This article looks at three aspects of discipline: regulative discipline, corrective discipline and devotinal discipline. 

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1988. 4 pages.

Freedom and Discipline in the Church

Does the word 'discipline' make you shudder? In recent years the topic has gained vogue with the re-examination of the Reformed faith. Rightly, we have asked how discipline can be seen in our church life and individually in our daily walk. We are to walk 'circumspectly' (as one preacher said, 'like a cat walking on a wall covered with glass') but equally, we are to walk in liberty and joy in the things of the gospel.

The 'faithful observing of ecclesiastical discipline according to the Word of God' is one of the marks of the true church. 1How can such a discipline be developed? Is it the result of a tight rein, a firm hand or is it a walk in liberty? All these elements contribute. Church discipline can be described simply as 'the well ordered church life'. It involves the church 'continuing steadfastly' and 'continuing daily' (Acts 2:42, 46).

Where discipline is present there is no need for its constant exercise for there is an acceptance of standards, the honouring of truth and a loving fellowship between believers. It is when good order and harmony are threatened that steps have to be taken to restore the New Testament atmosphere of love and freedom. Christ's service is perfect freedom and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17).

Three aspects of discipline suggest themselves:

1. Regulative Discipline🔗

At the close of a controversial chapter, Paul says, 'Let all things be done decently and in order' (1 Corinthians 14:40); the church is to be marked by a practical discipline. Church order has not been left to pragmatic adjustment but basic principles have been carefully outlined in Scripture and we are to conduct the life of the church on earth accordingly.

What are the biblical principles on which the local church should be patterned? Evangelicals of reformed conviction can meet with unity in conferences and take corporate action in society and yet on church order defend opposite convictions — each believing sincerely that his position is biblical. Two examples come to mind, believers' baptism and paedo­baptism; Presbyterianism and Independency. It is better to accept and publicly recognise these differences than to try to mould a false uniformity. Better two churches in one town with opposite convictions in these areas who work together with a publicly recognised good-will than the attempt to form a 'hybrid' assembly where doctrinal differences and practices prove to be a seedbed of confusion.

Church discipline does not demand uniformity but it does require order, co-operation and harmony. Two areas of discipline in the local church affect us all no matter what our denominational convictions.

  • First the matter of leadership.

    The Scriptures outline the nature of the offices in the local church (Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 3) and it is the Lord's purpose that there should be a warm, instructive and supportive function exercised by those who are called to service.

    Much has been written, wisely and helpfully, in recent years on church leadership. However, side by side with this purposeful stress on biblical principles, unscriptural assumptions have been the source of scandalous and eccentric situations. All would agree that God does not depend upon theological colleges to raise up ministers for His church yet this surely does not mean that training should be despised. A call to a spiritual work does not consist in a man's own bid for power like a Diotrephes in a congregation; it is rather a long and well-tested conviction of the divine purpose in a man's heart which is accredited by the objective recognition of the marks of the call in his life from the local church in which the man is a member. Whatever our 'churchmanship', our defence of the 'priesthood of all believers' and our resistance to 'professionalism', we dare not say that anybody who virtually appoints himself can be viewed as qualified and called to the ministry. How easy it is to react from religious hierarchy to the extreme of ill-equipped anarchy!

    The Bible carefully outlines the character of deacons and elders. In Hebrews 13:7, 17 we have two verses which use the phrase, 'those who have the rule over you' — that is to say, leaders appointed by God and recognised by the church as a gift to be heeded and valued by the whole congregation. If our biblical perspective was right, we would have fewer situations where local churches were held at 'gun point' by some member gaining a hold by wealth or position in the world and thus carving for himself a sphere of influence.
  • Secondly, the life of the individual believer.

    The regulative discipline of the church depends upon the contribution of the individual. Congregations need regular attenders, finance needs systematic givers, a caring church needs those who will show warmth and love and the whole company needs to be a praying and zealous family.

    The ideal conditions do not appear in a local church by regulation and the iron fist — rather they develop as the Holy Spirit sovereignly conditions the hearts of the congregation into a harmonious company. This aspect of discipline is evident, then, where there is a happy, functioning Christian family living to the Lord's glory according to the Scriptures.

2. Corrective Discipline🔗

This is the only aspect of discipline that some consider! There are those who see the duty of the church to censure its members as a major role and who believe that in churches where this is seldom necessary there is reason to suspect spiritual laxity. But, as in a well-ordered family, a word of guidance or exhortation instantly heeded is usually enough where correction is an accepted principle and such minor incidents represent control rather than rebuke.

Some churches count it spiritual prowess to gain a reputation for harshness. In Richard Llewellyn's book How Green was my Valley, the Deacons' Court is described, with its persecution of the fallen who have not received the counsel and love in the preliminary steps that the Scripture demands before public censure is instituted. The public rebuke of the church is a last resort, in extremis, when repentance has been refused and every possibility of reconciliation exhausted. It is never the platform for churches or congregations to persecute in arrogance and self-righteousness.

It is a sad reflection on the state of fellowship amongst us that so many church adherents hide their problems and go to secular agencies when difficulties arise. Is our love to them so shallow that they doubt our compassion? Do the spiritually wounded in the battle of life fear that confidences will be broken and that personal sins, temptations and failures will be made public knowledge? Such things have happened — and God will judge those who have hurt the needy and frail. What a scandal that believers fight with personal problems of all kinds, perhaps over many years, and that these only become known when battles are lost! Too often godly souls lie in despair, cut off from the love that God has commanded us to exercise towards one another, because church people lack compassion and neglect biblical practice.

