On Church Discipline
Sunday, February 4th, 2024
Christ Covenant Church – Centralia, WA
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, 2 Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. 4 Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. 5 And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: 6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. 7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? 8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. 9 Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. 11 Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. 12 Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; 13 And make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame be turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed. 14 Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
Father, we thank you for the blessing of church discipline, which although is very painful and grievous and hard in the moment, nevertheless, as your word says, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness in those who are exercised by it. So as you exercise us as a congregation, we ask that by your Spirit, you would make us holy, without which, none of us shall see You. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
As most of you know, this coming Wednesday night, we have a church discipline case that is going to trial, and because church discipline is something that many people have never witnessed, and many churches refuse to practice altogether, our circumstances warrant some instruction on this topic.
So there are three practical questions I want to answer in this sermon. And if you have a question that I don’t address, please do come and ask me afterward, or email me this week, I am happy to field whatever questions you may have.
I’ll also add that this is going to be a more topical sermon, so I won’t be giving a full verse-by-verse exposition of Hebrews 12, but I will reference it throughout.
So three questions I want to answer from the Scriptures, and they are:
What is church discipline?
Why does God command the church to exercise discipline?
What is the purpose of a public trial, like the one we will be conducting?
#1 – What is church discipline?
At the most basic level, church discipline is God’s way of treating us as His beloved children.
It says in Psalm 103:13-14, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”
So when you became a Christian, and were baptized into Jesus Christ, you became an adopted child of God, and from that day forward, God promises to be Your God and to treat you as His beloved son or daughter. That is the promise of the covenant of grace, “I will be your God, and you will be by my people” (Ex. 6:7).
To become a Christian is to have God as your Heavenly Father, who loves you, and cares for you, and only and always seeks what is good for you.
David reflecting on this great truth says in Psalm 27:10, “when my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me in.”
In Psalm 68:5, he calls God, “the father of the fatherless, a defender of widows.”
How did Jesus teach us to pray and call upon God in time of need? As “our Father who art in heaven.”
So if you are a Christian, regardless of the status of your relationship with your earthly parents, however good or bad that relationship may be, God is now your Father. He has adopted you, and you belong to Him, body, soul, and spirit.
As it says in our text of Hebrews 12:9, God is the “Father of spirits.” Our earthly father and mother may have given us our flesh, our genes, our DNA, our looks, our hair color and eye color, our first and last name, but when God becomes our Father, He gives us a new name, a new spirit, a new heart, a new nature, a new family, a new destiny, and a new future that is glorious and everlasting. This is the new creation Jesus brings about in those who are united to him by faith.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
To become a Christian is to receive a new Father.
Now we see in our text that one of the things a good father does is discipline his children. And it is this discipline from our earthly fathers, that tells us who our father is. Fathers do not spank, at least ordinarily they don’t spank, the neighbor’s children. A father disciplines his own children.
And therefore, Paul says that when God disciplines us, as grievous and as painful as it may feel in the moment, it is actually a sign of sonship and an act of love. The fact that God disciplines us, the fact that God loves us enough to spank us, is a sign that we are His children, and not children of the devil.
It says in Proverbs 13:24, “He who spares the rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly.”
Likewise it says in Psalm 119:67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word.”
And then again in Psalm 119:75 the psalmist says, “I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are right, And that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.”
If God spares the rod, then He hates us. If God never disciplines you, then you are not His child. We are so sick with sin, that we need God to cut us open, take out our heart of stone, and give us a new heart altogether.
And if you ever undergone surgery, you know that it’s not much fun. These days we have all kinds of drugs that can numb some of the pain, but if the doctor has replaced a ligament, or a limb, or an organ, or set a bone, you may never be the same.
When God wrestled with Jacob, and then blessed him, he put out Jacob’s hip. And while Jacob received a blessing and new name from God, Israel, from that day on, he walked with a limp.
