I recently posted an article “Should we only forgive those who repent?” The article stimulated some helpful discussion and I thought my answer to the following question regarding how individual forgiveness works in relation to church discipline might be helpful for others as well.
In your opinion, how does 1 Corinthians 5; especially verses 11, 13 fit into what you posit here? How does Matthew 18:17? How does Titus 3:10? I’d appreciate your thoughts as I’m trying to think through these issues. Blessings…
That is a good question and one I attempted to anticipate this in the article with the following thoughts:
Ultimate judgment belongs to God so all are ultimately accountable for the consequences of their actions and decisions.
God mediates his rule and holds people accountable at the present time through congregational discipline and civil authorities. In other words, they have the right and responsibility to discipline and punish, providing individuals consequences for their actions (Matt 18, 1 Cor 5, Titus 3):
“Though we know that God will judge and that it is right for the community to offer consequences for actions (congregational and civil if applicable), we are personally called to forgive from the heart while acknowledging that our actions cannot bring about reconciliation.”
Thus, congregations have the authority to discipline and hold wayward members accountable that no individual possesses alone. Governmental authorities have the responsibility to punish evildoers and even the right to use the sword, which no individual possesses alone. If an individual were to attempt to usurp the appropriate authority God has given then that would be vigilante justice that dishonors God. For instance, someone may commit a crime and harm a person’s family member and it is appropriate for the civil authorities to execute judgment but the family member(s) may forgive the man personally and share the gospel with him, while at the same time supporting the civil authorities in the execution of societal judgment (I have seen this done first hand by members of my congregation).
This kind of corporate accountability and individual forgiveness is powerful. Puritan author, Thomas Watson explaining the command from Jesus to forgive or debtors wrote, “Forgiving and requiting good for evil is the best way to conquer and melt the heart of an enemy” (The Lord’s Prayer, Banner of Truth, p. 255). A way to think about this is that individual unforgiveness by a Christian is a spiritual vigilante act that they have been given no authority to execute.
Thanks for the helpful and clarifying question.