Let’s start with the Principles of Church Discipline. Discipline is one of those words that often conjures up images of punishment or hardship and suchlike, but actually the word simply means ‘training’. It comes from the same root as the word ‘disciple’ – a learner, one who is in training. The Greek word for ‘discipline’ meant primarily the education of children, but was also used for adults in reference to any kind of instruction, correction or training that worked to produce good moral character or, in the case of Christianity, spiritual maturity: Christlikeness.
The following five principles regarding discipline and spiritual maturity will help us in our quest for the purpose and practice of Church Discipline.
Principle No. 1: Discipline is about training believers be mature in Christ
In Hebrews 12, it says, “the Lord disciplines those he loves. . . Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. . . God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” (vv 6, 7, 10) So we who are disciples of Christ come under the discipline of God our Father. He, being God, has the authority to discipline us, and one of the great partnerships in Christianity is that authority always goes hand in hand with responsibility.
Principle No. 2: God has the ultimate responsibility for our maturity.
“He who began a good work in you (being God) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
Romans 13 says, “there is no authority except that which God has established.” (v1) He has delegated authority to various groups here on earth. He’s given the government authority and responsibility for making and enforcing law in my and every other country. He has given parents authority and responsibility in bringing up their children. And, whether or not we like it, He has given husbands authority and responsibility for their households. And. . .
Principle No. 3: God has given authority to the local church to carry out Church Discipline:
We see this in verse 18 of our passage where Jesus talks about ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’. These are terms of authority – not to do with spiritual warfare as is often suggested, but to do with Church Discipline. These were two words commonly related to rabbis in Jesus’ time. Rabbis had the authority to judge between disputes and either ‘bind’ people to their oaths, or ‘loose’ them from them, as they saw fit. They are terms of judgement and discipline, which are part of the God-given authority of the Church. One day, Paul tells us, we will judge the world and even angels, but in this instance we’re dealing with the authority to carry out judgement and discipline in the local church.
While there is an authority structure in most churches, whether through teams of elders or through vicars and bishops (and therefore greater responsibility for such leaders), God has given authority for Church Discipline to every believer in the local church. Neither Matthew 18 nor 1 Corinthians 5, the two main passages on Church Discipline, mention leaders.
Principle No. 4: Since God has given all believers authority in matters of local Church Discipline, we all have a responsibility to play our part.
This is possibly the most important point for us to get clear in our thinking. And it’s not necessarily a very attractive concept, especially in the increasingly tolerant West. Few people really enjoy confronting someone else about sin, much less bringing discipline. It seems so judgemental and harsh and unloving. But actually Scripture paints a different picture. Proverbs 3 says, “The Lord disciplines those he loves.” Later in Proverbs it talks about parental discipline in much the same way, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24) As distasteful and uncomfortable as it might make us feel, it is love the moves us to confront our fellow believers with their sin. Admittedly it may not be received as a loving act, but to neglect to engage in Church Discipline would be unloving, putting our own feelings and comfort first.
Principle No. 5: Church Discipline is a great demonstration of our love for one another.
Below is the flowchart from this book, suggesting the Biblical process for Church Discipline.