From Voice, Jan/Feb 2015. Adapted from Stephen Davey’s book In Pursuit of Prodigals. Kress Biblical Resources (The Woodlands, TX, 2010).Used by permission.
Paul instructed Timothy to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) which means we must engage in an active defense of the faith. That battle for truth begins in the local church where truth and holiness must be defended. And of necessity that involves church discipline. But what exactly is church discipline?
Church discipline can be broadly defined as the “confrontive” and corrective measures taken by an individual, church leaders, or the congregation regarding a matter of sin in the life of a believer (Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek Testament. Regency, 1976, p. 237).
Discipline and discipling are actually interconnected actions with similar goals in mind.
- Discipling: activity geared toward the growth of those who are walking in obedience.
- Discipline: activity geared toward the restoration of those who are walking in disobedience.
Without a doubt, the discipline and restoration of sinning, unrepentant believers is a difficult, time-consuming, awkward task. Little wonder the Church is short of volunteers. Even though:
- the Bible commands it (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)
- our Lord models it (Hebrews 12:6)
- the Church loses credibility and effective witness without it (Revelation 2, 3; 1 Peter 2:11-12).
What Is the Main Objective of Church Discipline?
Contrary to the common notion, the objective of discipline is not punitive, but restorative. While punishment may be observed as one of the consequences of church discipline (2 Corinthians 2:6), it is never the motive or the objective for exercising it. Condemnation is not the goal; restoration is.
When parents discipline their children, the mind of their child might be convinced that “my parents don’t love me … they’re being too hard on me … I don’t deserve this … ouch, that really hurts!” I cannot remember thanking my mother for a spanking and being overwhelmed with gratitude for her obvious love for me. That came years later.
The mind of the parent, however, is focused on delivering a consequence to her child’s sinful action in some corporeal form of discomfort in order to motivate her child to turn—to come back to the safe, productive path of wise living. The pain of a disciplinary moment actually protects children from a lifetime of consequences that bring far greater pain and suffering.
Similarly, the main objective of church discipline is the restoration of the unrepentant believer to the blessed, productive lifestyle of godly obedience and intimacy with Jesus Christ. Keep in mind, this also means you will never have an unrepentant saint thanking you for your obvious love for him as he feels the pain of your discipline and rebuke. That will come later, too.
What Gives the Church or Individual Believers the Right to Judge Someone Else?
A popular question hurled in the face of the biblical church is “Who gave the Church the right to call somebody a sinner in the first place? Didn’t Jesus say, ‘Judge not, lest you be judged’?”
Yes, He did say that (Matthew 7:1). Does this mean that a church should never call a sinner a sinner? Is a church never to point a finger and call sin a sin? That verse is the first gun pulled from the holster of those who believe the Church should wear moral blinders around people who are blatantly, openly sinning: “Jesus said we should never judge anybody, and that’s that!”
Let’s respond by asking a different question: is it ever right to judge? Yes. In fact, the New Testament gives several examples.
When Is It Right to Judge?
1. It is right to judge ourselves as we evaluate our own walk with God.
Chapter eleven of 1 Corinthians carries the repeated exhortation for judging our own lives as we approach the Lord’s table. No less than five times in three verses, Paul commanded a form of self-discipline as he admonishes that “a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28).
This is nothing less than holding ourselves accountable to the standard of God’s Word for holy living, confessing our sins as we approach the communion table. In a very real way—which the Church needs to revive—the ordinance of communion becomes a regular event of self-discipline, self-examination, and repentance in the life of the believer; this is another reason to give more than three minutes at the end of the service to the practice of this ordinance.
Self-discipline is actually a qualifier for disciplining someone else. Paul wrote: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
Why would that matter? Simply because those who render judgment upon the sinful activity of another will find their own lives opened to inspection to a degree they cannot imagine. The pot can never get away with calling the kettle black. So we begin with ourselves, and even more so, as we approach a prodigal. Prodigals already know the names of the other hypocrites in church.
Unfortunately, our own Christian culture considers self-discipline and self-evaluation which leads to repentance and confession far too depressing. Besides, they say, God would want us happy rather than holy.
For a fact, the pursuit of holiness on the part of the growing believer will consistently bring about self-judgment of personal sin, resulting in confession and repentance before Christ (1 John 1:9).
(Part 2 posts Tuesday)
Stephen Davey is senior pastor of Colonial Baptist Church and president of Shepherds Theological Seminary, as well as principal Bible teacher on the “Wisdom for the Heart” broadcast. After earning his MDiv from Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary, Stephen and his wife, Marsha, moved from Dallas to Cary, NC and started Colonial Baptist Church. In 2003, Stephen and the elders of Colonial founded Shepherds Theological Seminary, now fully accredited.