Church discipline, or reconciliation, can be defined in a number of similar ways. For example, Jay Adams mentions that church discipline “is God’s provision for good order in His church that creates conditions for the instruction and growth of the members.” Robert Cheong notes that church discipline is “God’s ongoing, redeeming work through His living Word and people as they fight the fight of faith together to exalt Christ and protect the purity of His Bride.” Jonathan Leeman adds:
Corrective church discipline occurs any time sin is corrected within the church body, and it occurs most fully when the church body announces that the covenant between church and member is already broken because the member has proven to be unsubmissive in his or her discipleship to Christ. By this token, the church withdraws its affirmation of the individual’s faith, announces that it will cease giving oversight, and releases the individual to the world.
Teaching the church the correct understanding of what church discipline actually is, and the purpose of it, will go a long way in helping members to support it. Besides teaching what church reconciliation is, members must be taught that a failure to carry it out reveals a serious spiritual deficiency that the Lord will not overlook. The churches of Pergamun and Thyatira in Revelation 2 were admonished, in part for their failure to practice church discipline and to tolerate sin. James Hamilton notes in regards to churches who fail to practice church discipline that “They will not understand how the church is to apply God’s holiness to their lives. They will be impure churches, and their membership will include unbelievers. Those unbelievers will be surprised to hear Jesus tell them he never knew them (Matt. 7:21-23). Those churches will have blood on their hands (Ezek. 3:18, 20) and their pastors will give an account (Heb. 13:17).”
Hebrews 12 is an important chapter in gaining a biblical understanding of the love involved in discipline. Verses 5-6 say, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives (ESV).” Here, God’s love toward his children is shown through his discipline. If God, as a loving Father uses discipline to correct, then so must the church. The authority given to the church to do this will be fleshed out in the discussion on Matt. 18. Prov. 5:23 and 13:24 also indicate that a failure to discipline is a failure to love. While it would seem like discipline is unloving, “we should counter by contending that it is just the contrary-to fail to discipline our people is to hate them.”
One question that often emerges is, “What sins should a church discipline for?” In a general way, discipline is needed with any sin, and will become more intensified the more tolerated and evidenced the sin is. Frequently, there is a distinction made between informal and formal church discipline. Under what is considered “informal” discipline, correction, instruction, encouragement, etc. is given person to person in the general context of life. For example, when a parent corrects a child, or one member of a care group speaks truth into another’s life, this would be considered “informal” discipline. These would be sins that could be addressed privately, and could include any sins that become evident in a person’s life. Formal church discipline is typically understood to be when the leaders of the church become involved and bring the matter to the church’s attention, and would include sins that need to be addressed publically. Leeman classifies the two in terms of sins that one would expect of Christians, and ones that would not be expected, so that formal church discipline would take place when this line is crossed into sins that are not expected of Christians. The sins that would call for formal discipline are more severe, and often fall under the categories of ones that would destroy Christian unity and relationships, snare people in corrupt or immoral behavior, involve rebellion and rejection of God’s Word, and hurt the testimony of the church.
Jay Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 16.
Robert. K. Cheong, God Redeeming His Bride (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2012), 9.
Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010),
James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 586.
Poirier, Peace Making Pastor, 254.
Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 49.
Stephen Davey, In Pursuit of Prodigals (Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2010), 30-2.