Loving Discipline

By Pastor Robb Long

An Amazing Fact: If a lamb is in the habit of wandering far away from the fold, where it could nibble on poisonous weeds or encounter wild dogs, a shepherd might be forced to take drastic measures to save his wayward sheep. In many countries the wise shepherd would, with his own hands, break one of the bones in the lamb's hind leg and then tenderly bind and splint that same leg. As the rebellious lamb heals, he becomes very dependent on and attached to the shepherd. In this way, the lamb is cured of his dangerous wanderlust.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, also keeps a watchful eye over His flock. In order to save a wayward church member from destruction, He asks His church to play a role in getting that person's attention and wooing him back into the fold.

Did you ever receive discipline from your parents when you were growing up? Were you ever disciplined at school, on the job, or as part of a sports team?

Most people can easily answer yes to at least one of these questions. But how many church members have ever received discipline from the church?

Why No Discipline?
Strangely enough, church seems to be the place where one is least likely to have experienced any form of corrective discipline. Is it because the church is a family of "model children" who always do the right things for the right reasons, and therefore no correction is ever needed? We certainly wish this were true, but I think we all know from experience that it isn't.

There are many reasons why church members often appear to have no accountability for their behavior. First of all, there are leaders who feel that the church should be "a haven of grace and unconditional acceptance, regardless of behavior."

It's true that everybody should feel welcome to come and worship. However, when people are baptized as members, they become official ambassadors for Jesus Christ and also receive the privilege of holding church office, both of which require a higher degree of accountability.

Baptized church members should present a powerful witness for Christ. When we ignore an open contradiction of biblical truth in a member's life, we can destroy that witness. God's unconditional love has never meant an unconditional disregard for sin. Jesus not only befriended sinners, but He also encouraged them to "Go, and sin no more" (John 8:11).

Second, the grim reality is that many churches think they are in the business of getting and retaining members at any cost. In this desperate atmosphere, where congregations are struggling to recruit every possible member to help balance the church budget and give the appearance of success, churches avoid corporate correction in fear that it might drive members away. In God's eyes, however, quality is more important than quantity.

Church members who never give offerings, seldom attend services, and fail to practice Christianity are not helped by remaining on the books; they are hindered! Instead of ignoring wayward members and letting them slip away from the truth, we need to lovingly point them back to Christ.

How Is It Supposed to Work?
According to the Bible, God has ordained for spiritual discipline to be administered by His church (2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Corinthians 5:12-13). He knows that church discipline, lovingly applied, will help bring the body of Christ to maturity.

However, if the church neglects this important work, the long-term result is a congregation full of spiritually undisciplined, juvenile delinquent members. In the days of Samuel, for example, the high priest Eli refused to discipline his evil children, and as a result the whole nation was spiritually crippled (1 Samuel 3:13).

As we talk about church discipline, I want to emphasize that Amazing Facts is not advocating a public flogging or execution, but merely an adoption of the principles contained in the Bible. Obtaining a clear picture of church discipline from God's Word will help us to better understand His purpose for this crucial and beneficial element of church life.

Most ecclesiastical correction is simply verbal, beginning with a gentle private reproof or a loving rebuke from two or three church elders (2 Timothy 4:2; Matthew 18:15-16). The most severe examples, in cases of stubborn disobedience, involve censure and ultimately having one's name removed from the church membership records (Matthew 18:17-18; 1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

You Be the Judge
Now someone might say: "I don't want to judge. I don't think it is my business." Well, Jesus did say, "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1), but He also said, "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24, NKJV). What exactly did Jesus mean when He said, "Judge not"? Are we to let sin go unchecked in the church in an effort to avoid judging our fellow church members? Let's clarify this issue.

In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says, "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts." Notice here that the things we are told not to judge are the "hidden things." We cannot judge what we cannot see. But elsewhere Paul clearly teaches that we must judge the sinful things that are open to our view-what we can see and hear. Concerning an individual in Corinth who was engaged in open sin, Paul wrote, "Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

An elder in the church is responsible before God to judge the committal of open sin in the church. Problems like adultery, gossip, Sabbath-breaking, pornography, and open fighting among members must be addressed. Now, obviously, sins of the heart are just as bad in the eyes of God and should not be excused. What makes open sin so bad is that, since it can be observed by others, it can have the effect of encouraging other members to do the same. As Paul said, "a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6).

In regard to personal wrongs, Matthew 18:15-17 says: "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican."

In this passage we find a threefold appeal designed to bring about repentance in a member who has fallen into sin. The process ends in the ultimate act of church discipline. Reluctantly, the church must disfellowship an unrepentant person from the body. But in so doing, the church is certifying a heaven-ordained truth-that unrepentant sinners shall not inherit the kingdom of God. The church on earth and the church in heaven agree as one. Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18).

Family as a Model
We often speak of the church as "the family of God," and truly the family is a microcosm of the church. Accordingly, the church family needs spiritual fathers to provide godly leadership and occasional discipline for its members. Elders, as the most spiritually mature members of the family, are blessed with the responsibility of helping the spiritual children mature to the full stature of men and women in Christ.

In 1 Timothy 3:4-5, the apostle Paul tells us that one of the indicators of how well an elder will lead in the church body is the state of his own family. According to Paul, the parallel of headship in the home and headship in the church is so close that success or failure in home leadership will almost certainly result in a corresponding success or failure in the church. In describing the elder's primary responsibility, both at home and at church, Paul uses the word "rule." The elder is to rule well in the home and in the church.

