A Biblical Theology of Church Discipline

It all seems a bit harsh doesn’t it?  Aren’t we being judgemental? These are the sorts of emotions and objections that come up when a church has to exercise discipline. Even though we know that this is something the Bible requires of churches when there has been serious public sin, we still find the idea and experience of removing someone from membership painful.

On Monday, something clicked into place in my thinking that I found very helpful. Forgive me and bear with me if this is obvious and you knew it all along.  We’ve been looking at the book of Deuteronomy at Faithroots Live and this week we came to the end of our studies with a look at the Covenant ceremony and the “choice between life and death” (Deuteronomy 30:15). We saw that for the people of Israel the difference was between enjoying God’s provision and blessing in the land or being exiled (an experience of death) outside of the land.

We then took a wider look at a Biblical Theology of “God’s Land” or “God’s Place.”  We saw that right back in Genesis 1-2, humans were made to worship God, enjoy the blessings of creation and rule over the earth.  God gave Adam and Eve a specific place where they could enjoy this, the Garden of Eden.  At the centre of the garden were two trees, one was the Tree of Life and the other the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they ate from the second tree then they would die.  In other words, Adam and Eve were given a choice between life and death just like the people of Israel. They chose death leading to their banishment from the garden. Sadly, the people of Israel chose death too leading to their banishment from the promised land.

Fast forward to the New Testament and we see Jesus on our behalf receiving the penalty of death. He does so, handed over to foreign rulers, crucified outside of the city gates. He too experienced exile. We then discover that because of his death and resurrection we have life. We find life in him.  Jesus becomes the place where we can know God and enjoy spiritual blessings.  This means both a deposit now through the Holy Spirit and treasures stored up in heaven for us waiting for the day of New Creation when we will all be physically in God’s presence.

This takes us forward to Revelation 22 and the promise that

14 Blessed are those who wash their robes. They will be permitted to enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life. 15 Outside the city are the dogs—the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idol worshipers, and all who love to live a lie.”

The New Jerusalem represents eternal safety, protection and purity for God’s people.  They once again have access to the Tree of Life, in other words, they have received eternal life.  However, those who reject Christ and continue in sin are excluded and kept outside.

This brings me back to the church discipline question. Why do we discipline someone? Two good reasons are

  1. To protect the rest of the church family by giving a warning and minimising the person’s malign influence
  2. To safeguard the Gospel from being brought into disrepute by making it clear that the person does not act as a representative or speak for God’s church.

However, the third reason which we should not forget is that the aim is to see that person restored. Discipline is described as handing the person over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5) and treating them as a pagan (Matthew 18:17).  The aim says Paul is so that

“his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.”[1]

In other words, the aim is that on Judgement Day he will be treated as having chosen life. He will be included among those who have access to God’s presence, to the holy City and to the Tree of Life.

The problem is that his words and deeds now show that he is choosing death.  Yet he may rely on the outward symbols of church membership, participating in the Lords Supper etc  as things that suggest he is okay, he is on the inside. He has a false assurance because his actinos reflect something different about his heart.

Discipline is in effect a temporary banishment or exile now to bring him to his senses. It says “If there isn’t a real repentance and turning to Christ then your eternal future is the banishment of hell.”  The aim is that he will be restored o that he may have genuine assurance and hope looking forward to the day when we will be in God’s presence together.

“Be still my soul and know this peace The merits of your great high priest Have bought your liberty Rely then on His precious blood Don’t fear your banishment from God Since Jesus sets you free”[2]

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:5.

[2] Augustus Toplady, Now why this Fear (1772)