A Biblical Theology of Church Discipline
To some Christians, church discipline seems to contradict the whole shape of the Bible’s story. Isn’t the gospel all about Jesus welcoming tax collectors and sinners? Aren’t we turning back the clock and putting believers back under the law if we start excluding people from the church for certain sins?
In this piece I want to uproot that intuition as gently and fully as I can, by showing how God’s discipline of his people is an integral part of the Bible’s entire storyline, from Eden to the new creation. We will consider this story in six steps, and close with three conclusions.
1. EDEN AND POINTS EAST
In the beginning, God’s people were right where God wanted them, and were just what God wanted them to be. God created Adam and Eve. He brought her to him and united them. He put them in the garden he had made for them. He walked with them and talked with them face to face (Gen 1:26–28; 2:4–25).
But it didn’t last. Adam and Eve sinned, and God imposed on them a capital sentence and banished them. He drove them away east, out of his garden and away from his presence (Gen 3:1–24).
East of Eden, all of humanity sank so deep into sin that God destroyed the entire race by flood, save only one family (Gen 6–8). After the flood and humanity’s new beginning, humanity’s collective pride vaulted so high that God scrambled their tongues and scattered them over the earth (Gen 10–11).
2. DISCIPLINE IN THE DESERT
To begin to set things right, God called Abram. God covenanted to him a nation and a name, promising to bless all nations through him (Gen 12:1–3). And God kept his promises, though not always in the most obvious ways. He did grant Abram offspring and multiply those offspring, warranting Abram’s new name, Abraham (Gen 17:5). But then he sent those offspring famine, and then to Egypt, and finally let them slip into slavery. At this point, they’d been so fruitful and multiplied so greatly that they filled the land (Exod 1:7).
When God freed Abraham’s offspring from slavery, he judged their captors with unremitting strictness. He plagued their land, executed their firstborn, and drowned their army (Exod 3–14). But then God’s people themselves needed discipline. Despite the staggering works God performed before their eyes, they disbelieved and complained. They refused to trust that the God who broke their chains could fill their stomachs (Exod 16–17; Num 11). They refused to trust that the God who bested Pharaoh could handle the enemies before them (Num 14).
So God taught them and rebuked them. He provided for them and punished them. He gave them bread that would spoil if hoarded, so they would learn to trust him for daily bread (Exod 16:13–30). He condemned that generation to die in the wilderness, allowing only their children to enter the Promised Land—the very children the Israelites thought God couldn’t protect from their enemies (Num 14:13–38).
On the cusp of the Promised Land, Moses summed up the lessons they were meant to draw from this divine discipline in the Exodus and the desert:
You shall therefore love the Lord your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always. And consider today (since I am not speaking to your children who have not known or seen it), consider the discipline of the Lord your God, his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, his signs and his deeds that he did in Egypt to Pharaoh the king of Egypt and to all his land, and what he did to the army of Egypt, to their horses and to their chariots, how he made the water of the Red Sea flow over them as they pursued after you, and how the Lord has destroyed them to this day, and what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place, and what he did to Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, son of Reuben, how the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households, their tents, and every living thing that followed them, in the midst of all Israel. For your eyes have seen all the great work of the Lord that he did. (Deut 11:1–7)
God disciplined both Egypt and Israel, but note the difference: God’s discipline for Egypt resulted in their destruction; his discipline for Israel resulted in their instruction. God punished individuals in Israel to purge evil from Israel. God also punished the whole people, but through that discipline he taught them to trust and obey. God spoke to them his ten commandments to “discipline” them, to conform their lives to his will (Deut 4:36). He tested them in the wilderness, providing for them as only he could, so they would trust only in him (Deut 8:1–4). The lesson? “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (Deut 8:5).
God disciplines his people so that they learn not to rely on themselves and run after other gods, but to seek all and find all in him.
