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“The Necessity of Discipline in Christ’s Church”


            The Christian Education Committee has asked me to speak tonight on discipline in Christ’s church and so I have titled tonight’s message, “The Necessity of Discipline in Christ’s Church.”  In response to that title, you may be wondering, “Are you talking about church discipline by the entire body or discipline of children or informal discipline among each other?” and my answer would be, “Yes... to all of the above.”  Part of the challenge involved in addressing this subject is that most of us have in our minds huge walls of division that separate church-wide discipline involving possible excommunication as Jesus teaches that in Matthew chapter 18, and the homiletic discipline in the form of rebuke applied by the preacher in the pulpit, and the conversational discipline one believer gives to his/her believing friend as they are seated across the table in a restaurant, and the discipline a parent gives to their child.  We tend to think of those kinds of disciplines very differently and I intend to show that although discipline in the church involves many different contexts, those different types of discipline should be thought of as one seamless garment.  When you study what the bible has to say on this topic of discipline, there are no artificial divisions but all of these different forms of discipline are seen as part of the same whole with the same goals and the same basic heart is required.  We must, if we are to think and live biblically in this area think of discipline as a necessary—even crucial part of a healthy spiritual life within the personal, local church and family contexts we all live in.  As believers, if we are to be healthy in Christ, we all need to receive discipline and we all need to give discipline to others.

            John Calvin in the “Belgic Confession” gave three marks of a true, legitimate local church of Christ—1. The preaching of pure doctrine,  2. The pure administration of the sacraments and,  3. The practice of church discipline.  How many of us would put discipline as one of THE three necessities for the existence of Christ’s church?  I don’t believe Calvin is only speaking of the kind of church discipline that concludes in excommunication.  He says in his “Institutes” that the gospel message is the soul of the church but church discipline “forms the ligaments which connect the members together, and keep each in its proper place.”  The various forms of discipline connect us together and keep us in our proper place in the body.  Think about that illustration.  Discipline in the church is like the system of ligaments that run through the body connecting us together and keeping us in our proper place.  Calvin goes on to say that if a church does not practice this part of body life because of either design—they reject it or neglect—they simply ignore it, you at that point are promoting the “entire dissolution of the church.”  If discipline is the ligaments that hold us together and keep us in place and we as a church don’t practice this kind of comprehensive discipline to one another, then we are in effect ripping the ligaments out of the body and a body without ligaments dissolves into nothing more than a heap of flesh unable to do anything.  I want us to hear the weight of this topic.

            Is that the way we think of discipline in the church?  Do we see discipline within the church body in this comprehensive way and do we see the consistent practice of it as being absolutely essential for the health of the church?  To the degree that we don’t, we are in conflict with the message of Scripture because John Calvin, as he was with so many things, is right on biblically on this issue of discipline.  Let’s survey what the bible says on this topic by examining three reasons why church discipline is essential for spiritual health and life within the body of Christ.  The first reason is because disciplining one another and our children is part of loving each other.  The unmistakable message of scripture is that discipline applied correctly is a way of expressing God’s love to one another.  The author of Hebrews in chapter 12 quotes Proverbs 3:11-12 which says, My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke,  12because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”[NIV]  In Revelation 3 Christ tells the lukewarm, vomit-like church at Laodicea that they are “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.  That is a VERY strong rebuke—one that would be seldom if ever heard today.  Yet in 3:19 he tells these same people. “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”[NIV]  Do you hear that?  Christ says in effect, “You are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked and I love you.  We must hear that the rebuke or discipline of the Lord is clearly an expression of the love of God for his people. 

     Link that understanding of God’s love with what Jesus says in John 13:34-35, A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."[NIV]  When you put those two truths together, its clear that if we are to love each other as Jesus loves, we must be free to discipline or bring correction and rebuke to each other.  Jesus himself practiced this.  When Peter in his arrogance crossed Jesus about the necessity of him suffering and dying, Jesus in Mark 8:33, “...rebuked Peter, and said, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interest, but man’s.” [NASB]  That word used for “rebuke” there is a very strong word.  In fact, it is, I believe, the main word the gospel writers use to describe what Jesus did to demons.  He repeatedly “rebuked them.”  Same word.  It’s the same word Jesus uses in Luke 17:3 where Jesus tells his disciples, “If your brother sins, rebuke him…”  This word is to disciples who witness their brother in a sin.  If your brother or sister begins to gossip or tear down someone, or acquire an unbiblical attitude or behavior, the loving, biblical response is to rebuke him.  Don’t do that, that’s sin.” 

