Mr. Cyril H. Brooks has faithfully served the Lord for over fifty years in the Philippines. We welcome this first of three articles on “Discipline,” a subject largely neglected among professing Christians of this day and age.
The Meaning of Discipline
To begin this series of studies on discipline, it is first necessary to define what is meant. What is discipline? We shall limit our study to discipline in the local church or assembly. Therefore, we shall not be considering self-discipline wherein the child of God disciplines or regulates his own spiritual life. It must be noted that there would be little need for church discipline if believers would discipline themselves. Nor shall we be thinking about God’s discipline or chastisement of His children, except to point out that He may sometimes discipline a believer through the discipline of the local church.
The English word “discipline” is, of course, related to “disciple” who is a learner or a follower. So discipline is one of the means by which a believer in Christ learns to follow Christ as a disciple. It is part of the teaching that goes along with discipleship. Therefore, in the local church, teaching the truths found in the Word of God is a part of discipline; in fact, it is a very important and primary part of discipline. If we do not teach believers how they ought to live for Christ, what right have we to judge them when they do not live as they should? Too often we tend to think of discipline in the local church as only judging those who do wrong, and then taking steps to put them right. These phases of discipline would be less needed if we paid more attention first to teaching. In that letter which Paul wrote to Timothy regarding conduct in the local church, we read, ‘Command and teach these things…attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching…take heed to yourself and to your teaching’ (1 Timothy 4:11, 13, 16 R.S.V.).
However, what happens in the local church when some believers do not listen to the teaching, or having listened to it, yet do not follow it? Or what about those believers who will not discipline themselves nor heed the discipline of their heavenly Father? Then the church, through its elders, will need to go on to the next step in discipline, for ‘The time is come for judgment to begin at the household of God’ (1 Peter 4:17). There will need to be warnings, rebukes or perhaps even a strong reprimand. (We will examine these in more detail later.) Generally not all of the believers in a local church will need such warnings or rebukes, and certainly only a few will have to be reprimanded by the elders. There will therefore be many instances where such will be done personally and privately to the persons directly concerned (Galatians 6:1).
Occasionally, even these fail to achieve the desired purpose so that it then becomes necessary to proceed to other phases of discipline. However, in all phases of discipline one thing must be kept clearly in mind. The purpose of discipline is not, and never should be, simply to punish or humiliate a wrong-doer. The aim must always be to help believers to be better disciples. If they have gone astray, we want to restore them to a closer walk with the Lord and to a happier fellowship in the church. If a child of God has done wrong we want to help him repent and turn away from his wrong-doing.
Some Christians seem to resent any form of discipline, possibly because they misunderstand its aim and purpose. Discipline should never be vindictive or punitive. Always the aim should be to help the Christian live a better Christian life. God’s discipline shows us two things — His love and our relationship to Him as His children (Hebrews 12:5-6). In the same way, discipline in the church ought always to be an evidence of Christian love. Through it, the elders can show their loving concern and godly care for the spiritual welfare of their fellow-believers. As bishops or overseers they are responsible to “take care” of the church where God has placed them (1 Timothy 3:5), so they take care of it as fathers take care of or rule their families. A good father will discipline his children because he loves them. He teaches them by example and by word; sometimes he has to warn or rebuke them; sometimes he may need to spank them. Faithful elders ought to have such a genuine love for those in the church. In love they will teach the Word; in love they will rebuke or warn when necessary; and, if more stern measures are needed, these will be carried out in love and humility, with fairness and much prayer.
The Need for Discipline
Let us now think why it is necessary to have discipline in a local church. There may be some who think it is not really needed and that elders should not interfere in the private lives of church members. They may say, “After all, the way I live is my own responsibility; or, it is something between the Lord and myself.” I want to suggest five reasons why discipline is needed in the local church.
First, God desires that there should be order or proper arrangement in the church. Without such order there will be confusion or disorder and God is not the God of confusion. Therefore ‘all things should be done decently (becomingly) and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14:40). Without discipline we shall not have the order or arrangement that God desires. This chapter, 1 Corinthians 14, is a good example of this for it gives regulations as to the use and exercise of some gifts. This is part of discipline so that our services will be conducted in an orderly manner and according to the teaching of Scripture.
Second, God has appointed authority in the church and discipline is one of the functions of those He has placed in authority. We recognize that Christ is the Head of the Church, so that His Word and His Will are the supreme authority in the church. The New Testament also teaches that under Him who is the Great Shepherd there are under-shepherds who are to pastor the flock. Thus the elders who are also called bishops or overseers are responsible to take care of the church. The Holy Spirit has made them overseers so that like shepherds they can take heed of and feed the flock (Acts 20:28). Elders have a major responsibility for teaching which, as we have seen, is an essential part of discipline.
Third, discipline is needed so that the assembly will have a good testimony for Christ in the local community. Even unsaved people expect Christians to live more honestly and better morally than they do. When a believer sins he not only brings reproach upon the name of Christ, but also upon the church where he is attending. So an assembly which tolerates careless living or sinful habits in its members will not retain the respect of people in the community. Discipline of erring members will be an indication that we do not treat such conduct lightly. Then others around will be more easily convinced of our sincerity and also of our faith in the gospel message which we preach.
