“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)
“I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline.” –Vince Lombardi
Before I begin discussing the need for church discipline within the context of the local church I want to start with a confession. I have personally seen church discipline applied in one of two very wrong ways. The first is to completely neglect the idea of church discipline. The second is very personal to me, for a number of reasons. I have seen church discipline misapplied in a very wicked and wrong way. I have seen elders who were more concerned with keeping people in line than they were for caring for the souls of the people under their care. They have never repented and I do not know if they ever will. I leave them to Christ to do what He deems best and pray for the people who are willingly causing their souls distress (whether they realize it or not) by staying under such wicked leadership. Instead of being an exercise in Biblical church discipline this particular group of elders turned it into a Cult like demand for obedience to their will. With that said, the misapplication or neglect of church discipline does not nullify the need for good, Biblical church discipline within the life of the local church. Because of this experience, I have chosen to call church discipline, “gospel discipline”. This isn’t just a theological slight of hand or an expedient reordering of words to hide what is really meant. Instead, I think this helps us get to the heart of identifying the “what”, “why” and “how” of church discipline.
What do I mean when I use the word, “gospel discipline”? Simply, gospel discipline is the regular practice of helping one another find our identity in the gospel and then live out that gospel identity in every area of our lives within the context and framework of the local church. Often, this practice is called, “Church Discipline”. However, as I have already explained, I prefer to use the phrase, gospel discipline due to the lack of clarity or comprehensiveness of the phrase, “church discipline”. Why? There are at least two reasons. First, church discipline is often connected with corrective discipline. Rarely does someone hear the phrase, “church discipline” and connect that phrase to its broader understanding of aiding the believer to become more like Christ through positive and affirming means. Second, and the point I want to emphasize, is that we want to make disciples who see the gospel as the necessary grounds of fighting for their joy in Christ (and the tragic consequences of not believing the gospel). This is the manner in which I believer Scripture calls all believers and churches to tackle this subject: formatively and correctively.
Formative Gospel Discipline
Mark Dever notes that discipline, “in a broader sense, discipline is everything the church does to help its members pursue holiness and fight sin.”. This formative discipline covers:
- The Sacraments (Lord’s Supper And Baptism)
- Personal Bible study
- Mission Involvement
- Family Worship
- Family Catechism
Two Scriptural examples of formative gospel discipline is:
Corrective Gospel Discipline
When the local church believes in the responsibility and necessity of gospel discipline as clearly outlined in Scripture, God pours out His blessings on His people. Even in affirming this truth, corrective gospel discipline is a very difficult area. Nevertheless, gospel discipline has the divine authority of Scripture and is vital to the health of the local church. In corrective gospel discipline, the underlying guard for applying this truth must be a sincere love and embracing of grace by the local church and pastors. Following this underlying foundation, the following should be affirmed and applied.
- The discipline of the church is patterned after the Lord’s discipline of His children (Heb. 12:6) and the Lord has delegated the discipline of the church to the church.
- Discipline is further based on the holiness of God (1 Pet. 1:16; Heb. 12:11). Stated simply, the church is not to tolerate wickedness (1 Cor. 5:6-8).
- Gospel discipline must be patterned after and based upon the divine commands of Scripture and the authority of Scripture (1 Cor. 5:1-13; Matt. 18:17-18; Titus 3:10; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:20; Gal. 6:1).
- The necessity of gospel discipline is the testimony of the church in the world. The world observes the behavior and life of the church. When the church acts no differently than the world it loses its credibility and authenticity (1 Pet. 2:11-18; 3:8- 16; 4:1-4).
Let me close by simply stating, we must make sure that gospel discipline, in both formative and corrective ways must be accomplished in the power of the Holy Spirit, in alignment with the Scripture and in great humility, love, gentleness and patience, realizing that we also are sinners in need of grace and mercy (Gal. 6:1-2; 2 Tim. 2:24-25). Listen, this is important because, if we get this wrong, we will destroy many people. Lets make sure we do gospel discipline well.
Soli Deo Gloria