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Reviving a forgotten means of grace.
Historically speaking, church discipline has served as a formative and corrective means by which a believer is guided by his/ her brethren in the Lord.
With respect to the formative aspect, the two most vital components of Christian discipline are sound Bible teaching and godly examples in the local church.
New converts need to be taught in the pure milk of the Word and to see holy lives on display in their congregation.
With regards to the corrective aspect, discipline starts when a church member rebukes another for his/ her sin one-on-one.
The severest act of church discipline is the act of excommunicating a non-repentant member from the congregation.
A useful illustration is that of a Maths teacher. Before setting his/ her students an exam, the teacher first has to teach Maths in class.
That is the way church discipline functions as well. First, the formative aspect; then –and only then- the corrective part!
Sadly, church discipline –a constitutive mark of the Reformed faith- has all but disappeared from the contemporary Protestant scene. But, thanks be to God, we are witnessing a resurgence of the practice in some circles.
So, why is church discipline so vital?
Here are three reasons: an upwards reason, an outwards reason and an inwards reason.
The first aim of church discipline is to defend the honour of God and Christ.
God wants His people to give a good testimony in the world. Romans 2:24 has got to be one of the most tragic verses in Scripture. It reads, “For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written”.
Christians who persist in open sin are used by Satan to harden the hearts of unbelievers. Those who don’t believe the Gospel can justify their sin when they come across believers who flirt about with iniquity.
Unbelievers have to understand that there is a sharp line of division between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.
The Lord desires His bride to be precious and spotless (Ephesians 5:27) so as to be an attractive reflection of His own holiness.
A church, therefore, which permits sin-crazed saints cannot shine with the light of Christ’s purity.
When we forsake the means of church discipline, we are calling God’s very glory into question. It’s that serious an issue!
Pastors, elders: let us never forget the grave warnings in Revelation 2 and 3
The second goal of church discipline is to protect the flock of Christ.
If we allow a root of bitterness to go unchecked within the church, it will not take long for the corruption to spread (Hebrews 12:15). A rotten piece of fruit always spreads its corruption.
One rotten orange soon leads to two rotten oranges and so on. As Paul aptly put it, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6).
When we publically rebuke those who continue in a state of non-repentance, it serves as a warning to the rest of the Christian family. In the context of disciplining elders, Scripture says, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (1 Timothy 5:20).
Holy fear, therefore, has much to do with Christian sanctification.
A good example is that of Paul and Peter when the former publically confronted the latter for his hypocrisy in distancing himself from the Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11).
Peter was reprimanded and the apostolic church learnt a valuable lesson. Paul put an abrupt end to Peter’s corruption.
The third purpose of church discipline is to restore the offender.
As Calvin put it, “It is needful for their wickedness to be reproved so that, by means of the rod of the church, they recognize their faults in which they persist and grow hardened when they are treated sweetly”.1
The intent behind church discipline is to win our brother (Matthew 18:15), restore the sinner (Galatians 6:1) and to save his soul in the day of Christ (1 Corinthians 5:5).
If someone has to feel ashamed in order to be repent, so be it! “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
If the offender is a sheep of the Lord, the good Shepherd will use shame to bring his beloved son/ daughter back to the fold. In sharp opposition to our Post-Modern culture, the New Testament defends the need of fear and shame in church discipline.
Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that this means of grace is conducted by a spirit of love towards the wayward believer.
The desired end is the restoration of the offender. The Christian rod is always a rod of love.
We would do well to revive this forgotten practice of church discipline. It doesn’t matter whether it’s popular or not. What counts is that it’s biblical.
After all, the Lord Jesus instituted church discipline. And He sure knows how to edify His church way better than us.
1 CALVINO, Juan, Institución: tomo II (FELiRe: Rijswik: 2013), p. 972. Author’s translation.