Crucial for church well-being
We all recognise that a football team needs discipline, as does an army, a school or a business. Yet many of us seem to think that it is at best an optional extra for the church – at worst an unnecessary interference in our private ‘walk with the Lord’. Our forefathers thought differently. They regarded discipline as being crucial to the well-being of the church. Take, for example, the Belgic Confession, Chapter 29 – ‘The true church can be recognised if it has the following marks: the church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognising the true church – and no one ought to be separated from it.’
The Biblical teaching about church discipline is not too difficult to grasp. It starts with self-discipline (one of the fruits of the Spirit). From there we have personal admonition with brotherly (or sisterly) correction. The wounds of a friend are faithful (Prov. 27:6). Following the pattern of Matthew 18:15-18, if this does not work you take along two or three witnesses. If that does not work, then you report it to the church. The church in this instance does not surely mean that we stand up in front of the whole body of believers on a Sunday and tell of our disputes. No, we go to those who have been appointed as the spiritual rulers in this regard – the elders (or whatever term your church uses to describe those described in 1 Timothy 3).
And if the one being disciplined will not listen to the church, then you treat them as you would a ‘pagan or a tax collector’. This means that they are ‘handed over to Satan’ and removed from the spiritual protection of the church (1 Cor. 5:5). The purpose is ultimately restoration, not destruction (2 Cor. 2:5-11). In other words, discipline is loving, not abusive or power politics. And, in my experience, and that of many others, it works!
There is due process. We are all equal before the Law of God. Other safeguards are also put in. For example, we are not to entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Likewise, leadership in the New Testament church is plural and limited. Christ is the Head – no man, or woman. As the Chief Shepherd he works through the undershepherds, who are ministers and servants, not masters and lords.
And we are cautioned against getting involved in something that is none of our business. ‘Like one who grabs a stray dog by the ears is someone who rushes into a quarrel not their own’ (Prov. 26:17).
Discipline is to be carried out when false doctrine is being taught (Rev.2:2) and also when those who teach true doctrine do not ‘adorn’ it by their lives. It is not our responsibility to judge those outside the church, but those within. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked person from among you’ (1 Cor. 5:12).
Of course, none of this guarantees a pure and perfect church – discipline exists precisely because the church is not that. Nor does it guarantee that we will get everything right. Sometimes the guilty will go unpunished, and even worse, the innocent will be punished. But we have this great guarantee that undergirds all – the Lord will right all wrongs on the day He has appointed, by the man He has appointed (Acts 17:31).This means that sometimes we are able to act and deal with situations, but other times we have to let things go and let the tares grow with the wheat, because we do not have the means, the evidence or the power to deal with some situations.
Note what is missing from here – campaigning, those ‘too important’ to be judged, gossip (whether on social media or by other means), ‘open’ letters, church politics, self-appointed judges, self-righteousness, going to the civil courts, using the world’s media, cancel culture, ‘independent’ reports and personality squabbles.
As evangelicals developed a ‘low’ doctrine of the church (in reaction to one that seemed to be far too ‘high’), we have ended up in a situation where networks, politics, and leadership developed around charismatic and authoritative personalities have replaced the more Biblical approach. In other words, we have adopted more worldly methods.
Unless we return to a more Biblical approach, I fear that we will end up doing the devil’s work for him. He won’t need to be a roaring lion as long as we continue to bite and devour one another (Gal. 5:15).