What comes to your mind when you hear the words church discipline? Maybe you picture a scene from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter of Hester Prynne slinking down the sidewalks with a large, red “A” embroidered on her chest. Or maybe you envision the torture and death that was part of the Inquisition centuries ago. Many of the common perceptions of church discipline are far removed from the Bible’s teaching, and because of that, too many churches have neglected this duty given by Jesus Himself.
Church discipline is not a doctrine to be ignored but a responsibility to be embraced. A church that desires to obey and glorify God cannot shirk the responsibility given by Jesus to maintain truth and holiness by confronting sin. Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is right when he argues in Church Discipline: The Missing Mark that church discipline is essential to faithfulness:
“The mandate of the church is to maintain true gospel doctrine and order. A church lacking these essential qualities is, biblically defined, not a true church. That is a hard thing to say, for it clearly indicts thousands of American congregations who long ago abandoned this essential mark and have accommodated themselves to the spirit of the age.”
Church discipline can be defined broadly or narrowly, positively or negatively. Actively engaging in training and discipleship that exhorts, rebukes, instructs, and admonishes is essential to the mission of the church. Though all of these activities generally fall under the label of church discipline, the phrase church discipline usually focuses on dealing with unrepentant sin in the life of a church member. Nineteenth-century Baptist pastor, Hezekiah Harvey, defined church discipline in his book The Church: Its Polity and Ordinances as denoting “the action of the church, whether as individuals or as a body, in reference to offenses committed against the laws of Christ.”
The purposes of church discipline are to reflect God’s holiness to the world, restore a fallen sinner to holiness, and promote holiness in the church. A church that allows members to remain in sin is not reflecting the holiness of the God it serves (1 Peter 1:15–16; 2:11–12). When Jesus gave the first instructions regarding church discipline, He stated that if the sinning brother repents after being confronted, “you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). The goal is to restore a fallen brother to fellowship with a holy God and His chosen people. Church discipline is the means God has given His church to reflect His holiness to the world.
Few moments in my life have been sweeter than hearing how God brought one of our former members to repentance eight years after pursuing him through church discipline. Though still dealing with some lingering consequences of his sin, he was again walking in fellowship with Christ and seeking reconciliation with his church. With tears in his eyes, he thanked us for disciplining him out of the congregation. God used church discipline to lead him down the road to repentance.
Since God’s reputation is on the line, each church has the responsibility to reflect God’s holiness by swiftly and decisively dealing with sin. Though it’s challenging, the fruits of a holy and pure congregation are immense. We would be wise to heed these words from Hezekiah Harvey:
“A spiritual discipline, administered with tenderness and fidelity, is of the highest moment for the welfare of the church. It is an urgent necessity alike for the help of individual souls and for the purity, peace, and the moral power of the body. Disorderly, inconsistent life in the church paralyzes the power of the pulpit; no other cause, probably, is so potent an evil in the churches as the general neglect of a true church discipline.” As the bride of Christ, the church has a high calling to reflect His holiness and purity. He has given us the instructions to do so. Let us be faithful and obedient to His commands to promote and preserve holiness in His church through
Josh Wredberg serves as the main teaching pastor at Redeemer Community Church in Fuquay-Varina, NC. He is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist University and Shepherds Theological Seminary. He has also earned a doctorate in preaching from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is the co-author of Exalting Jesus in John—a commentary in the Christ-Centered Exposition series—and the author of 30 Days to 1 Samuel. He and his wife, Cari, have three sons.