Vol. 4, No. 9
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Among the identifying, often unique characteristics of the church, about which one can read upon the pages of the New Testament, are such things as its: name, origin, organization, worship, doctrine, unity, mission and baptism. No less unique and descriptive of the church of the Bible is the discipline it practices upon itself. Usually, the word discipline is viewed solely as a negative term involving unpleasantness and punitive measures. However, synonyms for the word indicate a much broader potential application. For instance, the word discipline may mean: activity, drill, data, information, pursuit, vocation, self-control, course or study. Discipline involves teaching and is essentially embodied in discipleship.
To the extent that discipline relates to self-control and voluntary conformity to God-given data or information (namely, the Bible), discipline can be very positive. This type of discipline involves the active pursuit of the Christian vocation, that is, discipleship. This is no more than God requires of each who would name Christ as Lord.
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" (Romans 12:1-2).
Willing compliance to God's Word amounts to self-discipline and is admittedly positive. However, even encouragement of a weak or erring Christian to conform to God's Word is positive in purpose and potentially in result. Discipline is, in a sense, especially positive whenever it leads to the faithful practice of Christianity.
In principle, discipline in the church is much like discipline in the home. Everything the Christian father does regarding his children, whether it is viewed from either a negative or a positive perspective, should be calculated to be in their best interest. He has his children's well-being or welfare in mind (Ephesians 6:4). The apostle Paul used this father-children kinship to illustrate a spiritual relationship he maintained with the church at Thessalonica.
"As ye know how we exhorted and comforted and charged every one of you, as a father doth his children, That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory" (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
What is true in the home regarding discipline, and what was true respecting the relationship sustained between Paul and the Thessalonians, is equally true regarding discipline in the church of weak or erring members. Discipline, positive (edification) or negative (punitive), has as its purpose the best possible well-being of the subject. Especially in the church, this pertains to one's spiritual welfare.
Further, the precise relationship entertained at any given time between a Christian father and his children depends largely on the conduct of the children. Certainly, a father may enjoy a pleasant relationship with his children, and they with him. Yet, there are those occasions in which a father must, ever how reluctantly, exercise his authority by correcting or even punishing errant children. "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes" (Proverbs 13:24). Our heavenly Father also effects discipline among his people, because he loves us and desires the best for us.
"And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" (Hebrews 12:5-11).
The New Testament clearly addresses the subject of church discipline. Further, there exists no exemption or suspension that removes the exercise of this responsibility from the church of the Lord. Therefore, any body of believers today that purports to be identical to the church of the Bible must practice church discipline as needed. Truly, church discipline is as much an identifying characteristic of the churches of Christ as any other (e.g., names, origin, organization, worship, doctrine, etc.). It, also coming from God, is likewise divine. Congregations that refuse or simply fail to practice the biblical doctrine of church discipline, are to that extent unlike the church for which Jesus died and over which he is the head. How many identifying characteristics of the Lord's church can a contemporary church afford to ignore, and yet remain faithful?
Various New Testament passages pertaining to discipline in the local church stress different significant factors. The overriding principle, of course, should be the best possible spiritual welfare of the ones upon whom church discipline is exercised (1 Corinthians 5:5). As such, the primary purpose of church discipline is not to clear the slate, but to draw the wayward back. Ideally, a close fellowship between Christians develops, which when severed makes erring Christians painfully aware that they are out of fellowship with both God and fellow Christians. (Christians may only rightfully fellowship those who are in fellowship with God.) However, when Christians fail to develop a preference for brethren (Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 2:17), unfortunately, church discipline's effect for good is greatly diminished.
Additionally, withdrawal of fellowship as discipline also prevents contamination of other Christians (1 Corinthians 5:6); sin is contagious. Yet, withdrawal of fellowship is a drastic and final course of action after all other forms of discipline (exhortation and correction) have failed to produce penitence.
The speed with which withdrawal of fellowship may be practiced largely depends on two considerations. (1) Is the erring Christian a false teacher, and thereby endangering the souls of others besides his own? (2) Is the erring Christian open to the efforts of faithful brethren to restore him?
Obviously, someone infecting others with false teaching or creating rifts among brethren cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. Consequently, Scripture commands speedy action to curtail such (Romans 16:17-18; Titus 3:10-11). James wrote of the weightier responsibility and corresponding judgment for teachers (James 3:1). Among the qualifications and responsibilities of elders is the ability and task to stop false teachers (Titus 1:9-11). Since false teachers and factious persons pose such a great threat to the well-being of any congregation, they must be addressed swiftly. This does not lessen the preciousness of their souls, but is mindful as well of the invaluable souls of others over whom they may exert a harmful influence.
Since Christians are commanded to withdraw from the disorderly (2 Thessalonians 3:6), irrespective of how distasteful it may be to some, church discipline is not optional. Though one may argue that it is counter productive, no one dare argue with God, which is precisely the case wherein one chooses to ignore God's Word on any subject. No one can win an argument with God!
Withdrawal of fellowship takes the form of faithful brethren having no pleasurable companionship with those from whom the church has withdrawn. This includes meals with these unfaithful brethren (1 Corinthians 5:11). "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed" (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Yet, unfaithful brethren are nevertheless brethren, not enemies, and the object of admonishments (2 Thessalonians 3:15; James 5:19-20). Withdrawal of fellowship amounts to a spiritual spanking of unruly brethren by the balance of the church with the express purpose of encouraging godly sorrow and repentance (2 Corinthians 2:6-7). Upon repentance, forgiveness and expressions of love should be forthcoming (2 Corinthians 2:8).
Often, the very ones who by the practice of church discipline might have the greatest affect on erring Christians are also the ones least willing to practice it. This is sad and lamentable. For instance, family usually refuses to withdraw from family, and friends often will not withdraw from friends. (Almost everyone gladly withdraws from those for whom they do not care!) Admittedly, church discipline is not intended to interrupt other divinely approved relationships (e.g., husband/wife, parents/dependent children). Still, there are many other associations among Christian family members and friends, which if curtailed due to others' unfaithfulness could encourage repentance.
Finally, withdrawal of fellowship, or discipline of any kind, is too frequently omitted altogether, or put off so long that people's consciences are seared and they cannot be recovered. Christians desperately need to develop a close personal fellowship and practice church discipline when necessary. Besides the joys and blessings inherent in Christian fellowship, it provides a safety valve by means of withdrawal of fellowship should one become unfaithful. Fellowship is essential to effective withdrawal of fellowship.
Church discipline is a God-given descriptive and identifying characteristic of the New Testament church. Thus, it is a divine characteristic. Further, church discipline is positive in purpose and potentially in result. Like discipline in the home, church discipline has as its goal the best possible well-being of the subject toward whom it is exercised. Maybe reluctantly, the Lord's church is obligated to police itself and practice discipline when necessary. Besides perhaps saving erring brethren, withdrawal of fellowship prevents contamination of the bride of Christ. The success of the sometimes necessary withdrawal of fellowship depends on the prior establishment and maintenance of close fellowship. Christian love permeates both fellowship and the successful exercise of withdrawal of fellowship.
(This article is Chapter Nine in my class book, The Church Divine. ~ LER)