When you hear the word “discipline,” what first comes to mind? For a child, “discipline” sounds like punishment. For an employee, discipline sounds like getting a pink slip. Either way we tend to associate “discipline” with pain. Indeed, one biblical verse that makes me know that God knows us truly is when he says: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant” (Heb. 12:11). And yet, there is a kind of pain or discipline that evidences fatherly love, and equally there is a lack of discipline that evidences hate.
Proverbs 13:24 says, "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." A common example would be my wife. She is an accomplished composer and arranger and piano teacher. And as a piano teacher, she disciplines children all the time. She instructs, encourages, corrects, shows disappointment when they do not practice, and praises her students when they demonstrate an effort to learn. And she does discipline her students because she herself learned the art and discipline of piano performance. She disciplines her students because she loves them and she loves our Lord God, the maker of music.
Now, let me ask you a slightly different question. What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “church discipline”? For some, our response is much the same. We think of pain. We conjure images of excommunication. Getting cast out of the church. For some, it only means abuse of authority. Yet, for many, the word “church discipline” just draws a blank. I know for over many years of teaching, when I ask students whether or not they have witnessed “church discipline,” their usual response is just that—a blank stare. No, they haven’t. They have grown up in bible-believing churches that, while confessing the Bible is their ultimate standard of faith and life, function otherwise when it comes to church discipline.
If you find yourself in the later group, I have good news and bad news for you.
First, you are the vast majority of church history. For most of the history of the church, discipline within the church has been lacking. John T. McNeill, in his fine book on the history of pastoral care, mentions that while starting off well, by late-antiquity there was in the church “widespread relaxation of moral discipline.” In the fifth century, repentance . . . was nearly lost in the West as in the East; and it would have to be regained.”
When I ask students whether or not they have witnessed “church discipline,” their usual response is just that—a blank stare.
And such moral laxity in the church would continue up until the Protestant Reformation. And pride of place here goes to John Calvin. Indeed, one recent Calvin scholar noted, “to trace discipline through Calvin’s ministry is essentially to write anew his biography.”
We may forget that Calvin was himself cast out of Geneva for his views on church discipline. And three years later, when the Genevan fathers desperately needed him to return and to give answer to the Roman Catholic Cardinal, Jacopo Sadoleto (who was seeking to bring Geneva back to Rome), Calvin accepted only on two conditions, saying, "I would never have accepted the ministry unless they had sworn to these two points: namely to uphold the Catechism and the discipline.”
More significantly, in answering Sadoleto, one of Calvin’s key points was that the Roman Church lacked discipline. Calvin noted the moral laxity of the Romans priests and bishops. And as he sought to establish a more biblical church, a Reformed church, he noted three things necessary for the safety of the church: “There are three things upon which the safety of the church is founded and supported: Doctrine, discipline and the sacraments.” The critical term is “safety.” Though Calvin did not regard discipline as one of the marks of the church, he did see discipline as that which preserves the church. As he says elsewhere: If the gospel is the soul of the body of Christ, discipline is its sinews!
Today, most Americans hear of the sexual scandals within the Roman Catholic church, as well as the scandals of evangelical leaders. But for us, pointing fingers at “them” is an easy way to deny our own failures in our own families and churches. We don’t like discipline. That is the nature of the human heart. Indeed, as in our own day, Calvin was well aware that, as he said, many people “in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name. . ." (Instit. 4.12.1).
Did things get better after the Reformation? Well, not really. Failure to discipline has been a perennial problem for the church. A hundred years after Calvin, Richard Baxter notes: The common cry of the pastors is, “Our people are not ready for it; they will not bear it.”
Yet, replied Baxter, “But is not the fact rather that you [we pastors] will not bear the trouble and hatred which it will occasion?” Baxter here points out the real problem: our fear of man. Any parent will tell you that the temptation not to discipline our children is due in large measure because we want our children to like us.
Any parent will tell you that the temptation not to discipline our children is due in large measure because we want our children to like us.
Some 50 years after Baxter, the noted Dutch pastor and theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel noted how in his day the exercise of church discipline was almost entirely neglected. He goes on to say, "Men are therefore satisfied if many people come to church, and if many members are accepted. Such churches are then referred to as flourishing churches.”
Look again at that last quote. Doesn’t that sound like the excuses we hear today for not practicing church discipline? We hear that same charge made today by our astute scholars. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary(Louisville, Kentucky), says, "The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church. . . . The present generation of both ministers and church members is virtually without experience of biblical church discipline.”
How can we change? Whether pastor or member, let us remember three things about church discipline.
First, it is commanded in the great commission. As our Lord Jesus says, "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth, therefore go and make disciples . . . teaching to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28.18-19). A church that does not discipline is not obeying all that our Lord has commanded us. Whenever we fail to practice what our Lord has commanded us to do, we diminish his name. We sully his reputation. We act as rebellious children.
A church that does not discipline is not obeying all that our Lord has commanded us.
Let me ask you, why not encourage your pastor to preach and teach on biblical church discipline. Tell him you’d like to hear what it means that Jesus is Lord of his church.
Secondly, church discipline evidences that we take sin and salvation seriously. James 5:19-20 says, "My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
Do you believe that? Do our pastors believe that? Sin is insidious. And our Adversary has won the battle over us and our churches to the extent that we make light of sin and salvation. Churches, like parents, who do not discipline their members are already caught in Satan’s clutches.
Let me end on a note of encouragement. I remember one of my first cases of excommunication. It was while serving in a university town that was very “woke” as we call it today. I remember shaking in fear as I had to announce that Sunday morning the excommunication of one of our deacons. As the church gathered, to my great dismay, our college students had brought many new college friends to church. "O Lord, why this day?" I cried out. Yet, the Lord was gracious to instill a holy fear and reverence of him. And I went about my duty.\
Church discipline is painful in the moment. But as God says, “in the end in produces a harvest of righteousness and peace."
During the week, I heard various responses to the Sunday excommunication. One student even told me that a professor from the university had been one of the many visitors. Eventually, I sought out another student and asked: “How did you think all those students and the professor viewed that Sunday?” To my surprise, the student replied: “O they really enjoyed it. And especially that professor. He said he finally saw a church that walks their talk."
That professor soon began to come regularly to church. And eventually, he confessed Christ, was baptized, and became a friend. As an avid cyclist, he even built me a bike out of used parts!
Yes, church discipline is painful in the moment. But as God says, “in the end in produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.” And at times, even a new convert!