Church discipline is a big deal. If you’ve never been in a church that has practiced church discipline, it basically means that a person is caught in some type of sin, refuses to repent, and therefore is put outside of the church body until they do repent.
Church discipline doesn’t happen overnight. According to Matthew 18, a person is to be confronted on his sin, and if he repents, the process ends there with restoration. If he does not, he gets confronted by two people. If he repents with two “witnesses,” the process ends in restoration. If not, he is brought before the church and put outside of the body.
Obviously, you don’t want to get church disciplined. For one thing, this would mean that you have unrepentant sin in your life that needs to be dealt with. But more than that, you would now be placed outside of the regular fellowship of the people of God. No more teaching, mutual service, mutual sacrifice, encouragement, bearing of one another’s burdens, loving confrontation, corporate worship, etc.
In fact, Paul seems to think that putting someone outside of the church (as opposed to allowing them to continue in their sin as though nothing were wrong) is enough to eventually bring someone to their senses and return in repentance. He says in 1 Timothy 1:19–20,
“…some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
Paul equates being placed outside of the church with being handed over the Satan. No protection, no encouragement, you’re just out there in the world, open to Satan’s scheming influence. Horrible, right?
But here’s the odd thing: many Christians do this to themselves. They don’t get kicked out of a church for their sinful conduct, they just back away from the church body. Maybe this means sitting in a Sunday service and nothing more; maybe it means staying away from the church entirely.
My guess is that most of the people who choose this route do so out of convenience, though I’m sure there are plenty who have been burned by church folk and plenty who feel like they’re doing fine in their spiritual lives without other people muddling it up.
But if we take Paul’s statement seriously, these people are not doing themselves any favors. In essence, they’re handing themselves over to Satan, opening themselves up to his destructive schemes.
So if you find yourself separated from a church body, take Paul’s words seriously. In our individualistic world, we tend to underestimate the importance of a godly community. But because it means the difference between the company of a Spirit-filled redeemed community and the company of Satan, don’t excommunicate yourself.