3. THE MOSAIC COVENANT: DISCIPLINE TO AVERT DESTRUCTION
God led his people to the Promised Land, drove out their enemies, and established them there. In the covenant God made with Israel through Moses at Sinai, he made them not only a people but a nation (Exod 19:5–6). He gave them a law that was meant not only to secure their obedience but to govern their society. Under the Mosaic covenant, God held Israel accountable to this law, and he authorized the human government of Israel to inflict fitting sanctions for covenant defection. False prophets were to be put to death (Deut 13:1–5), as were idolaters (Deut 13:6–18; 17:2–7). God’s goal in authorizing the people to execute idolaters was to “purge the evil [or “evil person”] from your midst.” God ordered Israel to surgically remove the cancer of idolatry so that it would not metastasize and prove fatal.
In the Mosaic covenant God also employed other means of discipline. If the people failed to obey, he threatened disease and defeat (Lev 26:14–17). If they failed to repent, God promised the further “discipline” of blighting their land and breaking their strength (Lev 26:18–20). And other, more horrific consequences lay in wait if the people persisted in rebellion (Lev 26:21–39; see “discipline” in vv. 23, 28).
All this discipline was designed to avert the disaster of exile. God disciplined his people in order to offer them a lifeline out of a still greater judgment.
To sum up where Israel stood under the Mosaic covenant: God gathered his people together. He brought them to a place he had prepared for them and planted them there (Exod 15:17). He dwelled among them in his tabernacle, and later in his temple (Exod 29:45–46; 40:34–38; 1 Kgs 8:10–12). He walked among them (Lev 26:12).
Sound familiar? It should. Israel was a new Adam, in a new Eden, with a new shot at obedience and lasting, intimate fellowship with God.
4. EXILE: DISCIPLINE AS RETRIBUTION, FOR RESTORATION
But Israel missed their shot. Over the course of hundreds of years, over the warnings of dozens of prophets, the people persistently rejected God and refused his will. So God eventually enforced the sanctions of the covenant, first on Israel in the north, then Judah in the south (see Lev 26; Deut 28; 2 Kgs 17:1–23; 25:1–21).
Because Israel refused to trust and worship and obey God, God imposed on them a kind of capital sentence (Lev 28:38; Deut 4:27). He banished them. He drove them away east, out of his land and away from his presence.
The prophet Jeremiah describes the punishment of exile as discipline. This punishment is retributive, yes, but it also aims at recovery:
Then fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the Lord, nor be dismayed, O Israel; for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. For I am with you to save you, declares the Lord; I will make a full end of all the nations among whom I scattered you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished. (Jer 30:10–11; cf. 46:28)
Israel and Judah’s exile is punishment, just and measured (cf. Hos 7:12; 10:10). Yet its aim is not destruction, but restoration. God will devastate the nations that hosted his scattered people, but his own people still have this hope: “I am with you to save you.” Like God cast down Pharaoh yet both redeemed and chastised his people, here God promises destruction for the nations yet deliverance through discipline for his people.
Ephraim cries out in exile, “You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God” (Jer 31:18). And God will answer that prayer.
God promises full and final destruction to the nations that disregard him. Yet God disciplines his people with the devastation of exile in order to restore them again to fellowship with him, to repentance, to holiness. But how?
5. NEW COVENANT, NEW POWER, NEW DISCIPLINE
The Mosaic covenant demanded obedience but did not provide the power to obey. The new covenant would:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31–34; cf. 32:37–41; Isa 54:13; Ezek 11:16–20; 36:22–36; 37:15–28; 39:25–29)
What the law couldn’t do, the new covenant will: ensure the wholehearted obedience of God’s whole people.
How is this new covenant enacted? Through the atoning death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the life-giving gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. The new covenant gives new power. God’s people are now a new people, reborn and indwelt by the empowering Holy Spirit. God’s people now genuinely and characteristically, albeit imperfectly, reflect God’s glory to the nations.
This new covenant with new power also comes with new discipline. God still disciplines his people through persecution and hard providences, weaning us from the world and tightening our grip on his promises (Heb 12:5–11). God still chastises his people for sin, even to the point of inflicting death (Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor 11:27–31). The purpose, as before, is that by heeding God’s discipline now we will ultimately escape judgment then: “But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor 11:32).
