In this age of unbridled tolerance, people wonder how church discipline is loving. They view confronting people over choices that they have made as disrespectful to a person’s identity, dignity, and freedom. Thus, church leaders who hold people accountable for sin—and even call it a mark of the church—seem unloving.
A running metaphor will help. If a wolf attacks a flock and starts ravaging the sheep, is it loving for the shepherd to let him strike unopposed? Or if a sheep strays into danger, is it showing care just to let it go? The shepherd has a duty to protect the sheep from enemy attacks and separation from the flock.
This imagery is pictured in a familiar passage of Scripture. The psalmist confesses that the Lord is his shepherd, and then states that “your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). These two implements speak to the dual duty of our Shepherd that His faithful undershepherds are to also exercise.
the protective rod of comfort
Ancient shepherds carried a rod, which was a sturdy wooden stick used to drive off wild beasts. This cudgel represents the Lord’s protection over His people. The Lord acts to guard His flock.
Paul warned the Ephesian elders of this danger when he said, “Fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28–29). Paul explained that these false teachers would speak “twisted things” in order to “draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Elders are to be alert and protect the church from such evil. Paul urged that these wolves “must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families” (Titus 1:11).
The church’s elders are to confront proud, rebellious people who come in as wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. When they pervert the teachings of Scripture, promote legalistic practices, or work against church authority, measures must be taken to silence their teachings, remove their influence, and even depose them if necessary. Such actions show love to the Lord and His flock.
the rescuing staff of comfort
The other instrument of the shepherd was his staff. This taller, slender crook provided guidance toward green pastures but also rescued sheep in trouble. The large hook at the top was placed under the belly of a sheep to lift it out of a hole or off a cliffside where it may have fallen or strayed.
Like the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost, elders are to work diligently in recovering straying people. They urge those falling away from worship and the means of grace to return, warning them against neglecting their souls. Elders pursue a person who is walking in sin’s darkness by rebuking, correcting, and retraining him on walking in the light. God’s shepherds counsel those in conflict so that they can learn how to forgive, reconcile, and live in peace.
Love is not the absence of discipline but an expression of it, for “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6).