Church discipline is relatively rare in the modern church and, because it is rarely done, when it is done, it is too often done poorly. As with everything, we have to turn to the Scriptures for guidance and protection.
“I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner — not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person’” (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
First, we have to consider the need for discipline. In a fallen world, sin will seek to corrupt any thing of value. Whenever overt sin begins its work, the one in a position to discipline has a choice to make. Discipline is inescapable. Either we will discipline those who love what is sinful, or we will discipline those who love what is righteous. But as long as the antithesis between the two exists (which is to say throughout history) we must choose one way or the other. A refusal to discipline those who are challenging the health of the Church is actually a decision to discipline those who love the health of the Church, and who are laboring for it.
The Reformers described church discipline as one of the marks of the Church — Word, sacrament, and discipline. There is a sound instinct here, but a slight adjustment should be made. The essence of the Church is found in Word and sacrament. Discipline is that which protects Word and sacrament, which in a fallen world are constantly threatened. This means that without discipline you will not have a church for long, but you can have a church. Discipline is like a fence around the garden. You can have a garden without a fence, but not for long. Discipline is like a body’s immune system. A person can be alive without any way to fight off infections, but not for long. The life of the Church is found in Word and sacrament. If a church is unwilling to discipline, this means she is unwilling to defend that which gives her being, which is Word and sacrament. Once they go, the lampstand is removed. A church without discipline is a church with AIDS.
Scripture gives us five distinct reasons to practice church discipline. Not surprisingly, the practice of discipline generates many objections, but interestingly, these biblical reasons for disciplining usually anticipate and answer some of the more common objections.
First, we are to discipline in order to glorify God, and this occurs because our obedience glorifies God. We know that God intends discipline for His church (Matt. 18:15-19; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:20; 6:3; Tit. 1:13; 2:15; 3:10; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20). God tells us what to do, and because we are His people we are called to do it. This answers the objection, “Who do you think you are?” We do not discipline in our own name, or on our own authority. The Bible says that our good works (defined by Scripture) glorify God (Matt. 5:16).
In the second place, we are to discipline in order to maintain the purity of the church. If we measure the “success” of discipline by whether or not the offender is restored, we will be forced to conclude that sometimes it “doesn’t work.” But if we see other things accomplished by means of discipline, our perspective changes. Conducted biblically, church discipline always purifies the church (1 Cor. 5:6-8). It also prevents the profanation of the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:27). This also answers a common objection against the faith, which is that there are too many hypocrites in church. Non-believers can’t have it both ways. They can’t be upset that there are too many hypocrites in church, and also be upset when the church kicks them out.
Third, we are to discipline to prevent God from setting Himself against the church. If we have a choice to distance ourselves from sin, and we choose rather to identify ourselves with it, then what will a holy God do? We see that God will come Himself and discipline a church which does not willingly follow Him in this (Rev. 2:14-25). If God’s judgment and chastisement is headed toward someone, it is not the part of wisdom to stand right next to him.
Fourth, we are to discipline in a desire to restore the offender. We are not promised that the offender will be restored, but this end is nonetheless one of our goals. This rationale is clearly set forth in Scripture (Matt. 18:15; 1 Cor. 5:5; Gal. 6:1). This is the objection answered: “Discipline is harsh and unloving.” The goal is not to destroy the offender; the goal is a confrontation in which we formally protest the fact that the offender is destroying himself. Discipline is therefore an act of love.
And last, we are to discipline in order to deter others from sin. The Bible teaches that consequences for sin deter (Ecc. 8:11; 1 Tim. 5:20). The objection here is that “people sure wouldn’t want to mention any of their spiritual problems around those elders!” But the issue is always impenitence, and if someone is intending to continue in sin impenitent, then he had better not mention it to any of the elders. But if he struggles against sin, as all of us do, then he will find nothing in church discipline except an aid and comfort in that struggle.
Many misunderstand what is actually being done in discipline. Discipline is not necessarily shunning or avoiding. It is rather avoiding company on the other’s terms. The heart of church discipline is a refusal of the Supper, which is why church discipline is called excommunication. The person is exiled from (ex) the Table of the Lord (communion). So the individual under discipline is denied access to the Lord’s Supper, as well as the general communion which that Supper seals. The offender is not being denied kindness, courtesy, opportunity to hear the Word preached, the duties owed to him by others, or anything else due him according to the law of love. Fundamentally, he is being denied only one thing: the right to define the Christian faith for himself.