The Doctrine of Church Discipline

The Doctrine of Church Discipline

Church discipline helps the church focus on unity, purity, and maturity. Apart from ongoing discipline of members, the congregation drifts from the gospel and the church as Christ’s bride (1 Cor. 5:7; Eph. 5:22–33). Neglect of discipline accommodates personal desires instead of conforming to God’s redeeming purposes for the church as a reflection of the gospel’s power (Eph. 4–5). The church glorifies the Lord Jesus when it lives as a gospel-called and Spirit-indwelled people (1 Pet. 1:1–2, 13–16; 2:1–12; Eph. 2:19–22).

A Regular Practice

            Discipline happens weekly in a healthy church. Throughout the New Testament, discipline means to train or to maintain good order (e.g. gumnazō, 1 Tim. 4:7; paideia, Heb. 12:7–9). Regular teaching, preaching, worship, and discussion of God’s Word applied to the congregation are the means of formative discipline. Faithful doctrinal preaching trains a congregation with theological application to the whole life. Such preaching calls attention to the authority of Scripture, the centrality of the gospel, the Spirit’s help in fighting sin, and the nature of the church as Christ’s body and family (2 Tim. 3:16–17; Titus 2:11–14; Eph. 6:10–20; Eph. 1:22–23; John 1:12). The pastor repeatedly exhorts the congregation to live life together in Christ.
            Corrective or formal discipline, on the other hand, seeks to lovingly correct and restore a member persisting in unrepentant sin. Corrective discipline happens, as Tom Schreiner notes, “when radical surgery or radical repentance is needed” in a member due to sin.[1] The goal is always restoration.

  Patterns of Sin

             Some fear the practice of discipline will serve as a constant “witch hunt.” Instead, recognizing the propensity to fall prey to sin, as a God-given means to preserve the purity of the body, the congregation takes action to restore an erring brother or sister (Gal. 6:1). On one level, “speaking the truth in love” to one another helps with formative discipline (Eph. 4:14–16). But when a member persists in a sinful pattern, stronger measures must be taken to protect that member and the church. What sins call for corrective discipline?
  • Persistent sins threatening the Christian’s testimony, the church’s purity and witness (1 Cor. 6:9–11; Eph. 5:3–5; 2 Tim. 3:1–9; 1 Pet. 1:13–16; 2:11–12).
  • Scandalous public behavior offensive even to the unbelieving community (1 Cor. 5:1–13).
  • Persistent behavior destructive to the church’s unity and fellowship (1 Cor. 3:16–17; Eph. 4:1–3; 2 Thess. 3:11–15; Titus 1:9–11; 3:10–11).
  • Persistent doctrinal deviation or heretical beliefs that refuse pastoral correction (Titus 1:9; 1 Tim. 1:18–20; 2 Tim. 2:16–18; 2 Pet. 2:1–3, 17–22; 2 John 9–11).

  Follow Jesus’ Instruction

             The Lord of the Church laid out a structure for corrective discipline (Matt. 18:15–20). The layering approach prevents misuse by an overzealous member. Plus, the incremental steps allow a sinning member space to respond in repentance. Christ gives the corporate body “the keys of the kingdom” to admit and remove members.[2]
  • A member recognizing sin patterns in another humbly approaches the brother to privately call for repentance (Matt. 7:1–5; 18:15).
  • If he refuses, he takes two or more members to exhort him to repentance (Matt. 18:16).
  • If he still refuses, he takes it to the church to corporately urge repentance (Matt. 18:17).
  • If he refuses the church’s loving action, the congregation exercises its prerogatives to remove him from membership (Matt. 18:17–18).
 Holiness of the body purchased by the blood of Christ calls for diligence in preserving its purity, unity, and maturity through discipline.

  Key Texts: Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5:1–11; Romans 16:17–20; Titus 3:10–11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15

  Tips for Preaching on the Doctrine of Church Discipline

             (1) Build the foundation first. Church discipline has its roots in gospel purity and the nature of the church. Discerning a church’s poor understanding of the gospel calls for building a foundation for the congregation in the work of Christ (Rom. 3:19–30; Eph. 1:3–2:10). Likewise, a church failing to grasp its nature as body of Christ (Eph. 1:23; 2:16; 5:23; Col. 1:18, 23; 1 Cor. 12:7–27; Rom. 12:4–8), family of God (Heb. 2:13–14; 3:4–6; John 1:12; Rom. 8:14–17; 1 John 3:1–2), temple of God (Eph. 2:21–22; Rom. 8:9–11; 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:4–8), and people of God (1 Pet. 2:9–10; Titus 2:14; Rom. 15:7–12) will likely react to preaching on corrective discipline. Put church discipline on pause until the body sees the gospel and the church with more clarity. Then move forward in demonstrating church discipline as the natural outflow of a healthy understanding of gospel and church.
             (2) Emphasize responsibility in relationships. The New Testament uses “one another” over forty times to express the congregation relating to one another in love, service, encouragement, admonition, burden bearing, kindness, forgiveness, etc. (John 13:34–35; Gal. 5:13; Heb. 10:25; Col. 3:16; Gal. 6:2; Eph. 4:32). Preach on life lived together in the messiness of relationships as a demonstration of the grace of God and power of the gospel in the church. Help the church to understand engagement in formative discipline with one another through accountability, encouragement, exhortation, and corporate worship (Eph. 5:15–21; Heb. 10:24–25).
             (3) Preach on corrective church discipline with love, humility, and a broken heart. Pride has no room in the pulpit anytime, especially when dealing with such a serious matter as church discipline (1 Pet. 5:5–9). Feel the weight of what it means to call out another person’s sin in light of one’s own sin (Luke 17:1–10). Yet, as in a family, discipline will be necessary from time to time to express depth of love (Heb. 12:4–11).

 John S. Hammett & Benjamin L. Merkle, ed. Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (B&H Academic).
 Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Crossway).
 Jeremy M. Kimble, 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline (Ben Merkle, ed.; Kregel).
 Daniel E. Wray, Biblical Church Discipline (Banner of Truth Trust).
   [1] Thomas Schreiner, “The Biblical Basis for Church Discipline,” in John S. Hammett & Benjamin L. Merkle, ed., Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012), 106.
   [2] See Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (9Marks; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 169–227. 
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