I think the goal of nearly every father is to see his children grow up to be independent, responsible, and contributing members of the community. In order to realize this goal, loving discipline is a vital necessity. Spoiled children raised without proper discipline are often selfish, unprincipled, profligate, and irresponsible as adults. Worst of all, they are usually unhappy, dissatisfied, and unsuccessful in life-especially where relationships are concerned. And again, what is true in the family is true in the church. Uncorrected church members are likely to be selfish, irresponsible, and spiritually unprincipled, with the corresponding negative attitudes that mar their Christian lives.

As a parent, I understand that there are right and wrong ways to discipline my kids. If I yell, scream, and hit them in anger, the punishment is mainly for my sake, and that is wrong. However, if I calmly, caringly, and almost reluctantly administer consequences for wrong behavior, my discipline is mainly for their sakes, and that is redemptive and right.

It is the same in church. If I confront members in anger and frustration, with an accusatory tone and a provoked spirit, my motive is wrong and the results will not be good. In fact, my sin may be worse than the one I am correcting! However, if I go to an erring brother in love, and with a concern for his eternal welfare, my mission is redemptive. If I carefully explain the reasons for the church's disciplinary measures against him while appealing for submission to the discipline of the body and a change in his behavior, then God can bless the results. I must go with the burden that the erring one will be lost if he does not break off his sin. Only then can I successfully deliver God's loving message of warning before my brother becomes emboldened in sin and fastened in its cords.

The Desired Effect
I have concluded that when it comes to discipline, one of my chief duties as a parent is to teach my children to reason from cause to effect. I must lead them to the inward conviction that there are always definite consequences as a result of what they do and say.

In the absence of discipline, children get confused about what is acceptable and what is not. They are left to draw their own conclusions, which are generally wrong. And in the face of idle threats that are never realized, their hearts do not respond to clear warnings of coming judgment contained in God's Word. They may conclude that God will treat them as they have been treated by others in authority-with idle threats of punishment that never really comes. By failing to administer proper discipline, I may inadvertently be setting my children up to be lost!

Once again, what is true in the home is true in the church. In the spiritual realm, the consequences of sin are not always immediately apparent. As a result, we can easily become lax and deceived into thinking that there will never be any consequences.

Ecclesiastes 8:11 says, "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil." Think about this powerful principle. When there are no apparent consequences for wrong behavior, we are much more inclined to repeat that behavior. If we are not careful, we can become emboldened in rebellion against God and His law.

For example, a person who takes up smoking has heard the warnings against tobacco and is aware of its effects on the body. But when his health does not seem to suffer any immediate negative repercussions, he concludes that he is an exception to the rule and that he can smoke without ever experiencing the detrimental side effects. In time he will pay a definite price, often when it is too late to reverse the damage. That's why the Bible says, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7).

At certain times in the past, God Himself intervened with drastic judgment against emboldened sinners, like Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, who substituted their own fire for the Lord's (Leviticus 10:1-3); Ananias and Sapphira, who conspired to lie about their gift to the church (Acts 5:1-11); and Uzzah, who irreverently touched the sacred ark (2 Samuel 6:6-7). Through these judgments, the Lord has made known to His people in all ages that He cannot tolerate high-handed rebellion in His children. Such instances of direct divine intervention are rare because, for the most part, God has given the responsibility of intervention to the church, which is to act as His body. Even in the Old Testament, God normally instructed His people and leaders to carry out His judgments. This was true of the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), of the Israelites who committed harlotry with the Midianite women and their god (Numbers 25:1-5), and of Achan and his household (Joshua 7:10-26).

A Case in Point
The results of little or no church discipline are depicted in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. In the church at Corinth, there were no consequences for even the grossest, most obvious outward sins. Even worse, the Corinthian members were taking pride in the fact that they had no church discipline. Perhaps they believed that they were exhibiting great love by their "hands off" approach to managing the behavior of their members. However, Paul knew that this wasn't love at all. In fact, their approach was causing people to be eternally lost. That conviction is what prompted Paul's urgent warning that those engaging in these open sins would not "inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Another undesirable effect of a lack of discipline in the church is that Christians often resort to the civil courts. I believe that is why, on the heels of his discussion of open sin and no discipline in the church, Paul speaks of Christians going to court with other Christians in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8. When the church refuses to curb the sinful behavior of its members, and people cannot find justice in the church, they do one of two things. Either they simply endure an injustice at the hands of a fellow church member, or worse yet, they resort to the civil courts for redress.

The Reputation at Stake
Perhaps most importantly, church discipline concerns the character and reputation of God Himself. If the church does not carry out its disciplinary role, people are lost and the name of God is dishonored. If the church tolerates open and undisciplined sin in its membership, a shadow is cast upon God, portraying Him as a weak, indulgent Father, and His name is "blasphemed among the Gentiles," as Paul reminds us in Romans 2:24.

What an awesome responsibility we have, in light of the fact that the world judges God by His church! It is truly amazing to consider how patient the Lord is as He allows us to misrepresent Him to the world while He appeals to us to perform the work He has entrusted to us for the glory of His name.

As we seek to apply the biblical principles of church discipline, let us not forget that God is not only just, but also merciful. Even when someone must be separated from the church, Jesus said to treat the erring one as a pagan or a tax collector (Matthew 18:17). Following Jesus' counsel means that this person should be treated as one to be won to Jesus through prayer and loving ministry. Truly, God is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).


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