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Church Discipline: A Closer Look

I have always found Mark Dever’s writings on ecclesiology to be insightful, but particularly when it comes to the area of covenant community and church discipline. In the HCSB Study Bible you will find a helpful article on the subject.

I’m interested in your practice of church discipline– share a story in the comments about how you have done (or not done) such discipline and why it matters.

I will give away a FREE HCSB Study Bible to one of the commenters. Here is Mark’s article from the study Bible:

Jesus Christ founded and purchased the church with His blood (Ac 20:28), and He builds it upon acknowledgment and faith in Him as Messiah (Mt 16:18). This means the church belongs to Jesus and represents Him to the nations. In this light, the purity of the church is vital. Rightly practiced, church
discipline helps ensure that purity.

Two Categories of Church Discipline

Two categories of church discipline describe ways a church may teach its members right living and right beliefs.

Formative Discipline: Formative discipline is a preventative measure. It includes the positive, direct teaching of biblical truth through sermons and Sunday school lessons. It also includes modeling godliness and mentoring new believers.

Corrective Discipline: Corrective discipline is used when trouble arises. It can include contradicting, challenging, rebuking, and excommunicating a member for unrepentance or erroneous teachings. Corrective discipline may seem controversial, but Jesus clearly taught that if a believer continues to sin despite the call to repentance, the church should treat him as if he were “an unbeliever and a tax collector” (Mt 18:17). This exclusion from church membership is generically called “church discipline.” It is also called “excommunication” because those under discipline are not permitted to participate in Communion (the Lord’s Supper).

Correcting Misconceptions about Church Discipline

Excommunication is the final stage of church discipline. It is undertaken only if other corrective measures fail to bring the sinner to repentance. Though painful and traumatic, excommunication is not an unloving act. One of the obligations of love is to not leave someone in their sin. “Better an open reprimand than concealed love. The wounds of a friend are trustworthy, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive” (Pr 27:5-6).

Excommunication does not mean that the person should stop attending church. Except in rare cases, the congregation desires the disciplined sinner to continue attending and sitting under the preaching of God’s Word. By this the sinner is confronted by Scripture and his life is observed by the faith community that has disciplined him.

Church discipline need not be permanent. One goal is the repentance of the sinner. Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for not readmitting into membership repentant members whom they had disciplined (2Co 2:6-7). Finally, church discipline is not an infallible assessment of the eternal state of the person disciplined. It is instead a fallible but serious warning about an evident lack of regeneration.

Why Church Discipline Is Important

Church discipline presents to the world and believers a clarifying picture of what it means to follow Christ. It is important to make sinners aware of their sin (e.g., 1Co 5). By confronting persistent sin, the church may reveal hypocrites–both to themselves so that they might repent, and to the church so that the church might distinguish sheep from wolves (see Mt 7).

The practice of church discipline is also an important part of glorifying God, for the church is to reflect God’s holy character in a fallen world (1Pt 1:14-16). God is both merciful and holy. To neglect either aspect of His character is to distort His image and lie about Him.

Mark Dever
Ph.D., Cambridge University

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.