Fourth, we all recognize, surely, that God desires His children to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:14-16). Since a local church is made up of individual believers, it stands to reason that the church should display holy living which is pleasing to the Lord. The spiritual power of any church depends upon the lives of its members. The question is sometimes asked, “What would your church be like if every member was just like you?” We should live holy lives because God wants us to and not because we are afraid of being disciplined. However, sometimes we need the help of church discipline so that we will live as we should.
Fifth, church discipline not only helps us to live as believers should, it helps to maintain harmony and fellowship within the church. One of the most frequent problems in any church is the friction caused when members cannot get along happily with each other. One way that the devil uses to hinder the Lord’s work is through sowing discord among believers. Sowing discord among brethren is an abomination that God hates (Proverbs 6:16-19). Too often such discord is sown by brethren rather than by the unsaved outside the church. Since discord can cause so much trouble in the church, the elders will be alert to lessen or eliminate it, if possible. This is part of needed discipline. Erroneous teaching is sometimes a cause of discord. Those who bring in wrong teaching must be disciplined. However, there are times when the trouble is not something that can be labeled as definitely error or unscriptural teaching. It may be something about which there may be legitimate differences of interpretation. Yet some brother may insist on harping upon his own interpretation or upon some minor matter. Some seem predisposed to “majoring on a minor.” Such insistence of one’s own viewpoint may disturb the minds of some or lead to factions within the assembly. When such things are persisted in, they need to be dealt with by the discipline of the elders.
Some Forms of Discipline
As mentioned earlier, there are different forms of discipline. Some seem to think that by discipline we only mean putting a person away from the fellowship of the local church; in other words, excommunication. But this is only a last extreme when all other forms of discipline have failed.
At first it was stated that teaching the truth from the Word of God must be a primary part of discipline. This is clearly exemplified for us in First Corinthians, in which there is so much about order in the church. We just mentioned briefly some examples which the reader may study more fully by himself. There were dissensions and quarrelings in that church at Corinth, so Paul pointed out the error of such things (ch. 1). He taught them the wrong in going to law against a brother (ch. 6), the right approach to marital problems (ch. 7), about such problems as eating meat offered to idols (ch. 8), about the support of Christian workers (ch. 9), about head covering and observance of the Lord’s Supper (ch. 11), the use of gifts or abilities in the church (ch. 12 & 14), and the truth of resurrection (ch. 15). All such teaching is an essential element in discipline.
Human nature being what it is, even in believers, there will probably always be some who do not respond to the teaching. The next step in discipline would be admonition, rebuke or warning. Later on we will consider how to administer discipline but right now let us look at some verses that go a step further than teaching. Elders should be respected because they labour among us, are over us and admonish us (1 Thessalonians 5:12). These elders are to admonish the idle (1 Thessalonians 5:14). The word for “admonish” or warn literally means “putting in mind” or a firm reminder. The idle or “unruly” are those who are disorderly or insubordinate, for this word means “not keeping in step.” There are those who are uncooperative or unwilling to work amicably with others. In Thessalonica some believers were idle and unwilling to work for their living. They had to be warned that if they did not work, they should not eat. Any brother who is lazy and unwilling to earn his own living ought not to be helped materially or financially by his brethren (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13). The expectation of the Lord’s imminent return, a truth prominent in the Thessalonian epistles, is no excuse for such conduct. While we should live as if He may come at any moment, we can plan and work as if it might yet be a long time. Such people were called “busybodies” which is paraphrased by W. E. Vine as “some who are not busied in their own business, but are overbusied in that of others” (see also 1 Timothy 5:13).
Paul realized that some would not heed such admonitions. So he says that we are to keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and have nothing to do with him (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14 R.S.V.) So where admonition fails there has to be avoidance. Such unruly Christians are to be taken note of so that others may dissociate from them. This seems to mean that we show our disapproval of such behaviour by our attitude toward these men. Or that we refrain from being too friendly with them in a social way. Yet this attitude is modified in that we are not to treat him as an enemy but should continue to warn him in a brotherly way (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
Those who create dissensions and difficulties with regard to teaching are also to be noted and avoided (Romans 16:17). As we have said, there are those who insist on their own point of view on some unimportant matters. We are to avoid stupid controversies, discussions about genealogies, dissensions and quarrels over the law which are unprofitable and futile (Titus 3:9). Such people magnify the importance of some minor issue out of its true proportion. By insisting on their particular viewpoint on some lesser matter they cause dissension and division in the church. They are described as heretics or factious (Titus 3:10). They keep harping on one detail or on the interpretation of one verse and are unwilling to listen to what others have to say. If after two admonitions, they still persist in propagating their peculiar views, they are to be refused. The elders have a right to stop such men from spreading their ideas in the assembly. Such insubordinate men must be silenced (Titus 1:11).
It is sad but sometimes true that it may be an elder who has sinned. This is more serious because as a bishop or overseer he should have been an example to others. Any accusation against an elder needs to be verified by adequate testimony. An elder should not be condemned on the word of one man, no matter who he is, for two or three witnesses are required. Such an elder who sins must be rebuked publicly so that this will serve as a warning to others (1 Timothy 5:19-20).
It will be seen then that there are several forms of discipline short of excommunication. This is a last resort needed only in cases of serious, open sin. Such sins are immorality, greediness, idolatry, reviling, intoxication or theft (1 Corinthians 5:11). As we consider some examples of discipline in the New Testament we will take up the outstanding case in this chapter and see what is involved.