So God plays rough with us. But He wounds us because He loves us, and as the Father Almighty who knows all things, beginning and end, He knows best what is good for us. Therefore, any pain that He permits into our life, we can patiently endure and receive as His way of lifting our eyes to heaven and the life to come.
Colossians 3:2 says, “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” And when our affections are stuck down here, God disciplines us to elevate our minds to Him.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, that God permitted him to be “burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves.”
Paul was so burdened, that he despaired of life itself. But then he tells us why His Heavenly Father did this, so “that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.”
The discipline of the Lord, in all its many forms, is given to all of God’s children, so “that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.”
So if God is your Father, at some point, and throughout your life, He is going to permit pain, and use the rod, to purge out the sin in your life. And as it says in Hebrews 12:10, this is all “for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.”
Now that is God’s discipline in the broadest of terms, and then church discipline is one of the means or instruments that God uses to make us holy.
If we were to survey the entire Bible on this topic of church discipline, we would find that there are different kinds and degrees of discipline within the church.
For example, there is informal discipline and formal discipline.
Informal discipline is what we all receive every Sunday when the word of God is read, taught, and preached to us. For those with ears to hear, the Word cuts us, the Spirit convicts us, and we are moved to repent and change our ways so that we do what pleases our Father.
And just as parents should not spank their children for every little fault, so also God does not spank us for every little fault. God is patient. God knows what we can handle. And he often gives us a long time to repent and work on things that He wants us to change.
However, if we presume on this patience and kindness, if we don’t actually ever repent, well that is when God may bring pain into our life to wake us up.
So informal discipline is what all of us are constantly subjecting ourselves to when we hear the Word, pray, humble ourselves, and confess our sins each day.
Romans 8:13 describes this kind of informal self discipline when it says, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Now what happens when you refuse this informal self-discipline? What happens when you resist the Holy Spirit’s work in your life?
Well, the sins that we think are private or personal or hidden, do not stay hidden for long. And eventually these sins spread, like leaven, and can start to affect and infect other people. Jesus says, “out of the abundance of your heart, the mouth speaks,” and if you have a sinful heart, it won’t be long before you are sinning against others.
When we sin against someone else, Jesus gives us a process for dealing with it that starts with informal correction and escalates to formal discipline.
It says in Matthew 18:15, “if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” This is informal church discipline: you confronting and admonishing your fellow Christian.
Now if that brother refuses to repent, Jesus says in the next verse, “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.”
Still at this point, this is usually informal church discipline. You take a brother or sister with you to confront the person again and call them to repent.
And it is only after that step, that if the person still refuses to repent, Jesus says, “tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” This would be where we enter into the realm of “formal church discipline,” because now the elders are involved.
The “church” here can refer both to the elders of the congregation, or to the whole membership, and if after refusing to listen to the elders and the whole church, then comes the last and final stage of discipline which is excommunication.
Excommunication is simply the announcement that someone is no longer a Christian. They refuse to repent, they refuse to submit to the government of the church, and therefore Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:5, “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
So there are degrees of discipline, ranging from informal self-discipline, to admonishment between brothers, to formal discipline from the elders which, if the person still is unrepentant, can finally lead to excommunication. But even then, when a person is put out of the church, the goal Paul says, is so that “their spirit may be saved.”
The goal of all discipline, up to and including excommunication, is that the wayward son or daughter of God may be restored to the family. Restoration is always the goal when God disciplines us.
Summary: Church discipline, whether formal or informal, private or public, when done in obedience to the Scriptures, is all God’s way of treating us His beloved sons and daughters. And therefore we are commanded in Hebrews 12:5-6, “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.”
Do not despise your Father in Heaven, when he scourges you. Remember it is a sign of love and sonship. And this is true of church discipline as well. “He who spares the rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly.”
#2 – Why does God command the church to exercise discipline?
We have already begun to answer this question, it is because God loves us. But there are additional reasons that Scripture gives for why the church must exercise both formal and informal, private and public discipline. So let us consider some of those other reasons.
