John Dagg famously said, “when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”
Church discipline. The two words send shivers down the spine of some Christians. Perhaps you think of The Scarlet Letter or imagine being shunned or judged by self-righteous religious folk. It’s unfortunate that for many the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about church discipline is its abuses.
There are two kinds of church discipline: formative and corrective. 99% of church discipline is formative: every sermon that lovingly challenges, every piece of advice that calls us away from temptation, every hymn that upholds the truths of the gospel. When a brother asks, “How’s your marriage doing?” he is disciplining you to fight for purity and holiness. This is formative church discipline.
The second kind of church discipline is corrective. It happens when one is confronted in their sin and there’s a refusal to repent. After a process (described in Matt.18:15-17), the unrepentant individual is to be excommunicated from the church. To be excommunicated literally means not allowed to partake in communion, which means a removal from membership. This is not a “punishment,” but an urgent and loving call to wake up to the danger of sin. The goal of corrective church discipline is the glory of God in the health of the church.
Some people think church discipline will kill the church. This simply isn’t true biblically (Matt. 18:15-17, 1 Cor. 5:1-13, 1 Tim. 1:19-20) or practically. Real Christians care most about pleasing the Lord. They hate their sin and thirst for righteousness, longing for a faithful community that loves them enough help them when they stray. A church can’t shine without holiness, and a church won’t be holy without discipline.
What does this have to do with you? You are responsible for the purity of other Christians! That’s why Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault.” If you see the sin, you go talk to him in a spirit of gentleness and love (Gal. 6:1). When Cain asked God “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God could have answered, “Yes! If you truly loved him, you would keep watch after his soul!”
We are responsible for one another. We’re not responsible for every Christian in the whole world, but we are responsible in a unique way to the specific people God has brought into our church. Essential to being a church is committing ourselves to lovingly care for one another’s souls. If a shepherd won’t fight off wolves to protect the sheep, he will end up without sheep. Jesus wants his people protected from sin, and it’s the job of the whole church, working together in loving unity, to keep one other free from the filth of sin.