Why Calvin Thought Church Discipline is Essential to the Health of the Church

Article by Matthew Tuininga from the 9Marks Journal: (original source here)

Soon after John Calvin was appointed as a pastor of the Genevan church, having only recently arrived as a refugee fleeing persecution in his native France, one of his first actions was to petition the city government for the establishment of church discipline. It was a hard sell. In no other Reformed city had the civil magistrates given clergy such authority. The reformers Zwingli and Bullinger maintained that overseeing the moral lives of Christians was a task for the civil magistrate. Most Reformed theologians and magistrates associated ecclesiastical discipline with papal tyranny.

Calvin acknowledged that the Roman church had grievously abused discipline by wielding it tyrannically to accomplish all manner of church goals. To prevent this evil, he called the magistrates “to ordain and elect certain persons of good life and witness from among the faithful” to shepherd the people on behalf of the church as a whole. These elders, along with the pastors, would bind themselves to the procedure laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18, by which professing Christians were to be held accountable to one another in the life of Christian discipleship.

CALVIN AND HIS CONSISTORY

While the city council granted the pastors’ request in principle, it soon became evident that there was little agreement in practice. Calvin found himself banished from the city. Within three years, however, the city asked him to come back. Though he was reluctant, he agreed to return under the condition that church discipline be established. The city relented, though nearly 15 years of conflict remained before the consistory—the body of pastors and elders charged with the ministry of church discipline—could rest secure from political interference.

Calvin’s consistory disciplined members of the Genevan church for a wide range of sins including idolatry, violence, sexual immorality, marital problems, and interpersonal conflict. They disciplined men who abused their wives and children, sons who refused to care for their aging parents, landowners who exploited their tenants, doctors who failed to care properly for the sick, merchants who practiced price gouging or sought to prevent economic competition, and employers who exploited or mistreated their workers. While many people were brought before the consistory, temporarily barred from the Lord’s Supper, and required to express public repentance or reconciliation, very few were permanently excommunicated (i.e., banished from participation in the sacraments).

DISCIPLINE: AN EXTENSION OF THE WORD

Calvin viewed discipline as a necessary extension of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament. While he did not identify it as a mark of the church, he did insist that discipline is essential to the spiritual health of a church, without which a church cannot long endure.

Discipline was necessary to preserve the honor of God and the integrity of the Lord’s Supper, to protect the members of the church from being led astray by other members, and to call those who were straying to repentance.

DISCIPLINE & THE LORD’S SUPPER

At the heart of Calvin’s passion for the exercise of church discipline was his concern that the Lord’s Supper not devolve into a mere ceremony of hypocrisy. The Lord’s Supper is not simply a celebration of the forgiveness of sins, he argued, but a communion of brothers and sisters in “love, peace, and concord.” Calvin again: “None of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at the same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren’s bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not to allow a brother to be affected by any evil, without being touched with compassion for him” (Institutes, 4.17.38).

In short, when Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper while exploiting, oppressing, or abusing one another, they made a mockery of it.

DISCIPLINE: SPIRITUAL, NOT POLITICAL

Calvin insisted that discipline is not an expression of political power but of spiritual power. It is not coercive but pastoral. To be sure, when wielded arbitrarily, church discipline devolved into mere tyranny. But Calvin insisted that a person could only be disciplined for conduct that was clearly and manifestly sinful according to Scripture, and only as long as the person refused to repent of that conduct.

Furthermore, where sin was so obvious, notorious, and persistent, the elders and pastors of a church exercising church discipline would merely be proclaiming the truth of God’s Word as it applied to an unrepentant individual. As such, like preaching, discipline was one of what Jesus called the keys of the kingdom of heaven, opening the kingdom to the repentant through the proclamation of the gospel and closing it to those who refused to repent.

As Calvin puts it: “The Lord testifies that such judgment by believers is nothing but the proclamation of his own sentence, and that whatever they have done on earth is ratified in heaven. For they have the word of God with which to condemn the perverse; they have the word with which to receive the repentant into grace. They cannot err or disagree with God’s judgment, for they judge solely according to God’s law, which is no uncertain or earthly opinion but God’s holy will and heavenly oracle” ( Institutes, 4.11.2).