            This is part of biblical koinonia or fellowship or community.  How can a body have true fellowship if they consistently neglect this element of love for one another?  David sets the example for us in the Psalms.  In Psalm 141:5, he says, “Let a righteous man strike me--it is a kindness; [chesed—loving kindness, covenant faithfulness] let him rebuke me--it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. Yet my prayer is ever against the deeds of evildoers;”[NIV]  David not only wrote this, he lived it. I was reminded earlier today of an incident in 2 Samuel 16.  David is leaving Jerusalem with his entourage after it became clear that his wayward son Absalom had wormed his way into power.  On the way out of town Shimei comes out and curses him.  Abishai, who is with David hears this cursing and says to David, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?  Let me go over and cut off his head.”  David says in verse 10, “If he is cursing because the LORD said to him, “Curse David,’ who can ask, “Why do you do this?”[NIV]  David WANTS to be rebuked if he is wrong.  Remember his response to Nathan the prophet who confronts him after his sin with Bathsheba.  When Nathan reads David’s mail and by the Holy Spirit exposes David’s horrible sin, instead of ordering Nathan’s immediate execution, which he could easily have done, instead he humbly says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  David considered the striking of a righteous man to be a kindness—his rebuke to be soothing and sacred anointing oil on his forehead.  David knew that this was an expression of God’s love for him and welcomed it.

            Many of us know that disciplining our children is a way of loving them.  This has so many applications one of which applies directly to this area of Christian Education.  Proverbs 23:13-14 says, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.  14Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.”[NIV]  Notice that the author makes the seemingly self-evident observation that punishment with the rod will not in fact kill your child.  One reason I’m convinced he makes that observation is because judging by the way some people refuse to discipline their children, they indeed DO believe that discipline is lethal.  The author says to the contrary, punishing the child will SAVE his soul from death.  Discipline is redemptive—to your child and to the other members of the body.  Just as disciplining your child is intended to bring restoration, so too is church discipline.  Do you hear the connection between the two?

In light of this understanding of discipline as something good and an expression of God’s love, if as a parent your son or daughter (whether seven or 17) is being disruptive or misbehaving, why does their Sunday School teacher need to call you out of church or Sunday school before they discipline them?  That is foolishness.  If a parent comes to a teacher and says, “You’re not free to discipline my child” or after the fact says, “it’s not your place to discipline my child” what they are saying is, “It’s not your place to show the love of Christ to my child.”  Don’t you WANT your Sunday school teacher or youth worker to love your child?  Now, I’m not talking about spanking, but correction and perhaps stern correction—that’s the only kind of correction some children respond to.  Now, the teachers and youth workers need to be very careful to discipline in love, but if the person who has charge over your child is not free to bring appropriate discipline to a child, there is a breakdown in fellowship there.  The love of Christ is being shackled there.  If the child is being disruptive to what the teacher or leader is trying to do and the leader has no freedom to put the child in time out or rebuke them, then whoever would seek to prevent the teacher from disciplining their child is not loving their own child, the teacher or the other children in the group because when your child’s behavior adversely effects them, the teacher needs the freedom to bring correction for the good of the group.

            If we take seriously Christ’s command to love each other, then we will want to apply that command comprehensively and part of that love for each other includes rebuke and correction to others in the family of believers.  The first reason discipline is necessary in Christ’s church is because disciplining one another is part of loving each other. A second reason is because discipline in Christ’s church is a demonstration of the word of God’s influence in your relationships with others.  Paul is writing to Timothy in second Timothy chapter three and is speaking to Timothy’s relationship to the word of God.  In what is considered to be perhaps the definitive statement on the inspiration of the bible Paul says in verse 16 and following, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 4:1I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. [NASB] 

            Notice what Paul says the scriptures are good for first, teaching.  This means doctrinal instruction.  Second, the bible is useful for reproof.  The word comes from a word that is translated in several ways in the New Testament including, “to convict,” “to expose evil” and even “to rebuke.”  The word of God brings to light the evil in us as we saw a few weeks ago from Hebrews 4:12.  The word cuts like a surgeon’s scalpel to expose the darkness and disease in our hearts.  It is an instrument whereby we are convicted.  Third, the word of God is profitable for correction.  The word literally means to “set someone straight.  It implies that someone is going in the wrong direction or doing the wrong thing and the word corrects their errant ways.  This implies telling the person they are wrong and telling them by the word to get right. Paul says the Scriptures are also profitable for training in righteousness.  The word translated “training” literally means “discipline.”  In fact in the NASB in the other three occurrences of this word, they translate it “discipline.”  It is the same word used in Hebrews 12:5 where the author says, “do not regard lightly the Lord’s discipline.”[NASB]  It doesn’t mean to condemn but it does imply some sort of corrective training—taking that which is not righteous and eliminating it while adding what IS righteousness which I take to mean godliness here.

