Sinless perfection is not advocated for in the scriptures, for as we know, all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). We, the blood-bought saints, are still in bodies prone to wander away into sinful trends and tendencies; though we are indeed saved. Be that as it may, the scriptures still don’t approve of a licentious lifestyle. (Romans 6:1-2; Galatians 5:3; Jude 1:3-4). So, what happens when saints find themselves in situations where sin seems to thrive in the body of Christ (not just Sunday believers but among active, transformed believers)? In such cases, the Church must implement discipline, just like every other organisation, for the sake of order.
Church discipline is the process taken to guide, train and correct a brother who is in error/sin for the glory of God, the joy of the saints, and the restoration of the believer.
False concepts about Church discipline
Some people in the fellowship cringe when they hear the word Church discipline because, in many instances, the Church has shamed and banished those who have been caught in error instead of restoring them and walking them back to the fold (Galatians 6:1). On the other hand, many shun away church discipline because they don’t understand the process and its helpfulness. Here are some of the myths surrounding Church discipline.
- Church discipline is hypocritical. Many use Romans 3:23, Romans 7:15-19, and Matthew 7:1 to argue that those at the forefront of handling church discipline matters behave as if they do not have sin. To them, everybody is to be left to live their own lives and deal with God later.
- Church discipline doesn’t express love or grace. Those who believe the gospel is only about God’s love and grace oppose Church discipline siting unbiblical phrases such as ‘God loves the sinner but hates the sin’.
- Church discipline is a flexing of spiritual authority and muscle. There are church leaders who wrongfully take advantage of church discipline as an opportunity to show that they are in charge.
- Church discipline is not for pastors and elders but for members only. This thinking asserts that pastors and elders are incapable of sin, which isn’t the case.
Of course, these four concepts of church discipline are entirely false as they either miss the heart of church discipline or aim for its avoidance for selfish reasons. The writer of Hebrews writes, in chapter 12:11, that no discipline seems pleasant at the time but painful. On this premise, we know it will be an uphill task to practice discipline, whether in public organisations or the body of Christ. However, the writer adds that the joy of discipline is seen later in those trained by it. If we are to walk in agreement with the scriptures, in view of our error, God’s Word says that we shall reap a harvest of righteousness and peace (Hebrews 12:11). These should be our goal, righteousness and peace, whether executing or receiving the discipline.
Importance of Church Discipline
There are many who, when introduced to the concept of church discipline, quickly pull out the you-shall-not-judge card (Matthew 7:1). To clarify, Christ didn’t say those words to rule out loving correction between Christians. He would have contradicted his own words in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul then takes Jesus’ words seriously and exhorts the Corinthian Church to put Jesus’ instructions into practice (1 Corinthians 5:4-5). This confirms that church discipline is God’s idea, not a human construct.
We will approach things better with a proper perspective and eventually achieve good results. The scriptures have taught us how to practise church discipline and remain within God-given parameters. So, here is why we should practise Church discipline.
To extol the holiness and glory of God
Church discipline vindicates the honour and holiness of Christ. The Church is not the centre of Christ’s work; Christ is the centre of the Church (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18). For this reason, the Church must always seek to lift high the call from heaven to be holy because the Lord is holy (Leviticus 19:2); to be holy means set apart and above the average bar. God is perfectly holy and has called the Church to express this character by ensuring that matters within the fellowship point toward God’s holiness. Peter calls the Church to this standard (1 Peter 1:15-16, 2:9) because there is no other standard for the Church.
Moreover, Peter calls the saints a holy priesthood and, again, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:5, 9). With this in mind, the Church must practice discipline for God’s honour and glory (Isaiah 26:8, 1 Corinthians 10:31).
To uphold the purity of the Church
As the body of Christ, the Church has a responsibility before God to walk in the purity of God’s call, be holy as I am holy (1 Peter 1:16). Church discipline comes in to fulfil this by purging the fellowship to the point where it is as pure as the Lord wants it to be (Colossians 1:21-22, 1 Thessalonians 4:7). We may not be perfect. Still, we ought to pursue purity by all means through God’s grace. It’s why Paul told the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 5:11-13) to purge the sinner in the fellowship because the Church is called to purity (Ephesians 1:3-4, 5:27).
Christ purifies and sanctifies the Church (2 Thess. 2:13, John 17:17) by His Spirit (Titus 3:5). The elders and overseers are Christ’s undershepherds tasked with caring for the flock of God. Our pursuits should aim to lead the flock unto the fulness of the chief shepherd’s desire, a pure bride (2 Corinthians 11:2).
To restore the wrongdoer
At the heart of Church discipline is the aim to restore the sinner, the brother found in error. Galatians 6:1a clearly states, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” To restore is to bring back to the original position/ state. God’s desire is not that people are thrown out haphazardly from the safety of the fellowship. Instead, he desires that we help brothers get back on track within the safety of the fellowship.
We see this idea of restoration throughout the scriptures. God sent Nathan to restore David after his murderous infidelity (2 Samuel 12:1-5), while Job prayed for his errant friends for their restoration after they had misrepresented God in their conversations (Job 42:7-10). Also, Jesus prayed for the restoration of Peter, who denied him thrice during his journey to the cross (Matthew 26:69-75). God disciplines us to bring us to the right path and not to condemn us to destruction (Hebrews 12:1-11). We must have the same attitude in our pursuit of Church discipline.
To show the distinction between the Church and the world
The Biblical Church comprises blood-washed, heart-redeemed saints, ransomed by the sacrifice of our Saviour- Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 2:19-22). As such, the Church functions under a different set of guidelines than the world. A lack of Church discipline would leave the Body of Christ looking like the world as we wallow in the mess of sin’s ugly expressions. We are called to be the salt and the light of this dying world (Matthew 5:13-16, Philippians 2:15), and if we lose our saltiness and brightness, then we are no longer helpful to the ones perishing.
When sin thrives in the fellowship without being dealt with, it obscures the power and beauty of the gospel before the world. The world will only see the glory of the gospel when the Church purges itself of the evil that tries to creep in.
What if someone refuses to go through discipline?
Sometimes, the people in error will wield a selfish fist and shake it against the Church in total defiance. For such, scripture tells us to cast them away and consider them heathens or unbelievers (Matthew 18:15-17). Similarly, Paul told the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 5:5), as they were dealing with discipline issues, to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh and the salvation of their souls. Therefore, the Church leadership and its members must execute such disciplinary measures for the sake of the body of Christ and the young believers in their midst. Remember the profound warning of our Saviour: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6).
When the fellowship of believers looks the other way and ignores sin, everything becomes chaotic. This kind of response creates the risk of the young in faith getting into a crisis of belief and, for some, a falling away from the truths of the gospel. Woe unto us if we allow sin to thrive in fellowship and harm those for whom Christ suffered.
When a church opts for the painful yet fruitful course of Church discipline, it draws itself closer to the evident righteousness of its Saviour and experiences the shalom of God. All people, whether clergy or laypeople, must be open to Church discipline when found in sin, which we are all prone to. Since we are all Christ’s sheep, we must trust that he had our best in mind when he instructed the way of wise and loving Church discipline.