Church Discipline and Empathy

The following was written in 2007 by Douglas Wilson (this is not an endorsement of Wilson as a true Christian). There were italic emphases in the original; I have removed Wilson’s italics for the purpose of providing MY OWN EMPHASES WITH CAPS.

This post (among other things) is about sympathy and empathy in the context of church discipline.

Some people understand sympathy and empathy as virtual synonyms. Others contrast them by saying that sympathy is NOT sin while empathy is, IN AND OF ITSELF, sin (e.g., they might say that empathy is a pernicious and parasitic form of sympathy or that empathy is sympathy gone bad or that empathy is sympathy that inordinately and insidiously identifies with the sinner).

For the sake of argument let us say that empathy IS NOT of itself a sin, but that an inordinate and unbiblical definition of empathy IS sin. Thus Biblical empathy is righteous and good while unbiblical empathy is unrighteous and bad.

Douglas Wilson writes:


Church discipline is not very common in the contemporary church, and, because it is rarely done, when it is done, it is rarely done well. As with everything, we have to turn to the Scriptures for guidance and protection. And in turning to the Scriptures, we are not just looking for PROCEDURES, but we also want to learn the right TONE.


“I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (1 Cor. 5:9-13).

It is a given that anti-Christian bigots will confound the lovingly concerned PROCEDURE set forth in Matthew 18:15-19 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 with a “hurtful TONE” of supposed imperiousness and inhuman lack of empathy.


In this place, the apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that he had required the church to expel certain members whose conduct was disobedient (v. 9). He here excludes non-believers from this ban—it is all right to keep company with a pagan who was covetous, or idolatrous, or a fornicator. Otherwise, we would have to leave the planet (v. 10). But we tend to reverse this. The issue, Paul says, is when someone calls himself a brother, and is living in a way that can readily be seen to be out of accord with this profession (v. 11). The problems may vary—fornication, greed, idolatry, railing, drunkenness or extortion—we are not to eat with such (v. 11). Don’t judge those outside the church; judge the moral behavior of those who are inside the church (v. 12). Leave the non-Christians to God (v. 13). The church is responsible for maintaining moral order within (v. 13).

Note the “… is RESPONSIBLE for maintaining moral order within.” Again, the anti-Christian bigot will CONFOUND this God-breathed instruction with an insidious form of cult-like CONTROL. Thus any professing Christian who strives to obey Scripture in the area of church discipline will be denounced and dismissed as deranged (or something).


In a fallen world, sin will have a tendency to corrupt anything of value. When sin begins its work, the one in a position to discipline has a choice to make. DISCIPLINE IS INESCAPABLE. Either we will discipline the sin, or we will discipline the righteous. But as long as the antithesis between the two exists (which is throughout history) we must choose one way or the other.

The anti-Christian bigot would DISCIPLINE the apostle Paul’s conclusion in 1 Corinthians 5:13 (“put away from yourselves the evil person”) by chiding that a more open and understanding environment in the church assembly would have prevented the porneia. Ironically and hypocritically enough, this pseudo-virtuous chider is not very open-minded or understanding of God-breathed instructions on loving discipline.


We find in Scripture five reasons for practicing church discipline. Not surprisingly, the practice of discipline generates many objections—but interestingly, these biblical reasons for disciplining usually ANTICIPATE AND ANSWER some of the more common objections.

We are to discipline in order to glorify God

—our obedience glorifies God. We know that God intends discipline for His church (Matt. 18:15-19; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:20; 6:3; Tit. 1:13); 2:15; 3:10; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20). God tells us what to do, and because we are His people we are called to do it. This answers the objection, “Who do you think you are?” We do not discipline in our own name, or on our own authority. The Bible says that our good works (defined by Scripture) glorify God (Matt. 5:16).

We are to discipline in order to maintain the purity of the church

—if we measure the “success” of discipline by whether or not the offender is restored, we will be forced to conclude that sometimes it “doesn’t work.” But if we see other things accomplished by means of discipline, our perspective changes. Conducted biblically, church discipline always purifies the church (1 Cor. 5:6-8). It also prevents the profanation of the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:27). This also answers the common objection against the faith—too many hypocrites in church.