            Is there anything that jumps out at you from that list of words demonstrating the profitability of Scripture—teaching, reproof, correcting and training or disciplining?  What is apparent to me and frankly this is what shapes much of my preaching and teaching ministry is—75% of the profitability of the bible is classed by Paul in words that are viewed as negative—not fun.  If someone tells us they want to meet with us to reprove us, or correct us or to discipline us our reaction is probably not going to be, “When can we get together?  The word of God is a very corrective, reproving, disciplining book.  That doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a book of tremendous encouragement—it is, more than any other.  But the point is, if we are people who read this book, who are immersed in this book and over whom this book has had tremendous influence—if the bible flows out of our pores--how will that effect our relationship with other believers?

            First, we will love them more, but as we have already seen—at times, love is spelled R-E-B-U-K-E.  The people with whom we have relationships will, perhaps not uncommonly, experience our love for them in the form of reproof, correction and discipline.  And we know that there should be a relationship between the character of the word of God and how we relate to each other because just after this verse in chapter four—there shouldn’t be a chapter break here—Paul tells Timothy in 4:2, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.”  We must not miss the fact that this is to be done with great patience and as a form of instruction to help the person, but notice the similarity between the profitable aspects of the word of God and the content of Timothy’s message—REPROVE, REBUKE, EXHORT.  “Reprove” is a form of the word used in 3:16. “Rebuke” we have already seen on the lips of Jesus and which he used to speak to errant disciples and even demons.  Exhort means to “call people to do something.”  Do you hear how the ministry of the word by Timothy is to be consistent with the essential character of the word?  That makes sense doesn’t it?

            Now, as you seek as Christ’s disciple to become more and more saturated and programmed by the word of God in its essential character of being profitable for teaching, reproving, correcting and training or disciplining, does your ministry to those around you, as Paul tells Timothy here, does it more and more reflect the character of the word?  Do you hear what I am asking?  If the essential character of the word’s message is one of teaching, reproving, rebuking, training or disciplining and you seek to allow your ministry to others to be guided by the word and to reflect the word as Paul exhorts Timothy, does your ministry to others have, as a significant part, the ministry of teaching, reproving, correcting and training or disciplining?  If the word of God has a significant influence in your life, then it will.  That’s the essential character of the word.  Now some people’s personality’s are more bent this way than others, but if we say we want our ministries (hear relationship) to others to reflect the word of God but we never bring correction, or reproof or rebuke to them, then how on earth can we say we are influenced by the word of God when that’s a large percentage of what the word is profitable for?  A second reason for the necessity of discipline in the church is that it is a demonstration of the word of God’s influence in our relationships with others.

            Now, this does not mean we have a license to go around rebuking people.  “Oh boy, I’ve always wanted to be a rebuker and now Pastor says I can.”  NO.  As we have seen, it’s not fundamentally about rebuking or reproving or correcting or disciplining—it’s about loving each other with the comprehensive love of Christ.  The context of the correcting, reproving and rebuking must be love.  That person needs to know you love them and in THAT context, they will by God’s grace be able to hear your correction as love, not brow beating or being hostile or mean. 

            A third reason why discipline and disciplining one another is so important in Christ’s church is because discipline WILL come to us all, we should therefore prefer redemptive discipline.  What I mean by this is the bible teaches that discipline comes to everyone who is errant—its part of life, built into God’s system.  Proverbs repeatedly teaches this.  Proverbs 14:3 says, “A fool's talk brings a rod to his back, but the lips of the wise protect them.”[NIV]  Solomon says if a fool talks like a fool, the rod will come across his back—he will be disciplined for the stupid or evil things that come out of his mouth—eventually—he will feel the rod come across his back as a consequence of his sin.  Proverbs 10:13-14 says, “Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks judgment. 14Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.”[NIV]  If you live a life devoid of good judgment or talk like a fool—you’re going to feel the painful consequences of that.  Proverbs 15:19 says, “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway.”[NIV]  That sounds like discipline to me and the bible teaches that sin brings discipline to people eventually.