DISCIPLINE & THE GOAL OF SALVATION

What was crucial for Calvin was that the ultimate purpose of discipline is not vengeance but salvation. He rejected the practices of ongoing penance or ritual humiliation, warning that “zeal for discipline” often leads to “pharisaical rigor” that “hurries on the miserable offender to ruin, instead of curing him” (his commentary on 2 Corinthians 2:11). As soon as a disciplined person repented, he or she was to be immediately welcomed into full communion.

When conducted graciously and according to Christ’s word, discipline ensured that the church did not proclaim a false and empty gospel of cheap grace but a gospel with power to draw human beings into genuine communion with God and one another. Calvin: “[E]xcommunication does not tend to drive men from the Lord’s flock but rather to bring them back when wandering and going astray” (Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:15).

For Calvin, discipline expressed the love of a father who does not allow his children to go astray to their own hurt or death but uses restraint and correction where necessary to ensure their flourishing. It’s necessary to the health and survival of a church because it ensures that the religion we practice is not the religion of hypocrisy but of grace that leads to righteousness and life.

A Historical Survey of Church Discipline

Article by Jeremy M. Kimble, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, and a member of Grace Baptist Church (original source here)

Throughout church history the practice of church discipline has been largely affirmed, though at certain periods, only sporadically applied. [1] In looking at historical trajectories one can note the ways in which the church remained faithful to biblical teaching on the subject or veered sharply away from such principles. As such, while history is not ultimately determinative for understanding and applying discipline in our churches—Scripture possesses that role—history offers both helpful and harmful models from which to learn.

Patristic Era (AD 100–500)

While disciplinary action within the church had its controversial and contentious moments, it appears that for the first several centuries the church consistently sought to apply disciplinary measures according to the biblical witness. Indeed, the early church disciplined members both for the propagation of false doctrine and lack of moral purity. It was common practice in the early days of the church to announce disciplinary judgments on Sunday in the context of the church service. Tertullian, describing this event, states, “For judgment is passed, and it carries great weight, as it must among men certain that God sees them; and it is a notable foretaste of judgment to come, if any man has so sinned to be banished from all share in our prayer, our assembly, and all holy intercourse.” [2] Tertullian, as well as other church fathers,[3] recognized the seriousness of the disciplinary process.

Most churches recognized two kinds of repentance: a one-time repentance accompanied by faith in Jesus Christ for salvation and a continual repentance of sin throughout one’s life. [4] Christians who sinned had to confess their sin before the church if they wished to be restored to fellowship. Eventually, by the third and fourth centuries, restoration to the church became rather difficult. Undergoing “penitential discipline,” those seeking repentance were first required to come to the place where they met for church services, but not enter the place of worship. They were to beg for the prayers of those going inside, and after a period of time they were allowed inside to listen to the service in a designated area. The penitents would eventually be allowed to remain during the entire service, though without partaking of communion. Only after these steps were taken could an individual be restored to full membership. This kind of penitential action, along with the continued peace the church experienced after the reign of Constantine, contributed to a shift in ecclesial discipline.

Medieval Era (AD 500–1500)

Church discipline was a difficult practice to keep consistently due to the many challenges the church faced, but dedication to its implementation was strong at first. According to Greg Wills, however, the practice of church discipline eventually declined in the early centuries of the church. He claims,

After the fourth century, the system of public confession, exclusion, and penitential rigor fell into disuse. Nectarius, bishop of Constantinople from 381 to 398, apparently played an important role in the change. Since the third century Constantinople and other churches had adopted the practice of appointing a special presbyter in charge of administering the church’s penitential discipline. When the public discipline of a deacon at Constantinople for sexual immorality brought considerable public scandal upon the church, Nectarius abolished the office of the penitential presbyter and largely abandoned efforts to administer church discipline among the laity. Nectarius did not repudiate the strict public discipline in principle but he abandoned it in practice. . . . The process of strict public discipline withered in the Latin-speaking churches of the West just as it did in the churches of the Greek-speaking East. In its place emerged a system of private confession and individual penance. [5]

This eventual emphasis on penance transformed church discipline largely into a private affair between the priest and layperson, and as such the communal role of church discipline dissipated. Thus, church discipline was largely dispelled, and instead private confession and works of merit were common fare in the days leading up to the Reformation.