Hypocrites are to be put out of the assembly. Some hypocrites (when exposed as hypocrites) don’t miss much of a beat and so continue on their merry and meretricious way — live and let live, as the saying goes. But there are others who are by no means content to leave it at that, but must study arguments unduly to justify, vindicate, ameliorate and reconstruct reasons for their departure.

We are to discipline to prevent God from setting Himself against the church

—if we have a choice to DISTANCE ourselves from sin, and we choose rather to IDENTIFY ourselves with it, then what will a holy God do? We see that God will come Himself and discipline a church which does not willingly follow Him in this (Rev. 2:14-25).

Since true Christians do NOT IDENTIFY in this way, anti-Christian bigots will accuse them of unleashing condemnation, humiliation, and hurtfulness upon them rather than encouragement, edification, and healing. This inverted reasoning, of course, is to invoke the woe of Isaiah 5:20.

We are to discipline to restore the offender

— we are not promised that the offender will be restored, but this end is nonetheless one of our goals. This rationale is clearly set forth in Scripture (Matt. 18:15; 1 Cor. 5:5; Gal. 6:1). This is the objection answered:

“Discipline is harsh and unloving.”

The goal is not to destroy the offender; the goal is a confrontation in which we formally protest the fact that the offender is destroying himself. Discipline is therefore an act of love.

The obstinate, recalcitrant, unrepentant sinner falsely accuses those who lovingly discipline as lacking empathy. And the bigoted onlookers will mock and deride true Christians of being bereft of restorative healing powers. But true healing and restoration comes from the Balm of Gilead. Biblical restoration is on God the Holy Spirit’s terms; it is not according to the facinorous “feels” of the intractable sinner.

We are to discipline to deter others from sin

—the Bible teaches that consequences for sin deter (Ecc. 8:11; 1 Tim. 5:20). The objection here is that “people sure wouldn’t want to mention any of their spiritual struggles around those elders!” But the issue is always impenitence, and if someone is intending to continue in sin impenitent, then he had better not mention it to any of the elders. But if he struggles against sin, as all of us do, then he will find nothing in church discipline except an aid in that struggle.

Note the word “struggle.” The word is “struggle;” the word is NOT “wallow in.”


2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 contains much of value, but we need to concentrate on the brother who walks in a disorderly manner, and on what happens to him. All the saints are told to “withdraw” from every brother who walks in a disorderly (undisciplined, unruly) way (v. 6). Paul notes that he had set a good example—he and his companions had not behaved in a disorderly way (v. 7). Indicating that the manifestation of disorderliness that he was dealing with here was laziness, Paul cites the nature of their good example (vv. 8-10). Men who will not work should not eat. The reason for this admonition is that they had heard that there were men who walked disorderly, working not at all, being busybodies (v. 11). The word for busybody refers to one who bustles about uselessly. This is not the laziness of inert inactivity. Paul commands such men to get to work (quietly), and to eat their own bread (v. 12). The Thessalonians are told not to be weary in well doing (v. 13). If any disobey, he is to be “noted,” and the obedient in the church are to have “no company” with him in order to shame him. But this is clearly fraternal admonition, not an attack on an enemy (v. 15).


So suspension (2 Thess. 3:6-15) and excommunication ARE NOT THE SAME (Matt. 18: 15-19). Many misunderstand what is actually being done in formal church discipline. Discipline is not shunning or avoiding. IT IS RATHER AVOIDING COMPANY ON THE OTHER’S TERMS.

What happens? The individual under discipline is denied access to the Lord’s Supper, as well as the general communion (koinonia) which that Supper seals. The offender is not being denied kindness, courtesy, opportunity to hear the Word preached, the duties owed to him by others, or anything else due him according to the law of love. He is denied one thing: the right to define the Christian faith.

Anti-Christian bigots will not allow true Christians to regulate their conduct according to Scripture — well, at least not without hurling slanderous accusations of unloving cruelty, inhuman lack of empathy, and many other variations on their truly hateful theme. Not all unbelievers are this overt in their anti-Christian bigotry, but there are many who are.