Tommy South on Church Discipline

As per Terry Laudett’s request, here are a few quotes from the book on church discipline (now out of print) I mentioned in my previous post:


Quotes from That We May Share His Holiness by Tommy South

 “… in the notorious case of incest which had gone uncorrected at Corinth, Paul warns the church that ”a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). Borrowing from Israel‘s Exodus/Passover experience, he warns the Corinthians that their holiness was threatened by the presence of undisciplined sin in their midst. And just as Israel had to remove the old leaven, so Paul admonishes the Corinthians to ”Drive out the wicked person from among you” (v. 13). This formula occurs frequently in Deuteronomy following specific commands to the Israelites which were important for maintaining their holiness as the people of God. Likewise, in Matthew 18:17 Jesus commands that the ”brother who sins” and cannot be persuaded to repent should ”be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Both Gentiles and tax collectors were considered to have a defiling influence on righteous Jews and were thus to be avoided (Ex. 23:23-33, etc.; Lk. 15:1-2). So Jesus teaches that his holy followers must avoid unrepentant offenders in the interest of preserving their holiness. It is impossible to maintain holiness in the absence of discipline, both of ourselves and of others who insist on living unholy lives.” p. 12 last paragraph


“Dr. Flavil Yeakley, Jr. tells of a meeting between the elders and deacons of a church, at which the elders announced that they were about to ”withdraw fellowship”1 from several families who had not attended worship in months, some even in years. Following their announcement, one of the deacons asked, ”What will they miss once fellowship is withdrawn?” The elders at first didn’t understand the question, but the deacon went on to explain that a ”withdrawal of fellowship” could have little meaning or effect if there were no fellowship to withdraw. It seems that if fellowship is withdrawn, those so disciplined should find themselves missing something. The elders met to consider this point, and at a later meeting with the deacons, announced that they were about to begin an effort toward intensive fellowship with those same couples from whom they had been about to withdraw. For several weeks the elders visited these people in their homes, hosted them in their own homes for meals, and generally spent time getting acquainted with them and discussing their spiritual needs. In a few months’ time most of these people had acknowledged their negligence and recommitted themselves to the Lord.

This true story highlights two of the most overlooked aspects of corrective discipline: (1) it is utterly without meaning outside the context of genuine congregational fellowship, and (2) the exercise of discipline is, in fact, the ultimate expression of fellowship. It is the most that we can do to maintain fellowship with a brother or sister who has been overtaken by sin.” p. 24


 “Outside the context of fellowship, discipline can only be destructive, and that is certainly not its intent in Scripture. In Matthew 18 Jesus instructs disciples to carry out disciplinary measures in order to ”gain your brother.” Galatians 6:1 teaches ”the spiritual” not to ”get   rid of” an offending brother, but to ”restore” him. ”Brother” is a fellowship word, and it is almost always used in the New Testament when discipline is the topic of discussion … To discipline someone with whom we have not enjoyed real fellowship is much like spanking a stranger’s child. We have no relationship with that child; therefore discipline is traumatic and inexplicable … One of the first lessons to be learned about discipline is that you cannot discipline someone you don’t really care about. The truth is that most congregations cannot effectively discipline their members, because there isn’t sufficient fellowship to make such actions meaningful.” p. 25


 “We discipline because we are in fellowship – not because we no longer desire to be. If our fellowship is real, we cannot simply sit by and watch a brother or sister become entangled in sin and do nothing to reclaim them. What kind of ”fellowship” is it when we see the devastating effects of sin in the life of another Christian, yet refuse to openly and lovingly express our concern? Even the most extreme form of discipline, the withdrawal of fellowship, is an expression of fellowship – the ultimate expression of fellowship. It says to the disciplined persons that they are simply too important for us to lose them to Satan without doing everything within our power to reclaim them, and that we would rather be deprived of our association with them for a time now than to be without them for all eternity. It is not by accident that Jesus’ disciplinary instructions in Matthew 18 come in context immediately after the paragraph about the lost sheep (see Chapters 5 and 6). It is not God’s will for any of his people to perish, so every brother or sister who strays is to be reclaimed at all cost – even the cost of association with those we love dearly.5

When real fellowship exists, we will more readily ”go to” our brothers and sisters as Jesus taught us to do in a spirit of loving concern. Cases of withdrawal will be rare, because most problems will be addressed before they get to that point. On the other hand, where no real fellowship exists, there will be no discipline, or else only ”formal” disciplinary acts will occur, and they will be consistently ineffective.

