Who these days wants authority–especially if it might restrain your freedom? Church discipline won’t be high on the checklist of many Christians looking for a new church. And ministers and elders worry about driving people away by seeming negative. Does anyone worry about church discipline any more? Isn’t it just up to the individual and their conscience? Church discipline may not matter to many people but it matters to Christ. And that ought to make us think. At the Reformation they said that discipline was one of the signs of a true church. Why? Because it’s one of Christ’s main tests of whether a church meets His approval.
James Durham reflects on how when the Lord Jesus Christ emphasises the matter of discipline when He writes to churches in Revelation 2-3. The following is an abridged and updated extract from Durham’s discussion of this theme. He also mentions the great benefit of church government and discipline to individual believers in the Sum of Saving Knowledge. Christ has ordained this gift for His Church so that they are hedged in and helped forward towards keeping the covenant.
What do we mean by church discipline? It’s one of Christ’s gifts to His Church to prevent and correct open disobedience to His Word (2 Corinthians 10:8; Matthew 18:15-20; Matthew 16:19). It involves doctrinal error as well as matters of behaviour (Titus 3:10). Church discipline arises from Christ’s love to His people (Revelation 3:19). Its purpose is Christ’s honour and the Church’s good by avoiding others being tempted to sin in the same way or being harmed spiritually. The spiritual good of the person involved is also in view, it is intended to bring them to repentance.
Discipline may involve private correction or more public rebuke (1 Timothy 5:20). Other cases may involve removing some of the privileges of church membership such as participating in the Lord’s Supper. At its most serious it may be excommunication from the Church (1 Corinthians 5:13). We are always to hope that it will be temporary because it brings the person to repent (1 Corinthians 5:4-5; 2 Corinthians 2:6-10)
1. Church Discipline Matters to Christ
The topic of church discipline is very prominent in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3). When a church is commended or rebuked, it is often largely down to whether they are faithful or defective in administering church discipline.
This shows not only the lawfulness of church government and discipline but also its usefulness, and how necessary it is to the church of Christ when it is faithfully exercised. It is a special means and ordinance appointed by Christ to edify the church. It is not something indifferent which church officers can exercise or not exercise as they please. Rather they have the responsibility to exercise church discipline.
Ministers and elders need to be faithful in this if they want to receive Christ’s commendation on the one hand, and avoid His sharp reproof on the other. They need to be faithful in this for the sake of the people over whom they watch over (and for whom they must give account). Faithfulness in this will prevent people from stumbling and being destroyed. It will also help see them edified and built up in the faith instead.
2. Church Discipline Matters to Satan
It is therefore no wonder that the devil is so busy trying to oppose church discipline or undermine it. In the early church he represented church government as inconsistent with civil government and a threat to it–leading emperors to persecute the church. Then he perverted church government into something that tyrannised church members, making even the concept of church authority seem harmful or repugnant to believers. More recently he has been insinuating into people’s minds the idea either that Christ has given the church no distinct form of government at all, or else that the church should be governed in another way from what Christ has appointed in His Word.
Often, those who oppose the scriptural form of church government and the scriptural nature of church discipline do not oppose the truth of the gospel. Nor do they intend to sow confusion in Christ’s church. Nevertheless failure to exercise scriptural church government and discipline are very advantageous to Satan’s kingdom and very detrimental to Christ’s.
3. Church Discipline Matters to the Church
Failure to exercise church discipline matters greatly to the wellbeing of the church. Neglecting church discipline:
- obscures the beauty and excellence of Christ’s church and leads people to undervalue it
- makes it harder to restrain or remove errors in doctrine and stumbling others
- excludes the opportunity for edification which church discipline provides. The penalties available to civil authorities only extend to making people socially acceptable, not spiritual. But if someone is at fault in some way and they are given a church censure, it edifies others and brings greater conviction to the individual’s conscience about the sinfulness of their fault. This is because church discipline flows immediately from Jesus Christ. It reminds people more directly of His authority and the fact that they are answerable to Him. A verbal church censure (which is in itself only a very light thing) carries much more weight and makes much more impression in terms of edification and conviction than a severe civil penalty would
- makes it look like it does not matter to the church that there are church members who believe or behave in perhaps very ungodly ways. If the church used the authority that actually belongs to her, to purge out unfaithfulness in doctrine or practice, there would be no grounds for anyone to say, “What sort of persons would those church members be, if there wasn’t some other authority restraining them?”
- casts aspersions on the wisdom and holiness of our Lord, as if He has left His church incapable of dealing with these problems on her own authority
- weakens and obstructs the other ordinances of the church. It breaks down the boundary marker for the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. It makes church offices such as elder and deacon useless and it makes preaching contemptible. If you deny that the church has the authority to administer discipline, then either the minister has to carry out the disciplining arbitrarily by himself or discipline must be left undone altogether
- allows the devil to succeed in making religion seem like something you can use to advance your own self-interest
4. Church Discipline Matters to Believers
Upholding and submitting to church authority is a necessary duty which concerns all of us (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). If what we have said about church authority is true, then submission must follow. It is the duty of ministers and elders to discipline (even those who have caused others to stumble). Since this is so, it is also the duty of those who are disciplined to submit and the duty of the church to acknowledge these decisions. Hebrews 13:17 says that we are obey them that rule over us, and submit to them.
People are often very suspicious of ministers and elders, suspecting that they grasp at power for its own sake. They fear that they will be authoritarian and abuse their power. Church authority has always been regarded by the unconverted as bondage, and church officers are always regarded as too proud and rigid etc. But people should seriously consider the following.
- Is that the fault of the ordinance of church discipline itself or of the individuals who hold office in the church? If the fault is in the individuals, why should it be imputed to the thing itself in this case, more than in other cases?
- Is there anything in a church office which prompts this authoritarianism, more than in any civil office? It seems unlikely on the face of it.
- If we look more closely at ministers and elders, there is less reason to be so suspicious of them. No one else’s position and qualifications are so specifically regulated in Scripture as the office of minister or elder. No other office is so deliberately filled by conscientious and qualified individuals. Nor is anyone else so circumscribed by beneficial rules when they exercise their authority.
- Think of what these individuals are like in themselves, even if they were not church officers. They are men of tenderness, conscience and gifts; just like people in any other position. Looking at their qualifications and manner of life, you could well imagine that they might hold other positions, such as judges or rulers, without anyone being suspicious of them more than anyone else in that position. If that is the case, then why should a church office make them more liable to suspicion, rather than less?
- Who fumes most at church authority? It is those who are inclined to looseness in practice or error in doctrine and cannot abide any such restraints. Those who are bitterly opposed to discipline are also also against preaching that rebukes and spiritual authority in general.
- It is often the most faithful and zealous church officers of whom people are most suspicious. This has always been the case. Think of how Elijah and John the Baptist were treated, for example. Yet this really only reflected how people found the doctrine and power of the Word unbearable.
- Suspicions about church authority tend to arise mostly when church officers are serving Christ, and people tend to entertain such suspicions mostly when they are least spiritual. No one has been able to take comfort from their opposition to the faithful exercise of church authority when on their deathbed, although contempt for it has often lain heavily on their consciences in such circumstances. What advantage indeed comes from opposing church authority? Only greater freedom to sin and the fewer ways to reclaim people from sin. And if censures are administered in a way that only lets people laugh at their sin, without reaching their consciences to convict them, how does that benefit anyone?
The right exercise of church discipline has never been detrimental to anybody. Godliness and church discipline flourish hand in hand. Congregations are best placed when church discipline is most vigorous. And the sad effects of the lack of church discipline evidently demonstrate how necessary it is.