Reformation Era (AD 1500–1750)

Martin Luther, a key figure in the Reformation, is known in the early part of his career as one who had experienced the weight of the penitential system and thus questioned much of its validity, particularly in the issuing of indulgences. His criticism of these practices as substitutes for true repentance and contrition was a catalyst in precipitating the Reformation. This also allowed for a more biblical comprehension and application of church discipline by Luther, as well as others such as John Calvin, the Anabaptists, and later figures like Jonathan Edwards. Continue reading

Preemptive Resignation??

Article: The Preemptive Resignation—A Get Out of Jail Free Card?
by Jonathan Leeman (original source here)

Church leaders often ask how they should respond when a person who is being disciplined by the church resigns before the process of discipline is complete. Should they accept the resignation or continue moving toward excommunication?

Suppose a man decides to leave his wife for another woman. Other members of the church ask the man to repent and return to his wife. He doesn’t. They ask again, but this time they also warn him about the possibility of excommunication. So he resigns his membership. Case closed. He’s now immune. Or at least that’s what the adulterous man is saying. Is that correct?

THE CASE FOR ALLOWING PREEMPTIVE RESIGNATIONS

A civic case for allowing preemptive resignations would argue that local churches, in the context of a democratic civic society, are “voluntary organizations,” just like the Boy Scouts, a women’s soccer league, or a gardening club. You can choose to join; you can choose to leave. And no one gives a church the right to say otherwise. In a liberal civic context, the individual reigns supreme.

Now add a theological layer to the argument for preemptive resignation. Human beings do not ultimately depend on their families, their churches, their nations, or their parish priests for a relationship with God. They must depend on Christ. He alone is the mediator between God and man. This means that churches must not deny individuals the ability to act according to their consciences, which includes letting them leave church membership whenever they want to leave. Otherwise, the church effectively denies soul competency and wrongly places itself in between the individual and the individual’s Savior. Right?

THE CASE AGAINST ALLOWING PREEMPTIVE RESIGNATIONS

In fact, both the civic and the theological objections depend on a reductionistic idea about what the church on earth is. The church on earth does not exist just because a number of individuals have freely decided to associate together in an area of common interest to them, as with the Boy Scouts. It does not exist just as an aid to our sanctification as believers, as an over-inflated concept of soul competency would have us believe.

Rather, the church exists because Christ came to establish his kingdom, and he means for a marked off group of people to represent his heavenly rule on earth (see Matt. 3:2; 4:7; 5:3,5; 6:10,19-20; 13:11). The church exists not simply for its own sanctification’s sake or even finally for the world’s sake. It exists to accomplish the task originally given to Adam and Israel but fulfilled finally in Christ, the task of imaging or representing the glorious rule of God on earth.

The problem is, many hypocrites will claim to belong to the kingdom based on family ties or righteous deeds (e.g. Matt. 3:9; 6:1, 2–3, 5–6, 16–17; 8:11-12; 13:47–50), and many will come claiming the name of Christ and saying “Lord, Lord” (Matt. 7:21-23; cf. 24:5). But the kingdom does not belong to any and all professors; it belongs only to those who produce the fruit of the kingdom in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8; 5:3–12; 7:15–20, 7:24–27; 18:3-4). “Watch out that no one deceives you,” said Jesus, anticipating such false professors (Matt. 24:4).

As such, Jesus gave local churches, who are outposts of this kingdom, the authority to bind and loose, which includes the ability to excommunicate (Matt. 16:19; 18:17-19). Excommunication, then, is one aspect of the authority that Christ gives to the local church for the sake of guarding Christ’s name and reputation on earth (Matt. 18:15-20). It’s a way of saying that someone no longer belongs to the kingdom of Christ, but to the kingdom of Satan (1 Cor. 5:5). Just as baptism functions as a church’s way of publicly affirming an individual’s profession of faith (see Matt. 28:19), so excommunication functions as the church’s way of publicly removing its corporate affirmation from an individual’s profession because that profession appears fraudulent.

Keep in mind what church membership is from the church’s side: it’s the church’s formal affirmation of your profession of faith, together with its commitment to oversee your discipleship. Without discipline, that affirmation and oversight is meaningless, which is to say, membership is meaningless. If a church cannot withdraw its affirmation, what good is the affirmation? For that affirmation and oversight to mean anything, the church needs to be able to “correct the record.” Which is what excommunication is: the church saying to the community, “We previously affirmed this person’s profession, but we can no longer do that.” So the individual might not like it, but the church has it’s own public relations problem to resolve when the individual under discipline tries to resign. In fact, an individual attempting to resign while under discipline is trying to coerce the whole church to make a public statement about the individual the church doesn’t believe.

