Discipline Is Not A Dirty Word

by Geoffrey Smith

    Biblical church discipline has confessional status in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (cf WCF XXX, Of Church Censures). Yet in many American churches discipline is either suffering from neglect or, worse, actively resisted. As a result, problems are compounded and spin out of control, leaving far more damage than there otherwise might have been had discipline been implemented at the outset.

How shall we, as Presbyterians, respond to this general church scene? By answering the objections being raised against the use of discipline, and by demonstrating that it has a vital role to play in promoting life and health in the church.

Some Christians in the modern world consider the very idea of ecclesiastical discipline to be repugnant. A word like "excommunication" conjures up the image of people being cast away into hell at a papal whim. Other folk may recall Protestant bishops conspiring with the civil authorities to consign a fellow Christian to the stake over a disagreement about baptism.

However, a corruption of a doctrine does not nullify the doctrine itself. Those who are repulsed by past abuses should not turn away from discipline, they should turn to the Scriptures. The careful study of the Biblical teaching will unearth the true nature of church discipline and establish its proper use.

Other Christians may be reacting to experiences where discipline was properly understood in principle, but poorly carried out. At issue here is the character of the leaders in the church. Some may "dish out" discipline in a cold and sterile fashion, others out of a vindictive spirit, still others as a way to promote their own positions of (at times, absolute) power in the local church. These examples share one thing in common: the absence of any glimmer of Christian compassion.

To correct this, we should promote Biblical leadership in Christ's church, which is characterized by humility and a desire to serve. When cause for discipline arises, an elder is in a place of tension. He may need to be (seemingly) harsh, yet he must also be gentle (the offender is not to be treated as an enemy, but as a brother [2 Thess. 3: 15]). Like Moses, he is standing in the middle, with one hand upon the Lord, jealous for his holy name, and the other hand upon the erring member. With the latter he pleads on Christ's behalf: be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5: 20).

Unlike the civil courts, where jurists should be impartial and detached during legal proceedings, those who preside in the church courts must balance their objectivity with the right sort of emotional involve-ment. They must strive and pray for one "verdict" over another: the restoration of the offender. Correct judicial procedure stands side by side with a willingness to consider the individual and his unique situation. Elders should be prepared to invest of themselves in order to assist the offender in his recovery (Ez.. 34: 4).

Still, there will always be occasions when elders act irresponsibly, when the care of precious souls is just one more item of business on the docket.

This attitude serves to reinforce the most common objection against church discipline: it is unloving and inconsistent with the gracious nature of the gospel.

Our Lord Jesus Christ declares that the very opposite is true (Rev. 3: 19)! Discipline, far from being contrary to grace, is actually a means of grace for the sanctification of the Lord's people.

Consider the most extreme form of discipline: denying the Lord's Supper (i. e. excommunication) to an impenitent church member. The reason most often provided is to prevent the Lord's Supper from being profaned. However, excommunication also ensures that the sacrament is not given falsely. In other words, if an individual's credible profession of faith is no longer so, it would be the height of cruelty to extend to him the sign and seal of the covenant. The unloving thing to do would be to pretend the benefits of Christ's atoning work were his; he must be warned, not comforted. This is why Jonathan Edwards called excommu-nication "an act of benevolence."

Here we are only saying what Scripture says: good works and heavenly affections are God's "fingerprints" on a person, the evidence of his divine workmanship (Jer. 31: 31-34; Ez. 36: 25-27; I Jn. 2: 3-5). Therefore, the absence of what the Bible calls "good fruit" makes any confession of Christ's Lordship hollow and false (Mat. 7: 15-23). In such a case, the church must warn the individual that he remains in the state of spiritual peril and is liable to experience God's wrath. To continue the charade that he is safely in God's favor would be another perversion of the gospel ministry.

That is not to say the church is in position to pronounce God's final verdict. As Calvin wrote,

"It is, therefore, not our task to erase from the number of the elect those who have been expelled from the church, or to despair as if they were already lost. It is lawful to regard them as estranged from the church, and thus, from Christ, but only for such time as they remain separated. However, if they also display more stubbornness than gentleness, we should still commend them to the Lord's judgment, hoping for better things of them in the future than we see in the present." (Institutes IV, xii, 9)

The above objections not withstanding, the fundamental issue for those who neglect church discipline is unbelief. Simply put, the church which will not discipline sinning members is rejecting the word of God and thereby frustrating Christ's rule in his church (Mat. 18: 15-20; esp. vss. 19,20; 1 Cor 5; esp. v. 4). We must be firm and clear: such a church arrogantly declares that it is wiser and more loving than Christ. In reality, this same church blocks off wayward members from the gracious means Christ appointed to preserve them. As Calvin warned, 'Those who trust that without this bond of discipline the church can long stand are, I say, mistaken: unless, perhaps, we can with impunity go without that aid which the Lord foresaw would be necessary for us." (Op. cit., IV, xii, 4) In conclusion, we must declare that discipline is not a dirty word. The right and proper use of discipline in the church is the obedient response of the Lord's people to this rule, and will provide benefits for them both in this life and in the life to come. It is a loving and merciful means to this end: that Christian disciples may learn to obey everything Christ has commanded, and ultimately, be presented perfect in him (see Mat. 28: 20 and Col. 1: 28).

Geoffrey Smith

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