Church discipline is often regarded as the phantom menace of ecclesiology. It is a function of the church that is frequently met with a foreboding sense of dread, disdain, and drudgery — both by its givers and receivers. I think, too, that church discipline is sometimes reckoned as a ministry of the church that is discordant with the church’s true mission, which remains making disciples and baptizing them in Jesus’s name. (Mt 28:18–20) The process of church discipline is viewed as being in disagreement with the church’s commission to preach the good news to the lost. There are many, I think, that find discipline and the gospel to be incongruous, as if the church was enacting a spiritual guerrilla warfare on one of its members, subverting the program of grace. However, such notions regarding church discipline are entirely unfounded.
In an article for 9Marks written by Bobby Jamieson, entitled, “A Biblical Theology of Church Discipline,” the grounds for enacting discipline in the church are found in God’s long-suffering with his own people throughout the epochs of time. “God’s discipline of his people,” Jamieson writes, “is an integral part of the Bible’s entire storyline, from Eden to the new creation.” He then proceeds to examine the various chastisements of God’s people through the cascading ages of mankind’s history. From Eden’s banishment, to the wilderness wanderings, to the Babylonian exile, to the age of the church, discipline, Jamieson argues, has been a foundational component in how God has prepared, preserved, and protected his people.
The idea that church discipline is somehow in contradiction with the church’s involvement in the Great Commission arises out of the false notion that the church is acting independently of the Lord Jesus and enforcing its own strictures on its members. Albeit true that that has likely happened more often than not in the history of the church, God’s discipline is different. His is purposeful, intentional. “God disciplines his people,” Jamieson says, “so that they learn not to rely on themselves and run after other gods, but to seek all and find all in him.” Therefore, Jehovah’s chastisement isn’t the vindictive enforcement of rules and regulations by a tyrannical deity. Rather, it is the intentional restoration of the beloved of God. Indeed, it is, perhaps, the most prescient example of the Heavenly Father’s love. (Prv 3:11–12; Job 5:17; Heb 12:5–6) “For what son is there,” asks the writer to the Hebrews, “that a father does not discipline?” (Heb 12:7)
Furthermore, as Alfred Poirier suggests in “Church Discipline and the Reformation,” posted on the Westminster Theological Seminary blog, church discipline is one of the primary ways in which the orthodoxy of the church is maintained. Probing the writings of the Reformers, most notably those of John Calvin, Poirier is convinced that church discipline is that which allows the church to stay together, functioning like the sinews in a human body that hold the bones and muscles in union. So writes Calvin:
As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place.1
Thus, church discipline is not a scythe whereby the church is liable to hack away at unwanted or troublesome congregants. Rather, it is the God-given bit and bridle of the church to be employed to “restrain and tame those who rage against the doctrine of Christ.”2 As is seen through Jamieson’s and Poirier’s assessments of discipline in the church, this function of Christ’s Body is necessary and biblically warranted when one is living in open rebellion to the church’s established position in faith and orthodoxy. Those in defiance are, thereby, bringing undue discord and disunity into the church, endangering its members. At that time, the health of the Body is being undermined and jeopardized, and it is the scriptural practice of church discipline, therefore, that serves to preserve and protect the church’s health. It is God-ordained surgery wherein cancerous congregants are identified, rectified, or removed so as to defend the sanctity of the gospel with which the church has been entrusted. (1 Tm 3:15–16)
But, perhaps, the the most vital ingredient in the practice of church discipline is the tenor in which it is carried out. As “autonomous local congregations of baptized believers” (as the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message terms them), churches have unfortunately taken the baton of “autonomy” and devolved the disciplinary functions of church into ecclesiastical anarchy. It is to the detriment of the church catholic that some matters of discipline have been enacted in retributive tones. Such practitioners of church discipline are undermining the divine purposes of discipline in the first place, which was always aimed at “renewed repentance and therefore renewed fellowship,” as Jamieson asserts.
Ecclesiastical matters of church discipline ought always to be performed with the goal of recovery — with the intent to recover the relationship and fellowship lost when the congregant acted out of step with the doctrines of God and the church. It is to be sanctioned “like a father’s rod,” continues Calvin, “to chastise mildly and with the gentleness of Christ’s spirit those who have more seriously lapsed.”3 Even in situations which end in exclusion from the Body (that is, excommunication), such determinations are not to be seen condemnations. Rather, they are separations that have come through frustrating and exhausting every avenue of reconciliation. Church discipline, like the gospel itself, always has an eye toward repentance, renewal, and restoration.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John McNeil, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 4:1230.