With all this in mind, consider again the example of the man who leaves his wife for another woman. The man continues to profess faith in Christ, but his profession now appears fraudulent, because his life does not produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8). He has been asked to repent, but he will not. Given a choice between his sin and the commands of his so-called Lord, he chooses his sin. Precisely for such occasions, Jesus has given the local church the authority to excommunicate, the authority to remove its public affirmation of the man’s profession. Once upon a time, the church had publicly affirmed the man’s profession by accepting him into membership and by sharing baptism and the Lord’s Supper with him; it had said to the on-looking world, “Yes, we affirm that this man is a Christ-follower.” But now the church does not want the world to be deceived by the man’s apparently false profession. Therefore, it acts through church discipline to clarify this man’s state for its own members and for the watching world.

In so doing, it effectively says, “No, this is not what a Christ-follower looks like. We cannot affirm his profession, and we cannot identify him with us any longer, because to identify him with us is to identify him with our Lord. And our Lord would never abandon his wife.”

Yes, individuals are ultimately accountable to God and not to their churches. Yes, individuals should choose God’s side rather than the church’s side whenever a church requires its members to go against the Word of God. Yes, the church is a “voluntary organization” insofar as the church cannot conscript members as with an army draft, or keep them from leaving, as with a slave. We’re justified by faith alone. Still, Christ has given the corporate gathering of believers an authority he has not given to the lone individual: the authority, we might call it, of guarding the borders of the kingdom by making public statements on behalf of Christ. It’s the authority of the White House press secretary to speak officially for the president, or of an embassy to speak officially for its government. The individual who attempts to preempt this process by resigning before the church enacts formal discipline is guilty of usurping the church’s apostolic authority to speak in this manner. In so doing, he compounds his guilt, like the criminal charged with “resisting arrest.”

PRACTICAL STEPS

Does a church put itself at legal risk by denying a preemptive resignation and proceeding with discipline? It can, but that risk is ameliorated, if not altogether relieved, by taking two practical steps:

Include a statement concerning church discipline in the official church documents, whether a constitution or by-laws.
Clearly teach about the possibility of church discipline to all incoming members, and include this teaching in the standard curriculum for prospective members.

Should churches discipline members who explicitly renounce the faith? I don’t believe so. Rather, the church should do what it does when someone dies—acknowledge the fact and delete the name from the church’s membership directory. That’s all it can do. Christ has not given the church authority over the dead or over those who do not name his name. In each case, the church covenant is simply rendered moot. It’s worth observing that two of the most important passages on church discipline (Matt. 18:15-17 and 1 Cor. 5) both instruct the church in how to respond to someone who claims to be a brother.

CONCLUSION

To state the argument here in a single paragraph, we can say that ending one’s membership in a church requires the consent of both parties. We join a church by the consent of the church, and we leave a church by the consent of the church, because it’s the local church that has the authority to publicly represent Christ on earth, as an embassy does its home government. Christ gave the church the authority to bind and loose, not the individual Christian. The man who continues to call himself a Christian and yet attempts to avoid the church’s act of discipline is guilty of usurping the power of the keys. Christ has made the church his proxy on earth exactly for such occasions, lest heretics and hypocrites presume to continue speaking for Christ.

Why Churches Should Excommunicate Longstanding Non-Attenders

Article by Alex Duke, editorial manager of 9Marks (original source here).

A few years back, I heard about a church that had grown concerned about their bloated membership. After years of lackadaisical accounting, the number had become unwieldy, even disingenuous. Their “official” membership tallied more than twice the average attendance—doubtlessly inflated by the dead, the derelict, and the well-intentioned-but-never-there.

This discrepancy obscured the church’s identity.

So they came up with an idea: let’s just zero out the membership and, over the course of time, let those who are still around re-up their commitment and re-join the church.

This approach, they thought, would slay two giants with one smooth stone: first, it would enable the church to reach out to everyone on their list and hopefully reanimate for some the desire to gather with God and God’s people. Second, they’d finally know the souls over which they were to keep watch, the individuals for whom they would one day be held accountable.

So over the course of a few months, they reached out to everyone and let them know of a date in the future when all who were willing would re-dedicate their spiritual oversight to this specific church. For many, this was a no-brainer; they’d never stopped attending. For others, God used the correspondence to pry them out of their apathy and into the pew.

