The Five Reasons for Church Discipline

I have led churches to practice church discipline for over thirty years now, and I do not see the need for church discipline to be any less today than in years past. If anything, the need has increased.

Church discipline can be understood as the biblical attitude and actions of the local church that enable her to preserve her submission to the head of the church in holiness, fellowship, testimony, mission, and doctrinal purity, with the purpose of maintaining a conducive atmosphere for following Christ and experiencing His presence and power. Church discipline includes the following purposes: redemption, correction, protection, purification, and justice. On a practical level, I would further distinguish between non-formal and formal discipline. Non-formal includes all aspects of the biblical teaching and practical application of church discipline up to public involvement of the full church body in either seeking repentance of the sinning brother or sister or removal from fellowship.

John Calvin said, “As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so discipline forms the ligaments that connect the members together and keeps each in its proper place. Whoever, therefore, either desires the abolition of discipline, or obstructs its restoration, they certainly promote the entire dissolution of the church.”[1]

Thinking about church discipline in our undisciplined age is daunting indeed. However, the church must live out its faith in every area prescribed by the Scripture; she must live it out in the most difficult and unpopular areas if she expects to be faithful to the Lord of the church and taken seriously in the battle for the souls of man and the American mind and soul. Dr. Francis Schaeffer said it succinctly, “In an age of relativity, the practice of truth when it is costly is the only way to cause the world to take seriously our protestations concerning truth. Cooperation and unity that do not lead to purity of life and purity of doctrine are just as faulty and incomplete as an orthodoxy, which does not lead to a concern for and a reaching out towards those who are lost.”[2]

The first reason for discipline is redemption. Redemption includes either being instrumental in someone in the church coming to saving faith (since we do not know if a person requiring such is actually a Christian or not), restoring a person to the fellowship of the church, or spiritually rehabilitating a person. Redemption is the reason most often cited for exercising any form of discipline. Unfortunately, far too often this is the only reason given to justify the use of discipline. When redemption becomes the reason for discipline, rather than a reason, the whole concept of discipline is obscured and excused into non-existence.

Although making redemption so prominent in defending discipline tends to make the idea more palatable, the backlash occurs when discipline does not result in repentance and redemption. However, if redemption is viewed as being one of the biblical reasons for discipline and if redemption does not occur (which is often the case), then discipline can still be appreciated for what it is beyond its redemptive aspect.

Redemption is a wonderful and biblical reason for God’s discipline, and it is based on the fact that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and can be found in a number of passages relating to discipline (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:5; Gal 6:1). God desires the lost to be saved and His people to be redeemed from a path of sin or rebellion and wanton destruction (Ezek 33:11). God’s discipline always begins with a desire to redeem and show man his evil way so that man will turn to God and be redeemed. The law of God does this well (Gal 3:24).

The second reason for discipline is correction. God’s holiness and righteousness are the basis for corrective discipline. Corrective discipline is designed to correct wrong thinking or actions and is related to redemptive discipline in that it seeks to correct our thinking and behavior, which will result in a closer relationship with God. However, unlike the redemptive aspect, the person is not necessarily in willful rebellion against the will of God, although he could be. “The goal of chastening is not mere outward conformity to established standards, but an inner commitment of the heart and will to obey biblical mandates because it is right to obey.”[3]

Parental discipline demonstrates this point well. Parents are constantly correcting their children for behavior that often the child does not know is wrong or does not understand why it is wrong. Thus, the parent disciplines in order to teach the child the right conduct. The parental aspect of corrective discipline lucidly demonstrates the love that is involved in discipline, and it clearly models the love that motivates all biblical discipline. Further, corrective measures often precede redemptive measures; if they are successful, redemptive measures become unnecessary.

In the church, corrective discipline can be exercised in a diversity of ways such as counseling a young Christian that is engaged in activities that are contrary to his new life in Christ, biblical preaching, one-on-one discipleship, as well as other aspects of church discipline. One of the greatest means of corrective discipline in the church is biblical preaching. When we exchange biblical preaching and equipping the saints for orations on the most faddish psychological postulate of the day, an essential means of church discipline is lost to the church. Each time that the Word of God is delivered, it affords us the opportunity and mandate to bring “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

The third reason for discipline is protection. Christ seeks to protect His people and work from those who constitute a threat to them. This is in contrast to the redemptive and corrective aspects, which maintain a primary emphasis on aiding the person carrying out the wrong. The protective aspect shifts the emphasis to the people that might be harmed (Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 5:5; Titus 3:10). There still exists a desire and maybe even an effort to redeem and correct the perpetrator, but that is no longer primary since they have demonstrated a recalcitrant attitude; their aberrant behavior is now a menace to the fellowship and mission of the church.

