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A Biblical Theology of Church Discipline


God led his people to the Promised Land, drove out their enemies, and established them there. In the covenant God made with Israel through Moses at Sinai, he made them not only a people but a nation (Exod 19:5–6). He gave them a law that was meant not only to secure their obedience but to govern their society. Under the Mosaic covenant, God held Israel accountable to this law, and he authorized the human government of Israel to inflict fitting sanctions for covenant defection. False prophets were to be put to death (Deut 13:1–5), as were idolaters (Deut 13:6–18; 17:2–7). God’s goal in authorizing the people to execute idolaters was to “purge the evil [or “evil person”] from your midst.” God ordered Israel to surgically remove the cancer of idolatry so that it would not metastasize and prove fatal.

In the Mosaic covenant God also employed other means of discipline. If the people failed to obey, he threatened disease and defeat (Lev 26:14–17). If they failed to repent, God promised the further “discipline” of blighting their land and breaking their strength (Lev 26:18–20). And other, more horrific consequences lay in wait if the people persisted in rebellion (Lev 26:21–39; see “discipline” in vv. 23, 28).

All this discipline was designed to avert the disaster of exile. God disciplined his people in order to offer them a lifeline out of a still greater judgment.

To sum up where Israel stood under the Mosaic covenant: God gathered his people together. He brought them to a place he had prepared for them and planted them there (Exod 15:17). He dwelled among them in his tabernacle, and later in his temple (Exod 29:45–46; 40:34–38; 1 Kgs 8:10–12). He walked among them (Lev 26:12).

Sound familiar? It should. Israel was a new Adam, in a new Eden, with a new shot at obedience and lasting, intimate fellowship with God.


But Israel missed their shot. Over the course of hundreds of years, over the warnings of dozens of prophets, the people persistently rejected God and refused his will. So God eventually enforced the sanctions of the covenant, first on Israel in the north, then Judah in the south (see Lev 26; Deut 28; 2 Kgs 17:1–23; 25:1–21).

Because Israel refused to trust and worship and obey God, God imposed on them a kind of capital sentence (Lev 28:38; Deut 4:27). He banished them. He drove them away east, out of his land and away from his presence.

The prophet Jeremiah describes the punishment of exile as discipline. This punishment is retributive, yes, but it also aims at recovery:

Then fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the Lord, nor be dismayed, O Israel; for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. For I am with you to save you, declares the Lord; I will make a full end of all the nations among whom I scattered you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished. (Jer 30:10–11; cf. 46:28)

Israel and Judah’s exile is punishment, just and measured (cf. Hos 7:12; 10:10). Yet its aim is not destruction, but restoration. God will devastate the nations that hosted his scattered people, but his own people still have this hope: “I am with you to save you.” Like God cast down Pharaoh yet both redeemed and chastised his people, here God promises destruction for the nations yet deliverance through discipline for his people.

Ephraim cries out in exile, “You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God” (Jer 31:18). And God will answer that prayer.

God promises full and final destruction to the nations that disregard him. Yet God disciplines his people with the devastation of exile in order to restore them again to fellowship with him, to repentance, to holiness. But how?


The Mosaic covenant demanded obedience but did not provide the power to obey. The new covenant would:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31–34; cf. 32:37–41; Isa 54:13; Ezek 11:16–20; 36:22–36; 37:15–28; 39:25–29)

What the law couldn’t do, the new covenant will: ensure the wholehearted obedience of God’s whole people.

How is this new covenant enacted? Through the atoning death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the life-giving gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The new covenant gives new power. God’s people are now a new people, reborn and indwelt by the empowering Holy Spirit. God’s people now genuinely and characteristically, albeit imperfectly, reflect God’s glory to the nations.

This new covenant with new power also comes with new discipline. God still disciplines his people through persecution and hard providences, weaning us from the world and tightening our grip on his promises (Heb 12:5–11). God still chastises his people for sin, even to the point of inflicting death (Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor 11:27–31). The purpose, as before, is that by heeding God’s discipline now we will ultimately escape judgment then: “But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor 11:32).

But he also provides new means for preserving his people’s purity. In addition to the internal supply of the Spirit, God provides the external support of the church’s accountability. Now, those who claim to be God’s people but whose lives contradict that claim are warned, entreated, pleaded with, and, if necessary, excluded from membership in the church (Matt 18:15–17; 1 Cor 5:1–13; 2 Cor 2:5–8; Tit 3:10–11).