The Way to Discipline
The way in which discipline is exercised is most important if it is to be effective. A surgeon performing a delicate operation needs to be careful lest he cause harm instead of healing. Discipline carried out in a wrong spirit or in a wrong way may harden rather than soften an offender, or it may cause strife or division in the church.
Permit me to suggest five essentials required in the way we should discipline.
Surely love must come first of all. “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Not that love condones or excuses sin, but that it does not expose it to public view by gossiping about it. “For lack of wood the fire goes out; and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases” (Proverbs 26:20 R.S.V.). This verse comes back to me over more than half a century because it was read after an announcement of discipline in the assembly where I grew up as a young man. Just as Shem and Japheth covered the drunken shame of their father, Noah (Genesis 9:23), so we ought not to publicize the guilt of an erring brother. Our love in regard to discipline may be displayed in three ways. First, because of our love for the Lord and for His honour, we want to be faithful to His Word in the administration of discipline. When we are motivated by love for Christ we will desire that He should be glorified, even in the unpleasant matter of discipline. Second, there must be love for the church and for God’s people as a whole. Our aim will be to maintain the spiritual purity of the church. Our prayer will be that the Lord’s people may be built up or edified through such discipline. Third, there must be love for those who have done wrong, even though we hate what they have done. The one being disciplined is to be treated as a brother and not as an enemy (2 Thessalonians 3:15). Where it is evident that several are going astray there should be teaching to show them their error. However, where only one or two are involved, the first stages of discipline should be done privately with those concerned. In this way we can possibly spare them some public shame and avoid gossip by immature or unspiritual Christians. When only a few have done wrong, they ought not to be criticized or attacked from the platform in public preaching. Even if no names are mentioned, others will probably know who is being referred to. It is a cowardly use of the pulpit to publicly attack another through the sermon, especially when the preacher is not willing to talk personally with the person concerned. Reproofs should first be administered privately (James 5:19-20).
If there is love, there will also be humility. Much harm has been done by those who tried to put others right in a proud, censorious and self-righteous spirit. Our self-righteous pride may be a greater offense in the eyes of God than the sin we want to discipline. It may be the “beam” in our own eye that prevents us seeing clearly the “speck” in our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5). If we are spiritual in our endeavour to restore our erring brother, we shall approach him in a spirit of meekness, in humility, considering our own weakness and shortcomings (Galatians 6:1). Such reproof will be like healing oil and not like a cudgel (Proverbs 27:5-6; Psalm 141:5).
Then too there must be faithfulness in following God’s Word in these matters. Through this we shall avoid indifferent discipline or an unwillingness to do what needs to be done, just because it will be unpleasant and irksome. Elders then will not shirk their duty even though it involves some special friend or relative. When we are faithful to the Scriptures, we shall avoid dilatory discipline, a failure to act promptly when the facts are unmistakable. On the other hand, we need to avoid unwarranted discipline by going beyond what the Scriptures teach. There are some matters of conduct that are left to the personal decision of the individual believer (Romans 14:4-5). Where such things are clearly not against principles set forth in the Word, they are not cause for discipline. We may not always agree with what others do, but there has to be some latitude in some areas of Christian conduct. Things like this could be discussed privately to clear up misunderstandings among believers.
Another essential in discipline is impartiality (1 Timothy 5:21). There should be no bias or prejudice on account of social standing (James 2:1-4), or personal relationships. We should act only on the basis of reliable evidence as to the facts of the case, so far as these can be determined. It is good to follow the biblical rule of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16). This is particularly true when accusations are brought against an elder (1 Timothy 5:19). Elders should try to be objective in their decisions. Sometimes it is good to think if we would make the same decision if some other person were involved. It is well to beware of the extremes of being either too lax or too severe. Needless to say the offender should have every opportunity to hear the accusation and to defend himself.
Finally, there should be no discipline without much prayer. Pray for wisdom to sort out the facts upon which a decision must be made (James 1:5). Pray for a right attitude that will include all the above-mentioned essentials. Pray that God’s will may be known so that we will do what He desires with regard to His children. Only the Lord knows everything for He alone knows our thoughts and motives. So much prayer is needed for His guidance. It is important that elders pray for all concerned in cases of discipline, and better still, if they are able to pray with them. Of course, there will be prayer that the erring one may be restored to the Lord and to the fellowship of His people.
