Sometimes we talk about exercising church discipline. We’ve often talked about how the phrase sounds legalistic and harsh. Yet, if this is something that God’s Word asks us to do as churches then it would be wrong of us to assume that God’s intentions are legalistic or harsh. Rather, as we have often discovered, God’s “Law” is always more loving and full of grace than our attempts at mercy.
What is church discipline?
We can describe church discipline as the “reactive” or correct element to discipleship. Church discipline is about challenging and correct false beliefs and sinful behaviour. We often focus on the end point of this because sadly, there are times when because of public or persistent sin, the church has to state that they can no longer recognise someone as a church member.
The aim of this is three-fold
- To help bring the person to their senses. We want them to see the seriousness of their choices. We want them to return to Christ and the Gospel. So, first and foremost, the purpose of discipline is to seek their restoration.
- To teach and to guard the church. We don’t just teach by preaching and leading bible studies. The aim is to help believers know how they should live as those who belong to Christ. Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 talks about discipline as having a protective function, it maintains the purity of the church The point is not that there is risk of some kind of superstitious contamination but rather that there is an influence on the life and behaviour of the church causing others to stumble.
- To be clear with the outside world. We want to be distinctive, to be salt and light in the world. This means that our neighbours around us need to see the distinctive fruitfulness of God’s people. When someone claims to be a member of the church but they are known to be acting sinfully or they are stating things that go against the Gospel then that creates confusion and also leads to the charge of hypocrisy.
Why it is grace
Church discipline is a grace because of what it does. There are some clues above. I t is an act of grace when it seeks the restoration of a backsliding believer, enables clearer gospel witness and guards “little ones.”
But I just want to bring into sharper focus how this is an act of loving grace and kindness to the fallen brother or sister.
I sometimes describe “Church Discipline” as hitting the re-set button. You see, what is it that someone who has fallen into sin really needs? Humanly and religiously we think they need to try harder, turn over a new leaf, pull their socks up etc. Those are the sorts of words we often use and those are the legalistic/works words.
No, what they really need is to hear the Gospel again. They need to hear it fresh. They need to see how wonderful and beautiful and powerful it is. They need to come back and cling to Christ finding all the security they need in him, all the joy and satisfaction they need in him and all the hope they need in him.
Discipline is about getting us back to that conversation.