Fellowship is the reason (communally speaking) for discipline to occur, and it is what gives it its impact: the fear of being disapproved by or possibly even losing contact with those with whom we have served and praised our Lord. These are difficult pressures to bring to bear on a loved one, but there are times when genuine love requires it.

A common objection to the practice of discipline is that it will only embitter those who are disciplined, and, as a result, make matters worse. Naturally there are no guarantees that such measures will be effective, but if our fellowship is genuine, we must try, if we truly believe that those who go into sin and away from Christ have lost their fellowship with the Lord.

 While it is true that offenders ejected from the local congregation may become embittered and plunge further into sin, it is also true that others discover the disenchantment and miseries of sin. These in turn can awaken a hunger for true spiritual consolation and fellowship, especially if the offender left a church flaming with true koinonia, warmed by a faithful, loving Christian fellowship. Cold is never so cold as when you begin to recall the fires of home.6

 What I have been describing is, of course, a somewhat idealized concept of congregational fellowship. Even within churches where genuine fellowship exists, there are always ”levels” of fellowship. Some members remain ”on the fringes” by choice or due to lack of commitment or understanding of the meaning of discipleship. Others are new in the church and haven’t yet been fully assimilated. Does this mean that discipline cannot be undertaken until an ideal state of fellowship is attained? Or does it suggest that those ”on the fringes” shouldn’t be subjected to congregational discipline?

The answer to both questions is certainly ”No.” The churches about which we read in the New Testament were not perfect, either in fellowship or in other aspects of congregational life. And discipline may sometimes be needed to bring those ”on the fringes” closer to the center of God’s will, or to prevent their leaving the church entirely. What is essential here is not the perfection of our fellowship, but the recognition that we must be striving continually for a more perfect fellowship, and that only when we care about one another can discipline do what God intends it to do.

My suggestion to any eldership, preacher, member, or congregation who is concerned about disciplining according to the Scriptures, is to begin by striving to create an environment of love and fellowship, ”a church flaming with true koinonia.” Rather than beginning with a list of names out of the past, begin with the people you now have and with whom you are in weekly contact. Disciplinary acts in the present cannot erase our fellowship failures of the past. Promote genuine participation in one another’s lives, true pastoral concern on the part of elders, real service to one another, the teaching of truth in love, and a spirit of concern for each other in good times and in bad – including when sin arises. We must promote ”intensive fellowship” before even thinking about intensive discipline.

Rather than simply recognizing our lack of discipline, we must see the larger problem: lack of fellowship. If we work to correct the more basic problem, then effective, godly discipline can occur in our churches.” p. 26-27


“Taking the discussion a step further, there are two aspects of personal truth/”being real” which are essential to fellowship. The first is being individually truthful about ourselves. We must be willing to confess our own neediness, our struggles, our problems – even our sins. We are not called together as the body of Christ because we are paragons of righteousness, not because we are ”okay” and need to serve as examples for others to strive after. We are called together in Christ because in and of ourselves we aren’t ”okay” And because we aren’t we need the   Lord and each other. But in most congregations, such honesty about self seldom occurs. Few of us want to allow ourselves to be seen as we really are. What would people think, if they knew the truth about my marriage? My children? My temptations? My frustrations? My doubts? My fears? And so we hide our real selves, and then wonder why we feel so empty, so alone, even in the midst of the family of God! This is tragic because the very truthfulness we so studiously avoid has the power to set us free. When the woman with the flow of blood touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, she did so secretly; because she knew she was unclean and that her action was socially and religiously unacceptable. But when Jesus asked who it was who touched him, she ”came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth” (Mark 5:33). As a result, Jesus told her to ”be healed” of her infirmity. In the same way, a great deal of healing can take place in our lives when we are willing to be honest about ourselves in the presence of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The other aspect of personal truth that we urgently need in our churches is truthfulness about each other. There are times when we need to confront each other lovingly about our actions and attitudes, to help each other see the reality of what is going on in our lives. Jesus taught that ”If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone” (Matt 18:15). But it doesn’t happen very often in most churches, does it? As a result, much fellowship is broken (or, never develops) because of offenses, misunderstandings, and miscommunications that could have been resolved simply by ”being real” with each other. When Jesus taught us to go to our offending brother, it was simply another way of saying, ”Speak the truth in love.”  p. 32-33


 “… we are, in fact, spiritually bound together and obligated to one another. ”Brother” and ”sister” are not just titles – they suggest relationships, and relationship implies responsibility, our responsibility to act when a fellow- Christian is in trouble.” p. 57-58


