My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. (Hebrews 12:5-6)
God Disciplines Those Whom He Loves
There is a recurring theme in the Bible. It’s a hard theme, but it is good. That theme is: God disciplines those whom he loves. God’s discipline is the process by which God corrects our thoughts, our words, our behaviors so that we can fulfill our calling to become more like Jesus. Hebrews 12:11 says, “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.”
God disciplines his people by a variety of means. First and foremost, God calls us to self-discipline. As God’s people we are called to bring the Bible to bear on our lives. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” We adjust ourselves according to the Bible and we are thus conformed to the image of Jesus.
But God doesn’t require us to be about the work of sanctification alone. He graciously puts us in a family with brothers and sisters who hold us accountable to obey his Word and be like his Son. Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” That is our God-given duty. We are all to be doing that on behalf of one another. Sin is deceptive. So self-discipline is never enough. We need one another. We need to heed Hebrews 3:13, “…exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We need one another. We need to be open to receiving correction and we need to be open to giving correction. That’s how the healthy body of Christ functions.
In love, we hold each other accountable because all of us have times when our flesh wants to go in a way that opposes God and his revealed will (the Bible). Part of the way we love each other is by being honest and establishing relationships where we speak the truth in love.
More often than not, church discipline does not go beyond this one-on-one accountability. But sometimes it does. So Jesus outlined a process for us to help us address another believer’s sin.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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.” Matthew 18:15-17
So church discipline is initially informal. If a Christian observes sin in a brother or sister that seems to be continual or habitual, he should approach that person in love and humility and inquire about it. If there is unrepentant sin and a refusal to repent, then the concerned brother or sister should involve one or two others, which may include an elder of the church. If this group confirms that there is sin and a refusal to repent, the process must move to formal discipline by the church, a process that will be overseen by the elders of the church to its completion. At any point during the process, if the disciplined brother or sister gives sufficient evidence of genuine repentance, the church must heartily express forgiveness and love and receive that person back into fellowship (2 Corinthians 2:6-7).
A formal discipline process begins with the elders confirming the facts with the individual member and appealing for change. If change is not forthcoming, the elders will inform the church (Matthew 18:17) of the situation and the sin, urging church members to contact the erring brother or sister and appeal for repentance. If, after a reasonable period of appeal, no repentance is forthcoming, the elders will inform the church again, this time announcing that they must revoke membership and that the church must now treat the unrepentant person “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). This means the person is to be treated as an unbeliever who may not participate in the Lord’s Supper and may not fellowship with members of the church (1 Corinthians 5:5, 12-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14-15). Any further interaction with church members should include an appeal for the former member to put his faith in Jesus’ work on the cross for him and turn from his sin.
What Church Discipline Is Not
Church discipline is not revenge or punative. We don’t practice church discipline, informally or formally, to be vindictive. Revenge belongs to God, he’ll repay if there’s anything to repay (Romans 12:19).
Church discipline is not a final statement about a person’s eternal destiny. Jesus said in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:12: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” So which is it? Answer: In Matthew 7:1, what Jesus is telling us is to not do what is not in our authority to do.
And it is not in our authority to judge the eternal destinies of men. That’s God’s job. But, according to the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:12, it is our duty to judge the words and deeds of our brothers and sisters and hold them accountable to God’s Word.
And church discipline should never be carried out self-righteously. It must be done in humility and in love. Our attitude when we participate (at any level) in church discipline must be: I am the worst sinner I know. Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5).
The Purpose of Church Discipline
Biblical church discipline is for the good of the person being disciplined. Discipline, when received with a godly attitude, yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). We practice church discipline because we long to see sinners repent of sin. We long for restoration and reconciliation. The motive is love.
Another reason we discipline is for the good of the entire church. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul rebukes the Corinthian Christians for tolerating sin in the church. He writes:
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
When ignored, scandalous sin can corrupt a congregation. So it must be removed.
Another reason we discipline is because there’s a world of unbelievers watching the church. And they need to see a community of people whose lives are different, not perfect, but different, marked by genuine love for one another and for God and for holiness. 1 Peter 2:12 says: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” And that text gets to the ultimate reason we practice church discipline. We do it for the glory of God. It’s not the church’s reputation that is on the line with whether or not a church is holy – it’s God’s reputation, God’s glory on the line.
So for the sake of sinners and for the sake of God’s glory, we will, in love and humility and obedience, practice biblical church discipline at Sovereign Grace Church.