1. The Lack of Discipline in our Churches
Biblical discipline has been very rarely practiced by late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first century American churches. We also note with sorrow that this includes our own denomination. The reasons for this are clear: the centrality and idolatry of the individual in the nation’s life, the unbridled pursuit of a freedom that is defined for oneself, the demand for personal happiness as an absolute right, the sense of need to be true to one’s own inner longings and to live out what is perceived as one’s own natural (and therefore “God-given”) personality. This cultural context militates against the practice of discipline.
An additional factor in the decline of discipline is the lack of stable community in our churches. Discipline, as we shall see, requires community; that is, for truly biblical discipline to be in place there must be a context of loving involvement in one another’s lives from day to day. Where “church” consists of occasional public meetings and has a poor reality of a deeper corporate life, the practice of discipline loses its force. The social mobility of our culture increases this problem. If our members have little sense of rootedness in a city, and minimal loyalty to a particular congregation, then again discipline loses its edge with Christians moving from church to church so easily.
2. The “Culture War”
Along with these problems many believers who are sensitive to the need for their churches to be involved in reaching out to the “sinners” in our cities are wary of the constant denunciations by notable Christian leaders of various groups involved in the “culture war” of our times: gays and lesbians, drug addicts, AIDS sufferers, prostitutes, husband-less women, wife-less husbands, fatherless children, teenagers involved in crime and gang warfare. They feel that these public “Christian” declarations of hostility to particular sins and sinners do little to serve the cause of the gospel of Christ and the salvation of the very sinners whom Jesus died to save.
Consequently, those churches that welcome sinners of every kind to their services may have an additional factor of reluctance to practice discipline. “How can the gospel be preached,” they ask, “if we start disciplining the people who need the gospel most?”
There is also a widespread feeling that certain sins are “unacceptable” and will lead to the cry for discipline—sins such as homosexual practice or drug addiction—and that other sins are “acceptable” and will rarely bring a call for discipline—sins such as dishonest business practice or malicious gossip. Along with this sense of unfair discrimination, a further question is asked: “Which of these sins are more widely present in our churches, and therefore more obviously in need of proper discipline?”
3. The Calling of the Church
Jesus calls his church into existence to glorify and enjoy the Father with him, to serve fellow believers in love, and to bring his message of salvation to a wicked and desperately needy world.
This calling of the church to the world means that we are forbidden by Christ to curse, revile, and insult sinners. Rather, we are commanded to pray for them, to bless them, and to love them even if they hate us and make themselves our enemies.
A church, therefore, is not to be a gathering where only the righteous feel welcome, but rather, a fellowship of sinners saved by grace that welcomes other sinners, a gathering of believers who, like Jesus himself, eat and drink with sinners and are servants of sinners. A proper humility before God will always lead to such an attitude and lifestyle. If this humility is not present, we will bring on ourselves the denunciation that Jesus spoke to the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14). This man had prayed congratulating himself that he was not sinful like other men.
A church ought to be a body in which sinners of every kind are welcomed to hear the proclamation of the gospel. It ought to be a community where those seeking God are given time to repent of their sins. It ought to be a fellowship of supplication where there is urgent and persistent prayer for the Spirit to call sinful men and women to the obedience of Christ and to an increasingly righteous life.
This should not mean that the clear teaching of Scripture announcing the holiness of God is to be muted; nor should it mean that the denunciation of sin is to be restrained; nor should it mean that we will back off from impassioned calls to repentance. However, time needs to be given for this message of repentance to take root in a sinner’s heart as faith begins to grow there and as the Spirit softens the conscience through the Word.
4. The Purpose of Discipline
Why should there be church discipline? A simple and sufficient answer is that the Lord of the church demands it. It is, however, appropriate for us to ask what purposes he has in mind in commanding us.
The first reason for discipline is the honor of Christ and of his name before the watching world. The church is called both in its teaching and in its life to uphold the holiness of God before the world. God dwells in unapproachable light, and our Savior was entirely without sin in his life on earth. It is only fitting, therefore, that the churches that bear his name dedicate themselves to a life of purity. This is why the Reformers regarded church discipline as one of the marks of the true and apostolic church.
The second reason for discipline is the sanctification and salvation of the sinner. We are to discipline in order to bring a brother or sister in the Lord to repentance, and so that the spirit of the disobedient Christian may be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus.
The third reason for discipline is to prevent the spread of sin in the church if open sin is not dealt with in obedience to God’s Word. A little yeast of undisciplined sin will corrupt a whole church by pervading the lives of other believers.
5. The Lord’s Intervention
This demand for discipline that is sounded so clearly by Scripture can be ignored only at our peril, for judgment must begin with the household of God.