But for some, the letters were returned to sender (or were ignored), the emails bounced (or were ignored), and the pleas for reunion fell on deaf ears, if they fell on any ears at all.

And so, before long, their covenant with this church was deleted with a keystroke.

THE GOOD NEWS

Though full of good intentions, I submit that what happened at the church above is pastoral malpractice. It flips Jesus’ “Lost Sheep” parable in Matthew 18 upside-down: “If a man has 100 sheep, and 99 of them have come back, does he not stay with the 99 and leave the one alone?”

It’s good to have a more accurate membership roll. But it’s best to pursue these non-attenders toward a specific end: removal if they’re attending another gospel-preaching church, restoration if they’re happy to return, and excommunication if they’re either unwilling to attend church anywhere or unable to be found.

In fact, I want to up the ante a bit: pursuing longstanding non-attenders—I don’t mean inconsistent attenders, but those who have been wholly absent for several months or even years—and excommunicating those they can’t find is a mark of a healthy church. Of course such pursuits can be done poorly and with a heavy hand. But this abuse should make us cautious and careful, not convinced the better choice is to do nothing.

This practice is entirely in accord with the Bible’s teaching on what a church is, what a pastor is, and what biblical love is. Even if the non-attender has no idea any pursuit or eventual discipline is happening, the church’s act appropriately warns those who are present about the dangers of pursuing the Christian life outside a local church.

BIBLICAL PRECEDENT

With feathers sufficiently ruffled, let me provide a biblical rationale. Continue reading

Why Calvin Thought Church Discipline is Essential to the Health of the Church

Article by Matthew Tuininga, From the 9Marks Journal (original source here):

Soon after John Calvin was appointed as a pastor of the Genevan church, having only recently arrived as a refugee fleeing persecution in his native France, one of his first actions was to petition the city government for the establishment of church discipline. It was a hard sell. In no other Reformed city had the civil magistrates given clergy such authority. The reformers Zwingli and Bullinger maintained that overseeing the moral lives of Christians was a task for the civil magistrate. Most Reformed theologians and magistrates associated ecclesiastical discipline with papal tyranny.

Calvin acknowledged that the Roman church had grievously abused discipline by wielding it tyrannically to accomplish all manner of church goals. To prevent this evil, he called the magistrates “to ordain and elect certain persons of good life and witness from among the faithful” to shepherd the people on behalf of the church as a whole. These elders, along with the pastors, would bind themselves to the procedure laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18, by which professing Christians were to be held accountable to one another in the life of Christian discipleship.

CALVIN AND HIS CONSISTORY

While the city council granted the pastors’ request in principle, it soon became evident that there was little agreement in practice. Calvin found himself banished from the city. Within three years, however, the city asked him to come back. Though he was reluctant, he agreed to return under the condition that church discipline be established. The city relented, though nearly 15 years of conflict remained before the consistory—the body of pastors and elders charged with the ministry of church discipline—could rest secure from political interference.

Calvin’s consistory disciplined members of the Genevan church for a wide range of sins including idolatry, violence, sexual immorality, marital problems, and interpersonal conflict. They disciplined men who abused their wives and children, sons who refused to care for their aging parents, landowners who exploited their tenants, doctors who failed to care properly for the sick, merchants who practiced price gouging or sought to prevent economic competition, and employers who exploited or mistreated their workers. While many people were brought before the consistory, temporarily barred from the Lord’s Supper, and required to express public repentance or reconciliation, very few were permanently excommunicated (i.e., banished from participation in the sacraments).

DISCIPLINE: AN EXTENSION OF THE WORD

Calvin viewed discipline as a necessary extension of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament. While he did not identify it as a mark of the church, he did insist that discipline is essential to the spiritual health of a church, without which a church cannot long endure.

Discipline was necessary to preserve the honor of God and the integrity of the Lord’s Supper, to protect the members of the church from being led astray by other members, and to call those who were straying to repentance.

DISCIPLINE & THE LORD’S SUPPER

At the heart of Calvin’s passion for the exercise of church discipline was his concern that the Lord’s Supper not devolve into a mere ceremony of hypocrisy. The Lord’s Supper is not simply a celebration of the forgiveness of sins, he argued, but a communion of brothers and sisters in “love, peace, and concord.” Calvin again: “None of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at the same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren’s bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not to allow a brother to be affected by any evil, without being touched with compassion for him” (Institutes, 4.17.38).

