The spiritual health of the church is maintained through discipline. This article explains why church discipline is important and why is it the mark of the true church.

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The church must uphold Christian standards🔗

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17

The Christian concept of discipline has the same breadth as the Latin word disciplina, which signifies the whole range of nurturing, instructional, and training procedures that disciple-making requires. When Reformed theology highlights the importance of church discipline, insisting that there is no spiritual health without it and that it is a vital mark of a true church, more is in view than judicial processes against immoral persons and heretics. Only where the personal disciplines of learning and devotion, worship and fellowship, righteousness and service are being steadily taught in a context of care and accountability (Matt. 28:20; John 21:15-17; 2 Tim. 2:14-26; Titus 2; Heb. 13:17) is there a meaningful place for judicial correctives. The New Testament clearly shows, however, that in that context judicial correctives have a significant place in the maturing of churches and individuals (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Titus 1:10-14; 3:9-11).

Jesus instituted church discipline by authorizing the apostles to bind and to loose (i.e., prohibit and permit, Matt. 18:18) and to declare sins remitted or retained (John 20:23). The “keys of the kingdom,” first given to Peter and defined as power to bind and loose (Matt. 16:19), have usually been understood as authority to formulate doctrine and impose discipline, an authority now given by Christ to the church in general and to commissioned pastors in particular.

The Westminster Confession declares: Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offenses, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof [the sacraments] to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders. (XXX.3)

Church censures may have to escalate from bare admonition through exclusion from the Lord’s Supper to expulsion from the congregation (excommunication), which is described as handing a person over to Satan, the prince of this world (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5, 11; 1 Tim. 1:20; Titus 3:10-11). Public sins (i.e., those that are open to the whole church’s view) should be publicly corrected in the church’s presence (1 Tim. 5:20; cf. Gal. 2:11-14). Jesus teaches a procedure for dealing privately with those who have given personal offense, in hope that it will not be necessary to ask for the church’s public censure of them (Matt. 18:15-17).

The purpose of church censure in all its forms is not to punish for punishment’s sake but to call forth repentance and so recover the straying sheep. Ultimately there is only one sin for which a church member is excommunicated—impenitence. When repentance is apparent, the church is to declare the sin remitted and receive the offender into fellowship once again.

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