Can a church who knows God to be loving diligently practice church discipline? What’s more, can a church who worships a loving God excommunicate members from the corporate experience of worshipping that loving God? From the corporate experience of serving that loving God?
From a young age, I was taught a lot about God’s love, but overall, I can tell you two things that teenage-me would’ve specifically told you about it: 1) it was unconditional; and 2) it was primarily for me. Like many, I grew up memorizing Bible verses that made these two things clear: John 3:16; John 15:13; Romans 5:8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 2:8; 1 John 3:16; and 1 John 4:9-10. It’s true: God does love me, and He also loves you. However, I’m afraid our understanding of God’s love usually stops here. Maybe this is why some churches have a problem with church discipline, specifically the act of “excommunicating” a member. If God is loving, would he really excommunicate someone from His Church? If God loves us that much, should we excommunicate someone from ours?
Though God does love me and you, it is not truly unconditional love. This wording literally means that God’s love for us would have to be “not subject to any conditions.” Quite the contrary, it is subject to some condition—Christ’s death and resurrection. Without that, we would still be lost in sin. Because we cannot meet the requirements of righteousness, we would not be able to experience the love that God’s people get to experience. Were it not for Christ, we’d be utterly hopeless. Moreover, while God’s love is for me to some extent, this has to be fleshed out further. Though God surely loves you and me, there is someone He loves even more: Himself. If we can truly understand this, then we can truly understand why local churches must practice church discipline—why local churches must excommunicate unrepentant members.
I would like to show this in one particular way: I truly believe we can see this theme throughout the whole Bible—that God most loves Himself—but I want to show you how zealous God is for His own glory. If God is truly zealous for His own glory, then we must be careful in representing that glory in our local churches. Who is and is not allowed to be a member turns out to be of the utmost importance.
The first time I heard of this, I thought it was a scandal. It was at the annual Passion Conference in 2010 during John Piper’s sermon, “Was Jesus an Egomaniac?” Listen to his words:
In the center of that history, the greatest event that ever happened, the death of the Son of God for sinners like us, is the demonstration of God’s righteousness—the demonstration of His unwavering commitment to uphold and display the infinite worth of His glory as the supreme Treasure of the universe.
Did you catch that? Who was the crucifixion for? Was it namely for us? No. It was namely for God. It was to display the infinite worth of His glory. Why? Because God is the supreme treasure of the universe. Piper notes how many who have come to this realization have left the Christian faith because this makes God seem like an egomaniac. They leave, asking on their way out: why should I worship a God who is most concerned with Himself? But Piper goes on to say that God is not an egomaniac in the way that we would consider that word. Rather, He is “an all-satisfying friend,” because His “self-exaltation is not the act of a needy ego, but an act of infinite giving.” In other words, it’s actually for our own good that God most loves Himself. It is for our own good that God wants all of the glory. If there was some other thing more deserving of love or glory, then whatever that thing is, it would be God. So, God is just in His own self-exaltation. He is just to most love Himself. He is just to desire glory from His people.
Consider how in Scripture we are told, time and time again, to do all things for the glory of God. Here are some of the most well-known verses that mention this:
- Romans 11:36 – “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
- Romans 16:27 – “To the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
- 1 Corinthians 6:20 – “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
- 1 Corinthians 10:31 – “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
- Ephesians 3:21 – “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
- Philippians 2:11 – “And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
- Colossians 3:17 – “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Over and over, God’s Word tells us that we should do all things for God’s glory. But would this really make God a self-exalting, self-loving, and self-glorifying God? After all, it’s Paul who is telling us to give God glory through our lives. Why would he not commend us to do such a thing? We should expect it.
Well, we must remember the Author of Scripture. While Paul most certainly wrote every statement given above, he was an instrument of God. When we read the words of Paul, they are simultaneously both his words and God’s words (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21). So, imagine this with me. Because God is the true author of Scripture, He is the one giving these commands. We can, thus, understand the same verses in a new way. Imagine God saying these things:
- “To me be glory forever.”
- “To the only wise—me—be glory forevermore.”
- “Glorify me in your body.”
- “Do all to the glory of me.”
- “To me be glory in the church.”
- “And every tongue confess... to the glory of me.”
- “Do everything in my name, giving thanks to me.”
God is overly and ultimately concerned for His own glory! Piper reminds us that God created us for His glory (Isaiah 43:6-7). He elects for His glory (Jeremiah 13:11). He saves for His glory (Psalm 106:7-8). He restrains for His glory (Isaiah 48:9-11). He sent His Son for His glory (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10). God’s love is God-centered. His love combines salvation and judgment. When sinners at the end are punished rightly, it will bring Him glory.
In the meantime, when church members are disciplined rightly, it will bring God glory. This is why churches must practice excommunication. This is why churches must carry out church discipline on God’s behalf. God loves Himself so much that He is most concerned with the display of His own glory, and when we choose not to discipline, we are choosing to neglect that glory. When we practice church discipline, we’re showing it’s our desire to try to love God just as much as He loves Himself. Moreover, when we practice church discipline, it is in hopes that this love will be on display. Church discipline is enforced in hopes that our love for the one who most loves Himself will help the unrepentant come back to Him. If He’s glorious enough to judge, then He’s also glorious enough to save, even the excommunicated. May our belief, then, be simply thus: God is too glorious for us to not practice church discipline.