When you think of church discipline, what comes to mind? Those with more colorful imaginations may think of the Spanish Inquisition. Others may think of a pastor with a grudge telling church members to find somewhere else to worship. Still others may not know what you are talking about at all. In much of modern evangelicalism, church discipline is either rare or totally non-existent; because of this, it has an unpleasant mystique to it.
Even among those who have a healthy understanding of church discipline, when they think of it they may think exclusively of excommunication; however, church discipline is not a matter of excommunication alone. In Matthew 18:15 Jesus explains that before excommunication happens, discipline should begin simply as one-on-one between the offender and the offended. Christians need to remember, though, that there is a wide range of steps that God intends to happen in-between that face-to-face and what could be the eventual excommunication of the person in verse 17.
Discipline Broadly Considered
What this means is that church discipline is more than a matter of doing the most drastic thing possible. Discipline is usually more routine and ordinary than that. The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) states that discipline can refer “to the whole government, inspection, training, and guardianship and control which the church maintains over its members, its officers, and its courts” (BCO 27-1). It also says that “discipline is systematic training under the authority of God’s Scripture” (BCO 27-4). This is counterintuitive to many. As we see from the BCO, a church that is well taught and sits under faithful preaching of the Word is being disciplined regularly, whether they consciously realize it or not.
Most people, however, when they think about discipline, think about judicial process—a very formal practice outlined in Scripture and detailed in the BCO. The BCO states that this judicial process is given for “the preservation of truth and duty” (Preliminary Principles, II). It also states that it exists to promote “the glory of God, the purity of His Church, and the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners” (BCO 27-3).
Rather than detail that process, I would simply note that a church that is unwilling to follow the commands of Jesus in Matthew 18 and the commands of Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 should not think itself a Christian church. This is not simply a private belief of my own; it is a matter of biblical fidelity and of the history of the church. When Jesus outlines the process of Matthew 18, he does assume that at a certain point a person may need to be cast out of the fellowship. Paul assumes the same in 1 Corinthians 5. It’s painful, it’s uncomfortable, and it leaves church members troubled—especially remaining family members who want the church to show leniency. And yet these commands are as much a part of Scripture as the more pleasant words of Jesus.
We not only have the direct commands of Scripture, but we also have the testimony of the Reformers. Calvin, for instance, is quite representative. He stated, “As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together” (Institutes 4.12.1). T.H.L. Parker argues that Calvin’s view, that “discipline was a pastoral measure, a part of the proclamation of the word of God” (Portrait of Calvin, 90). A body without sinews, of course, is no body at all. “[A]ll who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration…are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church” (Institutes 4.12.1).
Does this mean that church courts should walk around swinging the excommunication hammer whenever they want? No, of course not. The BCO says that discipline “is to be exercised as under a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath” and as “the act of a tender mother, correcting her children for their good” (BCO 27-4). In considering the abuses of Rome regarding discipline, Calvin writes in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 2:11: “For it very frequently happens, that, under colour of zeal for discipline, a Pharisaical rigour creeps in, which hurries on the miserable offender to ruin, instead of curing him.” Sessions should not be eager to practice discipline. In another place Calvin reminded elders of the importance of gentleness: “Whenever we have occasion to pronounce censure, let us begin with ourselves, and, remembering our own weakness, let us be indulgent to others” (Commentary on Galatians, 6:1).
The Necessity of Discipline
The sad reality is, though, sometimes excommunication must happen. I remember the day clear as could be. It was my second time visiting a particular PCA church that I intended to join. At the end of the service, the pastor spoke in grave tones about the seriousness of what was about to happen, and then advised all that a member of the church had committed adultery, had abandoned his rather large family, was unrepentant, and refused to even come before the session. The pastor explained that this is sometimes the end result of church discipline, and then he said those terrifying words: “In the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, we, the Session of this church do pronounce this man to be excluded from the Sacraments, and cut off from the fellowship of the church.” The room was filled with weeping, with tears, and great sorrow. It was sobering, and it was my first real introduction to the reality of church discipline. There are some situations where the Bible does not leave us any other option of what to do next.
What we can be grateful for is that when excommunication happens, it is the last step of church discipline from an earthly perspective. However, God—from His gracious and heavenly perspective—very often uses discipline to wake people from their spiritual stupor. As Calvin stated in his commentary on 2 Thessalonians, “Excommunication does not tend to drive men from the Lord’s flock but rather to bring them back when wandering and going astray.”
Many Christians can remember stories of those who have been excommunicated from the church and yet returned by the grace of God. Each and every one of them is a precious reminder that church discipline is a mark of the church; not because the church is the vindictive, angry, or cruel fist of Christ on earth, but because Jesus loves sinners too much to leave them in darkness.