Perusal* – Autumn 2010, Understanding Biblical Discipline

(* perusal; to examine or consider with attention and in detail)  

1 Timothy 5:17, Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine.  

18 For the scripture saith, thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.  

19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.  

20 Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.  

One of the subjects often avoided in churches is the grace of church discipline.  The word “grace” is used because it is steeped in New Testament scripture and was written for our admonition.  Church discipline is to be used sparingly and not before prayerful and careful examination of all the accumulated facts.  But it is to be used when necessary to remove the unrepentant sinner in order that God’s name be not blasphemed and the purity of the church not further soiled. 

“Pastor, why subject the church to such embarrassment?  The world already thinks were crazy and removal of a church member just adds to their argument.”  Really?  Agreed that the world thinks most evangelicals are crazy, in fact they think we are similar to Islamic extremists.  But since when did the world gain such sway over the church that it can demand we ignore clear direction in God’s word?  Our Lord Jesus was very clear that the world hated him and will hate us because we are His disciples.   

This does not mean that we are to go out of our way to preach hatred or foster an arrogant self-righteous attitude.  But it also doesn‘t mean that a body of born again believers is immune to sin. Sometimes the sin is pervasive.  Church discipline is to be exercised every time the church meets for worship and is to be used to instruct its members to pursue faith and holiness. Preaching, teaching, prayer, corporate worship, accountability relationships, and godly oversight by pastors, deacons and elders are all forms of discipline.

In a biblical sense, church discipline is the act of correcting sin in the life of the body, including the possible final step of excluding a professing Christian from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Supper because of serious unrepentant sin (see Matt. 18:15-20, 1 Cor. 5:1-13).

The former illustration is referred to as formative discipline and is what is meant in the NT by sanctification.  It is the positive element of God’s word being enabled by the Holy Spirit to teach, convict, convince, and comfort His children.  Every time our Lord taught He used formative discipline.  His disciples must have tired of it, but He taught them none the less. An act of formative discipline is an act of love! 

The latter type of discipline is the one most people fear and misunderstand.  It is corrective discipline and interestingly, is an act of love as well.  As previously stated it is to be engaged only when necessary but when necessary it is not to be avoided.  It is an act of love because first of all we are to love our Lord above unrepentant brethren.  Secondly, it is an act of love because we are to love the church as the bride of Christ which is a reflection of His purity and holiness.  And thirdly, it is an act of love because it is intended to bring a true sinning believer to repentance and restoration. 

Acts of biblical love are rare today.  We may refer to an act of discipline as “tough love” but scriptural discipline is not tough, it is prescriptive.  Its purpose is restoration, a temporary removal of a sinning saint in order that they be convicted, repent, and resolve not to sin again. 

There are a number of reasons why church discipline is important. It is important because it calls a professing believer out of sin.  Sometimes these people are NOT saved, and the Holy Spirit must be allowed to pursue them as the holy hound of heaven to bring them to repent and be saved.  We pander to universalism when our thoughts are that ALL church members are born again.  Some are not regardless of how loudly they profess the Lord Christ.  It is therefore important to preach the truth of the Gospel in season and out to separate the wheat and chaff.  

It is important because it warns true believers of the consequences of sin.  The scripture above solemnly warns the church that a sinning elder is to be called out publically so that “the rest may stand in fear.”  Let’s face it – most of today’s believers are arrogant and think they are above sin.  The Puritans taught church members should continuously investigate their life in light of God’s word and their profession of faith.  Paul wrote that we are “to examine ourselves and see whether we are in the faith.”  Church discipline serves to sober us into earnest examination of our souls. 

Discipline also proves to purify the church as a whole.  Paul wrote, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.”  Removing a sinning member cleanses those offended and defends the glorious honor of our Lord.   

Church discipline can be a powerful evangelistic tool.  People are longing for conviction and churches which practice purity and holiness will attract the curiosity of non-believers as they seek to understand why such action must be taken. Yes, we may be thought crazy, but much in the Christian life is outside the pale.  Believers are saved by faith alone and are to live by faith alone no matter how repulsive the act of faith may appear to the fallen world. Let’s not underestimate the work of the Holy Spirit in honoring His word. 

Most importantly, church discipline promotes the glory of God.  Our Lord commands and expects conspicuously holy saints which is a reflection of His holiness in us and serves to teach the world that God loves because He is holy.  God’s gracious character is seen for what it is - a display of His merciful attributes to lost sinners that serve to bring Him glory. 

So biblically, church discipline is another part of discipleship.  You will notice that the words are related.  Disciples do not become disciples without discipline.  Sometimes the discipline requires the excommunication of an offender in order to convict others that have taken their faith for granted.  Ultimately removal of an unrepentant church member is for their good.  As the Holy Spirit works in conjunction with His word the offender can be brought to forgiveness and restoration to God’s glory. 

It is my prayer that formative discipline wills serve to offset corrective discipline in each of your lives.

Sola Deo Gloria! Pastor Carey