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Church discipline – The mark of a true church

In an article called The Disappearance of Church Discipline: How Can We Recover? Part 1, theologian Al Mohler describes just how far the modern church has drifted from the practice of church discipline. Church discipline is biblical. Jesus himself taught about it as he explained the procedure in Matthew 18:15-17. While the church today is weak in maintaining this discipline, it has been established by believers in the past as the third mark of the true church. For example, the Belgic Confession (1561), a standard document by which many Reformed churches subscribe, reads:

The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.

In 1 Timothy 6:12, Paul instructed Timothy to “fight the good fight of the faith”. As the battle for the faith encompasses both truth and holiness, defending them necessitates the teaching and practice of church discipline. Below is an extract from an article by David Simon, a deacon from the International Baptist Church, for our edification. May Hermon be a true church to the glory of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

One of the distinguishing marks of the local church is to practice discipline. Lamentably, most churches neglect this today. Congregations shy away at applying it, fearing they will lose members. In a church culture where success of ministry is in numbers, congregations avoid size reduction, tragically, even at the cost of disregarding Scripture. In addition, an increasing number of those attending, whether regularly or occasionally, have no interest in becoming members because they do not want any kind of accountability. So, lack of church discipline in many churches is the result of an unhealthy combination of factors, such as disregard for the Word of God, primary focus on numbers, and lack of commitment on the part of those attending.

Why church discipline? The church engages in discipline to correct sinful behaviour among its members. It does so with a twofold objective: protect the church from harm and restore the member to a healthy relationship with God and fellowship with the rest of the church.

Why do we need to practice it? There are two reasons. Firstly, it is biblical. Church discipline is a central theme in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, commands it (Matthew 18:15-20). The apostle Paul commits a significant part of his writing to this aspect of church life. To the Thessalonians he writes: “Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). In a similar way, he instructs Titus: ““Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them” (Titus 3:10). And when he learns of an incestuous relationship in the church at Corinth, he commands that they exclude the wicked man from the church (1 Corinthians 5). The second reason is that it is a matter of common sense. Discipline in the church is like disciplining children. Parents do it with a heavy heart. Regardless, they do it because they know that ultimately it will be in the best interest of the child. They choose the long-term benefits of correcting their children’’s behaviour over the immediate unpleasantness that discipline produces. This long-term versus short-term is the fork in the road for most of our endeavours in life. It is always a challenging decision. Although the long-term is obviously the more important, we tend to choose what is easier and more convenient now.

When is church discipline required? The church contributes towards conviction in the life of its members in two ways: formative discipline and corrective discipline. Conviction often is the result of formative discipline in the church, which – in a church that is not afraid to speak against sin – is done through preaching and teaching. This type of discipline does not require a personal and/or public confrontation of the member. Ideally, this should be the only discipline that a church should do – just preach against sin. However, even in a church with solid biblical preaching, for some members this is not enough, and the church is then called to the second form of discipline, that is, corrective discipline. This deals with the church member who embraces a particular sin as if there was nothing wrong with it. What type of sins require such a reaction? Here are some general guidelines to consider: it is outward, ongoing, serious, and unrepentant. When sin has these characteristics, it causes harm to the person committing it, as well as to the congregation he is part of. Spreading false teachings in the church, sexual immorality, domestic violence, and breaking of criminal laws are some of the areas that require corrective discipline. While the tendency to avoid discipline finds some legitimacy in that generally people do not like confronting others with their failures, it is something the church must do. Obedience to the Word of God must always take priority over the uncomfortable nature of confronting sin.

What is the goal of church discipline? The goal is to restore the believer, to help him see what is wrong. Jesus provides the standard procedure for this in Matthew 18:15-17:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘ ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ ’And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

Going through these stages must be done lovingly and patiently, but it must be done. Failure to practice discipline is often justified with a desire to be as loving as possible to other Christians. However, true love never sacrifices the long-term wellbeing of a fellow believer for the sake of his/her immediate comfort. For the sake of this wellbeing, the church may even have to excommunicate a member, depending on the severity of the sin and whether he/she repents or not.

Although the biblical teaching on this issue is clear, many are reluctant to exercise discipline, invoking all sorts of excuses. It is true that believers need to avoid being judgmental, however, the failure to discipline will inevitably be destructive. As believers, we are called to pursue godliness in community, as part of a local church. It is in this type of setting that we grow, learn, receive encouragement, and are even corrected if we go astray. When we commit to membership in a church family, and sit under a proper biblical leadership structure, we are in the environment God expects us to live out our Christian calling. And, if I might add, a safe environment for worship and discipleship (Italics mine).

- Eld Sim Chow Meng

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