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    Jan 01, 2012

    Church Discipline and the Love of God

    Preacher/Author: Jonathan Leeman

    Category: Articles, Church Discipline, Capitol Hill Baptist Church


    The following article is handed out in our church's membership class.

    Do the words “church discipline” seem like they don’t belong together, like “painful friendship” or “conditional grace”? In fact, church discipline builds healthy churches and vibrant gospel witnesses.

    What Is Church Discipline?

    Broadly, church discipline is one part of the discipleship process. As in many areas of life, Christian discipleship involves both instruction and discipline, just like soccer practice or math class.

    Narrowly, church discipline is correcting sin. It begins with private warnings. It ends, when necessary, with removing someone from church membership and participation in the Lord’s Table. The person will generally be free to attend public gatherings, but he or she is no longer a member. The church will no longer publicly affirm the person’s profession of faith.

    A number of sins might call for loving warnings in private. But formal public discipline typically occurs only in cases of sin that meet three further criteria. A sin must be outward—it can seen or heard (unlike, say, pride). It must be serious—serious enough to discredit the person’s verbal profession to be following Jesus. And it must be unrepentant—the person has typically been confronted but refuses to let go of the sin.

    Is Discipline Biblical?

    Church discipline first shows up in Matthew 18, where Jesus says concerning the person in unrepentant sin, “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” (v. 17). That is, treat him as outside the covenant community. The person has proven uncorrectable. His life does not match his Christian profession.

    Another well-known passage on discipline, 1 Corinthians 5, helps us see the purpose of discipline. First, discipline exposes. Sin, like cancer, loves to hide. Discipline exposes the cancer so that it might be cut out (see 1 Cor. 5:2). Second, discipline warns. A church does not enact God’s judgment through discipline. Rather, it stages a small play that pictures the great judgment to come (v. 5). Third, discipline saves. Churches pursue it when they see a member taking the path toward death, and none of their arm-waving causes him or her to stop. It’s the device of last resort (v. 5). Fourth, discipline protects. Just as cancer spreads from cell to another, so sin quickly spreads from one person to another (v. 6). Fifth, discipline preserves the church’s witness. Strange to say, it serves non-Christians because it keeps churches distinct and attractive (see v. 1). After all, churches are to be salt and light. “But if salt has lost its taste…” Jesus said, “It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet” (Matt. 5:13).

    Is Discipline Really Loving?

    Church discipline at its core is about love. The Lord disciplines those he loves (Heb. 12:6). The same is true for us.

    The problem is, many people today have a sentimentalized view of love: love as being made to feel special. Or a romanticized view of love: love as being allowed to express yourself without correction. Or a consumeristic view: love as finding the perfect fit. In the popular mind, love has little to do with truth and holiness and authority.

    But that’s not love in the Bible. Love in the Bible is holy. It makes demands. It yields obedience. It doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). Jesus tells us that if we keep his commandments, we will abide in his love (John 15:10). And John says that if we keep God’s word, God’s love will be perfected in us (1 John 2:5). How do church members help one another abide in Christ’s love and show the world what God’s love is like? Through helping one another obey and keep his word. Through instruction and discipline.