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TEXT: Matthew 28:18-20

SUBJECT: Church Discipline #1: Introduction

This afternoon, with God's blessing, we will begin a short study of Church Discipline. As far as I know, the words, 'church discipline' appear in no English Bible, but the thing itself does for sure. This may surprise you, because discipline is seldom practiced in the Church today; but whether it is or not, our duty is to learn the will of Jesus Christ, and to do it as best we can. This means we have to be open to His Word-even when it leads us to places we'd rather not go. It means we have to pray for wisdom; it means we have to act with humility and courage.

The format for this series is interactive. I'll begin with a talk of fifteen or twenty minutes, then open things up for discussion, which everyone is welcome to join. The only things I ask of you are to: (1) Be submissive to the Word of God, (2) be courteous, (3) stay on topic, and (4) let us get out of here by 3:00!

BASIC MEANING

What is Church Discipline? The term sounds harsh to many ears, but it isn't that way at all-not when it is implemented properly, I mean. Can it be abused? Yes it can be. Has it been? Many times, and the people who have done it ought to be ashamed of themselves! The church has no authority to discipline its members, except what our Lord gives us, and since Discipline is His gift to the church, we have to exercise it the way He wants us to, and remember that, one day, we will answer to Him for what we have done in His Name-or failed to do.

Does the word, 'discipline' look like another word in the New Testament? It does, and the word it looks like is.disciple. In a nutshell, this is what Church Discipline is-making believers in Christ into disciples.

What is a disciple? We don't have to guess. Our Lord told us in John 8:31-

If you continue in my word, you are my disciples indeed.

To 'continue in [His] word' does not mean 'Read the Bible every day'-it couldn't mean that-because very few people at the time owned a Bible, and, in the history of the Church, the disciples who cannot read probably outnumber the ones who can.

'Continuing' or 'abiding' in Christ's word means 'living in obedience'. The obedience we offer Him is never perfect or even close to perfect. Yet, with all of our blind spots, weaknesses, and sins, our Lord could say of us-

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

Just read the Gospels and you'll see their 'following' was not what it should have been. Peter had moments of pride, James and John needed 'anger management' at times, Philip once forgot who Jesus was; and their faith was seldom strong. Yet they were disciples. Because they did what the Lord told them to do (most of the time), and when they didn't-and He called them on it-they repented.

Disciples sin, of course; if discipleship didn't allow for that, there would be no disciples! What it doesn't allow for is impenitence-knowing what the Lord wants you to do, and making no effort to do it. Underline the words, 'no effort', for bad habits die hard; but slowly dying habits are not the same thing as defiance. 'I know what the Lord wants me to do and I'm not going to do it!' This attitude is not compatible with discipleship. You cannot be this way and a disciple at the same time.

THE BACKGROUND

The New Testament teaching on Church Discipline is not hung on thin air, but on the Old Testament Scriptures and the History of Israel. When our Lord tells us to practice discipline in the church, He alludes to the history of Israel, and when Paul develops the theme, he quotes the Old Testament in support of it.

From what Old Testament pegs is Church Discipline hung? Here are the ones I thought of:

  1. God redeemed Israel to be a holy people.
  2. God gave them the resources to be holy, including the Ten Commandments, the sacrifices, the Tabernacle, Sabbaths, Spirit-filled leaders, and community.
  3. When Israelites turned away from God's resources and followed the ways of Canaan, they were called back by the prophets, wise men, priests, and Providence.
  4. If they refused to hear God's Word, they were 'cut off from the people'. Sometimes, the Lord did this directly-by striking them dead-but, most of the time, He did it indirectly, by His people or their leaders pronouncing His judgment on the sinners.
  5. The command to discipline His people was never left to the preferences or prejudices of the leaders, but were to be carried out according to God's Word, Deuteronomy 1:17-

You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small as well as the great; you shall not be afraid of any man's presence, for the judgment is God's.

THE FULFILLMENT

The New Testament picks up these themes, develops them, and applies them to the Church in a way that is appropriate to the Age in which we're living. For example, Israel being a political nation as well as a spiritual congregation, fined, whipped, and executed the wayward members of its community, while the Church has no power to correct or punish its members in such ways.

That being said, the principles are still in effect. It is the church's responsibility to disciple its members, and-if they will not be disciple on easy terms, but use firmer measures, and if they too fail, to put them out of the church. I Corinthians 5:13 (quoting Deuteronomy) says-

Therefore, put away from yourselves that wicked person.

THE FORMS

I fear my presentation has become a bit lopsided in the last few minutes, so let me get back to the middle. Most of the time, church discipline has nothing to do with 'putting people out of the church'. Since its goal is to make believers into disciples, it takes two forms: formative and corrective.

Formative discipline seeks to form good character and habits in God's People. This is done through the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, setting good examples, counsel, encouragement, and so on, cf. Hebrews 10:24.

Corrective discipline seeks to correct bad character and habits in the church. This is also done by preaching the Word and by private counsel, some of which is not very pleasant. No one likes to be called on his sins, even if it's done very gently. But we all need to be called on them from time to time, and-with wisdom, patience, and love-it is the church's job to do just that, cf. Hebrews 3:13.

THE ATTITUDE(S)

Finally, I have to say something about the attitudes in which we practice church discipline. It can be done proudly, self-righteously, and harshly, but it shouldn't be-not if it's done in the name of Jesus Christ, who was the humblest of all men and also the gentlest.

Many verses could be turned to here, but the one I leave you with is Galatians 6:1-

Brethren, if a man is overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering yourself, lest you also be tempted.

From this one verse we learn: (1) the goal of church discipline is to restore a sinner brother-and treating him unfairly or meanly is not likely to do that; (2) it is to be done meekly, which means in humility and gentleness, and (3) with due consideration that we're all sinners-and I am as capable of falling into the same sin (or worse) than the brother or sister I am trying to help out of his sin.

THE GOALS

The goals of Church Discipline are two: (1) to make disciples, and, if that fails, (2) to separate the church from people who profess faith in Christ, but will not be His disciples.

SUMMARY

If my talk today seems somewhat sketchy to you, it was meant to be. It is only an introduction to Church Discipline, and nothing like a complete study. Over the next few weeks, I will try to develop the topic more fully and look carefully at the key passages. For now, though, let me summarize:

  1. There is such a thing as Church Discipline in the Bible.
  2. Church Discipline seeks to make disciples of people who profess faith in Christ.
  3. Most Church Discipline is positive and encouraging.
  4. Some Church Discipline is negative and painful.
  5. Church Discipline should never be practiced harshly, self-righteously, or hastily, but with gentleness, humility, and patience.
  6. The goals of Church Discipline are: (1) restoring wayward Christians, and (2) promoting the purity of the Church.
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