RPM, Volume 12, Number 22 May 30 to June 5 2010

A Neglected Love

Church Discipline
Part II

By Todd D. Baucum

Holiness is a corporate activity and it has always been achieved in the de facto reality of a covenantal people, bound together not by mutual likings, but by the act of a Sovereign God. Holiness is no more an act of personal choice than is our forgiveness. It is all grace from start to end. The desert monks were wrong to think that running from other people was the way to escape the temptations of this life. Holiness is found in the day to day walk of seeking to be a community of God's people. This is the discipline of Christ and living out the life of grace that calls us out of ourselves for the benefit and maturing of one another into the full image of Jesus Christ(WCF XXVI.1).

Doing something about sin in the Body of Christ is the great challenge facing anyone in dealing with church discipline. Let me suggest two truths; first there can be no true church without discipline and secondly, most churches fail to practice it in a biblical way. The first truth is a bedrock affirmation of the Reformers. Calvin understood it to be a mark of the true Church. Tragically, most people in our churches fundamentally misunderstand discipline. I will briefly describe the nature and the process of Church discipline portrayed in the Bible and why it so underappreciated and neglected. This neglect leads to two disasters; two rather ugly manifestations of church life, which we confess are neither beautiful, healthy nor Christ-like, but shamefully represent a large part of what we see among churches today. This is found in either a loosey-goosey love-fest fellowship where sin is swept under the carpet or in the restrictive life-draining judgmentalism where grace is unknown.

The traditional distinction of discipline is described as twofold: corrective and restorative. The former is negative in that it conveys a sense of doing something rather difficult and often hurtful or potentially offensive. The latter is more positive. Proverbs 15:31 (ESV) The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. It is meant to restore life and the vitality of enjoying the full participation of the communion of the saints. This is in fact both a biblical and helpful distinction. The danger is to see them as two separate disciplines where correction is viewed as the big hammer that is reserved for the last resort, when the passing of time and looking the other way failed again and again. We sever a limb that has grown gangrenous when earlier we could have lanced a boil, or even applied routine hygiene with a wash cloth and the whole matter would have been diverted. We need to be stressing the wash cloth of daily encouragement, which is what we are constantly called to do in the scriptures (Heb. 3:13).

Mark Dever, the Senior Pastor of Capital Baptist Church in the D.C. area, rightly suggests that sometimes it is best not to practice church discipline when a particular church is not used to the concept or the practice. Eager to put the Bible front and center in the life of the Church, new pastors can run into firestorms, when there is a lack of training and discipleship about biblical teaching regarding discipline. This takes time. 1 I want to suggest it takes more than that. It requires a reorientation about the nature of church discipline. Like being a parent whose job is around the clock (Deut. 6:4), church discipline is not reserved for the big emotional, late night meetings of spiritual overseers. It is the warp and woof, the bread and butter of everyday life. Scripturally, most discipline ought to be done in this rather every day, benign sort of process of one believer telling another brother or sister, with an arm around the shoulder, how to be a better lover of Jesus Christ. Secondly, there are times when the process follows Matthew 18(which should include much prayer and time), gets to the point of bringing in the help and oversight of the church, usually in the shape of the elders and spiritual leaders. This is the extraordinary measure of discipline, which ought not to be done frequently, if the ordinary and daily part of discipline is observed. I submit it is unbiblical and destructive to church life, to practice extraordinary discipline, if the ordinary every day, member to member type of discipline is not an ongoing reality. Let us not swallow camels and strain at gnats.

There are two types of discipline. One is ordinary and is the every member front-line of defense in heading off the attacks of sin. There is also the extraordinary discipline, which we shall consider later.

Everyday there is a believer who needs encouragement, guidance and discipline. I need it, your elder needs it, your Bible Study leader needs it, and you need it. This is rooted in the reality of the Gospel truth that God seeks us not because we are already worthy and righteous. John Chrysostom, the early Church Father wrote that Christ's love of the Church is not based on her beauty. "For he who loves does not investigate character. Love does not regard uncomeliness. For this reason it is called love because it so often has affection for one how is unattractive. So did Christ. He saw one who was uncomely —for comely I would not call her — and he loved her. 2