In short, when Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper while exploiting, oppressing, or abusing one another, they made a mockery of it.

DISCIPLINE: SPIRITUAL, NOT POLITICAL

Calvin insisted that discipline is not an expression of political power but of spiritual power. It is not coercive but pastoral. To be sure, when wielded arbitrarily, church discipline devolved into mere tyranny. But Calvin insisted that a person could only be disciplined for conduct that was clearly and manifestly sinful according to Scripture, and only as long as the person refused to repent of that conduct.

Furthermore, where sin was so obvious, notorious, and persistent, the elders and pastors of a church exercising church discipline would merely be proclaiming the truth of God’s Word as it applied to an unrepentant individual. As such, like preaching, discipline was one of what Jesus called the keys of the kingdom of heaven, opening the kingdom to the repentant through the proclamation of the gospel and closing it to those who refused to repent.

As Calvin puts it: “The Lord testifies that such judgment by believers is nothing but the proclamation of his own sentence, and that whatever they have done on earth is ratified in heaven. For they have the word of God with which to condemn the perverse; they have the word with which to receive the repentant into grace. They cannot err or disagree with God’s judgment, for they judge solely according to God’s law, which is no uncertain or earthly opinion but God’s holy will and heavenly oracle” ( Institutes, 4.11.2).

DISCIPLINE & THE GOAL OF SALVATION

What was crucial for Calvin was that the ultimate purpose of discipline is not vengeance but salvation. He rejected the practices of ongoing penance or ritual humiliation, warning that “zeal for discipline” often leads to “pharisaical rigor” that “hurries on the miserable offender to ruin, instead of curing him” (his commentary on 2 Corinthians 2:11). As soon as a disciplined person repented, he or she was to be immediately welcomed into full communion.

When conducted graciously and according to Christ’s word, discipline ensured that the church did not proclaim a false and empty gospel of cheap grace but a gospel with power to draw human beings into genuine communion with God and one another. Calvin: “[E]xcommunication does not tend to drive men from the Lord’s flock but rather to bring them back when wandering and going astray” (Commentary on 2 Thessalonians 3:15).

For Calvin, discipline expressed the love of a father who does not allow his children to go astray to their own hurt or death but uses restraint and correction where necessary to ensure their flourishing. It’s necessary to the health and survival of a church because it ensures that the religion we practice is not the religion of hypocrisy but of grace that leads to righteousness and life.

For more: https://www.9marks.org/article/a-biblical-theology-of-church-discipline/

4 Reasons Churches Don’t Practice Church Discipline

From the 9marks website: Article: 4 Reasons Churches Don’t Practice Church Discipline by Jeremy M. Kimble, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio, and a member of Grace Baptist Church. (original source here)

Some churches don’t practice discipline because they’re unaware of the biblical mandate or unsure how to start the process. Others, however, have concerns about the potential consequences of such a practice. They know what Scripture teaches on the matter but remain unconvinced as to its legitimacy or pragmatic viability.

Churches reject the practice of church discipline for lots of reasons. Some believe the practice doesn’t comport with the biblical concept of love. Related to that idea, some will point out that none of us are perfect, and therefore we should not be focused on getting rid of people when they sin. Still others maintain that the church can err in their practice of church discipline since the church is filled with fallible, sinful human beings. Finally, some maintain such a practice is far too invasive of private lives. These objections will be considered and answered.

Objection #1: Discipline is unloving.

Many look at any form of discipline as arrogant, cruel, and unloving. Love is meant to look past sin and let things go; it covers a multitude of sin (1 Peter 4:8). However, ultimately knowing that sin leads to death (Rom. 6:23), the church must understand that discipline is in fact a loving act. As a declarative sign of potential eschatological judgment, discipline is meant to serve as both a call to repentance and a means to persevering in the faith.[1] What may seem unloving is in fact meant to demonstrate the greatest kind of love, pointing someone to eternal life.

God demonstrates his love through disciplinary acts (Heb. 12:3–11; cf. 1 Cor. 11:17–32), as he seeks to turn the hearts of his people toward holiness. He has delegated a version of this divine authority to the church as well, so as to discipline for the same purposes (Matt. 16:16–19; 18:15–17). The goal of church discipline is to see members of the church pursuing maturity in godliness. God makes it clear that his people will be marked by holiness (1 Peter 1:15–16; cf. Heb. 12:14), and discipline is one means toward pursuing holiness. Therefore when done as God directs, discipline is a loving act.

