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A Biblical Theology of Church Discipline

A Biblical Theology of Church Discipline

To some Christians, church discipline seems to contradict the whole shape of the Bible’s story. Isn’t the gospel all about Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners? Aren’t we turning back the clock and putting believers back under the law if we start excluding people from the church for certain sins?

In this piece I want to uproot that intuition as gently and fully as I can, by showing how God’s discipline of his people is an integral part of the Bible’s entire storyline, from Eden to the new creation. We will consider this story in six steps, and close with three conclusions.


In the beginning, God’s people were right where God wanted them, and were just what God wanted them to be. God created Adam and Eve. He brought her to him and united them. He put them in the garden he had made for them. He walked with them and talked with them face to face (Gen 1:26–28; 2:4–25).

But it didn’t last. Adam and Eve sinned, and God imposed on them a capital sentence and banished them. He drove them away east, out of his garden and away from his presence (Gen 3:1–24).

East of Eden, all of humanity sank so deep into sin that God destroyed the entire race by flood, save only one family (Gen 6–8). After the flood and humanity’s new beginning, humanity’s collective pride vaulted so high that God scrambled their tongues and scattered them over the earth (Gen 10–11).


To begin to set things right, God called Abram. God covenanted to him a nation and a name, promising to bless all nations through him (Gen 12:1–3). And God kept his promises, though not always in the most obvious ways. He did grant Abram offspring and multiply those offspring, warranting Abram’s new name, Abraham (Gen 17:5). But then he sent those offspring famine, and then to Egypt, and finally let them slip into slavery. At this point, they’d been so fruitful and multiplied so greatly that they filled the land (Exod 1:7).

When God freed Abraham’s offspring from slavery, he judged their captors with unremitting strictness. He plagued their land, executed their firstborn and drowned their army (Exod 3–14). But then God’s people themselves needed discipline. Despite the staggering works God performed before their eyes, they disbelieved and complained. They refused to trust that the God who broke their chains could fill their stomachs (Exod 16–17; Num 11). They refused to trust that the God who bested Pharaoh could handle the enemies before them (Num 14).

So God taught them and rebuked them. He provided for them and punished them. He gave them bread that would spoil if hoarded, so they would learn to trust him for daily bread (Exod 16:13–30). He condemned that generation to die in the wilderness, allowing only their children to enter the Promised Land—the very children the Israelites thought God couldn’t protect from their enemies (Num 14:13–38).

On the cusp of the Promised Land, Moses summed up the lessons they were meant to draw from this divine discipline in the Exodus and the desert:

You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always. And consider today (since I am not speaking to your children who have not known or seen it), consider the discipline of the Lord your God, his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, his signs and his deeds that he did in Egypt to Pharaoh the king of Egypt and to all his land, and what he did to the army of Egypt, to their horses and to their chariots, how he made the water of the Red Sea flow over them as they pursued after you, and how the Lord has destroyed them to this day, and what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, son of Reuben, how the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households, their tents, and every living thing that followed them, in the midst of all Israel. For your eyes have seen all the great work of the Lord that he did. (Deut 11:1–7)

God disciplined both Egypt and Israel, but note the difference: God’s discipline for Egypt resulted in their destruction; his discipline for Israel resulted in their instruction. God punished individuals in Israel to purge evil from Israel. God also punished the whole people, but through that discipline he taught them to trust and obey. God spoke to them his ten commandments to “discipline” them, to conform their lives to his will (Deut 4:36). He tested them in the wilderness, providing for them as only he could, so they would trust only in him (Deut 8:1–4). The lesson? “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (Deut 8:5).

God disciplines his people so that they learn not to rely on themselves and run after other gods, but to seek all and find all in him.