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Biblical church discipline

Cleansing the covenant community


by Tim Gallant

Undoubtedly, one of the dirtiest words in all Christendom is discipline. In the minds of many, discipline stands for everything that opposes Christian liberty. Discipline is regarded as a yoke of bondage to be cast off with great relief. A stark contrast is set between churches that discipline and churches that "provide love."

Now, undoubtedly it is possible to discipline without Christian love, and regrettably we may even be able to point to examples. But if we are under the illusion that there is real tension between true discipline and true love, then the example of the Apostle Paul serves as a very timely corrective for us.

The atmosphere of discipline

Paul demonstrated the nature of a true pastoral heart. In writing to the Thessalonians, he reminds them of how he conducted himself among them. He did not seek glory either from them, or from others, even though he could "have made demands as [an] apostle of Christ." On the contrary, he says, "we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children." Paul is no aloof minister, holding the Word of God high above his head, and objectively proclaiming the demands of the Gospel! No, he is passionate about the people of God. "So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us." Paul deals with the people of God, not remotely, but as with a beloved family. He further reminds them, "You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children" (1 Thess. 1:2-12, italics mine).

Nor are the Thessalonians some select group. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, "I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved" (2 Cor. 12:15). Remember, it is this same Corinthian church that is on the receiving end of some of Paul's most stinging rebukes. This church was a mess. Paul had to write them a letter, long enough to later be divided into sixteen chapters, and it would seem that almost all of it was rebuke, correction, and chastisement. But consider the love with which Paul wrote; hear his own words about that letter: "For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you, with many tears, not that you should be grieved, but that you might know the love which I have so abundantly for you" (2 Cor. 2:4).

This is the proper atmosphere of discipline. An atmosphere of love. A compulsion for the people of God that drives the church leadership to keep back nothing that is helpful, but to proclaim it, and teach the flock, both publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20). An inner drive, fuelled by the love of God and His people, to sustain Paul's example: "watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears" (Acts 20:31, italics mine).

This atmosphere will help correct the sort of excesses that can occur in churches where discipline is viewed in a somewhat mechanical fashion. It will help us to realize the true depth and breadth of biblical discipline.

The function of discipline

The first disciplining function is the preached Word. It is, as Paul says, profitable for correction (2 Tim. 3:16). The hope of every faithful minister is that the people respond to the Gospel proclamation with obedience and faith, so that further correction is unnecessary. This means, of course, that preaching is not merely meant to be some rational discourse that provides a textual analysis, and yet which fails to proclaim God's Word to His people as covenantally responsible. The preacher's aim must be to see God's people disciplined to His Word willingly.

But welcome to the real world. The people of God are still fallen human beings, and are still prone to sometimes turn a deaf ear to the preached Word.

Because of this, the body of believers, as well as the eldership in particular, is designed so that the various members may supply what is lacking in the others, and edify one another in truth and love. It is a sad state if a church has no brotherly admonition among the people of the congregation.1 The people of God must be aware that the duties of encouragement and correction are mutual duties of love that fall to them, and not just to the elders and ministers. As we note elsewhere, the offices are given to the church "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, and for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12).2

Even what is more formally known as church discipline should normally spring from the process of admonition between brothers. We can never call it normal when someone is removed from membership without being given any biblical counsel or opportunity to repent.

Jesus provided the model in dealing with private sins in Matthew 18. When a brother sins against another brother, he is to be approached alone,3 with a view toward his repentance. If he persists in his sin, then witnesses are to be taken to him as well. If he remains firm in his unrepentance, then he is brought before a church court. If this does not bring him to repentance, the church exercises the keys of the kingdom, binding on earth what is bound in heaven, agreeing in the presence of Christ to the righteousness of God's judgment upon sinners (Matt. 18:15-20).

Discipline and the Lord's Supper

In the article on church membership, we look primarily at the responsibility of the individual to examine himself in view of the holy presence of Christ that accompanies the Lord's Supper. But personal responsibility is not the only sort that we are taught in 1 Corinthians. There is also corporate responsibility.

