Church discipline—the very phrase seems to bring to the minds of most Christians a parade of horrors. It seems like our current image of church discipline is that of repressive, out-of-touch tyrants telling us everything that we may and may not do. This is not surprising when we consider the public incidents of abuse of authority both inside and outside the church. There is also the idea that church discipline appears out of touch with our modern understanding of Christian liberty, an understanding in which the individual Christian is his own judge in all matters regarding the Christian faith and the Christian life. But in order to understand why church discipline has been considered a “mark” of the church historically, we must remember the true purpose of church discipline.
A Mark of the Church
From the time of the Reformers, in order to distinguish between a true church and a false church, theologians have described three “marks” of the church: the proper preaching of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the proper administration of church discipline. While it is not controversial to think that a true church would teach God’s Word and obey Christ’s command to observe the sacraments, many Christians would doubt that church discipline is necessary to have a true church. In reality, however, the idea of church discipline is an essential parallel to the first two marks. After all, doesn’t the Bible tell us that it is not enough for the Word to be properly taught and preached, but that it must be obeyed and acted on (Rom. 2:13; James 1:22)? And how can the church properly administer the sacraments without determining to whom they apply? Church discipline is the mechanism that the Lord has decreed for the designating and building up of His church, the family of God.
The church is not just an organization—it is the living embodiment of God’s purpose and plan to redeem sinners and reconcile them to Himself. The same believer in Jesus Christ who is justified by faith is also adopted by faith. Our great Triune God is not satisfied with His people being declared not guilty before His judgment seat (Rom. 5:1). He also makes each redeemed sinner His child, a part of the family of God (John 1:12). When we view the church as a family, we then begin to see the purpose and blessing of church discipline. Just as fathers and mothers who dearly love their children must take the time to correct and encourage them, pastors and elders who love the Lord and the Lord’s people must take the time to correct and encourage them.
Discipline and Discipleship
In order to better appreciate the place of discipline in the life of the church, we must view discipline through a biblical lens rather than individual instances of which we may have heard (or experienced). The word discipline brings up images of a trial, judgment, and punishment that can put us immediately on the defensive. But that is not the primary biblical usage of discipline. Biblical discipline is more closely related to another well-known Biblical word, disciple. A disciple is one who is taught (Matt. 10:24), and in the New Testament, disciple has special reference to learning to observe all the commandments of Jesus (28:19–20). In a similar way, discipline is learning the ways of the Lord. Paul uses it in this sense in Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” In fact, the New Testament word for discipline is the same Greek word that is used for education or instruction (especially of children) in a broader sense. To discipline someone is to train them up in the way that they should go (Prov. 22:6), and to build up one who is dear (Heb. 12:5–11) out of love (Rev. 3:19).
This biblical model also helps us to understand that church discipline is necessary for our growth in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. If discipline is the work of a loving father to instruct his child, how can we refuse instruction from our Heavenly Father? The Lord has given under-shepherds to His church for the purpose of building up and equipping the flock, and He uses these shepherds to discipline His people (Eph. 4:11–16). First and foremost, discipline starts with instruction from the Word of God. Church discipline should never begin at the stage of some kind of formal action. It begins with the leaders of the church giving guidance, instruction, and admonition from the Bible. In order to be built up by the Lord, we must know the commands of the Lord. In order to be set on the right path, we must know the ways of the Lord. In a very real sense, if we do not desire to be a part of a church that practices church discipline, we are giving up the privilege of being instructed and constrained by God’s Word.
What Does Church Discipline Look Like?
If church discipline is a mark of a true church, and if it is an extension of God’s loving discipline of His children, why is it not practiced in more churches? Why is it so lightly esteemed? The answer to such questions is often found in the way that church discipline is (mis)practiced. Just like parents should take care to faithfully and biblically apply discipline to their children, leaders in the church must use their authority with consistency and love. The Old Testament is full of warnings about the dangers of favoritism (such as Jacob with Joseph and his brothers), and the failure to apply discipline (such as Eli and his sons). The Lord does indeed discipline those that He loves (Heb. 12:6), and so must the church. But we cannot ever forget that church discipline is an exercise of love. That means that church discipline should not be something that is trotted out only after a situation seems beyond repair. Discipline is not a “final straw” where judgment is pronounced. Biblical church discipline is a culture of accountability, growth, forgiveness, and grace that should permeate our churches. Each member of a church has a responsibility to help others as they struggle with sin—not through judgment and criticism, but rather with gentleness and an eye toward restoration, knowing that he too is subject to temptation (Gal. 6:1). Matthew 18 does not describe some kind of alternative to litigation; it is a primer on how we lovingly engage one another, patiently exhausting lesser steps (for example, going in person) before moving to greater ones (for example, taking it to the church).
Church leaders must always remember that the authority they possess with respect to discipline does not come from themselves, but it is Christ’s shepherding authority. It is Christ’s church (Eph. 1:22–23; Col. 1:18), and He is the one building her up to be spotless (Eph. 5:27). Leaders must therefore make every effort to avoid acting in a domineering or tyrannical manner simply to resolve problems quickly (1 Peter 5:3), or showing partiality in disciplining some while ignoring others (James 2:1). Members should know that the process of discipline is not a secretive method of punishment, but is rather God’s way to restore sinners, heal relationships, and honor His Word. Leaders should not be afraid for church discipline to be seen in the light of day, while at the same time they should employ every effort to protect the reputations of members from unnecessary publicity and potential gossip. The end sought is not simply resolution but the strengthening of individual believers and the whole body of Christ.
What is the Purpose of Church Discipline?
Finally, church discipline is something that requires prayer, thoughtful consideration, and consistency because it has important purposes in the life of the church. There are three main purposes for church discipline. First, church discipline exists to reclaim the sinner to the church, and ultimately, to the Lord. Church discipline that is practiced in love is a powerful way to confront a sinner with his sin and to show that the church loves him, will not give up on him, and desires to see him restored to full fellowship. In a very real sense, discipline can be the gospel acted out before our eyes. We must acknowledge our sin, repent, and ask for forgiveness, which is freely and fully granted.
Second, discipline is necessary to maintain the purity of the church and its witness before a watching world. That does not mean we put on a hypocritical mask of perfectionism, but rather we admit before the world that God’s Word is the standard for our lives, and we are true Christians—not perfect, but forgiven.
Finally and most importantly, church discipline is done for the glory of God. Christians are living displays of God’s glory, and we display His glory all the more as we strive to reflect His loving and holy character (Eph. 3:10). What better way to show that a holy God is a loving God than through discipline? As we seek to restore those who stumble, in a spirit of loving humility, we put on display honorable conduct that will point to the One who is the source of all restoration in the universe (1 Peter 2:12).