            But Proverbs 22:15 says, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.”[NIV]  In a child, what drives the folly out of him/her is the rod of discipline.  Discipline drives out the folly that, if it is left UNchecked in that child or adolescent or adult will bring about another kind of discipline.  Do you hear the fact that it’s not about WHETHER the child or person will be disciplined—they will be?  The question is not WHETHER they will be disciplined, but WHO will do it and for what purpose?  If you do it as a parent in love, it is redemptive.  If it’s a policeman or an angry boss or an unbelieving, exasperated spouse—it won’t necessarily be done in love.  Although God can use that kind of discipline redemptively, there are not nearly as many promises assuring that, as there are that discipline within the context of loving relationships within the nuclear family or the extended family of God will be redemptive.  Will your child or your sister or brother in Christ receive the rod of correction across their back in the context of loving family or will it be delivered outside where it is much harsher?

            This is an implication of Paul’s teaching on church discipline in the Corinthian letters.  You have a man who is committing gross immorality with his stepmother and the Corinthian church does nothing to correct this but are actually proud of themselves for their “tolerance and open-mindedness.”  There had been no correction early on in the process of this man’s debauchery—no warnings, no loving rebukes.  Now its gone so far that Paul says the only thing left to do is, according to First Corinthians 5:5, “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”[NIV]  Paul is saying, “kick him out of the church and place him in the domain of Satan, out from under the protection of the church and let him feel the hard discipline of living under the grinding boot of Satan.”  It’s not about whether there would be discipline to this man in sin.  Because the Corinthians had failed to discharge their loving responsibility to this man, now he had reached a place in his sin where the only hope was that God would use the discipline of the fallen world to get this guy’s attention and perhaps bring him to himself.  This is the discipline the prodigal son experienced, eating his pods with the pigs.  In his case God used it redemptively, but do you want your kid or the person in your bible study to go through that?  Wouldn’t it be much more loving to lovingly confront them and bring biblical correction?  How many of us have seen people in the body who had some scary, destructive behavior patterns and in a few months or years, they go through a painful divorce, or declare bankruptcy or lose their jobs or they leave the church in a huff and totally backslide?  If that has happened and we as a church said nothing to that person to correct what we clearly saw, then their blood is on our hands!  They are going through discipline that could have and certainly should have been given by brothers and sisters who loved them.

            The problem with all this teaching is it is hard.  The greatest barrier to living like this (and it’s a very LARGE barrier in Northern Minnesota) is--this just isn’t considered a very nice thing to do.  John Piper has pointed out, we in North America at this time period are so emotionally brittle today—we have the thinnest skins in history.  The doctrine of self-esteem has produced the rotten fruit of a church where people are so thin skinned that they don’t understand the difference between loving correction and personal attack.  If someone lovingly corrects us, most of us are programmed to feel, at some level, that the person who is doing the reproof is attacking us personally or being mean to us.  I’m way too much like this.  If someone pulls me aside and says, “Duncan, I’m seeing this attitude or that behavior in your life and I just don’t see how that squares with scripture,” my emotional response is, “You don’t like me anymore—I thought we were friends.” That’s a lie.  That lie gets programmed into us by people who have corrected us savagely and without love in the past or by our Minnesota Nice culture that equates correction with personal attack and we MUST drive that lie out of our hearts with the truth.

            Contrast our emotional brittleness and thin skins with David’s response to discipline, “Let a righteous man strike me--it is a kindness; let him rebuke me--it is oil on my head.  My head will not refuse it…”  Do you hear the difference?  If you have a group of people who view discipline biblically as a product of love and are grateful for it like David was rather than as a personal attack, you can have real, biblical community occurring.  But where you have people who are afraid to say anything for fear of offending someone, you will have an incomplete expression of Christ’s love and the people who are not receiving the needed reproof (and we all need reproof) will end up crashing and burning later on because no one in the body had the guts to take them aside and prayerfully, lovingly take a risk and tell them the truth about their sin.  Discipline in the church—in our Christian Education ministry—to children and adults by parents and by people who aren’t parents is so crucial for this ministry to be God-honoring and to make disciples who live in true, biblical fellowship with one another.  Whether we be parents, teachers, youth workers or any other part of the body of Christ, may God give us all the grace to show the comprehensive love of Christ to one another, to reflect the essential character of the word of God and give discipline in a redemptive environment before a destructive one becomes necessary for the glory of Christ.


Page last modified on 3/29/2003

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