If what we believe is correct, concerning the covenantal presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper, it should not be surprising if we find a number of practical considerations in relation to it. If partaking of the table is a proclamation of Christ, then, most certainly, a hypocritical partaking qualifies as a violation of the third commandment: it is to take the Lord's name in vain, in His very sacred presence.

Christ is present, overseeing the manner in which we approach this table. This implies some human responsibilities are involved.

We have mentioned self-examination. The covenant is, of course, not individualistic, as we have repeatedly emphasized. It is not directed to scattered, disconnected people. God calls a people and puts them in covenant with Himself and with each other. But simply because the covenant is not individualistic most definitely does not mean it is not personal. Paul spends much of the book of Romans detailing the fall of the Jews in terms of their failure to appropriate the covenant by faith. Instead, they had assumed that since they were God's covenant people, they were guaranteed blessing and salvation. They gloried in the promise of blessing and forgot about the demand. Covenantal presumption.

Self-government is an integral function of the office of the priesthood of all believers. Self-discipline is the foundation of all effective discipline. We see the self-examination of 1 Corinthians 11 in this light also: it is an aspect of self-government. The believer does not base his examination upon feeling or upon expectations of perfection. But he is expected to purify his heart in sincerity. This means, first, that he look to Christ and His grace as his only hope; and second, that he does not harbour sin in his heart, but in his weakness approaches the table in purified faith. He remembers both the holiness and the saving mercy of the God of the covenant. He remembers his own responsibility in the covenant in terms of the holiness of God and the holiness of His people. He recognizes that right relationships with God and man are prerequisite to acceptable worship (see Matt. 5:23, 24; cf. Ps. 51:6-17; Is. 1:10-27). In eating the bread and drinking the wine, he is formally declaring his identification with the people of God and with Christ. He is giving his affirmative to the question, "Who is on the Lord's side?" (Ex. 32:26).

This self-government is, then, the most foundational and fundamental human responsibility in the covenant meal. However, it is definitely not a complete picture yet. God also delegates officers (elders) to govern (rule) the churches (Heb. 13:17; 1 Tim. 3:5).

Given the covenantal nature of the meal and the Divine sanctions that confirm and enforce it, we should understand that the Lord's table is holy (literally, set apart). We have seen indication of this already, especially on a personal level. It is clearly implied when Paul warns against partaking of both the table of the Lord and the table of demons (idols). But the responsibility for the protection of this holiness goes beyond the personal. Listen carefully to God's Word of rebuke concerning Israel's carelessness with the Old Testament sacraments:

Thus says the Lord God: "O house of Israel, let us have no more of all your abominations. When you brought in foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in My sanctuary to defile it - My house - and when you offered My food, the fat and the blood, then they broke My covenant because of all your abominations. And you have not kept charge of My holy things, but you have set others to keep charge of My sanctuary for you."

Ezekiel 44:6-8

We no longer have a physical temple as our sanctuary, so the point of application is certainly not that only believers are allowed to come to church! (It should be noted that this would have been a misapplication in the Old Testament period, as well, but that would require more sideline discussion than is pertinent here.) But the covenant meal is for God's covenant people, and only them; this much we can see clearly carried over into the New Testament, which I hope to illustrate momentarily.

The problem in Ezekiel 44 is that the priests did not guard the holiness of God's sanctuary and table - they did not "keep charge" of God's holy things. In what way was this true of them? That they were personally unclean in their administration of the rituals? This we are not told. Rather, they became "partaker of other men's sins" (1 Tim. 5:22). Their guilt lay in their failure to stop outsiders from partaking and thereby defiling the sacraments ("holy things"). This is to cast the pearls of God before swine (Matt. 7:6).

The oversight of the holy things was not - and is not - left merely to individual consciences. When those to whom God had given the charge of His service "opened the table" to all, what they were really doing was giving away their responsibility. They were allowing others to keep charge of the sanctuary. In view of this, church elders cannot plead that they have stressed self-examination, and think that is adequate, if they themselves have given no effort to protect the holiness of the communion. To knowingly pass the bread and the wine to someone who, in partaking, would be taking the Lord's name in vain, is to partake in that sin.