In order for a local church to maintain a spiritually safe and orderly environment, there must be a means of dealing with those who resist correction or redemption and thereby pose a threat to others and the raison d’etre of the church. Sometimes the one committing a moral sin may not be fellowshipping in the body, whereas, the divisive and doctrinal deviants are always working arduously and deceptively (Rom 16:17) at sowing seeds of dissension and heresy. Those who refuse the call to redemption or correction must be removed to protect the church, as they were in the Old Testament (Deut 21:18-21).

Sometimes the danger to the church is a sin that is both spiritually lethal and illegal. This type of sin would include things like child abuse or an inappropriate relationship between an adult and a minor. When the sin is both a spiritual and legal issue, it must be handled both spiritually and legally. That is to say, all of the steps of church discipline that are employed in dealing with flagrant unrepented of sin that is not a legal issue must be followed as well as immediately calling the legal authorities. These can and should be initiated and followed through on simultaneously.

The protection aspect of church discipline includes taking appropriate measures to safeguard the spiritual and physical well-being of the fellowship of the local church. While it may be impossible to prevent all spiritual or physical harm to the body of Christ, a comprehensive understanding of church discipline does comprehend the implementation of preventative safeguards. Safeguards include things like monitorable membership requirements, seriousness about spiritually equipping the saints, commitment to all aspects of church discipline, background checks for people working with children, and checking references of those employed by the church.

The fourth reason for discipline is purification. Discipline for purification is similar to protective discipline in that it protects, but it is dissimilar in that it seeks not only protection from those who seek to harm the fellowship but promotes growth in purity. It is true that if a community is not protected, it will experience a purity meltdown, but merely protecting it does not guarantee the community’s advancement in purity. Purity has to do with becoming more Christlike (Eph 4:15). Purity is moving toward the glory of the image of God and away from the sinfulness of man. The choice to move toward purity produces a godlier atmosphere. When sin is tolerated, it has an inevitably degrading impact on the purity of the community. Minimizing the seriousness of sin results in more sin being tolerated, which eventuates in a loss of desire for purity and ultimately even knowledge of what true purity is.

Paul warns the Corinthians of the danger of winking at sin (1 Cor 5:6-7). This does not refer to perfectionism, but rather maintaining a conducive atmosphere for the body of Christ to grow in holiness (1 Pet 1:15-16). This requires both the protective and purifying aspects of church discipline.

Far too often, the church’s lack of will to exercise biblical church discipline has diminished her ability and desire to pursue purity. Some would say that the lack of desire for purity in the church diminishes her will to exercise church discipline. In either case, the demoralizing result is the same. In churches without discipline, corporate purity becomes at best a heavenly abstraction and at worst a worn-out cliché, which disfigures and cripples the society of believers since God intended purity to be an experiential reality of the church community.

The final reason for discipline is for the sake of justice. The church is to be a place to experience the love, grace, and forgiveness of God. That does not mean that the church is to be a morass of injustices or malicious or malevolent injurious behavior in the name of grace. While it is true the church needs to model grace for all to see and experience, it is to be God’s grace that does not spurn or ignore doing what is right and righteously legal.

For example, those in the church that commit sins and break the law, such as child abusers, should not be discovered by the probing eyes of the media. The church should never try to cover up such under the guise of “protecting the church” or other such misguided ideas. For in the end, they dishonor Christ, damage the reputation of the church, and obscure the clear teaching of Scripture regarding God’s demand for justice in this life, which if spurned, will be experienced in hell.

Hell is the eternal discipline or judgment of God exercised upon all who willfully and finally reject His grace. This discipline does not emphasize the idea of correction or redemption, for by this time that has been sufficiently rejected. This discipline does incorporate the last two reasons, protection, and purity. The final judgment of God must happen in order to afford eternal protection for the new community of heaven and an environment conducive to perfect security and purity. Even in the church, some must be removed because of the rightness of it regardless of whether they receive redemption or correction. We need not look for those whose actions demand such, they will surely arise and force us to compromise Scripture or remove them (Acts 20:28-30; Jude 4).

For more information on the biblical justification for church discipline and practical steps in implementing church discipline see my book, Undermining The Gospel: The Case and Guide for Church Discipline.

[1] Marlin Jeschke, Discipling the Brother (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972), 32.
[2] Francis A. Schaeffer, Trilogy: God Who Is There (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 197.
[3] Robert E. Clark, Joanne Brubaker, and Roy B. Zuck, Childhood Education in the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), 303.

Ronnie W. Rogers