The idea of church discipline brings many different responses. Many who object to the idea have a variety of reasons for doing so, some of which are legitimate concerns.
For example, some ‘reasons’ for disciplinary action have led to the abuse of this practice e.g., John Wesley apparently attempted to discipline a young woman he’d fallen in love with because she married someone else.
Nonetheless, despite whatever excuses may exist for not practicing church discipline and whatever your opinion may be at this point, please read through the rest of this article and why it isn’t just a good idea, or important, but a biblical necessity for every Christian church.
What is church discipline?
I think it’s important to first define what I mean by church discipline. Primarily church discipline must be understood as a process, the role of every Christian, and a response to sin in professing believers (not personal preferences) for the purpose of restoring a believer’s relationship with God, renewing their fellowship with other believers, and strengthening their witness to unbelievers.
I think it’s also helpful to place church discipline in the context of society. For example, if you repeatedly do the wrong thing in the workplace, sport, or the home, you’re likely to receive warnings and then progressively more severe consequences. So why should people in the church be exempt from such discipline when it is the accepted and normal practice of society?
Biblical references to church discipline
Biblical references demonstrate church discipline is not a small matter, or singled out for one specific situation only, but that it is the God-given responsibility upon believers and the church to participate in such a practice.
Importantly, Jesus Himself prepared us for church discipline, even before the church existed, by providing a clear four step process (Matthew chapter 18, verses 15-20). The first two steps are private conversations, the second two become a public and church wide action, but each of the steps only progresses if the individual doesn’t repent of their actions.
Some other references to church discipline include Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians for not disciplining a sinning member (1 Corinthians chapter 5), and his instructions for people who are lazy (2 Thessalonians chapter 3, verses 6-15), for causing division in the church (Titus chapter 3, verses 9-11), and for unrepentant church leaders (1 Timothy chapter 5, verse 20).
Notice in these references there are several different processes given for discipline, depending on the sin in question and the person guilty of the sin.
Reasons for church discipline
Please allow me to highlight several theological reasons why church discipline is necessary.
First, God is holy, and He expects holiness. If the church does not practice church discipline against sinning believers, they are permitting sin to continue without restraint and making a mockery of God’s holiness and our call to reflect His holiness.
Second, because Christians have submitted to Jesus Christ as Lord, they have already willingly submitted themselves to God’s Word and therefore it is dishonoring to Jesus as Lord, if people are not called out to follow through with what they have committed themselves to.
Third, the church should be the greatest testimony of Christ to the unbelieving world, but if the church allows their members to do whatever they what, they’ll become hypocrites of the Gospel they want to profess.
Fourth, sin separates us from God and our sin deserves eternal punishment in the flames of hell. To ignore sin is to make a mockery of our holy God and His view of what sin is and what it deserves.
Fifth, church discipline challenges and confronts others in sin and holds others accountable, so that everyone understands sin is not an acceptable practice of Christians and we are expected to submit and obey Christ.
Sixth, the church discipline practice teaches the importance of becoming more like Jesus (sanctification) and therefore, rather than being a negative process, encourages and helps people grow in their faith… isn’t that what we all want (or at least should want)?
Seventh, church discipline may expose that a professing believer is not genuinely saved and can be used by God to lead them to salvation.
Eighth, whenever a person repents of their sin (in whatever stage of the process) it highlights God’s forgiveness of our sin and the joyful blessing of reconciled relationship with God and His people.
Ninth, proper church discipline promotes a loving, humble, and supportive church culture that builds trust, deepens relationships, and rejoices in fellowship with the common goal of glorifying God in words and actions.
In summary, church discipline emphasizes: God’s holiness, the severity of sin, the Christian’s holy calling to obedience, Christ’s Lordship of believers, the church’s witness as salt and light to the watching world, a correct understanding of salvation, accountability among believers, and loving and committed fellowship within the church.
For these reasons (and more) church discipline is necessary in every church. However, after putting forward this argument I would also propose church discipline is a necessary part of every believer’s walk with the Lord.
As Christians should we not be committed to our own spiritual growth and that of others? Should we not be committed to reaching the lost with the Gospel? Have we not surrendered to the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and acknowledge that His death on the cross has paid the penalty of death we deserve for our sin?
If so, may we be part of churches that practice church discipline, may we commit to respond in humility when others confront us, and commit to love and humility in approaching others about sin you have recognized in their lives… all for God and His glory!
Genevieve Wilson is Canadian. a happily married home-schooling mum of 3, whose passion is to see people come to know Jesus. She is a seminary wife to her amazing husband.