This is the frontline of defense against unhealthy and sinful patterns in a church. It is ordinary in the sense it should not be seen as something odd or peculiar. If everyone was practicing this discipline in sort of a typical and normal loving behavior it would revolutionize church life. If it is practiced in the awkward, now and then, tense ways, it leads to judgmentalism where church life is stifled and plastic or unreal. This is why the church needs so desperately to practice what theologian Thomas Oden calls "corrective love." He outlines three ways this type of discipline keeps a church healthy. First, it is hygienic. "Like an astringent amid an epidemic, corrective love seeks to resist the infections process by which the pollution of one infects another in the community. Uncensored sin threatens to exert contagious influence." Secondly, it bears witness of the power of truth to expose our sin and selfish ways (Eph.5:8-13). And thirdly, it "seeks to preserve order and proximate integrity in the church by distancing the faithful from the scourge of sin (2 Thess.3:6)." 3 Those of us who look to the Westminster Confession as a faithful guide of what Scripture teaches see this clearly intended in the five-fold purpose of discipline. It is reclaiming fallen sinners, deterring others from sin, purging leaven from the spreading to the whole, vindicating the honor of Christ and preventing the wrath of God from justly falling on the Church (WCC, Chapter XXX, 3).

As necessary as this is for the life of a church body, there are some common objections. Consider these most common two:

  • 1. "I feel unqualified". Great. You just met the first qualification. The ministry of encouragement and discipline is required of all, but not open to the self-righteous. In fact, the first thing one should do, before entertaining the idea of approaching another believer is to examine your heart. Often the motive to address an "issue" arises out of a sense of wrongness in the particular habit or deed. It is best to move with caution and prayer. Ask yourself this question: "Is my distaste, hatred of the sin in this person, greater than the hatred I have for the sin in my heart and life?" If you can honestly say that your sin is more hideous and offensive in your eyes than the sin in a brother then you are in the right spirit to address his sin (Matt. 7:5). Remember Terry, the brother with a struggle over a particular sin? It could be any type of addiction, which others in the church might also have. What if another older brother who attends a study with him, would share how God has proved faithful in giving him small victories in his own fight. He could give Terry some verses to look at and offer to meet with him on a regular basis.
  • 2. "Let someone else do it". We would all so much like to pass the buck on doing hard things. If our first impulse is to think, "Let someone else do it," just remember that this may be the precise time when it can be done in a receptive and loving manner. Usually waiting for someone else to say something, means waiting until it really becomes a big issue. Learn to love big enough to treat small things quickly as they happen. Instead of letting Martha continue in her habit of offending others go unchecked, the loving thing would be for someone close to her tell how important it is too really listen to others and to be slow to speak. She may not even realize what she is doing. A loving example of how to show respect and genuine love in the Body would have tremendous value and encouragement for Martha. This example can be applied to other tendencies, such as gossip, negative criticism, offensive language or covetousness. These are all things that many are struggling with from time to time. By remaining silent we give the appearance of acceptance. Confrontation done lovingly is not confrontational, but instructive and healing. "There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing" (Prov.12:18, ESV).
The second type of discipline is what I call extraordinary in that its function belongs to the office of the leaders. It is the charge that Christ gave to his disciples regarding the keys of the kingdom. This is of eternal importance, because outside the Church "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (WCF XXV.2). It is usually centered about the sacrament of the Lord's Table. The power invested in the Church is not coercive (we can't make people repent and love Jesus) but in the ministry of the Spirit and the means of grace. It is persuasive in nature and its judgment is merciful. Withholding the sacrament of grace at the Table to the unrepentant is always an act of love. Is it drastic? Yes, but it is a merciful judgment to call sinners home. To tell them again the Gospel and say what Christ says, "come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).

The aim of the extraordinary measure is always restorative and healing. The Body of Christ longs to see the healing power of the Gospel applied to its members. It was with the tears of a grace whelmed experience that a woman washed the soiled feet of Christ, and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:44-48). And nothing is more beautiful to see in the life of a church than to see tears of repentance in one sinner who returns to fellowship. The feet of Christ are washed in such tears. It is a demonstration to a watching, unbelieving world, what strange truths we believe concerning the Gospel. "O, how precious are the feet of those who bring good tidings". Sinners are closer to the kingdom of God, than the "righteous" who do not need to repent. When we neglect this demonstration of love, we end up neglecting the wonderful glorious Gospel.


1. Dever, Mark, "Don't Do it" Why you shouldn't practice Church Discipline, 9Marks, (http://www.9marks.org/CC/CDA/Content_Blocks/CC

2. Oden, Thomas. Corrective Love: Concordia Publishing House, 1995, pg. 15.

3. Oden, Thomas. Corrective Love: Concordia Publishing House, 1995, pg. 85.


Dever, Mark. "Don't Do it!" Why You Shouldn't Practice Church Discipline."9Marks,(http://www.9marks.org/CC/CDA/Content_Blocks/CC).

Oden, Thomas. "Corrective Love: The Power of Communion Discipline", Concordia Publishing House, 1995.

Westminster Confession of Faith.

English Standard

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

Subscribe to RPM

RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. To subscribe to RPM, please select this link.