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To use the words comfort and church discipline in the same sentence no doubt seems incongruous to many Christians. How could the idea of being disciplined by the church, with all the shame and pain we naturally assume accompanies such a situation, ever be compatible with a sense of consolation or peace?

Many believers think of church discipline as harsh and punitive rather than as loving and restorative. These mistaken notions may come from seeing discipline handled poorly, severely, or unfairly. When done biblically and humbly, however, church discipline should be a source of comfort, both to those who receive it and to the members of the church where it is faithfully practiced. The Scriptures emphasize at least three major reasons that this is true.

In the first place, church discipline is an expression of God’s fatherly love. The author of Hebrews writes, “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (12:6). No loving parent will allow a son or daughter to continue in wrong and destructive patterns of behavior without engaging in some form of correction. Our heavenly Father is the very best and most loving parent, and He will not let His sons and daughters stray from Him and His holy commandments without correcting them. Believers may receive God’s fatherly chastening in different ways; for example, divine reproofs may take the form of a trial, a setback, or an illness. One of the ways the Lord corrects His children is through the disciplinary acts of the church. These acts include admonition or reprimand, suspension from the Lord’s Supper, and excommunication.

We may think church discipline is distressing or even depressing, but just the opposite is true. If the Lord allows us to live in unrepentant sin, we should be alarmed. If a mother or father allows their child to wander into traffic on a busy street without the slightest word of chastisement or correction, an onlooker could well question the parent’s love. He may even question if the child actually belongs to that particular person. Discipline is a token of love and a sign of sonship (v. 8). When God uses the ministry of the church to call us back from the paths of unrighteousness, we should have a sense of relief and be moved with deep gratitude for His love. The Lord loves His children so much that He wants them to be close to Him, and He will use the necessary means to keep them near.

The Lord loves His children so much that He wants them to be close to Him, and He will use the necessary means to keep them near.

Second, church discipline provides an opportunity for repentance, renewal, restoration, and growth. Restoration is one of the primary goals of church discipline. As the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “Church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren” (30.3). When a person is confronted with his or her sin and the necessity of repentance, the Lord holds out an opportunity for the transgressor to turn from the path of rebellion and once again walk with Christ. When discipline results in repentance, the church should forgive and comfort the penitent so that the sorrow they feel for their sin might not overwhelm them (2 Cor. 2:7). Through the ministry of the gospel, the doors of the church should be swung open to the penitent, and they should be restored to a place of good standing among the saints. When that is done properly, restored believers are not treated as second-class church members but as brothers and sisters who are a vital part of the fellowship.

With repentance comes a renewed sense of grace. When church discipline leads a person to acknowledge his transgression and seek the Lord’s pardon through Christ, the blood of Jesus applied to the conscience provides comfort and a sense of relief as guilt and shame are washed away (1 John 1:9). This experience of grace leads to gratitude and growth through the hard-learned lessons that come through the process of correction. Though discipline may be painful at the time, the disciplined offender should experience a sense of peace from the fact that the Lord intends the censures of the church to effect spiritual good and not harm. He intends discipline to be a means whereby believers may share in His holiness (Heb. 12:10).

Finally, church discipline is an expression of the church’s faithfulness, and that should comfort us as well. While the work of discipline purges the sin that can affect the entire church and vindicates Christ’s honor and the profession of the gospel (WCF 30.3), the work of discipline is never easy. No faithful elder enjoys it. In my experience, godly elders weep and pray over the wayward and long to see their repentance rather than seeking to bar them from the Lord’s Table or to excommunicate them from the fellowship of the church. When the errant are defiant, however, those same godly elders must be faithful to Christ and their calling and do what is necessary for the good of the church and for the good of the offender’s soul.

If the church allows God’s covenant and its sacramental seals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be denigrated by “notorious and obstinate offenders,” then it may well bring on itself the Lord’s anger (WCF 30.3). Faithfulness to the Savior and the well-being of His body demands discipline. If a church will be faithful to maintain the purity of its fellowship, then believers should be encouraged that it will also likely strive to be faithful to the other aspects of biblical doctrine and practice.

While we don’t often use the words comfort and church discipline in the same sentence, we should. We would do well to remind ourselves and others of the consolation that comes from knowing, seeing, and experiencing God’s care for His people through the exercise of scriptural correction.

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From the March 2021 Issue
Mar 2021 Issue