The Objectives in Discipline
There needs to be some definite objectives and aims in church discipline. We should know what it is we are trying to accomplish, what purposes we have in mind. Some of these aims have already been mentioned, but will stand repeating. We will think of them in four ways; with regard to the disciplined person, to the elders, to the local church, and to the Lord.
So far as the one being disciplined is concerned, our aim should be his restoration, first to the Lord and then to the fellowship of the church. It ought to be our constant prayer and desire that he repent and come to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25). By bringing back one who has wandered from the truth we can keep him from going further into sin and from a more severe chastisement (James 5:19-20). Previously we have seen how the immoral man in Corinth was disciplined (1 Corinthians 5). We cannot be sure whether he repented and was restored, though this is a definite possibility. Commentators are not agreed whether this man is referred to in 2 Corinthians or whether it was some other opponent of the Apostle. Some statements there do not seem altogether applicable to the immoral man. Some suggest another letter was written by Paul between those in the New Testament and that this is the one referred to in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4. However, even if the immoral man is not the one mentioned, the principle still holds true. The punishment by the many was enough, for it had accomplished its purpose. So now they should rather forgive and comfort the man lest he be discouraged and overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. They were to reaffirm their love for him. Just as Paul had acted with them in discipline, so now he stands with them in forgiveness. In discipline they had acknowledged the presence of Christ and also now in forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
When there is evident repentance and a sincere confession of guilt, we must forgive the erring one, for that is what the Lord does (1 John 1:9). He then can be restored to the fellowship of the local church and again take his place at the Lord’s table. If the discipline was publicly announced, then the restoration should also be announced publicly. Then everyone can show their love for the restored brother or sister by the warmth of their welcome. Let us try to forget the unhappy past and not talk about it any more. However, it takes time for wounds to heal. Also, we must consider the testimony of the assembly. So for these reasons, the restored one should not expect to immediately take any public or prominent part in the services, unless it would be a personal testimony. Later on when others have a renewed confidence in his spiritual restoration he may take a more active part.
The exercise of discipline is a solemn responsibility for the elders. They are not engaged in a “witch-hunt,” looking for wrong-doers, nor are they seeking opportunities to show off their authority. But on the other hand, neither dare they ignore wrongdoing which affects God’s people. They are to take care of the church (1 Timothy 3:5), to tend the flock of God and be examples to it (1 Peter 5: 1-3). When there is need for discipline, it should be a challenge for them to search their own hearts. Have they failed to fulfill their duties or to be the kind of examples they should be? They are guides or leaders who are to keep watch over the souls under their care (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
Another objective in discipline already mentioned is to maintain the purity of the testimony of the local church. We cannot expect to have an effective witness for Christ where sin is tolerated. The sin of one man, Achan, brought defeat to the nation of Israel (Joshua 7). We have seen how Paul referred to purging out the leaven in connection with discipline (1 Corinthians 5). The leaven of malice and evil must be put away. Though Paul’s rebuke hurt and grieved them it was a grief that led to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:8-16). He had been concerned, not only about those directly affected by the discipline, but about the whole congregation (v.12). So discipline should make us all realize more fully that sin is no little thing, not something that can be excused or glossed over. God demands holiness from His people (1 Peter 1:15). Since we are all members of the Body of Christ, we must have a mutual care for each other (1 Corinthians 12:25). None of us can live just for himself and his own interests (Romans 14:7-9).
The ultimate objective looks forward to that day when our Lord will come again. We are to seek His honour and glory now because of His purpose at His coming. Then He will “present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27 R.S.V.). May we not anticipate that day by taking out some of the spots and wrinkles now through loving care and wise discipline? In all phases of discipline, our concern will be for the greater glory of God and for the honour of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. In all our deliberations and decisions the paramount thought must be—How may God be glorified and Christ honoured in spite of all our failures and shortcomings?
