A Biblical Theology of Church Discipline

Under the new covenant, idolaters aren’t executed but excluded. The church wields the power of the keys, not the sword. And, as with God’s discipline of Israel in the desert, in their land, and in the exile, the goal is not destruction but repentance and restoration. Paul does call exclusion from the church a “punishment” (2 Cor 2:6). But this punishment aims at transformation: renewed repentance and therefore renewed fellowship with God and God’s people.

We should not miss the connection between the newness of the covenant and this new form of discipline. The New Testament teaching on church discipline presupposes that the members of the church profess faith in Christ, and that their lives typically bear out that claim. When someone’s life fundamentally undermines their profession, the New Testament answer isn’t, “Well, the church is a mixed body. Believers and unbelievers will be in the church together, like the wheat and the tares, until the final judgment.”

The field in which believers and unbelievers remain together until judgment is not the church but the world (Matt 13:38). Church discipline doesn’t simply protect the purity of the church; it presupposes the purity of the church. That is, the New Testament’s teaching on discipline presupposes that the church is to be composed of those who credibly profess faith in Christ: those who say they trust in Jesus and whose lives, to the best of our ability to discern, confirm rather than contradict that claim.

6. CONSUMMATION: NO MORE DISCIPLINE, BUT A FINAL DIVIDE

Until Christ returns, we live in the in-between. God’s people are empowered by his new covenant to trust his promises and obey his commands—but not yet perfectly. God’s churches should be composed of people who credibly confess Christ—and yet some professors prove false (1 John 2:19).

But on that final day, God’s people will need no more discipline. We will see Christ face to face, and we will be like him (1 John 3:1–2). God’s discipline of his people now—whether the formative discipline of teaching and training, the corrective discipline of rebuke or exclusion, or the providential discipline of persecution and hardship—all aims at our conformity to Christ, which will one day be perfected. God’s discipline of his people throughout history has always aimed at their restoration and transformation, and one day that transformation will be complete.

But on that day God will also enact a final division. He will effect an irreversible exclusion. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, just as Israel was exiled from their land, so all who do not trust in and follow Christ, all who persist in sin, will be excluded from God’s new creation, forever:

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Rev 22:14–15)

LESSONS LEARNED

What does this story of God’s disciplinary dealings with his people teach us? Of many lessons that could be drawn I select three.

First, on this side of final judgment, every act of divine discipline is intended to reform and renew his people. This side of final judgment, no judgment is final.

Throughout God’s long and twisting history with his often-wayward people, he has often deployed discipline in an effort to stun us out of sinful stupor. The goal every time was repentance and spiritual renovation. Similarly, when we exclude someone from church membership we are not pronouncing their final fate, but warning them of what it could be. To exclude someone from membership is not to pronounce their final condemnation but to seek to avert it. When we exclude someone, we must continue to work and pray and hope for their repentance, renewal, and restoration.

Second, even in disciplining his people, God distinguishes between them and the world. In Jeremiah God promises the nations a full end; he promises his people a new beginning. That’s a temporal forecast of eternal destinies. All who oppose God will meet the “full end” of eternal punishment; all who trust in Christ will experience the eternal new beginning of the new creation.

Third, God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:10). God’s discipline is good for us; it aims at a good far greater than what we often settle for. We constantly need reminding that hard providences do not mean God has a hard heart. If God uses hard measures, we should look to our hard hearts as the targets, not accuse God. Only a jackhammer will split concrete.

Love is not always nice, kindness is not always indulgent, and tolerance is not always a virtue. “No” is often the most loving thing a parent or pastor or church can say. And if that no goes unheeded, then it is not cruel but loving to follow God’s own example, and obey God’s own instructions, by disciplining someone now, in hope that they may be saved on the last day.

This article originally appeared here.

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Bobby Jamieson
Bobby Jamieson serves 9Marks as assistant editor and website manager. After graduating from the University of Southern California, Bobby was a pastoral intern at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. He is currently an MDiv student at Southern Seminary, and he lives with his wife and daughter in Louisville, Kentucky.