Mark Seven: Biblical Church Discipline
Mark Seven: Biblical Church Discipline
by William Klock
The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism famously asks, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer, drawing on scriptures like Psalm 73, Romans 11:36, and 1 Corinthians 10:31, is that, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” God created human beings to give him glory. He created us to bear his images—to be the priests and stewards of his temple and to exercise his dominion over creation. We rejected the vocation he gave us, and ever since then, God’s great project of redemption and renewal—of new creation—has been working towards our restoration to that vocation. One day, when the project is completed, redeemed humanity will once again live to the glory of God. In the meantime he has called forth, created, redeemed, and renewed a people for himself—a people who, however imperfectly, exist to give him glory. Not only that, but this people—you and I—exist to make the living God known to the nations: his faithfulness, his love, his mercy, his mighty and saving deeds, so that one day the nations will bring him the glory he is due. One day the knowledge of his glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Jesus said to Israel, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). That was Israel’s mission, just as it is the mission of the new Israel. It has always been the mission of the people of God and will always be. A couple Sunday’s ago, we read that passage from Micah 4 that looked forward to the day when the nations would come streaming to the Lord saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Micha 4:2). And this past summer we looked at John’s vision in Revelation, the fulfilment of that prophecy, where the nations that once thumbed their noses at God, are seen streaming into the New Jerusalem to give God glory.
Although we see the theme all through the New Testament, Revelation very dramatically reminds us that in the Church, God has created a people who—just like Jesus—have given up everything in order to know him, to live in his presence, and glorify him, and by their witness—even sometimes a witness that leads to death—to draw the nations to him.
Brothers and Sisters, this means that as the people of God, as the Church, we are accountable not only to God, but to each other for our witness. The Protestant Reformers understood how important this is. Over these last weeks I’ve quoted several times from the confessions and formularies of a variety of Protestant traditions: Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, and our own Articles of Religion. All of them affirm in some way that a true church is found where God’s word is faithfully preached and where the sacraments ordained by Jesus, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are administered. But in conjunction with the administration of the sacraments, those confessions also stress the essential nature of church discipline. The Belgic Confession, after listing the preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as marks of a true church, adds: “if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.” The Scots Confession puts it this way, “Lastly, Ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed, and virtue nourished.” Article XIX of our Articles of Religion, again, puts it all this way: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” “All those things that of necessity are requisite to the same” covers a range of “things” from the ordering of ministers and liturgies to, notably, church discipline. In our case, the specifics are found in the rubrics at the end of the liturgy for the Lord’s Supper—those instructions the minister is bound to follow. Here’s what we read there (this can be found on page 116 of the Book of Common Prayer if you want to follow along):
If among those who come to be partakers of the Holy Communion, the Minister shall know any to be an open and notorious evil liver, or to have done any wrong to his neighbours by word or deed, so that the congregation be thereby offended; he shall warn him, that he presume not to come to the Lord’s Table, until he have openly declared himself to have truly repented and amended his former evil life, that the congregation may thereby be satisfied; and that he has recompensed the parties to whom he has done wrong; or at least declare himself to be in full purpose so to do, as soon as he conveniently may.
The same order shall the Minister use with those, between whom he perceives malice and hatred to reign; not permitting them to be partakers of the Lord’s Table, until he know them to be reconciled. And if one of the parties, so at variance, be content to forgive from the bottom of his heart all that the other has trespassed against him, and to make amends for that wherein he himself has offended; and the other party will not be persuaded to a godly unity, but remain still in his frowardness and malice; the Minister in that case ought to admit the penitent person to the Holy Communion, and not him that is obstinate. Provided, That every Minister so repelling any, as is herein specified, shall be obliged to give an account of the same to the Ordinary, within fourteen days after, at the farthest.