Some Practical Suggestions
It has been suggested that this series of articles on discipline might be concluded with some practical suggestions. Let us suppose there is an actual case needing discipline in a local church. Let me emphasize at the outset that the following is an imaginary case. If it in any way seems to resemble some real situation, this is just a coincidence. In writing this I have no particular person or place in mind. We will suppose that the elders in a certain church have received a report that a brother (or it might be a sister) there has been guilty of immorality. This is chosen because it is a sin which is unfortunately much too common, but it could have been something else, like gambling or crooked business practices. Let’s call the suspected person “A” for “anonymous.”
“A” has not been attending the services very regularly in recent months and he has been seen with unsaved companions quite frequently. At this point nothing more is known, though there are rumours. Following what we learned about forms of discipline, the elders will no doubt suggest some teaching on the need for attending services regularly (Hebrews 10:25) and the danger of unsaved companions (1 Corinthians 15:33). Even if “A” is absent, the teaching will be a helpful reminder to others. Of course, this teaching will be general so no names will be mentioned or suggested. Yet more specific warning will also be needed. So the elders should arrange for two brethren (or possibly sisters in the case of a sister involved) to visit “A” to talk with him and counsel with him. Perhaps he has some personal or family problems which have become a stumbling-block in his spiritual life. With prayer they should show him the teaching of the Scriptures and counsel him to live for the Lord and point out the spiritual dangers of careless living.
Later on there are reports that “A” has not paid any attention to those warnings. The reports seem to indicate the possibility of immorality. The elders will need to carefully and prayerfully look into these reports. It may not be easy to sort out the facts from gossip, but an honest effort must be made to learn the truth. The elders will need much spiritual wisdom and discernment. They themselves should avoid discussing these matters with others except where it is necessary to learn the truth. Their decision as to the discipline has to be based on the facts in the light of scriptural teaching.
While it is the elders who ascertain the facts and make the decisions, the discipline is imposed by the church as a whole. The elders should have gained the respect and confidence of the believers so that they will be ready to endorse the decisions made. The discipline should be announced when the church is gathered together (1 Corinthians 5:4), and usually the best time for this is at the close of the Lord’s Supper. Such announcements of discipline should not be made in a public meeting where unsaved people and outsiders are present. This is a family matter and should be kept within the family, meaning the local church.
The manner of making such an announcement is important. It should not be included with or tagged to a list of other announcements. There must be an atmosphere of solemnity so that everyone will realize the seriousness and sadness of such open sins. It should be strongly emphasized that there should be no gossiping about the matter. Rather there should be much prayer for the sinning member that he may be restored to the Lord through repentance and confession. Also, there should be much heart-searching by each one. Did I contribute to my brother’s failure by my carelessness or by my lack of love and of prayer for him? Sin in the congregation is an occasion for mourning and grief (1 Corinthians 5:2), certainly not for condemnation or criticism. I vividly recall one such sad occasion when there was possibly not one dry eye among those present. It is not surprising that the brother disciplined soon repented and was restored.
It is quite likely that “A” has stopped coming to the meetings and may even have told someone that he no longer considers himself a member there. In this case, should the elders just drop the matter as if no further action is needed? Personally I do not think so. Though it may seem futile to put away one who is no longer there, there ought to be some record of a decision in the matter. In announcing the discipline taken, it could be mentioned that “A” is no longer attending the meetings, yet the elders felt they could not overlook what had happened. This would make clear the position of the assembly. Then, too, if “A” ever comes back desiring fellowship again, there would be grounds for finding out if he truly repented of his past misdeeds. He should not be permitted to slip back in as if nothing wrong had ever happened.
We live in an age of permissiveness and in a world where just about any kind of conduct is condoned. So discipline is unpopular and is often subject to protests of various kinds. The spirit of rebellion and self-will is rampant all around us. In the church there may be a tendency to be lax with regard to discipline. It is one of those unpleasant duties that most of us would prefer to avoid. Yet godly order in the church requires it. Some of the sting may be lessened if we remember our Lord’s example—“For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6 R.S.V.).
Let all concerned recognize that discipline must be an evidence of love for those who are in the family of God.