“Corinthians 5:1-8 is one of the few New Testament texts on discipline which deals not only with a specific sin, but with a specific case of sin. It is therefore of particular interest in any study of church discipline. But because it deals with a specific case, and a drastic one at that, we must keep in mind that it does not constitute a pattern for church discipline in general. Rather, it supplies guidance for dealing with extreme cases of moral deviation among Christians. The texts studied so far have dealt with ”sin” more generally, and it is from them that we should draw our basic principles of action such as concern for the salvation of the offender, dealing with sin as privately as possible, attempting to restore, and handling each situation individually and not according to some hard-and-fast scheme of disciplinary ”steps.” In other words, it is important that we realize that not every case of discipline should involve ”delivering someone to Satan”!” p. 70


“Not only is the presence of such immorality shocking to Paul, but also the church’s attitude toward it: ”And you are puffed up!”4 But why would any churches arrogant about having such sin occurring among its members? Apparently there was an air of broad mindedness prevailing at Corinth that could not be offended by even so repugnant a situation. It may well be that the Corinthians felt that their superior ”spirituality” (4:8) was vast enough to tolerate such things, and they were proud of it.

It’s not unusual, even in our own time, to see churches react against legalism and a judgmental spirit by becoming over- tolerant and proud of their superior understanding, as opposed to their less-enlightened brothers. Such arrogance is highly dangerous, as the Corinthian excess illustrates. They should have been in mourning over the wickedness in their midst and their failure to deal with it, but pride had overruled repentance. No wonder Paul was dismayed!”  p. 72


 “In the ”Letters to the Seven Churches” found in Revelation 2-3, the risen Christ scolds two of the churches (Pergamum [2:12-17] and Thyatira [2:18-291]) for tolerating people in their midst who promoted false teaching and false living. Only a minority of the people in those churches were guilty of false teaching, but the entire membership of both churches is held responsible for their failure to act to correct the situation. …

Unfortunately, we are often too much like the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira. There’s a widespread tendency to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear toward such deviations, rather than acting to confront them. Even when disturbed by false teachings in their midst, Christians often will sit silently by and wonder why ”someone” doesn’t do something? Why is this? For one thing, it’s much easier not to ”rock the boat” than to raise the alarm about someone’s teaching or behavior. Also, in our drive to ”reach the community,” we sometimes go overboard in trying to appeal to worldly-minded people who might be repulsed if they overheard us dealing seriously with false doctrine and conduct. Likewise, there are always within our churches those who follow the ”cult of broad-mindedness,” which insists that we must tolerate almost any thing in order not to be thought ”narrow-minded.” Another reason for failing to discipline false teachers is that they are sometimes influential people within the congregation7 due to their wealth, position of leadership, or long- standing membership. Sadly, one of the most common reasons why we do not discipline false teachers is that so many Christians are so Biblically illiterate that they don’t recognize many erroneous teachings as false.”   p. 104


 “A question frequently asked is, ”Can a church practice discipline if it has no elders?” Because we generally assume that discipline is solely an “elder function,” we normally answer this question in the negative. As a result, churches without elders frequently languish under situations where discipline is badly needed. But I’m convinced that this is a false assumption. Since discipline is never specified to be an ”elder function,” but a congregational function and an individual function, it follows that a church – and even an individual –  can practice discipline in the absence of elders. Actions such as going privately to a brother do not require anyone else’s input or participation, and we can certainly take two or three others with us without elder involvement. It may be more difficult to ”tell it to the church” and withdraw from someone without the leadership of elders, but even this can be done. One of the most effective instances of congregational discipline which I have ever personally witnessed was in a church of forty adult members with no elders, which effectively confronted, withdrew from, and restored an adulterous member. The decision was virtually unanimous among the members, and the congregation participated fully in both the decision and the action itself. We should not allow ourselves to think that the absence of elders excuses us from discipline.” p. 113


 ” … we are not excused from trying to restore an erring brother or sister because others will not participate with us, any more than we would be excused from trying to lead others to Christ for the same reason. There are churches in which elders will not lead in evangelism, but that does not mean that there can be none. There are churches where the physical needs of the poor are ignored, but that does not excuse the individual Christian from doing what he/she can to minister to those needs (read Matt. 25!). We must individually accept our responsibility for the spiritual welfare of fellow-believers, regardless of what others do or don’t do – even the elders. When this happens more and more in our churches, then perhaps we will begin to have more men emerge as elders who are willing to lead the church in discipline, because it is something in which they have been engaged already. Again, fellowship enters the picture: when our fellowship is genuine, discipline will naturally follow among all members. And such churches will produce godly leaders who know that one of their primary responsibilities is to enhance that fellowship and preserve the church’s holiness through discipline.”  p. 114



