Is Church Discipline Mean?
The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it. — Belgic Confession, Article 29
Church discipline is essential to the life of the visible church. It was instituted by our Lord Jesus himself in Matthew 18:
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed’ (Deut. 19:15). If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matt. 18:15–20; NASB 95 modified)
Our Lord had previously (see Matt. 16:19) given to the visible church the keys of the kingdom (i.e., the authority to preach the gospel, to administer the sacraments, and to use church discipline). In our radically egalitarian age, however, this can be a hard pill to swallow. I see regular declarations (especially on Twitter) that the visible church has no authority to discipline anyone for anything. This is simply not true.
Relative to the Kingdom of God, the church is not a purely voluntary association.
Relative to the state the church is a voluntary association but morally, spiritually, relative to the Kingdom of God, the church is not a purely voluntary association. We must be joined to it. We confess this necessity on the basis of the general teaching of Scripture and texts such as Hebrews 10:25. With the ecumenical church we confess that, ordinarily, “outside the church there is no salvation.” So, being a member of the visible church is essential to the Christian life and being removed from it, the last step of discipline, is a grave matter.
In our time, however, the tendency is to view the church as means of therapy, merely as a place of fellowship and encouragement, but not as the divinely instituted embassy in which the keys of the Kingdom of God are administered. Viewed thus, the very idea of church discipline seems high-handed, arbitrary, unjust, and even cruel. After all, the reasoning goes, who are those sinners to judge this sinner? To be sure, church discipline is never perfect, but Jesus did command it. He knew that we are sinful when he commanded it. He knew how messy and difficult it can be.
When he instituted church discipline, Jesus was not thinking of the church as merely voluntary society for mutual edification. He was thinking of the church as the divinely instituted assembly of God’s people gathered at the feet of the Savior to hear the Law and the Gospel, to receive the sacraments, and to correct one another.
The church is the divinely instituted assembly of God’s people.
There is a democratic element to church discipline. According to our Lord’s institution, true discipline actually begins not with officers and formal proceedings but with mutual correction among the brothers and sisters—among the laity. The hope is that when a brother or sister comes to us, we will hear their admonition, repent, and seek forgiveness.
Ideally, that is the end of the matter. It is only when the sinner is impenitent that the visible church becomes involved. Sadly, too often, this is how it goes. Even after it becomes an ecclesiastical matter, there are intervening steps before the church is forced to resort to the final step of formal excommunication, in which the impenitent person’s name is announced to the congregation. This process should take time and may take years.
The act of church discipline is one of love.
Might this process be abused? Yes. Has it been abused? Yes. In a rightly ordered church, however, there are remedies against pastoral or ecclesiastical abuse. The very act of discipline is not, however, abusive. It is an act of love. When my parents disciplined me, it was because they loved me. When I disciplined my children, it was because I loved them. My parents knew, as I learned, that there are consequences to sin and misbehavior. Again, this is exactly what Hebrews says:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb. 12:7–11 ESV).
Church discipline seeks the restoration of a brother or sister for that person’s well-being.
Rightly done, even if imperfectly, church discipline is an act of love that seeks the restoration of a brother or sister for that person’s well-being. It is, after all, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). He is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). Note that these are all passages from the New Covenant to which I am appealing. The God who made the earth open up and swallow people has not changed. He does not change. He will not change. He is immutably just.
Church discipline is really a call to repentance and faith. It is a kind of evangelism. In it we are preaching the gospel to our fellow professing Christians who have fallen into disobedience and are being impenitent, and insofar as they remain so, they are placing themselves in jeopardy of divine judgment.
So, yes, church discipline is a great benefit of the church. It is not arbitrary. It is not mean. It is the opposite of mean. It is an act of love, of grace, of kindness, and mercy.
R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).
Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice by R. Scott Clark
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