The words church discipline conjure up a wide range of thoughts and emotions to those that hear them. On one end of the spectrum, these words equate to the church or church leaders being harsh, hateful and abusive. On the other end are those that see church discipline as an opportunity to “spank” church members whenever they seemingly step out of line.
Properly understood and applied, church discipline should be a loving, sobering and gracious process of strengthening individual believers in their walk with God. It also should strengthen the church as a whole.
Most studies of this topic recognize that church discipline was a common practice throughout most of the history of the church. Discipline was long considered a mark of the true church. With the rise of individualism and modernism, discipline all but disappeared from the church landscape. In recent years a rediscovery of this mark has brought it back onto the horizon. What are we to think of this? Is this rediscovery healthy for Christians and the church? Or is it a detriment to the purpose and practice of the church?
Discipline did not originate with the church, with pastors or with men. It is rooted in our relationship to God.
Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
So God originated discipline. The Bible compares God’s disciplining of us to that of our earthly fathers. If earthly fathers do not discipline, then something is wrong. They are treating their children as illegitimate children not as true sons.
In the above passage, the process of discipline is painful and unpleasant. The results of discipline mentioned are life, holiness, and the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Keep this in mind when you evaluate the modern practice of church discipline.
The Apostle Paul exhorted the church in Corinth to discipline a member living in sexual sin:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you…
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
–1 Corinthians 5:1-2,4-5
So the church was acting arrogantly by allowing this man to continue in the life of the church. This process would be painful to the church. They were to mourn. The process would also be painful for the man. He was being removed from the life of the church and handed over to Satan. Now that does sound harsh. It was harsh because what he knew of Christ did not prevent him from living this way. But please do not miss the goal — that his soul would be saved.
When the church allows her people to live in blatant sin, they are not doing any favors for themselves or for the sinner. In fact, this man apparently did turn from his sin. Paul sent a second letter to the church in Corinth and gave this instruction for dealing with the repentant sinner:
So you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.
— 2 Corinthians 2:7-8
When discipline is exercised and repentance ensues, the end result is forgiveness, comfort and love. This is the hope and reason for church discipline.
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