  • Church discipline is not practiced because we don’t love the person being disciplined, but because we do.
  • It’s unloving to let someone kill themselves.
  • Sin must be taken seriously. Do we take sin seriously today? Does our culture take sin seriously? Does sin really exist? What does God think about sin – how does He view it?
  • When should we confront someone about sin? Deciding is a matter of judgment – you might ask what the nature of the sin is, how public it is, how it will affect the one committing it and the larger church body. All sins are bad, but not all sins are the same in those ways. Also, there’s a big difference between making a mistake and living in all out rebellion to God.
  • The Bible calls us to “speak the truth in love” – if we know of sin in a person’s life but say nothing, we aren’t loving them.
  • If we speak the truth without love, we aren’t loving them.
  • The motive for being truthful with one another is our fellowship – if we are not willing to “be real” with each other, then true spiritual unity will never exist.
  • Real purpose of discipline is to restore – not to punish or to make them feel bad.
  • Before we can strengthen our discipline, we must strengthen our fellowship.
  • The refusal of a church to practice church discipline when it’s called for because they believe it won’t work shows a lack of trust in God’s word and a lack of concern for what God wants.
  • In churches where fellowship won’t be sorely missed church discipline does no good.
  • Would God ever instruct us to do something that was destructive to the church?
  • Is God holy? Does He wish His church to be holy?
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6 thoughts on “Tommy South on Church Discipline

  1. WesWoodell says:

    No problem – you just happened to have left your other comment requesting quotes right when I was wrapping up putting these excerpts together for my personal notes.

    Hope they’re a blessing 🙂

  2. Joe Baggett says:

    This is very well thought out. Especially the part about the fellowship. One thing I would caution people on is this. If you go looking for sin in someone else’s life and are unwilling to confront your own church discipline will become hypocrisy. A witch hunt can quickly ensue if nice sins like gossip and coveting are ignored while sins such as promiscuity are specifically targeted. I know many of older church ladies that need to be confronted with the sin of Gossip. It has split more churches than just about anything. But here is an interesting question when do you confront someone with a sin of greed or gossip? I have been disfellowshipped for so called doctrinal error being called a false teacher because I pointed that Phoebe was deacon? I have a friend who was disfellowshipped because he drank a beer occasionally which some people at church thought was a sin. How do you work through these things that have some subjectivism to them while people think they have a license to disfellowship? The thing is I could probably find a sin in just about anybodies’ life that I wanted to. Are you suggesting that we just start looking for sin in each other’s life?

  3. Joe Baggett says:

    Is God holy? Does He wish His church to be holy?

    Yes but holiness is not perfection. Holiness is an attitude toward God.

  4. WesWoodell says:

    Hi Joe. Thanks for stopping by the blog 🙂

    You ask, “Are you suggesting that we just start looking for sin in each other’s life?”

    Well, sometimes you don’t have to look very hard. This situation in Corinth discussed in 1 Corinthians 5 was an odd one. Apparently this sin was known by the general public and major investigative work wasn’t needed to figure out what was going on.

    I’m not suggesting we all become bloodhounds tasked with rooting out hidden sin in one another’s lives. I AM suggesting when we see sin we go to our brother or sister in love and share our concern with them. That’s what the Bible says to do, and I hope my brothers and sisters will love me enough to do me that honor when I fall short.

    There’s a difference between confronting someone in love and out of genuine concern for their well-being, and going to them with a haughty, prideful, superior attitude.

    You also ask, “How do you work through these things that have some subjectivism to them while people think they have a license to disfellowship?”

    I don’t believe either of the situations you mentioned are subjective at all. Neither calling Phoebe a minister/servant/deacon, or drinking a beer or two are sins. If either were, I wouldn’t be allowed in churches today.

    If you’re interested in this topic, I went through 1 Corinthians 5 fairly thoroughly a couple of weeks ago. You can give the lesson a listen here:

  5. James T South says:

    Thanks for posting these quotes. Book is out of print but a full revision is now available. New title is Church Discipline: God’s Gift for a Healthier, Holier Church. DeWard Publishing, 2015.

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