There is a ministry for all in caring for the wayward. The doctrine of the 'priesthood of all believers' stresses ministry to one another in caring and intercession. Galatians 6:1-2 tells us that we should approach this spiritual responsibility very humbly, with a realisation of our own vulnerability and in the spirit of the love of Christ. This ministry is to be exercised not just by officers but by all and in an attitude of support rather than one of stricture.

Three aspects of this corrective ministry deserve comment: What is the purpose?

The primary reason for church discipline is the reconciliation of the offender to the Lord and to his fellow Christians. It is inseparably bound together with the holiness of the church and with the defence of biblical standards. When love is a controlling factor it is the well-being of the soul who has become estranged from the ways of the Lord that will arouse our concern. Christ's service is perfect freedom and when sin and failure prevail that liberty is lost; brotherly ministry restores this freedom.

The Church is concerned to be holy but no fellowship is a 'holy club'! The assembly of believers is more a hospital than a company of the perfect; we have not yet attained but we follow after. Undoubtedly, every member of the congregation has a difficulty somewhere: an unhappy marriage, wayward children, business problems, temptations that threaten honesty, purity and peace of mind, strained relationships with others (within as well as outside the church) or concern about health and fear of death. We fail in our ministry within the church if we do not compassionately care for one another. Why should the 'priests' and 'Levites' pass by, leaving this responsibility to the worldly 'Samaritans'? What is the process?

As in everything, the Scriptures outline the approach in this ministry. There are two key passages. Matthew 18:15-22 deals with personal correction. This is the face-to-face dealing of believer with believer and whilst this may be humbling and embarrassing initially, it will often be remedial. Where a personal and totally private approach is unheeded, witnesses are called in, godly people, not necessarily church officers; and then if the fault continues the church meeting must arbitrate, in sacred confidentiality.

The second passage is 1 Corinthians 5:1-6 where public scandal has been caused by gross sin in the ranks of the church membership. The problem here is aggravated by the fact that although the offender had aroused the indignation of unbelievers the church remained indifferent in the matter.

Notice, that whilst Paul rules in apostolic authority as to the course of action which should be taken, his main concern is to rebuke the church for its permissive attitude. In this case, because the offender would not accept correction and persisted in his offence, the church was to separate from him for his ultimate blessing. Excommunication is a final and tragic resort. If this Corinthian who professed Christ had repented and valued the counsel and fellowship of the church, the matter would have been resolved and the worldly onlookers would have seen Christ's power to deliver from immorality demonstrated and the love of the Church displayed. But he would not repent. What is the principle?

Corrective discipline is always positive in intent. Christians must not vent their spleen on others because faults become evident (sometimes when the same sinful tendencies lie hidden in their own lives). The purpose is always 'reconciliation'. The steps indicated in Matthew 18:16-17 are intended to deal with the offender who will not respond to the loving appeal of his brother. The catastrophe of judgment before the church meeting should be rare. Such an event indicates both the unwillingness of the offender to yield to expressions of concern and it exposes a failure of fellowship throughout the whole assembly. However, even this radical step of separation from membership is to be taken with the prayer that it will, at last, be welcomed by the offender as a healing move.

A fundamental and challenging point must be made. The personal approach of one Christian to another regarding a private failure must be in total confidentiality. This means that at first we say nothing to anyone else about the matter. If we long for the matter to be resolved we shall wish it to be kept totally secret. How easy it is to spiritualise 'juicy gossip'! You telephone your friends to ask them to pray because you are going to face so-and-so with his offence! Or perhaps you feel that because someone confides his temptations to you, you must tell the pastor because he knows more about counselling. At this early stage such disclosures are disreputable and almost certain to estrange the needy soul that you say you are trying to help. If he discovers your betrayal, you will lose, not gain, a friend; he may understandably move to another church or abandon church attendance altogether. God will not be remiss in dealing with your betrayal in the judgment.

3. Devotional Discipline🔗

Paul rejoiced that 'the life he now lived in the flesh, he lived by the faith of the Son of God, who loved him and gave Himself for him' (Galatians 2:20). For all like-minded believers the gospel is a liberating message. Self-imposed and church-preserved discipline is a safeguard to this freedom. With the hymn-writer, believers can say, 'I love, I love my Master; I will not go out free'.

Christians do not obey God's law out of bondage but out of love. The antinomian loses his balance here. He writes off the law in the ten commandments as far as the Christian is concerned, whereas these are a clear indication of God's will for the walk of his people. Believers bring their lives to its standards that they might express through obedience their love to the Saviour.

The Christian does not obey the law 'in order to be saved' but because 'he is saved', not from fear of wrath but from motives of devotion. Justification by faith alone emphasises that we have no record of obedience to bring to God that will ensure our acceptance but when we have been saved, without works, we show forth our faith by our works. In sanctification God increasingly changes the actual state of our characters in accordance with our new status as justified sinners, and He uses His law to lead us in the path of holiness.

Samuel Bolton puts it this way,

We cry down the law in respect of justification but we set it up as a rule of sanctification. The law sends us to the Gospel that we may be justified and the Gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified.2

The mark of the godly man throughout scripture is that his 'delight is in the law of the Lord and in His law doth he meditate day and night' (Psalm 1:2). The New Testament confirms this. The righteousness of the law is 'fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit' (Romans 8:4).

The motive for Church discipline is not a vindictive legalism but a devotional love:

We have not received the spirit of bondage again unto fear, but we have received the Spirit of adoption whereby we cry, Abba Father.Romans 8:15

Here is the focus for church discipline, a love which stretches up to Christ and out to each other so that the holy company of the church discovers a loving, cleansing holiness in glorifying the Lord in the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace.


  1. ^ John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, vol. vii, pp. 412-13, quoted in The Reformation of the Church, Banner of Truth, p. 19.
  2. ^ The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, Samuel Bolton, Banner of Truth, p. 71.

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