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A church that does not or cannot discipline errant members of the congregation is a church with AIDS. It has no means of fighting off infections—whether those infections are moral or doctrinal or both. The infections can be in the heart or the head, but the church has to be able to deal with them.
To change the image, the church is constituted by Word and sacrament. A large number in the reformation tradition have also added discipline to this, but I would prefer to think of the garden itself as growing Word and sacrament only. Discipline is the fence that keeps the deer out. Discipline is not part of the very definition of the church, but without a fence, you won’t have a garden for very long. Fences are essential to gardens, but don’t themselves grow in the garden.
Obviously, a message like this is being preached for a reason—we do have some possible discipline cases in process, and we wanted you to be prepared for this as a congregation. But know that we do not operate on a hair trigger, and we would be delighted to have this be a message that turns out to be more theological than practical.
“I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner —not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person’” (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
Summary of the Text
Christians often get this text exactly backwards. Paul says that of course we are going to have to associate with dissolute pagans—but we try hard to be prissy about that kind of thing. And he says that we must of course not associate with those inside the church who live like this. This is in fact what distinguishes Christian morality from dry rot moralism. The former guards inside, the latter guards against the other. Pay special attention to that phrase near the end—do you not judge those who are inside? But what happens if we are diligent in this? Trying to guard the church against hypocritical profession is a sure fire way to draw the charge of . . . hypocrisy. Think about it for a moment.
The Five Reasons for Discipline
First, we are to discipline in order to glorify God, and this occurs because obedience glorifies God. We know from His Word that God intends discipline for His church (Matt. 18:15-19; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 5:20; 6:3; Tit. 1:13; 2:15; 3:10; Rev. 2:2, 14-15, 20). God tells us what to do, and because we are His people we are called to obey Him. This answers the objection, “Who do you think you are?” We do not discipline in our own name, or on our own authority.
In the second place, we are to discipline in order to maintain the purity of the church. If we measure the “success” of discipline by whether or not the offender is restored, we will be forced to conclude that sometimes it “didn’t work.” But conducted biblically, church discipline always purifies the church (1 Cor. 5:6-8). It also prevents the profanation of the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:27). It always works.
Third, we are to discipline to prevent God from setting Himself against the church. If we have a choice to distance ourselves from sin, and we choose rather to identify ourselves with it, then what will a holy God do with us (Rev. 2:14-25)?
Fourth, we are to discipline in a desire to restore the offender. We are not promised that the offender will be restored, but this end is nonetheless one of our goals. But at the same time I put this reason fourth for a reason. This rationale is clearly set forth in Scripture (Matt. 18:15; 1 Cor. 5:5; Gal. 6:1). This answers those who think “discipline is harsh and unloving.” The goal is not to destroy the offender; the goal is a confrontation in which we formally protest the fact that the offender is destroying himself.
And last, we are to discipline in order to deter others from sin. The Bible teaches that consequences for sin deter (Ecc. 8:11; 1 Tim. 5:20). The objection here is that “people sure wouldn’t want to mention any of their spiritual problems around those elders!” But the issue in discipline is always impenitence. But if he struggles against sin, as all of us do, then he will find nothing in church discipline except an aid and comfort in that struggle.
Many misunderstand what is actually being done in discipline, or what discipline requires. Discipline is not necessarily shunning or avoiding. It is rather avoiding company on the other’s terms. The heart of church discipline is a refusal of the Supper, which is why church discipline is called excommunication. The person is exiled from (ex) the Table of the Lord (communion). So the individual under discipline is denied access to the Lord’s Supper, as well as that general communion which that Supper seals. The offender must not be denied kindness, courtesy, opportunity to hear the Word preached, the practical duties owed to him by others, or anything else due him according to the law of love. Fundamentally, he is being denied only one thing: the right to define the authority of the Christian faith for himself.
Discipline is inescapable. Either we will discipline those who love what is sinful, or we will discipline those who love what is righteous. But as long as the antithesis between the two exists (which is to say throughout history) we must choose one way or the other. A refusal to discipline those who are threatening the integrity of the church is actually a form of discipline directed against those who love the peace and purity of the church, and who labor and pray for it.
One last thing—the encouragement that is found in this. The doctrine of adoption should be precious to us. And the Bible teaches that absence of discipline is a serious indication that God has not adopted us—which is far more terrifying than the prospect of discipline. This truth applies equally to congregations as to individuals.
“Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:4–13).
What then should our response to discipline be? God is our Father, Christ our brother. Therefore, lift up your hands that were hanging down. Strengthen your feeble knees. Walk on the straight path, with Christ just ahead of you.