But he also provides new means for preserving his people’s purity. In addition to the internal supply of the Spirit, God provides the external support of the church’s accountability. Now, those who claim to be God’s people but whose lives contradict that claim are warned, entreated, pleaded with, and, if necessary, excluded from membership in the church (Matt 18:15–17; 1 Cor 5:1–13; 2 Cor 2:5–8; Tit 3:10–11).
Under the new covenant, idolaters aren’t executed but excluded. The church wields the power of the keys, not the sword. And, as with God’s discipline of Israel in the desert, in their land, and in the exile, the goal is not destruction but repentance and restoration. Paul does call exclusion from the church a “punishment” (2 Cor 2:6). But this punishment aims at transformation: renewed repentance and therefore renewed fellowship with God and God’s people.
We should not miss the connection between the newness of the covenant and this new form of discipline. The New Testament teaching on church discipline presupposes that the members of the church profess faith in Christ, and that their lives typically bear out that claim. When someone’s life fundamentally undermines their profession, the New Testament answer isn’t, “Well, the church is a mixed body. Believers and unbelievers will be in the church together, like the wheat and the tares, until the final judgment.”
The field in which believers and unbelievers remain together until judgment is not the church but the world (Matt 13:38). Church discipline doesn’t simply protect the purity of the church; it presupposes the purity of the church. That is, the New Testament’s teaching on discipline presupposes that the church is to be composed of those who credibly profess faith in Christ: those who say they trust in Jesus and whose lives, to the best of our ability to discern, confirm rather than contradict that claim.
6. CONSUMMATION: NO MORE DISCIPLINE, BUT A FINAL DIVIDE
Until Christ returns, we live in the in-between. God’s people are empowered by his new covenant to trust his promises and obey his commands—but not yet perfectly. God’s churches should be composed of people who credibly confess Christ—and yet some professors prove false (1 John 2:19).
But on that final day, God’s people will need no more discipline. We will see Christ face to face, and we will be like him (1 John 3:1–2). God’s discipline of his people now—whether the formative discipline of teaching and training, the corrective discipline of rebuke or exclusion, or the providential discipline of persecution and hardship—all aims at our conformity to Christ, which will one day be perfected. God’s discipline of his people throughout history has always aimed at their restoration and transformation, and one day that transformation will be complete.
But on that day God will also enact a final division. He will effect an irreversible exclusion. Just as Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, just as Israel was exiled from their land, so all who do not trust in and follow Christ, all who persist in sin, will be excluded from God’s new creation, forever:
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Rev 22:14–15)
What does this story of God’s disciplinary dealings with his people teach us? Of many lessons that could be drawn I select three.
First, on this side of final judgment, every act of divine discipline is intended to reform and renew his people. This side of final judgment, no judgment is final.
Throughout God’s long and twisting history with his often-wayward people, he has often deployed discipline in an effort to stun us out of sinful stupor. The goal every time was repentance and spiritual renovation. Similarly, when we exclude someone from church membership we are not pronouncing their final fate, but warning them of what it could be. To exclude someone from membership is not to pronounce their final condemnation but to seek to avert it. When we exclude someone, we must continue to work and pray and hope for their repentance, renewal, and restoration.
Second, even in disciplining his people, God distinguishes between them and the world. In Jeremiah God promises the nations a full end; he promises his people a new beginning. That’s a temporal forecast of eternal destinies. All who oppose God will meet the “full end” of eternal punishment; all who trust in Christ will experience the eternal new beginning of the new creation.
Third, God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:10). God’s discipline is good for us; it aims at a good far greater than what we often settle for. We constantly need reminding that hard providences do not mean God has a hard heart. If God uses hard measures, we should look to our hard hearts as the targets, not accuse God. Only a jackhammer will split concrete.
Love is not always nice, kindness is not always indulgent, and tolerance is not always a virtue. “No” is often the most loving thing a parent or pastor or church can say. And if that no goes unheeded, then it is not cruel but loving to follow God’s own example, and obey God’s own instructions, by disciplining someone now, in hope that they may be saved on the last day.