Many people view church discipline negatively. Words like unloving or unkind frequently get bandied about whenever it is mentioned. The culture of affirmation – that we must all affirm everything about everyone – is as prevalent in the church as anywhere else. Any suggestion that somebody might be straying away from the Lord can quickly get batted away with a handwaving reference to love or a dismissive claim of legalism.
But these arguments really don’t stack up. There is nothing loving about affirming people in damaging behaviour. Few of us think affirming addicts in their addictions is a good thing, no matter how much a part of their identity they claim the addiction to be. Not many of us think it sensible to affirm people in neglecting their doctor’s advice. And, let’s be honest, no believer should be comfortable or feel good about affirming people in their sin and unbelief.
Far from loving people when we do this, we are actually only serving ourselves. We are putting our own desire for comfort and an easy life ahead of the very real needs of the other person. We are making a fairly odious choice: my desire not to have awkward conversations trumps my concern that, if this person carries on as they are, they will end up in Hell. Stood before the Lord on the last day, many of our friends and family will rightly look at us and wonder why we never stopped them. How loving will our spanner in the works of church discipline will look then?
But still, it bears saying, why is church discipline important? Here are a few key things.
It promotes repentance
The goal of church discipline is to bring the sinful one to repentance and restore them to the church again. The aim is not to kick people out of the church but to try and keep them in. No sin will ever keep you out of the church of itself; it is only unrepentant sin that will see you put out. Church discipline exists to help a wayward brother or sister repent and bring them back into right fellowship with the church. The church is only and always full of sinners, but it is only unrepentant sinners who cannot stay. The whole aim of discipline is to provide opportunities to repent (cf. James 5:20).
It encourages faithfulness
In any matter of church discipline there are two groups before whom it plays out. There is the person in sin and there are the other people who all know about the sin. That latter group could be no more than an individual or it could be the entire church depending on the situation. But there will always be the one who has sinned and those who haven’t but know all about it. If one purpose of church discipline is to bring a sinner to repentance, another is to encourage the rest of the church to faithfulness.
The aim is to see sinners restored to fellowship through repentance. But where there is no repentance, eventually that person is put out of the church. The rest of the church watching on see exactly what Christ and his gospel demand of faithful believers and are encouraged to press on in faithful obedience (cf 1 Timonthy 5:20).
It protects the church
Throughout the Bible, there are examples of believers and churches being drawn away from the faith by those who bring in destructive heresies and false teaching. There are several examples among the churches in Revelation 2 & 3 of those who tolerate false teaching and those who propagate it within their churches. The warnings always remain the same (cf. Galatians 5:9-10). If they do not deal with these things through church discipline, the whole church may well be led astray and die. It is, simply put, that serious. A failure to enact proper church discipline will, in the end, mean that your church gets overrun by those who deny the gospel and whose lifestyles make clear they do not believe it. They will, in effect, simply be people in a room together. Only, worse than that, they will be people in a room together oblivious to their impending destruction at the hands of a God they have evidently rejected. Church discipline is our means of stopping that from happening. It is God’s appointed way of removing at root what will ultimately grow and destroy our church if left unaddressed.
It honours Christ
At the end of the day, if we care about Jesus, we will also care about his honour. Few of us can read the going on in 1 Corinthians 5 and think that is paints Christians in a great light. But even if not apparently so serious, we do not honour Jesus by calling acceptable what he deems utterly unacceptable. In fact, we demean everything he did on our behalf when we simply wave away sin as some trifling thing that doesn’t really matter. We’re essentially saying that Jesus died for nothing, or at least, nothing much. It degrades all that he did. But worse, the watching world look to Christians to know what Jesus said. If Christians do it, they assume Jesus is good with it. If Christians don’t do it, they assume he’s not fine with it. To leave flagrant sin unchecked says to the watching world that Jesus is actually okay with behaviour he was clear required his death on a cross to sort out. Not only does the sin itself dishonour Jesus, but our failure to address it adequately dishonours him too. When we enact proper church discipline, we honour Jesus by making clear what he values and aligning ourselves with him.