Purpose of Church Discipline
A congregation may practice discipline exactly according to the process outlined by the scriptures, and still not be displeasing to God. Proper procedure is one thing, but the correct motive behind the disciplinary action is just as important. A failure to understand the real purpose involved in corrective discipline is the real reason why so many members of the church raise objections.
Wrong Motives for Church Discipline
The true purpose of church discipline has been abused from the second century onward. When problems arose, leaders went to church councils to solve it. Then came excommunication. “When the papacy was at its height, excommunication was a weapon so formidable that even powerful kings quailed at the thought that it might be directed against them” (“Discipline: Ecclesiastical,” Universal Dictionary of the English Language, Vol. 2, p. 1627). Excommunicated Christians who showed signs of contrition formed a class of “penitents.” They had a special seat in meetings for worship. The granting of indulgences, in which case, “the prescribed penance would be commuted to a money fine.” Later, the inquisition was a system whereby church authorities could spy upon, and with the aid of civil authorities arrest, try, and pass sentence to punish heretics. In America came the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, when nineteen victims were condemned and executed by church authority. These were more motivated by pride and authority than a sense of love and concern for sinners.
Today, discipline’s purpose continues to be distorted by some congregations.
1) Church discipline has been used as a political move. We could call this the “Diotrophes’ syndrome” (3 Jn. 9). Discipline is used as a power play between cliques trying to win control over a congregation. Discipline was never meant to “throw somebody out of the church”. It may surprise some that the disfellowshipped brother is yet to be counted as a brother (2 Th. 3:15).
2) Retaliation has been its motivation. It is the old “eye for an eye and tooth for tooth” concept. Vengeance belongs to God (Rom. 12:19).
3) Church discipline has been used to cover up our own weaknesses through hypocrisy (Mt. 7:1-5).
4) Some think the idea is to “kick someone” out of the church, such as, someone who is not well liked or is not socially acceptable, etc. One should not entertain the idea that discipline has to do with nothing but getting rid of unwanted members.
5) Some think discipline involves a “witch-hunt” mentality. Looking under every bed and in every closet, just trying to catch someone making a mistake.
6) Discipline does not mean the church is primarily interested in making someone suffer. A pharmacist gives us medicine that is bitter to the taste, but it is good for us. Sometimes one’s leg must be removed, not to make him suffer, but to save the remainder of his body. God chastises His children, not to make the sinner suffer, but that they may be exercised thereby (Heb. 12:5-11). Withdrawal is not pronouncing or condemning a person to hell. It is hoped that the withdrawal will save the individual from suffering in eternal punishment by bringing him to a realization of his sinful condition, and thus turning him back to God.
To Save the Sinner
The highest motive in regard to the sinner is to save him from his sin. “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5; see Js. 5:19,20). As evangelism is to save the alien sinner, corrective discipline is to save the erring brother. Jesus said, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Mt. 18:15). Save him when Christ comes. He is delivered unto Satan’s domain to find his companionship among the lost, he is brought to his senses and made to realize how badly he needs the Lord and His people. It is like what happened with the prodigal son in Luke 15. When he was broke and alone, feeding swine and longing to eat their food, he came to his senses. He repented and returned to his father’s house. The discipline might be painful to his pride now, but it can break his heart into repentance in time (2 Cor. 2:6-8). It is basically the same reason why we discipline our children. The discipline of the Father produces life, by bringing us into subjection unto the Father of spirits (Heb. 12:9). It is for our profit, that we might be partakers of God’s holiness (Heb. 12:10). It yields the fruit of righteousness in peace unto those who endure it (Heb. 12:11).
The effect of discipline is to give the sinner a sense of shame over his sinful state. “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Th. 3:14). “Ashamed, i.e., to turn one upon himself, and so produce a feeling of shame a wholesome shame which involves a change of conduct” (Vine). As a child is ashamed when punished for wrong doing, so we hope a child of God feels the shame.
Discipline is to destroy the influence of the flesh (Col. 3:5,6). According to Paul church discipline is to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). It produces a destruction of fleshly lust, working to the ultimate salvation of the soul. It’s immediate purpose: “destruction of the flesh.” It’s ultimate purpose: “saving of the spirit in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
Discipline is to teach them the seriousness of sin. “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:18-20). It enforces lessons that can be derived in no other way. It is to help him truly realize the enormity of his sin. The sinner must learn that one cannot be saved while violating the moral principles of the Gospel. One cannot go to heaven, if he wrongs a brother and refuses to correct it. One cannot go to heaven, if he refuses to live as the Lord requires. One cannot go to heaven, if he does not abide in the doctrine of Christ.
Discipline lets the erring member know that he is in the grasp of Satan (1 Cor. 5:5). He is not in the kingdom of light, but the kingdom of darkness. It provides the means by which one can recover himself from the snare of the devil (2 Tim. 2:25,26).
– Daniel R. Vess