Discipline: Conclusions

by Jay Guin

Let’s take a moment and reflect on what the scriptures teach us about church discipline.

Let’s look again at this chart from an earlier post.

To become saved Baptism To stay saved
Hear, believe, confess the gospel Faith Accept Jesus as Son of God Faith Accept Jesus as Son of God Faith Faith
Repent Penitence Accept Jesus as Lord Penitence Accept Jesus as Lord Love Love
Accept Jesus as Savior Accept Jesus as Savior Only Hope

Notice that church discipline fits into the same categories as our salvation.

There are those who are struggling to repent, who are toying with sin and considering leaving the Lordship of Jesus. And there are also those who have completely left the Lordship of Jesus – or never have really knelt before him – but who pretend to be Christians to take advantage of the flock.

And then there are those utterly without faith, some of whom not only deny the faith but try to spread their faithlessness within the church.

Finally, there are those who divide because they don’t think Jesus is a sufficient Savior — they insist on saving themselves, denying the hope we have through Jesus.

In other words, a failure to continue in those things that save can lead to being removed from the fellowship of the church. The discipline passages aren’t arbitrary rules – they’re just the natural outworking of grace and its boundaries.

The way the church responds to these threats depends on whether the discipline is for those inside or outside the church – not that it’s always easy to tell!

And it depends on the immediacy of the danger to the church. We act quickly to protect the souls of our members or to protect them from predators.

For those in the church, normally, the response is patient, prayerful, gentle, humble rebuke and instruction.

But if that person’s soul is at risk because he’s fallen out of love with Jesus, he may have to be disfellowshipped in hopes of bringing him to repentance – this being a compassionate, “tough love” approach.

The person without faith or penitence is, of course, in no sense a Christian and must not be treated as such. If he tries to spread his faithlessness, the church cannot give him a platform. Academic freedom, tolerance, and love for the lost do not extend to giving aid to the enemies of Jesus. A seeker, of course, is to be welcomed.

However, there are people, either saved or lost, who must be expelled to protect the remainder of the flock. The divider is to be warned and expelled – even if he’s a believer – because he is destroying God’s house. Those who come to steal or take advantage of the naive must be warned and expelled.

If the harm is sufficiently imminent, we expel first. If a member is found to be a stalker, we can counsel and pray with him far away from the women and children. If he’s a conman, his platform to deceive must be immediately removed.

Where the division is due to selfishness (one symptom of a lack of love) – the color of the carpet – disfellowship is hardly the place to start. Rather, the idea has to be to restore an atmosphere of love – an atmosphere that may have been missing for years. Some serious apologizing and reconciliation may be needed, sometimes even by the leadership.

Elderships are forced to wrestle with these sorts of problems all the time. Failing to properly classify the problem in scriptural terms often leads to a failure to truly resolve the problem. People get their feelings hurt, leave, or even divide the church when discipline is handled badly. But love goes a long way. So long as the congregation feels that the elders truly care more about their well being than their own, a church will put up with a lot to stay together.

However, an eldership bent on protecting the preferences of a privileged few members, on maintaining power at the expense of love, or demanding overly strict doctrinal conformity is a bad eldership and won’t be able to hold its congregation together. After all, you can’t be guilty of the things that get people disfellowshipped and be an effective shepherd of the flock.

None of this justifies dividing or disfellowshipping over a non-gospel question. Instrumental music, right or wrong, is not grounds for separation. Nor is the frequency of taking communion. That’s not to say that there’s no right or wrong answer, only that these aren’t at the heart of the gospel. They aren’t faith, hope, or love.

Indeed, dividing over non-gospel issues makes the divider a sinner against the gospel of Jesus — by committing the Galatian heresy. Those who do this are those that Paul says to watch out for (or mark) in Rom 16:17. You see, in the end, many of those screaming the loudest for separation are the very ones the Bible says to separate from. They should be rebuked and called to repentance, rather than heeded. These are the men who divide the body of Christ and work against the prayer of Jesus —

(John 17:22-23)  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Jesus said the world would know that we were sent by Jesus by our complete unity. And there will be no unity until we unite based on the gospel, and just the gospel.

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