The Westminster Confession, which is our church’s doctrinal standard, nicely summarizes these other reasons, so I’ll read this paragraph from the confession, and then elaborate on it.
WCF 30.3, “Church censures are necessary for 1) the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren; 2) for deterring of others from the like offences; 3) for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump; 4) for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel; and 5) for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.”
So let me restate those 5 reasons for us and then point you to where they are found in Scripture.
God commands the church to exercise discipline why?
1. To call back the wayward sheep.
We saw in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, the purpose of confronting someone is to call them back to Christ. We want them to return to Jesus who is the Good Shepherd.
2. To deter others from committing similar sins.
So one of the reasons God commands that certain unrepentant sins be made public and brought into the light, is to warn others against committing that same sin.
Paul says in Ephesians 5:11-12, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret.”
Likewise in 1 Timothy 5:20 it says, “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.”
Proverbs 19:25 says, “Smite a scorner, and the simple will beware.”
So God commands the church to publicly rebuke, admonish, and bring certain unrepentant sins into the light, so that the offender will be ashamed and repent, but also so that we will stand in fear, that if we do not repent, the same discipline may come to us.
So church discipline, especially public and formal discipline, is God’s way of warning the rest of us. When you were a child, and your older sibling got in trouble for talking back to mom, the wise child observes and learns from that.
You can either learn from observing others or learn by personal experience. But either way, God wants you to learn that in his house, unrepentant sin is not tolerated.
3. To prevent sin from spreading to others.
The image Scriptures gives us is of leaven that spreads through the dough. Another image might be cancer that spreads to other parts of the body.
Jesus says in John 15, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
So sin is a disease that must be cut out of the body. And either we can cut it out ourselves, disciplining our flesh, or, if we let it grow, we force the church to do the cutting.
If we are one body, and fellow members together, which God says we are in 1 Corinthians 12 and other places, then there is no such thing as a truly private sin. All sin is communal in that it impacts the body of Christ of which you are a member.
Therefore, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven…put away from yourselves the evil person.”
4. To Honor Christ, who is our Spouse and the Head of the Church.
Just as a wife’s actions reflect upon her husband, so also the church’s actions reflect upon the Lord Jesus.
When the church tolerates unrepentant sin and does not exercise discipline, we dishonor Christ and give him a bad name. The church is where repentant sinners can be cleansed and forgiven, the church is not the place where unrepentant sinners can continue to live comfortable in a life of hypocrisy.
When Jesus sends letters to the pastors of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, a recurring theme is that if you don’t exercise discipline, and throw out false teachers and Jezebel, and fornicators, and liars, then I will come myself and remove your lampstand.
Church discipline is the immune system in Christ’s body. And the threat that hangs over every church, and every pastor and session of elders, is “you exercise discipline, or I will come and remove your lampstand,” Jesus says.
Many churches have a compromised immune system, because the elders are too cowardly to make anyone upset. They fear the displeasure of certain women in the church. They fear the disapproval of those who might think they are being too harsh.
And this is why God requires that 1) only men be elders, and then, 2) only men who are impartial, fair-minded, and who hate a bribe.
Churches are fraught with emotional bribery. And so God requires that His servants, His elders, those who rule and judge in cases of discipline, fear God more than man. Paul says in Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
Discipline as Hebrews says is “grievous.” It feels harsh, it feels painful, it feels uncomfortable because it is. And yet, this is the severe cure for severe sin. Romans 11:22 says, “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.”
We exercise the Lord’s discipline to Honor Christ, because the purity of His bride and our testimony to the world is at stake, and that trumps all of our feelings.
5. Finally, the church exercises discipline to prevent the wrath of God from coming upon us.
Remember when Achan stole the spoils from Jericho and hid them in his tent. And then Joshua sent an army to destroy Ai, but instead of defeating them, 36 Israelite soldiers were killed.