We have paid some attention to the way Paul addresses the Lord's Supper in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. But this epistle has more relevant material to deal with. Concerning the great offense which the apostle handles in this epistle, he commands the church to engage in corporate discipline. "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:4, 5). Paul spoke in no uncertain terms that such leaven of corruption must be purged out, so that the church could be a new, purified, unleavened lump. "For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (vv. 7, 8; emphasis mine).

Remember that later in the epistle, Paul writes that "we are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread" (10:17). The Lord's table is a covenantal table, shared by those who together constitute the bread of God. It is to be protected from those who would make it an unholy thing. We do not share it with unbelievers, including those unbelievers who call themselves Christians but openly live in a manner foreign to Christ. Hear the words of Paul: "now I have written you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner - not even to eat with such a person" (5:11). Here Paul is speaking in the general terms of the company we keep (v. 9). But if we are not to share a simple everyday meal with such a person, how much less are we to eat a holy, covenantal meal with them? It is abhorrent and absurd to suggest that God is looser in His requirements concerning His meal of fellowship than He requires us to be with ours. The table of the Lord is not our table; it is the table of the Lord, and He has entrusted us with its guardianship according to His Word. If we open communion to one and all, I emphasize again, we are guilty of giving what is holy to the dogs and casting the pearls of God to the pigs (Matt. 7:6).

Recall the judgments that came upon the Corinthian church because they failed to regard the Lord's Supper for what it was: a holy, covenant meal. God's presence for covenant confirmation is meant to purge the church of hypocrites, and is thus designed for our protection. God scourges the few that we are unable to identify as wicked, so that the many, the church in general, is not leavened by their wickedness. (Practical purification, of course, is not the only reason. Ultimately, God's judgments are always vindications of His own holiness, which is the basis for His jealousy for the purity of His Church to begin with.)

But because churches generally have failed to seal off the table from people they know (or ought to know, but fail to, out of simple carelessness) to be harbouring wickedness, God has set His negative sanctions in a more general manner. He now judges not only a handful of hypocrites, but entire churches that condone sin and profane the holiness of God's name by allowing openly wicked people to partake of the covenant meal. We should have no doubt whatsoever that this is one of the big reasons why the modern Church is so riddled with impotence and impurity. It is only God's kindness that He has taken our pathetic ignorance into account and judged us less harshly than we deserve. If we want to recover our testimony to the world, we need first to recover our sense of the holiness and majesty of God.

Does our duty to regulate the table mean then that we are to bar all visitors from it? Certainly not; the Law has definite provision that applies here:

And if a stranger sojourns [resides temporarily] among you, and would keep the Lord's Passover, he must do so according to the rite of the Passover and according to its ceremony; you shall have one ordinance, both for the stranger and the native of the land.

Numbers 9:14

God expects us to protect the table with the knowledge He has given us; He does not call upon us to automatically challenge the credibility of everyone who does not call our own church body his home church. There is to be one communion, both for the "insider" and the visitor, for there is one Lord, one faith, one body (Eph. 4:4, 5).

The terms of communion, however, should likewise be consistent for precisely that reason. This means that we can rightly expect a credible profession of faith from any outsider; we ought to question him to some degree concerning his faith and lifestyle. (We are aided with this by the fact that most visitors to churches already know members there, so the members can provide witness to the person's own testimony.) We ought to expect that he is in submission to a true church; that he is not simply a "Lone Ranger." This demonstrates that he is covenantally committed (although he might not define it in those particular terms; the reality, rather than the terminology, is the key issue).

We are not interested here in giving a comprehensive treatment of how to examine visitors, but we do need to think of the role of elders, whom God has given to oversee His churches, in overseeing the table.4 (It would be wrong, however, to remove responsibility from the congregation in this regard. If a member is familiar with a visitor who, biblically speaking, should be barred from the table, he must ensure that the elders become aware of this.) There is a place for visitors at the table, because it is not merely the table of the local church, but of the Lord. On the other hand, the local church has been given authority and responsibility in its administration.5

We need to understand that as covenant proclamation, the Lord's Supper is meant to communicate something about God's relationship to His people. Open communion (where the Supper is passed to all, regardless of whether they are members in good standing in a Bible-believing church) communicates the idea of the universality of grace apart from covenantal commitment. It is more suited to a theology that teaches the brotherhood of man than it is to biblical Christianity.