Objection #2: The church is filled with sinners.

Others object to discipline in the church because everyone is guilty of sin. The argument here is that discipline is hypocritical since no one is guiltless; we’re all marred by sin. While this is true, it doesn’t negate the obvious texts in Scripture that call for church discipline to be exercised. Far from negating the practice of ecclesial discipline, the presence of our own sin should chasten our approach and humble us. Continue reading

Submit to Jesus, Submit to His Bride

Article by Matt Smethurst, managing editor of The Gospel Coalition and author of 1–2 Thessalonians: A 12-Week Study (Crossway, 2017). He and his wife, Maghan, have three children and live in Louisville, Kentucky. They belong to Third Avenue Baptist Church, where Matt serves as an elder. (original source here)

Church membership can feel boring, secondary, extrabiblical, and unimportant. Aren’t there plenty of more pressing things to talk about? Not really, suggests Jonathan Leeman in Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus (Crossway, 2012). In just 132 pages, Leeman unfolds a clear and compelling case for submitting our lives to King Jesus by submitting to his earthly bride.

I corresponded with Leeman, editorial director for 9Marks and editor of its Journal, about the surprisingly pressing significance of local church membership.

Why is it significant to understand that Christians don’t really “join” churches so much as submit to them?

“Join” is a club word. You join a club, whether it’s a country club or a wholesale shopping club. You pay your dues. You receive the benefits. You come and go as you please. Nothing about your identity changes. No real demands are placed on you that you cannot extricate yourself from.

“Submit” is a kingdom and citizenship word. It recognizes the presence of an authority established by King Jesus. It speaks to a changed (new) identity. It suggests that you now belong to a new nation, a new people, a new family. And it suggests that all the new benefits you receive as a member of this nation and family also come with a set of obligations that are not so easily dispensed of.

What difference should church membership make in a Christian’s life?

Your question is sort of like asking “what difference should righteousness make in a Christian’s life?” It should make all the difference. A Christian is declared righteous in Christ, and then he or she “puts on” that righteousness in everyday decisions. By the same token, a Christian is declared a member of Christ’s body through the gospel (e.g., see Eph. 2:14), and then he or she “puts on” that membership in a geographically specific local body.

Don’t tell me you’re united to and committed to the Church—-capital C—-unless you are united to and committed to a local church: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

Less abstractly, our membership in a local church is where our discipleship to Christ takes shape. It’s where we learn to love our enemies, where we learn to turn the other cheek, where we learn to forbear in love, where we learn to go the extra mile, where we learn to employ our spiritual gifts, where we learn to speak to one another in love, and so forth. Certainly, these lessons apply beyond our fellowship in a local church, but the lessons begin here. And they begin here precisely because it’s the local church that has the authority of the keys to bind and loose—-to formally affirm our profession of faith or deny it.

“Kingdom” is a very popular concept among Christians today. How does the kingdom relate to the local church?

The local church is the place on earth where the citizens of heaven can, at this moment, find official recognition and asylum. Churches represent Christ’s rule now. They affirm and protect his citizens now. They proclaim his laws now. They bow before him as King now and call all peoples to do the same. You might say that a local church is a real-life embassy set in the present that represents Christ’s future kingdom and his coming universal church. Continue reading

Reasons to Avoid Churches Who Will Not Practice Church Discipline

Article: Reasons to Avoid Churches Who Will Not Practice Church Discipline by Eric Davis (original source here)

The biblical church discipline process described in Matthew 18:15-20 is often messy, costly, and accompanied by damage. The pain experienced is typically unmatched when a professing believer must be publicly put out of the local church.

Even so, when practiced biblically, it is consistent with biblical love, care, and obedience to Christ. It is that sacred process where the holiness of God is upheld, the purity of the church maintained, and the value of souls practiced. Mark Dever rightly says that church discipline is “a loving, provocative, attractive, distinct, respectful, gracious act of obedience and mercy, and that it helps to build a church that brings glory to God.” A friend of mine personally experienced that very thing. He was biblically disciplined out of a large church and to this day he confesses that it was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

But more importantly, it’s a non-negotiable matter in God’s kind of church. Robust confessions of faith such as the Belgic, Scottish, and Heidelberg Catechism rightly identified church discipline as a sine qua non ingredient of a local church.

