The Means of Grace We Might Despise
Why We Practice Church Discipline
Church life consists of corporate singing, prayers, the preaching of God’s word, discipleship, teaching in classes, fellowship in small groups, and an array of other practices. Each practice is formative, pressing us toward conformity to Christ’s likeness in our character. As we walk humbly in these means of God’s grace, we see Christ glorified as we increasingly are satisfied with him.
Yet an additional facet of church life that brings great glory to Christ, one that is admittedly not as easy to engage in, is the practice of church discipline. Consider what Scott Manetsch writes in Calvin’s Company of Pastors:
Calvin’s doctrine of right worship formed the gravitational center of his entire ecclesial vision. The liturgy of the church, the offices of the church, the discipline of the church, the preaching ministry of the church were all intended to bring praise and glory to Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church. (31–32, emphasis added)
We easily see how the church’s worship and the preaching of the gospel can bring glory to Christ, but perhaps we struggle to see, with Calvin, how the church’s discipline does. For some of us, sadness is associated with such a practice, as we remember failed attempts to reach someone who was removed from church membership.
Church discipline can feel grievous and weighty. It is imperative, however, for the health (and joy) of the church, and for the glory of Christ, that we see church discipline as an avenue for showcasing his goodness and greatness.
Discipline and the Glory of Christ
For the sake of clarity, we will define church discipline as correction of persistently sinning church members — for the good of those caught in sin, the purity of the church, and the glory of God. As the third purpose here suggests, our commitment to church discipline requires a devotion to the glory of God in his church.
Those who give themselves to this severe mercy remember that the Bible is a story preeminently about one main character, the triune God, and one main plot, the display of his glory in creation and redemption among a people who will reflect that glory and dwell with him forever. Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). In other words, Jesus brings the divine attributes of God as Father, Son, and Spirit into the realm of humanity, manifesting the person and presence of God (Luke 9:32; John 1:14; 17:5; 1 Corinthians 2:8).
Jesus’s glory exceeds the angels (Hebrews 1:7–14; 2:7, 9), Moses (Hebrews 3:3), the rest Joshua gave (Hebrews 3:7–4:10), the Levitical priests (Hebrews 5:1–10), the old covenant (Hebrews 8:1–13), and the Old Testament sacrificial system (Hebrews 10:1–18). While being made for a little while lower than the angels, Jesus atoned for sin and through his work brings many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:7–10). In his person and work, Christ has assuaged the righteous wrath of the Father (John 3:36), such that God can justify the unrighteous who believe in Christ (Romans 3:21–26).
As such, the glory of Christ is preeminently displayed in creation and redemption, including “in the church” (Ephesians 3:21). While these reflections may feel far removed from pastoral labors within a local church context, such truths serve as the bedrock upon which we stand when the weightiness of the issues of church discipline come crashing down on us. The church exists for the glory of Christ, along with every part of church life — including church discipline.
So how, in particular, does church discipline glorify Christ?
Discipline Points to the Purity of Christ
Jesus Christ, the God-man, came to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Because of his work on our behalf, our status before God is righteous in Christ (justification), we are consecrated and called to growth in godliness (sanctification), and we will one day be fully purified (glorification). We await the day when we will see Christ and be like him, and until that day, he calls us to purify ourselves as he is pure (1 John 3:1–3).
As such, church discipline is a key means for the church’s growth in holiness, to be presented before him as a pure bride (Ephesians 5:25–27). We will not be perfect in this life, but as we continue to exhort one another day after day, so that we are not hardened by sin (Hebrews 3:12–13), we point each other and the world to the glorious purity of Christ.
This is especially true in the final step of discipline, known as excommunication. Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7) in order to create a repentant, pure people. Therefore, if such repentance and purity is not evident, we are to put that person out of church membership (1 Corinthians 5:13). The hope is repentance and restoration (1 Corinthians 5:5), but in the meantime, and even if restoration should not occur, excommunication demonstrates that the purity of Christ is real, and the purity of the bride, though imperfect, is still a humble, repentant, and genuine pursuit.
Discipline Points to the Beauty of the Groom
One key metaphor of the relationship between Christ and the church is that of marriage. God refers to Israel as his bride in the Old Testament, calling them away from spiritual idolatry, which he often depicted as adultery (see, for example, the book of Hosea). God desires a relationship between Christ and the church that points to the intimacy between believers and their Lord and Savior.
“Christ is the pure bridegroom, and discipline is a means of purifying the bride to one day be presented to him.”
In the church, we remind one another of our identity as the bride who will one day be presented to Christ “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27; Revelation 19:6–10). That future vision calls us to continually repent, grow, and pursue obedience to God’s word, by God’s grace and Spirit.
Christ is the pure bridegroom, and discipline is a means of purifying the bride to one day be presented to him. Removal from the body of Christ may even be necessary, to serve as a means of pursuing this purity corporately, while hoping that the person under discipline will repent and join this pursuit of corporate purity. Christ is glorious in himself, and the radiant bride he will receive shows the beauty of that glory.
Discipline Points Us to Christ as Lion and Lamb
Finally, church discipline reminds us that Christ is glorified both in salvation and judgment. Our God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6–7). That passage goes on to say, however, that “he will by no means clear the guilty.” Discipline highlights both God’s righteous wrath toward sin and his mercy through Christ.
“Discipline highlights both God’s wrath toward sin and his mercy through Christ.”
Jesus Christ is both Lion and Lamb (Revelation 5:5–6), which points again to the glorious nature of Christ in his work both to forgive sin and judge the world. Church discipline reminds us that salvation is for those who repent of sin and trust in Christ, whose entire life and demeanor returns to repentance and faith throughout their lives. And for those who refuse to repent, even when the entire church calls them to account, the act of excommunication is meant to jar them awake, to point out the potential lion-like judgment that awaits. Our glorious Lord is Lion and Lamb, and church discipline keeps that reality before our eyes.
Sorrow Meant to Lead to Satisfaction
We do not want to see worldly sorrow in our churches. Rather, we desire godly grief that produces repentance, which leads to salvation with no regrets (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Church discipline — when done biblically, and in reliance on God’s grace and conviction in the life of an unrepentant sinner — can bring about transformation. If local churches forsake such a biblical practice, the result will be a sullied view of Christ’s purity, a diminishment of the bridegroom’s work in the life of the bride, and a view of Jesus as Lamb, but not Lion. Discipline brings out a full view of Christ’s glory.
Discipline may be a sorrowful practice, both for the church and for the one under discipline. You may be reminded of painful moments you have endured in church life and asked if such a practice is really worthwhile. However, if this process is done correctly, the church grows in health and Christ is glorified. And if repentance takes place for the one under discipline, the result is a person turned away from sin toward satisfaction in Christ, and in that, Christ again is glorified.