Church discipline. It is the function of the local church to declare to unrepentant church members on behalf of heaven—as an embassy of heaven on earth, so to speak—that such a member is not, in fact, a true citizen of heaven (Matthew 18:15-20). Of course, the local church and her “announcements” are not infallible. It may be that a local church that practices this final step of church discipline gets it wrong. But such a declaration should not be taken lightly: God has given the authority to no other institution on the planet to make such calls. There is a tremendous weight of responsibility on churches, then, to wield the keys of the kingdom of heaven with care and responsibility. We dare not be callused or flippant with them, and we dare not refuse to use them. Too much rides on the Church’s responsibility to bind and loosen on earth that which is bound and loosened in heaven.
This is serious business. So serious, in fact, that churches must spend some time considering the characteristics of healthy church discipline. Much can be said here, but three characteristics come to mind.
First, church discipline is intended to be restorative. We want the member to repent and to come back into the fold. There’s no petty or personal vindictiveness here—a church must not discipline a member because they are fed up with him or her. The disciplined member of the church is not the enemy: their sin is. Church discipline is a procedure of love whereby fellow members of a church come alongside a brother or sister caught in unrepentant sin to say, “We love too much to stand idly by as our sworn enemy destroys you. That sin has to go.”
The church knows that neither she, nor her individual members, can make peace with sin because sin does nothing but destroy, and that the cherished sin of the unrepentant Christian will kill him. If the process of Matthew 18 runs its course with no repentance, the local church, with tears in her corporate eyes, says to the unrepentant believer, “You can’t stay here while you insist on clinging to your sin. We are grieved to say we can no longer agree with you about your profession of faith.”
This is why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5, talks about discipline the way does there. In that situation, a church member was engaged in sexual immorality with his step-mother, and rather than disciplining the member, the church boasted about its tolerance (v.2). And so Paul says in verse 4, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” The idea is that the true believer, once removed from the community of God’s people, will have his lunch eaten by Satan. He will find the demonic bombardment and exclusion from God’s people intolerable. And he will look at the sin that caused him to wind up there, and like the prodigal son who looks at his pigsty and remembers his father’s country, he will say, “I’m giving all that up for this? What am I doing?”
Second, church discipline is not punitive in a judicial sense. It’s not the administration of justice. Why? Because God alone administers the justice due that sin. The sin that brings about church discipline is punished by God and God alone. If the offender turns out not to be a believer, and the discipline doesn’t bring about repentance, and such a person dies in his or her sin, God will punish that sin in hell.
But if the discipline works the intended end of repentance, it demonstrates that such a disciplined member is, in fact, a true believer. This is why the disciplined member need only repent of his or her sin to come back into the fellowship. When the medicine of church discipline works through the sick body of a disciplined member, and her stomach is purged of the vile sin within as she vomits it out in true confession and repentance, the church cannot hold that sin over her head. She cannot wear a scarlet letter, forever marked and identified by that sin. Why? Because that sin was nailed to the cross of Christ when she was united to Christ by faith.
Third, genuine love and affection are prerequisites for healthy church discipline. Church discipline is not score-settling. It’s loving. Notice what Paul says to the Corinthians about restoring a brother who had personally offended him (2 Corinthians 1:5-11). He begs them, “forgive and comfort to him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.” Hear Paul’s compassion for this brother. He’s worried about him—he’s concerned that this treatment is too much for the disciplined brother to handle, and he begs the Corinthians to lavish love and affection upon him. Church discipline was never about score-settling for Paul, it was about love for the disciplined member and love for the church.
And this kind of attitude toward church discipline cannot be manufactured. The only kind of soil in which church discipline can properly grow is communal love. If you say to a stranger, “I love you, and because I love you, I hate your sin, therefore discipline.” It may be impactful to a degree. But not nearly to the degree of saying, “Brother, you know I love you. I’ve walked with you through years of sin and struggle and victory and blessing. We’ve worshipped together. We’ve wept together. We’ve fought and we’ve embraced. You know I love you—please, repent of your sin; spare me from the heartbreak of concluding what I long with all my being not to be true.” And you can only genuinely speak that way with one another if you genuinely live that way with one another.
Lest we assume that proper church discipline (and, Lord willing, reconciliation) is a strictly earthly issue, notice how high Paul identifies the stakes. He tells the Corinthians to welcome the disciplined brother “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11). Paul says, “Welcome the brother back again so as to not be outwitted by Satan.”
In a horrifying turn of events, the unforgiving Corinthians were in danger of unwittingly becoming agents of Satan, doing what Satan does. A church that refuses to let go of the confessed and repented sins of its member is acting as that member’s accuser. But someone already has that job. Satan stands as the accuser of the saints, trying to pin forgiven, atoned for, and punished sins back up onto believers. But Jesus Christ stands at the right hand of God, with scarred hands and feet and side to completely shuts him down. This is what Paul means in Colossians 2:14-15 when he says that when Christ canceled the record of debt that stood against us with his legal demands, he “set aside, nailing it to the cross,” and in doing so, “he disarmed the [demonic] rulers and authorities and put them to open shame.”
I imagine Satan standing before the Father, foaming at the mouth to see my destruction, wanting to leverage God’s own perfect wrath against me. So he stands with my list of sins as a prosecutor and reads them off one by one. And with every sin he reads, Jesus Christ, my advocate, interrupts him and says, “Hey, I paid for that sin.”
S: “Sam lashed out on his children when…”
J: “Yeah, I died for that.”
S: “Sam grew green with envy last week when he saw…”
J: “My blood was shed for that.”
S: “Sam had a lustful thought when…”
J: “Excuse me, I buried the guilt of that thought in the grave.”
He gets to the very end of his list, flushed and frustrated. And the Father looks around and says, “Yeah, it looks like all those sins have been atoned for… anything else?” And Satan stomps out in a pouty tantrum saying, “I wanted to see Sam burn in hell!”
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
So, for the person who has repented after receiving church discipline, the church’s responsibility is to view them through the lens of Jesus Christ and his righteousness. They are not to bring any charge against God’s elect, since it was God who has justified.