The goals and importance of church discipline
Mike Miller · Nov 01, 2015
By Rob Slane
Recently I served on a team at my church charged with developing guidelines for how to handle church discipline when it becomes necessary. This experience reminded me of just how important church discipline is, and that churches must have a balanced, Biblical approach to this issue. I don’t claim to be an expert on these matters, but I will share some insights I gained on why church discipline is important, and must be done in the right spirit.
As with any other aspect of the Christian life, church discipline is a straight path which comes with wide ditches on either side. On the left sits the ditch where church discipline is virtually never exercised; on the right, the ditch where church discipline is done in a cold, heavy-handed—and sometimes adversarial—way. Most of us have probably witnessed both approaches, and the consequences that usually follow from either error ought to make us want to studiously avoid both.
First we must ask, “What is the purpose of church discipline?” In a recent podcast from the website Mortification of Spin, Carl Trueman identifies three goals of church discipline:
- Vindicating the Name of Christ in public
- Protecting the flock
- Reclaiming the offender
In Ephesians 5:1, Paul exhorts the people of God to “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Peter, in his first epistle, describes the church as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We are therefore called, both as individuals and as churches, to imitate God and, in doing so, bring glory to Him.
This means that where serious, ongoing, and unrepentant sin is accepted or ignored, the church misrepresents Christ. This was the case in the church at Corinth when they refused to discipline a man involved in gross, sexual sin. Paul is horrified by this, saying: “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2). Believers who live in unrepentant sin, and churches that fail to practice church discipline, bring reproach to the Name of Christ.
However, Christ’s Name can just as easily be trampled upon in a situation where church discipline is carried out in a heavy-handed, unjust, or unloving way. Here, the Corinthian church again finds themselves at fault. While Paul’s admonition has prompted them to enforce discipline within the church, they now fail to forgive those who are truly repentant. Again, Paul exhorts them: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 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 2:6-8). Having previously admonished them for their lack of holiness, Paul now admonishes them for their lack of love, which he says could crush the repentant man.
Implicit in both of Paul’s admonishments is the idea that a lack of concern for holiness by ignoring sin within the church, or a lack of forgiveness, mercy, and love for the repentant sinner, brings reproach to the Name of Christ in the eyes of both other churches and the world.
The second purpose of church discipline—protecting the flock—is in some ways a natural overflow from the first. Our primary concern is to ensure that Christ’s name is honored, which is done when His people imitate Him. This necessitates protecting His people from doctrinal heresies and gross and unrepentant sin. Furthermore, failure to deal with such issues in a godly way will cause the church to suffer and may even lead others astray.
Paul warns of the dangers to the flock if gross sin is not dealt with. Again, he speaks to the church at Corinth: “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). In other words, do you really think that you can carry on as if nothing has happened without it affecting the rest of you? Whether it is doctrinal heresy or gross, unrepentant sin, unless it is dealt with, it will work its way through the rest of the congregation like leaven.
Finally, we come to the last goal identified by Carl Trueman—reclaiming the offender. Matthew 18:15-20 is a passage we usually turn to for instruction on church discipline, and it is important to read it in context. Matthew 18 begins with the disciples asking Jesus who the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is. Jesus makes short work of the question, telling them that unless they become like a little child, they will not even enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
From there, He gives a graphic illustration of the awfulness of sin, exhorting His listeners to “cut off their hands and feet” if they cause them to stumble, and then follows this with the parable of the lost sheep. The “church discipline” passage comes next, followed by the parable of the unmerciful servant.
Put all of that together and it is clear what Jesus is teaching: Humility is essential in the Kingdom of God. God cares for even the smallest of the flock. Sin is deadly serious and must be cut out. God cares so much for His people that if any err and wander away, it is His will to pursue them. And, having been shown mercy by our Father, we must extend mercy to others.
The object of church discipline is not to “prosecute” the sinner, but Matthew 18 does lay out a process of increasing severity by which these sins must be approached. In going privately to your brother, and next taking witnesses, and finally telling it to the church, your goal must never be to condemn—rather to be used to restore lost sheep to the flock. The whole process from beginning to end must therefore be conducted in the kind of love and mercy that is prepared to forgive 70×7 times. Nevertheless, if after lovingly pursuing the “lost sheep” they steadfastly refuse to cut the sin out of their lives, then the church must be prepared to impose the ultimate sanction. Paul writes, “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 5:4b-5). Even with this drastic measure the hope is still that the one disciplined might be restored.
This should make those in any position of oversight in the church tremble, as church discipline neglected, or church discipline done badly, can cause all sorts of damage. It has helped me to think through these issues in the following way: In any situation where I might become involved in a church discipline process, the first and foremost person under the authority of the Lord and His church is me. If I am to have any part in a process that leads to someone’s restoration, or which might see them barred from sharing in the Lord’s Supper, I must first realize that I am under God’s scrutiny and am being tested as to whether I will deal with it in both love and holiness.
So while Matthew 18:15 begins, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone,” elsewhere Jesus tells us that we must first make sure that we get the log out of our own eye (Luke 6:42). If I find myself in a position of having to deal with someone else’s sin, I must be sure to examine my own heart first. This doesn’t necessarily mean examining my heart for the same sin as the one being dealt with (although it might mean that), rather to examine my heart to see whether I am approaching this with the right motives. Do I harbor a grudge against this person? Am I likely to be partial in my understanding of what has happened? Am I motivated by the three goals of church discipline? If not, then I need to repent of those things which could easily cause me to hinder godly church discipline. Nothing less than the vindication of Christ, the protection of the flock, and the restoration of the sinner are at stake.
Rob Slane lives with his wife and five home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, contributes to the Canadian magazine Reformed Perspective, and blogs on cultural issues from a Biblical perspective at www.theblogmire.com.