Properly speaking, an article on ‘Church Discipline’ should concern itself with discussing the whole government and rule of the church. But the concern of this article is with one aspect only of this rather complex subject. We are not here dealing with formative or preventive discipline, but with corrective discipline – that is, with attempts to restore straying sinners at the local church level. We are considering those acts by which the local church, in the name of Christ, authoritatively admonishes, suspends or even excommunicates one of its members, with a view to his spiritual restoration.
To approach this subject aright there are three things which we must bear in mind. The first of these is the Scriptural doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints. We do not believe that any elect, called, justified sinner, can ever be lost. At the same time we do not believe that there are grounds for maintaining that a person can be a child of God unless he continues and perseveres in the faith until the end.
The second is that the means which God has provided to keep us persevering is the life and ministry of the local church. The New Testament pattern is that converts are to be baptized and joined to a church. There they partake of the various means of grace, such as Biblical teaching, fellowship, breaking the bread, and times of prayer. Each one of these is necessary for spiritual perseverance. So also is church discipline, exercised for the erring. Like the other means of grace it is to be exercised in, and part and parcel of, local church life. It is not to be viewed as a last resort, but is to be as much an integral part of church life as the other means of grace. It is one aspect of the church’s expression of its brotherly love.
Thirdly, we must ever bear in mind the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ over His church.
By what authority do church officers and the church itself exercise any of the means of grace which we have mentioned? By His authority. Each of them is to be received as from Him.
The mouths which speak, and the hands which administer, are those of sinful men; nonetheless both word and deed are to be received as from Him. The same holds good in regard to church discipline. It is not something we are free to omit, for it has been divinely instituted, just like any other means of grace, when it is exercised scripturally, it is to be received as from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the church. It is a discipline exercised in His Name.
When these considerations are kept in mind, they will ensure not only that this important work gets done, but that it gets done with the right motives. It will be done out of love to the erring member, and with the knowledge that the eternal salvation of a straying member is linked to his spiritual restoration. Church discipline will be exercised as a means of grace, not of destruction; as an evidence of love, not of hate or fear. There will be the recognition that it is for ‘cure of sinners’ [Richard Baxter, Reformed Pastor]. It will be done in the knowledge that ‘Church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren’ [Westminster Confession]. With such love for the offender as the driving force, the work will be free from malice, revenge, spite, or a spirit of superiority. ‘The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God
This article was first published in the Banner of Truth 163, April 1977. Permission to reprint is gratefully acknowledged.