What is a church? When you first became a believer, or when you relocated and needed a new church home, what characteristics did you look for?
The Belgic Confession of 1561 described the true church with three characteristics: preaching pure doctrine, administering the ordinances, and exercising church discipline.
Exercising church discipline? Is that a major factor for you when you join a church?
While the first two characteristics have faded in recent years— and have all but disappeared in some mainline Christian denominations—this third characteristic has vanished from most churches. I would go so far as to say that most Christians probably cannot even define what true church discipline is and have rarely ever seen it implemented in their own home church.
This lack of understanding of church discipline is not just in the pews, but in the pulpit too. A recent survey of over 400 pastors found that 50 percent “never intervened” in matters of discipline. They never even got involved, let alone administered any form of discipline.
Before we can understand why church discipline is important, who does it and how, or what the result of church discipline is, let’s first define the term, and come to a clear understanding of what church discipline is.
WHAT IS CHURCH DISCIPLINE?
Church discipline is the confrontive and corrective measures taken by an individual, church leader, or congregation regarding a matter of sin in the life of a believer.
Those two words, “confrontive” and “corrective” are crucial to understanding the attitude behind church discipline.
“Confrontive” means that the discipline is given directly to the person. There is no going behind someone’s back, no gossiping, no “guess what I just heard about so-and-so.” Church discipline is directly confronting the person responsible, and doing so in a straightforward, face-to-face way.
“Corrective” speaks to the goal of church discipline. Correction does not attempt to bring someone down, make them feel cast out, or irreversibly damage their spirit. The word “correction” implies a desire to improve with the goal of making whole. Church discipline focuses on the ultimate spiritual improvement of the person responsible.
Church discipline is commanded by God and modeled by Jesus Himself. The author of Hebrews wrote, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6). As the representative of God on earth, it is the responsibility of the church to take discipline just as seriously as God does. While the ultimate judgment belongs to God, He often uses His human institution—the church—as the means of enacting His will.
WHAT IS THE GOAL OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE?
Simply put, church discipline exists to restore.
While the consequences of church discipline can be punishing and painful, the motive behind the discipline is restoration, and ultimately, love.
I cannot remember thinking one time while my parents were giving me a spanking, “Wow, I am so thankful for this spanking, I love my parents for this.” No! It hurt, I hated it, and even resented my parents for hurting me.
But with time—and maturity—I came to appreciate their discipline, because I saw that hurting me physically was loving me and desiring to improve me. That little consequence of pain was saving me from a lifetime of potential consequences if my heart and attitude remained unrepentant toward my sins.
Likewise, the goal of church discipline, while painful in its implementation, is to set someone back on the right course, to restore them to God and preserve fellowship with the body. Church discipline is loving your fellow believer well.