"According to the command of Christ:
     Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and who after repeated personal and loving admonitions,
     refuse to abandon their errors and evil ways, and who after being reported to the church, that is, to those ordained by the church for that purpose, fail to
     respond also to the church's admonitions--such persons the church excludes from the Christian community by withholding the sacraments from them, and
     God also excludes them from the kingdom of Christ. Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members
     of Christ and of his church."
-Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 85

We continue our series on reforming the church, this week addressing a subject that is the elephant in the ecclesiastical room: church discipline.  Once considered one of the marks of the true church, discipline has, in many churches, fallen to the wayside.  Though there are a number of contributing issues--including the misuse and abuse of church discipline--two stand out: the rejection of authority and a deficient understanding of the purpose of church discipline.  By resolving these issues, and renewing the gracious practice of church discipline, the church can better serve its members as well as strengthen its witness to the good, gracious, and holy Triune God at work in the world. 


At its heart, the issue of church discipline is one of authority. We live in a society that, generally speaking, despises authority and exalts individualism and self-determination.  As John Stuart Mill wrote in, On Liberty, "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [1]"  No external authority--be it the government, religion, work or family--has the power or right to tell us what to think or how to behave; it is up us, as individuals, to come to our own conclusions. And unfortunately, this same perspective has crept into the church as well, contributing to the degradation of the church's health, and bringing in a host of false teachings.*  

Yet, as the church, we confess with the Heidelberg Catechism that, "I am not my own, but belong--body and soul, in life and in death--to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.[2]" Unlike human institutions--man-made organization and social clubs--the church is a people called, gathered, established, and sustained by the Triune God, and subject to His authority.  Rather than striving to live according to the norms and customs of the culture of our age, we must pursue obedience to the Lord, His Word and His ways.[3] This means submitting ourselves to His Word and Spirit, as well as those who have been ordained by God to serve as leaders in the church under Christ; shepherds, appointed by the great shepherd, to watch over, and care for, the flock. Thus, the confession, in laying out the obligations of church members, declares:

But all people are obliged to join and unite with it [the church], keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline...[4]

Church Discipline

This leads us to the subject of discipline.  Broadly understood, discipline is the training, or formation, of the church so that as a community--and the individuals therein--she may faithfully fulfill her purpose in God's redemptive plan, and display the good news of Christ and the Kingdom of God to the world. More narrowly, church discipline is a restorative and (re)formative practice that rebukes sin and corrects false teaching.  The practice of church discipline is a sure sign of Christian love, helping fallen sinners back to their feet, and guiding those who have wandered into false teaching back to the way of truth and life found in obedience to the Word and Spirit.[5]  Herman Bavinck presents a vivid description of both the wide and narrow scopes of church discipline in his Reformed Dogmatics:

[The church of Christ] experiences conflict from within and without, is prey to all sorts of attacks by sin and deception, and at all times runs the danger of straying to the left or to the right. The church is a field that needs to be constantly weeded, a tree that must be pruned at the proper time, a flock that must also be led and pastured, a house that requires constant renovation, a bride who must be prepared to be presented as a pure virgin to her husband. There are the sick, the dying, the tested, the grieving; those who are under attack, conflicted, in doubt, fallen, imprisoned, and so forth, who need teaching and instruction, admonition and consolation.[6]

And though it can be viewed in a negative light, the goal of church discipline is always redemptive; the bringing of the wayward sheep back to the fold.  "The focus must always be on restoring the fallen member to a right relationship within the church," writes Ray Penning.  He goes on to say:

Church leaders come alongside the wayward member, teaching, encouraging, helping, and, when necessary, providing discipline. Their intention must always be to restore the relationship. This approach is different than in every other human institution. Other institutions kick members out in order to protect the institution, but the church relies on higher powers to protect her, and protecting her "brand" should never be the first motive. The salvation of the lost is the overriding focus...as the forms in Protestant traditions almost universally speak of the intention that the offending brother "be brought to repentance and recovered to the will of the Lord.[7]

The practice of church discipline is a gift of God's grace for the good of the church, the sanctifying of its members, and the glory of God. Not only does the practice guard against sin and evil that seek to tarnish the church's witness and destroy those who belong to her, but it also helps to train God's people to live as obedient citizens of the Kingdom of God in a world that rejects Him and His authority.  

So where do we go from here?  We must reform our understanding of authority, recognize the loving, gracious nature of discipline, and seek to practice it both personally and communally.**  Practicing church discipline can be difficult, messy, and painful, yet, it is vital for guarding the flock and to seeing renewal in the church in the 21st Century.   




*Not only does it lead to apathy towards holy living and the introduction of false teaching into the church, but, when combined with the consumer mentality, this leads to people leaving and hopping churches at the first sign of disagreement and/or discipline.  

** One of the questions that may arise is what warrants church discipline? Bavinck goes into detail on this in the seven features he identifies in the Reformed church's practice of church discipline, explaining that "the reason for discipline is not an assortment of weakness to which believers fall, nor the appalling sins that a Christian government punishes (though the church then follows, its discipline being necessary as well), but the sins that cause offense among the members of the congregation and are not, or only very mildly, punished by the government.[8]" This gives definition without being too specific as to what warrants discipline.  Furthermore, Andrew Kuyvenhoven makes an insightful comment in his Banner article, stating, "These writings [of the catechism] seem to visualize a sinner as one who espouses an unbiblical teaching or lives an immoral life. Occasionally today's elders still have to deal with such a sinner. But most candidates for disciplinary action are the lax and the indifferent.[9]" 


[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Elizabeth Rapaport (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1979), 9.
[2] Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1
[3] Alan J. Janssen, Confessing the Faith Today (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 108. 
[4} Belgic Confession, Article 28
[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 422.
[6] Andrew Kuyvenhoven, "The Teaching of Comfort (87)," The Banner 121.43 (December 1, 1986), 14. 
[7] Ray Penning, "Church Practices and Public Life: The Public Implications of Church Discipline," Comment, August 13, 2012, accessed May 9, 2017 at https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/3402/church-practices-and-public-life-the-public-implications-of-church-discipline/. 
[8] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 425.
[9] Kuyvenhoven, "The Teaching of Comfort (87)." 

*Photo Credit: Craig Rogers, "10 Things I've Learned From Lambs," Modern Farmer, December 9, 2013, http://modernfarmer.com/2013/12/10-things-learned-lambs/.