By Colton Corter
Does your church practice church discipline? I am talking about discipline in the final, formal sense. Does your church warn unrepentant members about their sin, even moving to remove them from membership if you can no longer affirm their profession of faith?
Al Mohler has called church discipline the “missing mark” in churches today. There has traditionally been three marks of a true church – The right preaching of the gospel, the administration of the gospel ordinances, and church discipline. As Baptists our heritage is full of churches that practiced discipline so that their churches might serve as a faithful gospel witness to a watching world. Despite that rich heritage, church discipline has fallen out of use in most modern churches. To many, it seems to harsh and exclusionary. Our Christian lives are private matters and church membership is roughly the equivalent of membership in your favorite club or society.
But I want to propose a better, more biblical way. Church discipline, when done in the right spirit, at the right time and for the right reasons is a gift Christ has given to His church to bind and loose here on earth. The keys of the Kingdom are in the hands of the congregation. It is the job of the local church to reflect the character of God in word and deed. We need to proclaim a pure gospel and live in such a way that shows the power of the gospel that we proclaim.
What exactly is a Church?
Jonathan Leeman gives the illustration of an embassy. If you go to the U.S. embassy in any foreign country, they will declare you to be a lawful citizen of the U.S. in that country. They affirm what is already true about you. It is not in their authority to make you into a citizen. The same is true for the church. The local body is a representative, an embassy, of the Kingdom of God here on earth. By being admitted into membership at a local church, your profession to belong to and represent Christ is affirmed. Again, the church does not make you a Christian like in Roman Catholicism. The congregation is given a judiciary power to determine, based on the fruit of your life, if they think you are a regenerate Christian.
A church is a body of regenerate, justified Christians who meet together to hear the Word, be taught the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word and see the Word in the ordinances. The chief end of the church is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever. God’s glory is shown to be our highest good when we live lives that commend His sufficiency. The mark of a true Christian is not sinlessness but disgust for sin and a fight to see and savor the superior worth of Christ. In fact, the church is exclusively for sinners. But the church is for a special class of sinners – repentant ones. As the body fights to push on another deeper into Christ through the Word of God, the church grows an increasing witness to the character of God and the power of the gospel. This is what local church is all about and fuels the mission of the church found in Matthew 28.
The “Why?” of Church Discipline
Church discipline is motivated by love. First, church discipline is motivated by a love for God. When people who claim the name of Christ live just like the world, the name of Christ is tarnished. The one who claims to be satisfied in Christ and yet clamors for the world makes it appear as if Christ is not worthy of the praise they claim to give Him. God’s character is marred when the unrepentant pass as what a Christian is supposed to be. Second, church discipline is motivated by a love for the church. Sin in a church is a destructive force. Heresy and moral error gone unchecked can drag weak believers down with them (see the concern Jude has for his hearers). It also exhorts members to watchfulness over their own hearts and warns of the exceeding sinfulness of sin (Heb. 3:12). Finally, church discipline is motivated by a love for the person being disciplined. We do someone no favors by lying to them about their state. Heaven and hell are in the balance. In no way should this be taken to mean that the person is on the brink of losing their salvation. However, if they remain in their sin, they will prove that they never belonged to the Lord in the first place (1 John 2:19). We love people most when we aim for their highest good- repentance and faith in the finished work of Christ. By God’s grace, the Spirit uses church discipline to wake up the sluggish one and brings them to fresh dependence and joy in Christ.
The “How?” of Church Discipline
The clearest passages about how to go about church discipline are found in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. Jesus and Paul might seem to contradict each other but we know that is not the case. A synthesis of the two texts boils down, very simply, into three steps. First, the one who has been sinned against should approach the person in sin. Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 seems to instruct us to aim for the least amount of people involved as possible. Remember that the purpose of discipline is their repentance. If the person will not repent, the person should bring more witnesses to confront the person in sin. Finally, if the person still won’t forsake their sin, the matter should be brought to the church. Jesus seems to give the keys of the Kingdom to the church in conjunction with the good and right authority of the elders who lead the congregation. The elders assess the situation and bring it to the church for affirmation. If the congregation decides that they can no longer affirm the person’s profession of faith, then they move to excommunications.
Then what? We tell them to leave and never come back? By no means! The church should want that person to be in attendance, sitting under the preaching of the gospel. The goal is their repentance and immediate restoration! However, the tenor of relationship changes between members and the one who has been removed. Conversations are now evangelistic in nature. They are to be regarded with love but only as those who are outside of the Kingdom of God. Families should not shun a relative but should not treat them as a Christian either (Matt. 18:17).
Church Discipline is Hard but Good
We should not long for cases of church discipline. It should break our hearts to see someone whom we thought was a believer leave the faith. But we must be faithful to the Bible, both for the sake of the church and for the sake of the sinner. J.L. Dagg famously quipped that once church discipline leaves a church Christ goes along with it. We cannot represent Christ faithfully and win souls without practicing church discipline. The gospel will be undermined and potentially lost if we don’t hold each other accountable for our sins. But this discipline should not start with the formal process. By God’s grace, we should be a people for whom church membership is not taken lightly. We should be using the Word of God throughout the week and culminating on Sunday, to reprove and rebuke, to exhort and admonish one another so that we might be equipped for the special task of representing God as His redeemed objects of mercy.
Colton Corter is a student at SBTS and member at Third Avenue Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter @coltonMcorter.