Years ago another evangelical pastor started asking me questions about the Prayer Book, so I loaned him a copy. A couple of weeks later he came back with his finger on these rubrics and said—with a lot of consternation—“You don’t actually do this, do you?” I said that we do and that up to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, so did virtually everyone else in Christendom. It’s there in our liturgies, our confessions, our formularies and books of order regardless of what tradition you’re a part of. What happened? Because today church discipline is virtually unheard of—and it’s not because Christians today are somehow more holy and less in need of it than previous generations. Gregory Wills, in his book, Democratic Religion, writes, “After the Civil War…observers began to lament that church discipline was foundering, and it was. It declined partly because it became more burdensome in larger churches….Urban churches, pressed by the need for large buildings and the desire for refined music and preaching, subordinated church discipline to the task of keeping the church solvent. Many…shared a new vision of the church, replacing the pursuit of purity with the quest for efficiency.” And as the church in the West has bought into our culture’s therapeutic values, there’s little chance of any major change in course in the foreseeable future. Today’s conventional wisdom says that you grow churches by toning down talk of commitment. Forget opening the doors wider—just take away the walls. Let anyone and everyone come to the Table, whether they’re baptised or not. That used to be the position of theological liberals, but it’s now commonplace in many evangelical churches. Accountability? Maybe you’ll have small groups where people are voluntarily accountable to each other—maybe—but to the church? It’s almost unheard of. Everything is meant to make us feel good, whether it’s the preaching or the music. Historic Christian worship was always built around giving glory to God. It’s often now built around the worshipers themselves and giving them a feel-good experience. Even the gospel we often preach has become focused on the therapeutic. Paul writes that when the Spirit gets hold of us, he transforms our hearts and we confess the lordship of Jesus—we repent, we turn from sin and idols, we embrace rejection, suffering, even martyrdom for the sake of Jesus, all to give glory to God. But today’s gospel often has little if anything to do with that. It’s about God making us feel good, giving us what we want—all too often it’s a message promising material prosperity rather than what Jesus promised: that we will take up our crosses and follow him in the way of sacrifice. Today’s gospel is far too often all about “me”. God is here for us, not we for God. And so we balk at the very idea of such accountability. But there it is. And the Reformers didn’t make it up. Writing about eighty years ago, in his wonderful little book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed it up so well: “Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.” Discipline was once the norm. And all of this is deeply biblical. So let’s look at the Bible and as we do that, keep the big biblical story in the back of your head and be thinking about the fact that our vocation is to give God glory and witness him in a such way that his kingdom is made known and the nations come to bring him glory too.
So, first, let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 5. Here’s what Paul writes:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
It's hard to be any clearer than that. Notice that Paul doesn’t go on the hunt for sin. This sexual immorality was right there in the open. And the church tolerated it to their shame. It doesn’t sound as if they were turning a blind eye. That Paul rebukes them for their arrogance says that they were proud of themselves for their tolerance. But as he points out to them, this sin was scandalous even to the pagans. What kind of witness did they have? Maybe they thought they were witnessing the love of Jesus by being so tolerant, but that’s not the way it works. “Let him be removed from among you,” Paul insists. He goes on:
For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 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.
Notice—this is vitally important—church discipline isn’t done to be vindictive. It’s done to purify the witness of the church, but it’s also done in the hope that it will bring the unrepentant sinner to repentance that he will be spared from God’s judgement.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
At the Passover the Israelites purged their homes of leaven and ate unleavened bread, remembering the new life the Lord had given them when he delivered them from Pharaoh’s bondage. Just so, as we come to the Lord’s Table, we are reminded of the new life we have in Jesus and the Spirit. This Supper is for those who have believe, who have repented, who have been baptised—who have given their full allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom. Those who have not have no place here until they do.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
Paul quotes Deuteronomy, recalling Israel’s duty to holiness: “Purge the evil person from among you”. Again, Paul doesn’t tell us to go turning over rocks looking for sin. The sins he lists here as examples are sins that are flagrant and public—obvious to most if not to all, a scandal to the church, and that compromise the witness of the church to the world—even though in some cases, the world might think we should tolerate such sins.
But this is remedial discipline. This is what happens when the church has failed in discipleship and in the early stages of discipline that we often don’t even think of as discipline. So I want to back up and look at where discipline starts. Let’s look at Hebrew 12:1-14, where we see that discipline is inherently positive and part of God’s design. It’s on the long side and our time is limited, so I won’t offer any commentary. Just hear God’s word.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
Brothers and Sisters, the Lord disciplines his children because he loves them—he loves us—and he calls his church to discipline because of that same love. He desires what’s best for us and what’s best is holiness. And now one more passage. Like I said, scripture doesn’t tell us to go turning over rocks looking for the sins of our brothers and sisters. It tells us what to do when sin confronts us—either something open and scandalous as in Corinth, or when we find ourselves sinned against by a brother or sister. Look at Matthew 18:15-17. Here’s how Jesus tells us to deal with the sins of others.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
If your brother (or your sister) sins against you, go and talk to him (or her). But before things even go that far, consider the love we ought to have for one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus. Peter writes:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)
Have you ever thought about that? If we really are loving each other as we should, I think this part probably tends to happen without us even thinking much about it. We just forgive and move on. Love covers a multitude of sins and our desire ought to be for fellowship and community with each other. People leave the church. It happens over and over and it so often happens over things that are so small in the grand scheme of things. Something is horribly wrong with our perspective. I was sitting at lunch on Tuesday with some other pastors and one was on the verge of tears talking about differences over pandemic politics decimating his church, people leaving because their views were different from those of others. Another pastor talked about his continuing struggle to hold his church together. He figured it was split 50/50 on these issues and they’ve only managed not to split over it because the pastors have made a point of avoiding those issues. And I have to wonder, would these same people leaving the church over differences of opinion on government policy relating to a temporary problem, would they abandon their biological brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers the same way? I doubt it. Because family is important. And yet consider Jesus’ words:
But he replied to the man…“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
Brothers and Sisters, in Jesus we have a bond with each other stronger than blood—because of his blood. And that ought to translate into a deep and profound love for each other that only overcomes out various differences—that love also ought to cover a multitude of sins. To quote from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together again, “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”
But back to Matthew 18, sometimes a sin or an offense has to be dealt with. Jesus says to go to your brother to talk to him about it. Communicate. Sometimes that’s all it takes. The single biggest cause of marital breakdown is a lack of communication. You’ve probably seen that meme with the couple sitting on the couch or lying in bed, their backs to each other. Both look very concerned…even upset. And the wife is thinking, “I bet he’s thinking about another woman.” And the husband is thinking, “I’ve tried everything. Why won’t my motorcycle start.” She’s getting worked up and angry, assuming that because he’s not talking, he’s thinking about another woman. No. He’s just trying to think through a problem. But these things blow up and marriages fall apart. Because people don’t talk. So go to your brother, go to your sister and talk. It often turns out that sin or offense was unintentional. It’s often the case that you’ve been like the wife in the meme, thinking it’s one thing, when in reality it was something else entirely. We’re Christians after all, people of the Spirit, manifesting his fruit. We don’t often go out of our way to deliberately offend each other. Go in Christ-like love, assuming the best of each other, and with a desire for reconciliation.
