What is church discipline?

We have been thinking about membership a lot as elders lately. One important aspect of church membership and right practice as a church is church discipline. But, it seems worth asking, what is church discipline and how does it work out in practice? Here is how we answered that question.

When we hear the word discipline, we immediately think of something negative. We think of the sort of discipline we mete out to naughty children. But the word comes from the same root as our word disciple. It is about teaching or training. Whilst we may talk negatively of disciplining a child, it is for the positive purpose of teaching them how to behave. But there are also positive examples of discipline, for example, an athlete engaged in a training regime each morning is disciplining himself.

Church discipline is also about teaching and training. Paul tells us the word of God is ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2Ti 3:16). The church is expected to enact discipline among its disciples. True disciples want to be disciplined learners who order their lives around scripture.

There are two aspects to church discipline. First, there is formative discipline. This is the most common form of discipline; it is the process of bringing people to maturity in Christ through positive instruction and teaching (cf. Eph 4:11f). Formative discipline takes place anytime we listen to a sermon (Col 3:16), hear a Bible study, read scripture (Jam 1:22-25) or engage in Biblical conversations with church members (Heb 10:24f). This sort of discipline is vital because it helps us to obey the Lord and pursue holiness.

Second, there is corrective discipline. This is the kind of discipline that takes place when somebody sins. It is usually informal, taking place whenever one believer suggests to another that they are straying from God’s best. It is typically private and handled discretely. However, in cases where an individual continues in unrepentant sin or engages in public sin that must be dealt with publicly, corrective discipline can become formal and involve the whole church. Examples of this can be found in Matthew 18:15-17, relating to personal sin between members, and 1 Corinthians 5, relating to public sin in the church. Whether corrective discipline is done informally or formally, it is always done to bring a wandering believer back into right relationship with God and his people (cf. Jam 5:19f).

As church members, we all agree to submit to the formative discipline of teaching and instruction as well as the corrective discipline of the wider church membership who have committed to help us honour and obey Jesus in our lives. We recognise that most corrective discipline will take place informally and privately between individual members.

When one member sins against another, the process in Matthew 18:15-20 will be followed. Most corrective discipline remains informal and private because, often, the process in Matthew 18 needn’t go further than step one. The discipline will only be considered formal if it progresses further. As in all corrective discipline, we aim to bring the one in sin to repentance. Each step is followed only as a means of restoring a wandering member.

Sometimes, however, the sin committed is so public and serious it is done against the wider church body (e.g. 1Co 5:1-11). In such cases, scripture does not suggest we follow the steps in Matthew 18 but rather insists on swifter, public action (cf. 2Th 3:6; Rom 16:17). The Bible makes clear that if the church does not publicly remove the individual from membership in such cases, it is remiss. Such excommunication is for the good of the individual, showing them that their behaviour undermines their profession of faith. Also, if the sin is public and the church does nothing, the church endorses the behaviour. It sends the public message that this unrepentant sin is not serious and Christ does not care about it. By removing the person from membership, the church preserves Jesus’ reputation.

We must recognise that discipline is a fundamental good. Hebrews 12:1-14 presents it as a loving thing to do, imitating God in his discipline of those he loves. God cares about the truth of his word and our living it out appropriately. He is particularly concerned with how we live together as Christians people and what we model to the world by it.