Joshua cries out to God and says, God why did this happen?
Listen to what God says in Joshua 7:10-12, “So the Lord said to Joshua: “Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face? Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. For they have even taken some of the accursed things, and have both stolen and deceived; and they have also put it among their own stuff. Therefore the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies, but turned their backs before their enemies, because they have become doomed to destruction. Neither will I be with you anymore, unless you destroy the accursed from among you.”
When there is sin in the camp, the church becomes impotent against its adversaries.
And so God commands the church to be holy as He is holy, so that when judgment comes, we are purified and spared like the land of Goshen, rather than destroyed like Egypt and the ungodly.
This is also why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:31-32 regarding the Lord’s Supper, “For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.”
Either the world will condemn you, or God will condemn you. Whose displeasure do you fear more, the world’s or your Father in Heaven? Because you cannot have it both ways.
Finally, we come to our third question…
#3 – What is the purpose of a public trial, like the one we will be conducting?
We already know the purposes for church discipline in general, but why do we need a public trial? Is that really necessary?
I should note first that the only sin that someone can ultimately be excommunicated for is unrepentance. And so a public trial for excommunication would only be warranted in two situations 1) when a person had said, “I am not going to repent,” or 2) their actions over time demonstrated that their repentance was not genuine.
And then, even if the accused is found guilty of whatever charges are brought, they can plead guilty, but then repent, and if that repentance is genuine, they would not be excommunicated.
So the fact that a trial for excommunication is taking place, does not mean the outcome is already a foregone conclusion. The point of the trial is to establish the truth or falsity of the charges and determine whether the accused (if guilty) is willing to repent.
So with that as an aside, let me give you two reasons for conducting a public trial as we shall have on Wednesday.
1. The first, is to protect the person accused from any mistreatment or injustice from the elders, and to protect the elders from any charges of injustice.
It is the most serious thing for someone to be excommunicated, and if the charges are false, or the person is innocent, a public trial allows them to defend themselves and even vindicate themselves against false accusations.
If the trial was done behind closed doors, and the elders simply announced one Sunday that so-and-so was excommunicated, and the church never heard from the person themselves whether they plead guilty or innocent, that would not be a transparent and honest process.
That was the process they used to crucify Jesus, rushing him through a trial in the night, and we want nothing to do with that kind of backdoor dealing.
This is also just following the basic command all throughout Scripture that judgment is to be established in the gates.
It was customary for the elders and priests to gather at the gates of the city to hear cases and render judgment. And by doing so in the public square, it has the effect of keeping people honest to their word. Whatever you say, or do, and whatever the judges judge, is open for all to see. It keeps elders, witnesses, prosecution, and defendant accountable to the broader community. This is healthy peer pressure.
2. A second reason is because excommunication is a public and communal punishment, as is restoration to the church.
So this is an opportunity for the accused to make known to the church, whether they are innocent or guilty, and if guilty, whether they are repentant or unrepentant.
If an innocent verdict is reached, then the person can be publicly restored to the body. They are vindicated against false or untrue accusation.
If a guilty verdict is reached, but the person is repentant, then they can begin the process of restoration with far more help, prayer, accountability, and encouragement than if was never made public at all.
Finally, if a guilty verdict is reached, and the person is unrepentant, only then is excommunication the punishment.
And in all these cases, by making this process public, the members of the church become additional witnesses to whatever takes place.
This is the due process that God’s justice commands.
The test for all of us is: Do you trust God’s Word and that His ways are better and more just than your ways? Do you trust the Lord Jesus to use this process to purify His Bride and glorify His Name? Do you fear the Holy Ghost and His power among us?
When Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead for lying to the Holy Spirit, it says in Acts 5, “And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things… And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.”
Discipline is how God grows His church. It is how our Father raises us up from foolish children into wise kings and queens. So trust your Father, who loves you and knows what is best.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.