If we fail to discipline, we can expect that God himself will bring swift judgment on us. He not only demanded the practice of discipline in his teaching, but also gave us the terrible example of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira to demonstrate that he will not tolerate the covering up of serious sin in the life of his church.
In the church at Corinth, the Lord disciplined some in the congregation with sickness and death. These believers had openly destroyed the unity of the body that ought to have been celebrated in the Lord’s Supper. Another example comes from the church in Thyatira where sexual immorality was publicly taught and therefore practiced by members of the church. Again, Christ threatened sickness and intense suffering if the church itself would not deal with the sin. We ought to expect sickness, suffering, and death in our churches if we teach that it is acceptable to God to practice sin, or if we fail to discipline flagrant sins. These warnings from God’s Word ought to cause trembling, holy fear, and a desire for repentance in every church of this presbytery.
6. Disputable Matters
We are commanded by the Lord to allow freedom of conscience in disputable matters. Scripture teaches us that there are areas of difference between believers, where one is right and another wrong, and that such differences ought not to lead to discipline. In Romans 14 and 15, in 1 Corinthians 8, and in Colossians 2, the apostle Paul tells us to be careful not to judge one another (let alone practice discipline) where there are disagreements among believers over issues of conscience.
What are disputable matters? The apostle refers to the observance of one day as special, to the dietary practices of believers, to the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. We are not to develop an evangelical Talmud or Mishnah of rules and regulations for the life of believers. This was one of the reasons for Jesus stringent criticism of the Pharisees. Beyond this, we are to allow freedom of conscience to believers even in some matters where God’s Word has been made known. The apostle tells us that he knew what was right in regard to the disputable matters under discussion in Rome and Corinth, and yet, he insists on the withholding of judgment in these matters that do not entail flagrant sin.
First, he argues that God alone is Lord of the conscience and is the one Judge over us all, and that therefore we must give one another freedom to answer to God.
Second, he calls us to humility with regard to what we know, or what we think we know. Knowledge, even right knowledge, can very easily lead us to the more serious sin of pride.
Third, once we understand the need for humility about our opinions, we will pursue love for our fellow believers who differ from us on these less than central issues. Who am I, Paul challenges me, to judge my brother or sister for whom Christ died? Ought I not rather to love them as Christ did and give myself up for them?
Fourth, he urges us not to cause the believer with a weak conscience to stumble, by practicing before them behavior that they regard as sinful even though their conscience may be misinformed. I must not cause others to sin against their own consciences by leading them into actions that they regard as sin.
This is not to be construed as a license for the legalist to control the life of the church. This, once again, falls under Paul’s prohibition not to judge and not to make rules for one another.
7. The Context of Discipline
Scripture describes the church as a household and as the family of God. The mark of the true church is, therefore, love: love for God and love for one another. Within this family of God’s people, how are we to go about judging one another? Once we discuss discipline, we are driven to acknowledge the need to be discerning about the doctrine and life of a church and of its members. So, what framework can we establish for mutual judgment?
First, when we see a fellow believer sinning, we are to ask ourselves if we are doing the same or even worse than the one we want to set straight. Judgment must begin with ourselves.
Second, we are to ask whether this is a sin that we should forbear and forgive rather than confront the person. If we deal with every sin in the life of a family or church, we would never be silent. Rather, we would bite, devour, and consume each other.
Third, we are to look into our own hearts to discover the motivation behind our judging. Is our motivation spiritual? Do we desire to restore this fellow believer in love, to build up, or to tear down? Do we go in humility as sinner to a fellow sinner, or do we stand on a pedestal of self-righteousness to denounce our brother or sister? Do we pray for him or her in the longing that the sinner will be turned from a wicked way?
Fourth, we have to ask if we have earned the right to go and talk to someone about that person’s sin. Have I indeed been spiritual in my relationship with this person up to the present time? Has there been some reality of brotherly love between us? Or would this person be right to say: “You have shown no concern for me before. How come now that you think I am sinning there is this sudden desire to be involved in my life?”
Fifth, is there solid evidence for this sin I want to confront, or are my fears based on gossip, which in itself is a sin that deserves discipline?
Sixth, I must be prepared to go directly to the person myself and rebuke this brother or sister frankly.
Seventh, will I help the sinner to bear the load of their sin? This is the context of Paul’s command to bear one another’s burdens. Am I interested only in exposing sin, or will I follow the example of Christ and devote myself to helping the sinner overcome his sin? This will mean the giving of myself in prayer, in time, in hospitality, in energy, and in self-sacrifice.
Without doubt, it is this high demand of Scripture for the reality of love in the church that leads both to the lack of discipline and to the destructive nature of some discipline when it is practiced outside of this context of love.
See Part II for when and how to apply church discipline.
Prof. Jerram Barrs is professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and senior resident scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary.
This is part one of two, adapted from a report Prof. Barrs originally wrote for Missouri Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).