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Please explain: How is church discipline a loving practice of the church?

How is church discipline a loving practice of the church?

“They kicked me out of the church.”

The man in his mid-40s was sincere as he told his story. He had once been active in his congregation, but after his divorce he had moved in with another woman. The pastor and the elders of the congregation met with him several times—until he stopped returning their phone calls. One day he received a letter indicating he had been removed from communicant membership. He was convinced the congregation had “given him the boot.”

Sadly, many perceive church discipline this way—as a harsh, loveless process that separates the unworthy outside the church from the holier-than-thou on the inside.

The reality is very different.

The importance of church discipline

Membership in the church of God is not like membership at the wholesale club or the gym. We’re not members of Jesus’ church because we pay our dues or use the services offered. We are attached to Jesus and are members of his body, the church, through simple trust in him as our Savior. But simple trust is more than simple knowledge. (The devil knows the Bible better than any of us.) Simple trust—saving faith—includes repenting and turning away from our sins and turning to Jesus for forgiveness.

Refusing to repent of our sins is flagrant rejection of God’s Word of Truth. Willfully persisting in behavior that we know is wrong tells God we don’t want his forgiveness. It is crucifying Christ all over again and trampling underfoot the holy blood of Jesus that was spilled to save us (Hebrews 6:6, 10:29). It is a mockery of God’s grace. Impenitence is unbelief, and unbelief damns.

How dearly our gracious Savior wants to rescue us from that dreadful fate! His love for sinners reached from eternity into time, as he himself became our brother. Jesus became our righteousness through his perfect obedience under God’s law. He spilled his blood and laid down his life as the all-sufficient payment for the sin of the world. Now God’s Spirit still works through the Word of Truth to crush proud hearts and to bring forgiveness and new life to the penitent. He gathers believers into one invisible, holy Christian church throughout the world, and he gathers Christians into local congregations to be fed with Word and sacrament by their shepherd.

Because eternity is at stake, the local church is charged with the awesome responsibility of watching over the souls entrusted to its care. Pastors are called to shepherd the flock. Elders are called to encourage and admonish. The apostle Paul instructed Timothy, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2).

This is hard work. Christians who lovingly admonish the impenitent can face vitriol and violence. Tracking down straying sheep can be agonizingly slow and difficult. In the congregation it’s all too easy and far too common to put off the work of disciplining and regaining straying members. After all, how much time should we spend trying to minister to people who don’t want to be ministered to?

But here’s the sobering reality: Since a fiery abyss awaits the impenitent, the most unloving thing a Christian church body could do is simply let a wandering soul drift into hell. No warning! No concern! No love! Just let the sinner perish!

The watchman is worthless who sees an enemy threat but fails to warn those he is supposed to protect. The Lord commissioned the prophet Ezekiel to be a watchman over the house of Israel, to call the wicked to repent. If he failed to warn the wicked, he himself would share responsibility for their destruction. “When I say to the wicked, ‘You wicked person, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade them from their ways, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person to turn from their ways and they do not do so, they will die for their sin, though you yourself will be saved” (Ezekiel 33:8,9). It’s no wonder that God teaches us, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).

The loving action of church discipline

It could not have been easy for Paul to confront Peter about his false teaching. Peter had walked with Jesus, had preached at Pentecost, and was a pillar in the church. Paul, on the other hand, was a latecomer to the faith and had persecuted the church. But with truth hanging in the balance, the loving thing for Paul to do was to tell Peter that he was wrong to require Christians to follow Moses before they could follow Jesus. “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas [Peter] in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’ ” (Galatians 2:14). By teaching people to rely on their own works for salvation, Peter was leading people to perdition. It took courageous love for Paul to point out Peter’s sin and steer him back to the gospel of free forgiveness.

Loving Christian discipline recognizes no distinctions of rank or privilege. Pastor and parishioner alike need the same Christian love. There are no exceptions for preachers’ kids, church leaders, significant contributors, or members whose families have been around for generations. We all need love, and we all need loving admonition—because we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10).

The process of church discipline

Jesus lays out what the process of regaining the straying looks like: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:15-18). A clear spirit of love permeates Jesus’ words. The goal is not to kick someone out of the church but to win over our brother or sister in Christ.

It works! One day I received an e-mail from a member in a former congregation: “I want to thank you for the time you corrected me when I was living in sin. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but now I realize you were being a watchman for my soul. I have turned away from my sin and come back to church. I want you to know that I appreciate what you did for me.”

I showed the e-mail (no names, of course!) to my associate pastor, and together we smiled and breathed the same prayer: “Thank you, Jesus!”

Read more about a woman who views her excommunication as God’s way of calling her back.

Author: Jon Buchholz
Volume 110, Number 09
Issue: September 2023

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