Elders, Church Discipline
Let's start with a bit of review. We started by defining elders and deacons as shepherds of the flock, taking our cue from Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5. We observed that too often churches drift into a kind of "administrative" role for these offices, viewing them as the "board." But Scripture will not allow such.
Next, we defined specifics: elders are pastors; deacons are the stewardship managers of all congregational resources. Both must keep in mind the purpose of their work: elder-pastors are to equip the saints so that they may fulfill their own service to Christ; deacons are to fit talents and resources to needs and opportunities so as to challenge and assist the life of faith.
Then, at some length, we addressed the primary method of spiritual care: visiting among the flock. We identified Biblically assigned tasks: encourage, rebuke, admonish, teach, guard, and reminded you that these are mandates in Scripture neglected only at great peril to the flock.
Discipline is Disciple-Training
All the work described above can simply be called church discipline. It is always evidenced in faithful churches, and abused or neglected in unfaithful ones.
Strong words, those, but not without reason. You see, discipline is nothing other than the training of a disciple. The words "disciple" and "discipline" are from the same root. The former describes one who follows Christ in commitment and love; the latter describes the training and exercise to which he submits as a disciple.
Some react to the word "discipline," inferring a tyrannical legalism. To be sure, Christ preached strongly against legalism (the thought that one climbs the ladder to righteousness by his own hands and feet), but He demanded discipline among the ranks of His followers! Think of His stern words:
Anyone who loves his father or mother … son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.Matthew 10:37, 38
Add this to the detailed exposition of the "laws of the kingdom" in Matthew 5:21ff, and you find a radical ("to the root") code of training and behavior to be applied to each disciple. The point is simple: all who claim to be His disciples are always under discipline!
The church has historically known this, although lately it seems to have forgotten the relationship between discipleship and discipline. Most churches do not train disciples diligently. They offer "relevant" Sunday School classes that do not indoctrinate disciples in the truths of Scripture. On the other hand, they avoid confrontation with sin, fearing bitter and angry responses. The result? Chuck Colson observes churches that make converts, but do not produce disciples that live disciplined, holy lives (Presenting Belief in an Age of Unbelief, Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986).
But that's sinful. Sinful because the church has been commanded to "make disciples of all nations ... teaching them to observe all I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19). Sinful because of the express instruction of Scripture that those who live in unrepentant sin offend God, and are a malignancy within the congregation (see 1 Corinthians 5). Sinful because a shepherd is to keep the sheep within the fold, and not allow the wolves to destroy the flock (Acts 20:28f).
The church has long recognized three Scriptural reasons for discipline as discipleship training:
First, God is honored when His followers obey His Word.
Second, the sinner can be restored to God no other way than by repentance and conversion. Such will not happen unless the Word of the Lord is applied.
Third, discipline weeds out that which would corrupt the church if left unchecked. Scripture is most urgent about checking undisciplined living (see 2 Timothy 3:10).
The Work of Discipline and the Bible
In this article on discipline, I shall not dive deeply into the specifics of discipline "how-to." Instead, I ask you to think with me about the simple, basic, connection between church discipline and the Bible.
The Belgic Confession, one of the most marvelous confessional statements of the Reformation, defines a true church as one exhibiting these marks:
If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God...Art 29
The point is not that churches must discipline to prove they are true churches. Rather, churches must exercise discipline because they honor the Word of God! That's the issue. Really, there is only one "mark" of a true church. It lives by God's Word in all areas of its life.
Whether and how you as elders do the hard work of discipline among the flock is really the only true barometer of whether and how your church honors God's Word. Churches that loudly proclaim to any and all that they "have a high view of Scripture," and yet don't seek to develop disciplined and trained disciples through systematic and urgent Bible teaching and correction, are deceitful. Churches that insist upon "good preaching" from their ministers, then fail to follow up the demands of the preached Word with persistent visits by elders to those who fail to obey, are truly interested only in oratory, not discipleship.