John L. Dagg, a 19th-century Baptist pastor wrote, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” Church discipline is a key part of Christian discipleship. It sums up both training and correction, exhortation and rebuke that Christ calls us to do towards each other in love. In particular, a church’s commitment to meaningful discipline is captured in their commitment to that final step of corrective church discipline, namely removing an unrepentant sinner from the fellowship of that church (Matthew 18:15–20).
So often, Christians look at that final step of church discipline and think that it only works in strong, established, theologically robust churches. Or it only works in upper-middle-class, educated, suburban America. I don’t mean to say that church discipline is an unopposed idea in the West because it certainly isn’t. But I’d wager most of us perceive the main practitioners and promoters of church discipline as basically American.
Even those who see the importance of church discipline often assume it’s unreasonable to implement in frontier contexts. Even Christians who are committed to submitting to good, godly church discipline in their own lives are uncertain about when to teach and apply it to young believers and young churches cross-culturally.
Regardless of where we learned biblical truth from, if it is truly biblical, it is true for all of God’s people. When you stop and consider the context in which the New Testament books were written, the original instructions about church discipline were written to churches in a context much more similar to the mission frontier of today than churches in the American suburbs.
The original instructions about church discipline were written to churches in a context very similar to the mission frontier of today.
Church Discipline is Not Only for Mature Churches
Jesus told his disciples––in the middle of his earthly ministry—the process of dealing with a brother who will not listen to rebuke over sin (Matthew 18:15–20). Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, a congregation only a few years old, to put the unrepentant sinner out of their fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:1–5). The original hearers of these teachings were not mature when they received this instruction, and yet Paul saw this teaching as immediately necessary.
To practice church discipline certainly takes maturity in a congregation. It’s difficult for a body of people to look at someone they have loved and committed to live the Christian life with, and make a decision to remove them from their fellowship. This is why God has given elders for the good of a church––to have wise, local leadership walk a church through that decision.
But to say that only mature churches can practice church discipline is like saying only athletes can exercise. It does take some maturity to take that final, formal step of church discipline, namely, but practicing discipline is a means by which a congregation will mature.
A young church will not “do the process” smoothly, and unfortunately, not even mature churches handle church discipline rightly each time. Young Christians will feel distraught, sad, and angry at being asked to discipline someone. But they will also grow and mature. They will be humbled and helped to take their own holiness more seriously. They will be stretched, and grow in their discernment, patience, and care for one another.
Too often missionaries can be like over-protective parents. So afraid of how our disciples could get hurt, we end up shielding them not only from harm, but also their God-given responsibilities. Is it any wonder so many young churches are locked into spiritual adolescence?
The original hearers of these teachings were not mature when they received this instruction, yet Paul saw this teaching as immediately necessary.
Church Discipline is Not Only Punitive
It’s surprisingly easy to think of church discipline as primarily punitive. Most churches are easily convinced to practice discipline in the face of shocking sin, when the sinner is clearly a brazen hypocrite and just a bad guy. But when that person doesn’t look evil, and who seems to want to do better, discipline just feels mean.
But biblically speaking, even the final act of excommunication is about more than punishment. Consider what Paul says about the man perversely sleeping with his father’s wife: “Deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5). When a brother seemed to express genuine repentance, Paul urged relief: “The punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Corinthians 2:6–7). Church discipline is also for the good of the unrepentant sinner. Church discipline seeks to warn a person of their sin and need for repentance. It seeks to win the brother back.
Church discipline is for the good of the person experiencing it. Like a parent disciplining a child, the purpose isn’t just to punish, but to correct and form. No discipline is enjoyable at the time, but it bears good fruit in time (Hebrews 12:11). When Galatians 6:1 speaks of the disciplinary process, it talks of restoration.
If we believe that heaven and hell are both real, and if we believe that you must live a life of repentance and faith perseveringly, then we must be willing to exercise discipline—because it is for the good of the person under discipline.