On the other hand, an absolutely closed communion table (where only local members may participate) communicates a denial of the catholicity of the Church itself.6 It would serve to build unbiblical walls between the true people of God.

How does all this relate to church discipline? That answer should be rather clear. Excommunication finds it most concrete manifestation in the cutting off of access to the Lord's Supper to unrepentant people. Paul's sentence of judgment in 1 Corinthians 5 certainly carries this thought. In this passage, he even uses the Passover terminology (remember the link between Passover and Lord's Supper) and the imagery of the one bread, which is shared with his comments in chapter ten. A careful reading of the first eight verses of chapter five must lead us to the conclusion that the Lord's Supper is in view.7

It is precisely because the church body is one bread that such drastic action is necessary. A little leaven (unrepented wickedness) corrupts the whole loaf (5:6). The old leaven must be continually purged out, because God's bread is unleavened bread (5:7). The Passover we celebrate, the Lord's Supper, is not to be leavened with the malice and wickedness of hypocrites, such as the man disciplined in this chapter; rather, it is celebrated through sincerity and truth (5:8).

The goal of the comprehensive discipline process

The verses which follow in 1 Corinthians 5 carry forward the principle in more general terms. The disfellowshipping from the table of the Lord (purging out the old leaven, as Paul puts it) also leads to disfellowshipping from the fellowship tables in the homes. This is not a complete ban, however; elsewhere Paul writes that a person in such a situation is not to be treated as an enemy, but rather, he is to be admonished (warned) as a brother (2 Thess. 3:15). There is no fellowship; he is not to be "kept company" (2 Thess. 3:14); yet the one who leaves the fold is sought out in hope of restoration (see Matt. 18:11-14 in context of the immediately following verses concerning the discipline process).8 The call to admonition would seem to indicate that the excommunicated person should be allowed to come to church and hear the Word of God, for that is the primary means by which the Holy Spirit works repentance in the heart. And repentance is, after all, the goal. "For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost" (Matt. 18:11).


Endnotes

1 I guarantee that such a church will be riddled with gossip. When what God has commanded is absent, what He has prohibited generally becomes present.

2 Calvin writes that "the first foundation of discipline is to provide a place for private admonition" - which may surprise many who have bought into some of the caricatures surrounding the great Reformer. See his Institutes, Bk. IV, Ch. XII.2.

3 It should be noted that in terms of public sins, private admonition is not always considered necessary. For example, when Peter caused dissension by forsaking the Gentiles when men came from James in Jerusalem, Paul rightly rebuked him on the spot, and even recorded the incident without apology (Gal. 2:11ff.). Likewise, although Paul admonishes Timothy not to rebuke an elder without two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19), he continues, "Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear" (v. 20). However, it is not clear whether Paul is merely referring to the presence of all the elders, or before the congregation as a whole.

4 The word "bishop," which is used interchangeably with the title, elder (Titus 1:5-9; Acts 20:17, 28; see also usage in I Tim. 3), literally means overseer. Obviously, this is not limited to overseeing the communion table - it extends to overseeing the pulpit, and indeed the overall life of the congregation - but it is certainly a necessary application.

5 I trust that it is clear that inquiries and determinations of eligibility should be made before worship begins to avoid disruption. It is often not possible, but most preferable would be if visitors would apply for admittance during the week, to provide the elders with ample time to deal with the request.

6 The word catholic simply means universal. We are not speaking of Romanism here. Rather, we are speaking of the truth that God has one Church in the world, not merely many scattered local churches unrelated to one another (cf. Eph. 4:4).

7 Keep in mind that Paul gives judgment for "when you are gathered together" (v. 4). It is clear that this inevitably was in the context of the Lord's Supper, because communion was practiced each time the Corinthian church gathered, as, indeed, appears to have been the universal practice (1 Cor. 11:18, 20; see also Acts 20:7).

8 Also, the entirety of Luke 15: its parables all contain this same thought of recovery of those lost from the covenant community.

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