But maybe the sin was real. Still, go and talk about it. Hebrews calls us to exhort one another to love and good works. Confronted by his sin, your brother—more often than not, if he really is full of the Spirit—will realise what he’s done, he’ll be sorry, and he’ll make things right. And, Jesus says, “you have gained your bother.” Remember, our desire is to glorify God and we do that by maintaining the unity and the witness of the Church. We not only manifest the life of the Spirit when we reconcile with one another in love, but we witness the love of God for sinners—modelling to others and to the world what God, in Jesus, has done for us.
But, Jesus says, maybe your brother won’t listen. Step two is to go back to him with one or two witnesses. This means that you’ve brought the grievance to at least another brother or sister. Maybe you’re out of line with your accusation. Involving another person or two may, in itself, clear up the problem. But if they agree that you’ve been wrong and that the other person has sinned, then you all go to him. If this doesn’t resolve the situation, Jesus says, you take the matter to the assembly—in this case that means the local church. At this point the presbyters or the bishop must confront this man with his sin. And if he still refuses to listen, Jesus says he is to be treated as a gentile or a tax collector. That means he’s to be treated as someone outside the community—in Israel as someone unclean and in the Church as someone who has forsaken his baptism and is now barred from the Lord’s Table.
But, again, the point is not vindictiveness. The goal is restoration, as Paul stresses in 1 Corinthians 5. This man may well be a believer, but in refusing to repent of his sin, his life does not match his profession and so, in an effort to restore him, he is barred from the sacramental life of the Church—from the markers of membership. Especially thinking from the perspective of the new covenant, what is the church’s goal when it comes to gentiles and tax collectors? It’s not to kick them to the curb and to walk away. These are people who need to hear the gospel—the good news about Jesus. Excommunication isn’t the same as shunning. Excommunication shows us those who need to be evangelized anew and brought back to Jesus.
So to summarise: The Church is called to discipline her members for their own sake and for the sake of the larger church. It is a call to the sinner to holiness. It is a reminder to the rest of us of the need for holiness. And it is essential to the integrity of the wider church’s witness. Brothers and Sisters, if we desire to glorify God and if we desire to see the nations glorify God because of our witness, we have to deal with sin within the Church and deal with it in the way scripture tells us. Again, it’s not optional, which is why all of our confessions and formularies, canons and liturgies stress church discipline as essential to the nature of the Church. Stop practicing it, and we cease to be the church in the same way that we cease to be the church if we stop preaching God’s word or if we stop administering his sacraments.
And, I think, our abandonment of discipline lies behind the rapid decline of the Western church over the last century. Consider Jesus’ warnings to the churches in Revelation. The Laodiceans were neither hot nor cold. The Ephesians had lost their love. The Thyatirans tolerated “that woman Jezebel” who enticed the people to idolatry and sexual immorality. And Jesus warned them, “Repent…If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:5). In the West we have lost our first love. We are all too often lukewarm. We have corrupted the gospel and centred it on ourselves instead of on God. We have turned worship into little more than a therapeutic exercise. And we tolerate nearly anything and everything in our churches. Preachers mock the very concept of repentance and are shocked by the idea of discipline. Our salt has lost its savour. Our light has grown dim. Our lives misrepresent the Lord and the kingdom we proclaim with our mouths. Will it be any wonder if that Lord removes our lampstand? Brothers and Sisters, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, you have created us, you have redeemed us, you have brought us together as your Church for the sake of your glory. You have washed us clean and filled us with your own Spirit that we might glorify you by our life together. Forgive us for our failures to be the salt and light you have created us to be. Forgive us for our failures to be the holy community you have made us. Fill us anew with a passion for your glory that we might desire, in all we do and say, to honour you and to make your glory known to the world. Through Jesus we pray. Amen.
 Article XXIX
 Article XVIII
 Quoted in Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2004), 180.
 Trans. Daniel W. Bloesch (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 83.
 Ibid, 64.