Now, the existence of church discipline in a church does not necessarily mean that a church is sound. Sadly, it’s a process that is sometimes abused. However, a refusal to practice it is a certain red flag. It’s one thing if a church leadership has not been practicing church discipline and is attempting to implement it. But it’s quite another thing if a church will not practice it. That refusal is symptomatic of other problems, making it a church to be avoided.

Here are 10 common problems among churches that will not practice discipline on you, making them unsafe:

1. A dangerous approach to God and his word.

God commands the sacred practice of church discipline. In addition to Christ’s clear command in Matthew 18:15-20, it shows up in passages like Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Galatians 6:1-3, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15, and Titus 3:9-11. Continue reading

Concerning Church Discipline

thinking_manJonathan Leeman (MDiv, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC. He serves as director of communications for 9Marks and is the editor of its eJournal. He is the author of Church Discipline, Church Membership, and The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. He has written an article entitled “10 Things You Should Know about Church Discipline” (original source here).

1. Jesus and Paul both command churches to practice church discipline.

Church discipline is not man’s idea, but God’s. Whatever Jesus meant by “You shall not judge” in Matthew 7, he didn’t mean to rule out loving correction between Christians, as he describes it in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul then takes Jesus words seriously and exhorts the Corinthian church to put Jesus’s instructions into practice (compare Matthew 18:20 and 1 Corinthians 5:4). Do we know better than Paul?

2. “Church discipline” goes by different names.

The term “church discipline” is employed in different ways, and people use different terms for discipline. Broadly, people might make a distinction between formative discipline (referring to teaching) and corrective discipline (referring to correcting sin).

Inside the category of corrective discipline, people might use the term “church discipline” to refer to any act of correction, whether that involves privately and informally warning a friend or formally removing someone from membership in a church. When it gets to this last step, people frequently use the word “excommunication.” Among Protestants, excommunication does not refer to removing someone from salvation (which the church is incapable doing). It refers to removing someone from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Supper. To excommunicate is to ex-communion someone, kind of like a reverse baptism.

3. Nearly every organization practices discipline.

In spite of its biblical basis, the idea of church discipline can be controversial among Christians and churches, even though people readily accept the fact that other organizations or group must have some means of correcting or removing its members. A fraudulent lawyer can be debarred. A volatile player in the NBA can be fined. A malpracticing doctor can lose his or her medical license. A teacher can be fired.

Ironically, even “watchdog” websites who decry the practice of church discipline exist exclusively for the sake of correction, or discipline (albeit without any accountability!). This reaction to discipline in the church speaks volumes about the individualistic nature of spirituality and personhood in the West.

4. Churches should practice discipline for the sake of love. Continue reading

Corrective Church Discipline

tom-ascolCorrective Church Discipline article by Tom Ascol (original source here)

One of the most important and difficult tasks a pastor must undertake is leading his congregation to understand and obey what the Bible says about church discipline. The widespread neglect of the practice can cause even faithful Christians to be fearful of the idea. When biblical texts that give instruction on the subject are introduced it is not uncommon to hear responses that border on panic. “This will split the church.” “So then only perfect people can be members?” “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” “I’ve been a Christian for ___ (20, 30, 40, etc.) years and have never heard of this, so why are you bringing it up now?”

Such fears can only be overcome by leading people to trust the Lord and His Word. The authority and sufficiency of Scripture are foundational not only to restoring the practice of church discipline but to every matter of faith and work in the Christian life. On that foundation the specific texts on the nature of the church and the steps of discipline must be simply and plainly taught.

To introduce church discipline I would begin with the classic passage on the subject found in Matthew 18:15-20. Any church that obeys Jesus’ words will find that most sin in the church will be effectively dealt with in private as brothers and sisters give and receive correction as they help each other follow Christ together. Repentance and forgiveness will characterize relationships—which is exactly the way life together in the body of Christ is supposed to work.

When such private efforts fail and the offender continues in sin without repentance, the matter must be told to the church. Only if he refuses to heed the admonitions of the church is he to be removed from membership, not as an act of punishment but as an expression of love for his soul and with the hope and prayer that he will come to his senses and be restored through repentance. Continue reading