Do the words love and church discipline sound contradictory? It’s true, church discipline can be unloving. Yet, if your church is a loving church, it will practice church discipline.
My church loved Michael through church discipline. Maybe it didn’t feel that way at the time. Had you been sitting there, watching the decision to remove Michael from membership, you might have initially wondered if the act was loving.
Michael had been homeless and addicted to drugs. He became a Christian through the church’s evangelism. He was involved in the life of the church. But somewhere along the way, Michael began lying and stealing from members to support his drug addiction. And he refused to repent when confronted. After much pleading and pursuing, the church barred him from the Lord’s Table and removed him from membership. Was the church unloving by doing this?
To talk about discipline is to talk about discipleship. Discipleship involves teaching and correcting, like math class or soccer practice. And discipline is the correcting half. It begins with private warnings. It progresses, when necessary, to the removal of someone from church membership and the Lord’s Table. The person remains free to attend public gatherings, but he is no longer a member. The church will no longer affirm the person as part of the “one body” (Matt. 18:15–17; 1 Cor. 5; 10:17).
Our culture today struggles with any act of discipline or exclusion because we have a sentimentalized view of love as being made to feel special, a romanticized view of love as discovering and expressing yourself, or a consumeristic view of love as finding the perfect fit for you. But that’s not love in the Bible. Love in the Bible is holy. It makes demands. It yields obedience. It doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). It keeps the commands of the One whom it loves (John 15:10).
Scripture tells us that discipline shows us God’s love (Heb. 12:6). Church discipline shows love to the person caught in sin, that they might be brought to repentance (1 Cor. 5:5). It shows love for the weaker brother or sister, lest a little bit of yeast work through the whole batch of dough (v. 6). It shows love for non-Christian neighbors, because it keeps the church’s witness bright and attractive (Matt. 5:13–16). And it shows love for Christ, that His reputation might be protected.
Michael eventually repented. My friend Charles spent time with him, working through the addictions and reading the Bible. Then one day, Michael wanted to confess his sin before the whole church. He stood in front of the church. He confessed his sin. He exhorted the church. Through tears, he explained God’s mercy in the gospel: “Do you, family, understand how good God is?” The congregation cheered and embraced Michael. This was restoration—the end we hope for in all cases of church discipline.
What wondrous love this is that is given to sinners like Michael and you and me.