“Church Discipline.” For many of us, those two words evoke primarily negative emotions and images. We tend to associate the concept of church discipline with harshness and legalism being administered by dour old men who are more suited to living in the eighteenth century than the twenty-first century.
After all, doesn’t grace teach that we shouldn't judge other believers? Shouldn't we be free to believe whatever we choose to believe, say whatever we want to say, and live however we want to live? If we answer only to Jesus Christ, why should we allow anyone else to pass judgment on us? And why should we ever feel compelled to correct another Christian? Don't most of us have enough "planks" to remove from our own eyes before we attempt to remove the "specks" out of other people's eyes?
Bad grace teaches that Christians have no right to judge the behavior of other members in the church. Good grace recognizes that Christians have a responsibility to correct and restore other believers who are living in disobedience.
When you become a Christian, not only are you joined together with Jesus Christ (the Head), you are also joined together with all other Christians on earth as well as with those in heaven. This "body'' is known as the church of Jesus Christ. God's plan for you is to also become a member of a local group of believers who have organized themselves to fulfill the Great Commission to "make disciples" of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20).
How does a local church fulfill Christ's mandate to make disciples? Certainly evangelism is an important component. Sharing the good news of God's grace ministers to those outside the church so that they might be freed from the bondage of sin. However, once those on the outside of the church become part of the fellowship in the church, they need to grow in their relationship with Christ. Many within local fellowships still find themselves prisoners of greed, lust, ambition, gluttony, or some other sin that strangles their relationship with God.
That is where correction comes in. As one writer notes, church discipline is really a corollary of evangelism. "In discipline, as in the presentation of the good news to the non-Christian, a person is presented the opportunity of being liberated from the power of sin in all its forms by coming under the rule of Christ and walking in His way."
Evangelism and church discipline are different strategies to accomplish the same goal: producing a group of men and women – disciples – who live under the rule of Jesus Christ. Evangelism focuses on freeing unbelievers from sin, while discipline focuses on the liberation of fellow believers from sin.
But how do we define church discipline? It is the confrontive and corrective measures taken by an individual, church leaders, or the congregation regarding a matter of sin in the life of a believer (J. Laney).
This kind of confrontation and correction, when performed the right way, is a demonstration of love, not hatred.
For example, suppose in a routine exam your physician discovers a lump on your arm. Further tests reveal that the lump is a malignant tumor that threatens your life. But your doctor chooses to keep the results from you, reasoning to himself, "Surgery is painful, and it would be unloving to cut into another person's body"; or "I don't want to take the risk inherent in surgery"; or "Maybe I should just hope the problem heals itself”; or "Who am I to judge someone else's health?"
Any of those excuses would be grounds for a malpractice suit! Yes, surgery is painful, but at times it is also necessary in order to bring healing. Similarly, as members of the same spiritual body, we have a responsibility to help restore the spiritual health of those fellow members of the body who become infected with sin (Matthew 18:15).
Discipline is a sign of love, not contempt for another person. In fact, the writer of Hebrews 12 argues that God's correction is evidence that we really are part of His family (Hebrews 12:5-6,8).
In the church, we have a family responsibility for the spiritual health of the church as a whole, as well as the individual members of the church. Disciplining other believers within the church accomplishes three major objectives.
- To reclaim a Christian who has been overtaken by sin (Galatians 6:1-2).
To ignore a fellow believer who is allowing immorality, dishonesty, or addiction to destroy his or her life is cruel. To use grace as an excuse for not rescuing another Christian from the Enemy's grip is to make a mockery of the word.
One reason so many people react negatively to the idea of church discipline is the erroneous assumption that the major motivation behind it is condemnation. However, restoration, not condemnation, should be the impetus for correcting another believer, as Paul reminded the church Galatians 6:1-2.
- To maintain the witness of the Church (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).
Discipline is necessary to maintain the witness of the church. As the body of Christ, Christians are the visible representation of Jesus Christ to the world. A non-Christian's attitude toward Jesus is largely influenced by his or her attitude toward those who claim to be His followers. When a non-Christian sees little difference in the morality, business ethics, response to tragedy, or attitudes of Christians compared to non-Christians, what motivation does that person have to take up his or her cross and follow Christ?
Too often the church focuses on the· misbehavior of non-Christians rather than that of believers. We rail against homosexuality, the lottery, abortion, pornography, and other symptoms of a society in rebellion against God. Yet, Paul reminded the Corinthians that it is God's job to police the activities of unbelievers. It is the church's job to clean up the sin in its own backyard.
- To sustain the health of the congregation (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
A final reason for exercising discipline is to sustain the health of the entire congregation. You've heard the expression: "One bad apple spoils the entire barrel." In Paul's day, there was a similar saying: ''A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.''
Just as every Israelite family was to sweep away any leaven from their home, so every Christian is to carefully look for and remove any traces of sin from his or her life. Paul's command to "clean out the old leaven'' is a call not only to personal holiness but also to congregational holiness. The phrase "a new lump" refers to an entire congregation.
The Corinthians' unwillingness to deal decisively with the immoral man within their congregation threatened to contaminate the entire church. After all, it takes only a little leaven to affect the whole lump.