What do you think when you hear the phrase “church discipline?”
For some, it might bring to mind a scene from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 class novel—The Scarlet Letter. Or, perhaps, you imagine some kind of early American witch hunt where hypocritical religious leaders go about shaming and slamming anyone that does something sinful or wrong (no matter how “big”).
More recently, maybe you have been utterly taken aback and confused by a church that tried to be faithful to the Lord, practiced church discipline, and it blew up in their faces.
Yet, truthfully, perhaps in the Lord’s kind providence (Heb. 12), you are walking more closely and like Jesus today because God used the loving, humble (and difficult) task of confronting you to awaken you and lead you to repentance.
Church discipline is a theme that runs through out the New Testament:
-Jesus (Matthew 18:15-35; Luke 17:3-4),
-Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Galatians 6:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; Titus 3:10-11),
-James (James 5:19-20), and,
The author of Hebrews (Hebrews 12:5-11)….all speak about it plainly.
What many see in church discipline as unloving, arrogant, or hypocritical, the Apostle Paul saw as loving, humble, and genuine. The aim of church discipline is repentance, restoration, purity, peace, and glory to God, not gloating, vengeance, or ultimate destruction.
Yet, the more we know about what God requires in a church, the more we see how important this subject really is.
Truth 101: Jesus died and rose for sinners. That is the good news of the Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-8). Jesus gathers said sinners together in his church to worship Him. However, it is also meant to protect and proclaim the Gospel so more people might come to know Him.
Problem 101: If a church that is meant to proclaim and display the Gospel sends a different message through willful sin and hypocrisy, eventually the Gospel will be bent, twisted, or even lost. A biblical church that seeks to glorify and honor God in how it lives is vital because the Gospel is important. And the Gospel is important because it tells about Jesus. It’s all connected!
So, why church discipline? Let’s do a quick overview of the process.
2 reasons for church discipline:
1. Principle of ownership (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 11:2; Matthew 16:18).
The church local and universal is Christ’s. It is not a pastor’s or the like. To enact church discipline is to honor Christ because the church is his.
2. Principle of Stewardship (1 Peter 5:1-5).
Pastor-elders are to shepherd the church of God to glorify the will of God. To not reprove, rebuke, and correct (2 Tim. 3:16b) is to dishonor what has been entrusted them by God himself.
12 stewardship reasons for church discipline.
- To glorify God by obedience to his instruction – When we humble ourselves, kick out our emotions (if goes against the Word), and say, “You are wise, God, we are not. We will follow you in this.”
- To sanctify the Lord’s Supper – Sinners may come – but not willful sin! Some say, “Church is for sinners…!” No, it is for REPENTANT sinners!
- To purify the spirit and message of the church (1 Cor. 5:6) – A little sin mixes up the church. It teaches folks that it is okay to “sweep things under the rug” if you don’t carry out church discipline.
- To deny satan any advantage (2 Cor. 2:11) – We don’t want to be vulnerable to further temptation or sin.
- To prove that leaders love and care (2 Cor. 7:11-13) – If a pastor will not lead the people in biblical discipline, he doesn’t love the church – but himself. Encourage your pastors to do this for the glory of God and the church’s good.
- To deter others from sin (1 Tim. 5:20). So others may be warned to not pursue an unholy life.
- To destroy the fleshly lusts of the believer (1 Cor. 5:5) – There is, in God’s providence, a sanctifying affect that happens when one is active in the church.
- To cut emotional ties with unrepentant Christians (1 Cor. 5:11). If the church family affirms that a brother or sister has habitually, openly, and willfully come in sin and no private efforts have worked, and they want to do their own thing, we cannot fellowship with them. To do so is to agree in their sin. Certainly, not to be cruel or harsh. You lovingly (when you see them) tell them to get their heart right with God and come back.
- To protect Scripture from perversion or error (Titus 1:10-15) – To guard the Gospel deposit and ensure that secondary issues are not dogmatically taught against clear doctrines in the scripture.
- To shame a Christian to repentance (2 Thess. 3:14) – God is very able to expose things. He can handle it. If they don’t repent, like the previous point, we must pray that God draws them back to himself.
- To restore repentant believers (Gal. 6:1). That God would use church discipline to bring a wayward brother or sister back. Every effort should be made with the utmost humility and compassion. How awesome it is when God restores!
- To expose and remove the unsaved (1 John 2:19). Many are dealt with in church discipline, but those who refuse to listen, repent, or go on to put to shame those who want them restored….it shows that they never knew Christ. When you put a sheep out of a pen, eventually, the sheep will start “BAA”-ing to get back in. Put a goat out to pasture, it won’t return.
Churches that don't practice church discipline because they think it's unloving are in fact not loving churches, nor are they real churches. Church discipline is exhausting and heartbreaking...but how can we be a mature, obedient body without it. May we be strong and courageous!
Finally, here these words from Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a godly pastor from Scotland in the 1800’s:
“When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceeding ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great and almost only work was to pray and preach. I saw your souls to be so precious, and the time so short, that I devoted all my time, and care, and strength, to labour in word and doctrine. When cases of discipline were brought before me and the elders, I regarded them with something like abhorrence. It was a duty I shrank from and I may truly say it nearly drove me from the work of the ministry among you altogether.
But it pleased God, who teaches his servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls under our care; and from that hour a new light broke in upon my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline.
I now feel very deeply persuaded that both are of God—that two keys are committed to us by Christ, the one the key of doctrine, by means of which we unlock the treasures of the Bible, the other the key of discipline, by which we open or shut the way to the sealing ordinances of the faith. Both are Christ’s gift, and neither is to be resigned without sin.”
(Source: Robert Murray M’Cheyne Andrew Bonar, Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1844) pp. 87-88.)