Church Discipline Through the Word | Marks of the Church

We’ve come to our second to last mark of the church today – church discipline through the Word of God. Church discipline is much more than what we really think it to be. When we think of discipline, we often think of how a parent should correctively teach their children how to act. And in some ways, there might be a bit of a correlation there, but in most ways, it is totally different. 

Today, as the fifth mark of the church, we will cover church disciple by defining it, looking at its purpose, and then figuring out its necessity. 

Definition of Discipline

As we approach a very meaningful and important mark of the church today, I would like for us to approach it as if we knew nothing of church discipline for two reasons. First, church discipline is not really how we think of discipline. What I simply mean here is that church discipline does not look identical to parental discipline. Parental discipline is, often times, formative. It is for the child’s formation to becoming a flourishing adolescent and adult. However, church discipline is much different than this, and, of course, we will cover this as we move forward today. 

Second, we probably don’t know as much about church discipline as we think. Let me preface here and say that I do not think anyone in here is incapable of knowing something about church discipline. It is simply my observation that many churchgoers tend to misunderstand the nature and purpose of biblical church discipline. 

So, I want to show you what church discipline truly is from the three most popular New Testament passages of Scripture. 

Matthew 18:15-20

In Matthew 18:15-20, we find a typical lesson from Jesus using a hypothetical situation for teaching the disciples on how to hold His church accountable to one another and the Word. In an effort to save time, this morning, I am simply going to paraphrase these passages of Scripture for our study this morning. 

In this passage, Jesus is showing the disciples the need for church discipline and how to execute the process if the need arises. He gives the disciples a hypothetical situation: if your brother sins, you are to go to him and show him his fault in private. But if he does not listen to you, take two or three people with you, then if it still doesn’t work, you then take it to the church.

Honestly, there are multiple words here showing us that this is, in fact, a church matter. Words like brother or church indicate the corporate nature of this discipline. But do you see the real process here? The process is to first, address the brother’s sin in order that he might be brought back to repentance. However, if there are multiple efforts to do this with a lack of repentance and remorse, the church is to treat him as a Gentile or a tax collector. These were people from whom the Jews kept their distance. 

1 Corinthians 5:1-5

In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, we find a similar situation. Instead of a hypothetical situation, however, we find a legitimate reason for church discipline that is being ignored. Paul says that he has heard there is one among the church at Corinth who was sexually intimate with his father’s wife. In this passage, Paul actually condemns the church for not taking this process on by themselves. However, he does not allow the Corinthians to respond, but instead decides to “deliver such a one to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5). One commentator notes, “To be expelled from the church accordingly is to be delivered over into that region where Satan holds sway.”

Galatians 6:1-5

Whereas Jesus (in Matthew) and Paul (in Corinthians) address a hypothetical situation and a legitimate circumstance, Paul in Galatians is simply giving a practical word of advice for the churches in Galatia. If there is anyone caught in sin, the church should be the ones to restore that person by bearing each others’ burdens.

Definition of Discipline

So, from what we can gather in these three New Testament passages is that church discipline is defined as… “the process of accountability which yields itself to the authority of the gathered church for the purpose of restoration and forgiveness.”

Purpose of Discipline

As we have seen, the ultimate definition of church discipline is defined in three ways: addressing sin, forgiveness, and restoration. 

Addressing Sinfulness Within the Church

Of course, as with any form of discipline, the ultimate purpose of discipline is to correct wrongdoing. This form of discipline just happens to be in the context of the local church. Paul in Galatians said, “if anyone is caught in any trespass;” in Corinthians, he said, “there is immorality among you;” Jesus said, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault.” 

The purpose of church discipline is to address sin. As Geoff Chang writes, “Church discipline would be easier if the church wasn’t made up of people. But Jesus didn’t come for buildings or institutions or events. He came to save a people for himself, sinners like you and me.”[1] In other words, Chang is implying that the church is not simply a building or an institution. It is God’s people, therefore, we must take discipline seriously and address wrong when we see it. 

Forgiveness

However, there is more to church discipline than simply correcting and addressing wrongdoing. Another major aspect and purpose of church discipline is to aim for forgiveness. This should be an obvious point, yet sometimes the first purpose of addressing sin can be the “fun” part for some. 

It is all too easy to call out someone else’s sin, but it is never easy to forgive someone, especially if you are the one who’s been wronged. Yet, this is exactly what we find Jesus saying in Matthew 18: “if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matt. 18:15).

Restoration

Paul, in Galatians, had a similar message but it was discipline for the purpose of restoration. In other words, this is the ultimate purpose for church discipline. Anytime there is church discipline only to address sin and call out wrong, it is not church discipline. Now, we are purposefully not getting into the many specifics of church discipline, but there must be the ultimate goal of restoration and forgiveness. 

Necessity of Discipline

But, I think a more important question is this: why is church necessary?

Addressing Sinfulness

Once again, one of the purposes of church discipline is to address wrongdoing. So, when we talk about the necessity of church discipline, we cannot ignore the addressing of sinful behavior. This is a purpose of discipline that is of the utmost importance. The Lord requires holiness from His people, therefore, when holiness is lacking or a member of Christ’s body is doing something contrary to God’s standard of holiness, it must be addressed. 

Corporate Holiness

The reason for such an emphasis on the church’s holiness is because it is God’s standard of living. It is the standard to which we are all held. Yet, the church is to be a corporate representation of this standard of holiness on earth. 

What I mean by this is that there is a standard of holiness which God has called His people to, and we, as the church, must live by this standard as much as we possibly are able. Of course, this is one of the main reasons why church discipline is so important – the church is called to “avoid all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22).

So, as the church, we are called to corporate holiness. We are called to be holy, as He is holy. A healthy church is a holy church. And when there’s sin in the church, we must address it for the sake of our corporate holiness.

Progressive Sanctification

Yet, another reason why church discipline is necessary is that our lives, as believers, should be characterized by our Christlikeness. Each and every member of Christ’s body is called to become like him – this is the process of sanctification (becoming like Christ). Another reasons church discipline is necessary is because the way we progress in becoming like Christ is by holding each other accountable for our actions. So, when someone does something contrary to the Bible and contrary to God’s standard of holiness, it must be addressed for the purpose of forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Application

So, how can church discipline be applied to our lives today? I think there are a couple of different ways:

All people are sinful. Including people in the church.

We have to understand that even the most holy and Christlike people are sinners. You and I make mistakes and sometimes, those mistakes are big! But, when we become believers, our minds become like Christ’s mind and we take on a attitude of humility and admit when we’ve wronged someone or done something that needs correcting. 

Though this may seem difficult to do, the purpose of discipline is for your sanctification. It is to progress us forward into Christlikeness. So, when sin is confronted, even if it is your actions, always remember that the first reason is because we are called to be like our Lord. 

Discipline is needed to those who commit sin.

So, ultimately, we need church discipline for our church’s spiritual health. When wrong is done in the church by a member of Christ’s body, it must be addressed and taken care of, because this is what Jesus has commanded. We are to a a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a people of his own possession, and to be this, we must be obedient to His commands. 

Anytime a child does something wrong, we aim to correct it. This is done, not because we love discipline, but because we love our children and we want the best for them. The same is true with church discipline. We must never call out sin for enjoyment, but because Christ has called us to holiness! 


[1] Geoff Chang, “A Step-by-Step Primer for Church Discipline” 9Marks, accessed July 25, 2020, https://www.9marks.org/article/a-step-by-step-primer-for-church-discipline/.

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