him to fellowship in the church. A disciplinary action of the church carried out in love could be a strong incentive for repentance and change in the life of a backslider. Think what would have happened if no action had been taken. The man would have continued in sin. He might have been lulled into an attitude in which he let himself believe there was nothing wrong with his behavior. His moral and spiritual life would have continued to deteriorate. It is likely that in time others would have engaged in the same kind of conduct. Soon the Corinthian church would have behaved in exactly the same way as the world.
Such church discipline has been widely practice in African churches. The major causes for discipline there are sorcery and adultery. Guilty persons are placed on a list of disciplined members. That means that while they can still attend worship services, they are not permitted to take communion and may not take any leadership role in the church. the people under discipline understand that the church awaits their repentance and a changed life. When that occurs, they are counseled by the pastor and church leaders and a decision is made to restore them to fellowship. On the next communion Sunday the restored member is officially recognized as a full member.
In practicing discipline, a church needs to show both firmness and love. We need to say to a person who has not repented of some sin. “You are doing wrong. You are displeasing the Lord. We cannot close our eyes to this”. We should also say, in one way or another, ‘We still love you, and we are waiting with open arms to receive you back into the fellowship of the church. We will do everything possible to help you return to the Lord.”
It may be argued that no one has a right to judge another person. In one sense, this is true. Certainly the judgment of one’s ultimate salvation is in the hands of God. There may be a reasonable doubt about reports of wrong doing, which means that we should delay action. When it is obvious to most members that a moral crisis exists, however, a church should act. When a decision is made to discipline a person, a church should do it with humility, realizing that we all are sinners. To do nothing in the face of a clear moral challenge is to invite the spiritual decline of a Christian community.