Church Discipline Is Not a Dirty Chore

Article
08.21.2014

For some reason, doing the dishes vexes my wife. I think the process feels futile to her: there’s always something else getting dirty, something more that needs to be put away.

For me, dishes are no big deal. I’m more than happy to do them. But I’m much less sure-footed when it comes to some other, fouler-smelling messes around the house.

Most of us put some chores on our “dirty” list. These are the things that make us hold our nose and look the other way. Things we would swiftly delegate if we could.

When it comes to life in the church, I think that many of us treat church discipline as a dirty chore. From private rebuke to public exclusion, we can resent the whole process. We hold our nose and look the other way as we go through the motions, eager to be done with all the mess.

I don’t deny that dealing with sin in the church can be uncomfortable, painful, and even disheartening. But we shouldn’t treat church discipline as a dirty chore.

Corrective church discipline begins—and, praise the Lord, very often ends—with one church member privately confronting the sin of another member. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus himself commands us to do this when our brother sins against us. Then Jesus provides further instruction about what to do if the individual doesn’t repent, ultimately culminating, if necessary, in excluding him or her from the congregation.

But did you ever notice what comes right before this passage? It’s the well-beloved parable of the lost sheep:

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matt. 18:12-14)

Why does Jesus tell this parable? So that we wouldn’t despise any of “these little ones,” his disciples (v. 10). Why might we be tempted to despise a fellow disciple? For one, we might despise them if they sin against us. Hence, verses 15 to 20 follow this parable.

In his commentary on Matthew, Dale Allison beautifully unpacks this connection. He says when someone sins against us, as verse 15 envisions, we are to imitate the shepherd of verses 10-14 and go after the one stray sheep.

Church discipline is not a dirty chore—it’s an imitation of the Father’s own relentless pursuit of us. It’s the gospel in action.

The Father did not leave us in our sin, but came to us, and through the gospel rebuked our sin and freely forgave us. So we should not leave others to fester and ultimately perish in their sin, but instead search them out, chase them down, and do everything in our power to bring them back to God’s grace and forgiveness.

When we confront a sinning brother, we should have in hand not only a rebuke but also a blank check of forgiveness. If the brother repents, the check gets quickly written and handed over, and we’ve both won (v. 15).

Without church discipline, sin wins. It fractures fellowship. It sows bitterness and division. It chokes the life out of churches. But God, in the gospel, doesn’t let sin win. He forgives its penalty. He breaks its power. He restores what it stole and heals what it broke.

To rebuke sin and extend forgiveness is to push back the darkness that threatens to extinguish the light of the gospel in someone’s heart. It’s to hack at the roots of evil which try to strangle the life out of the church.

The apostle Paul tells us, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). Peter says that “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Love conceals sins—it puts them out of mind and refuses to let them divide brothers from each other. But it also covers sins like a soaking wet blanket covers a fire: it smothers them, cuts off their air supply, and keeps them from spreading and doing any more harm.

Church discipline is the gospel in action. Just as God doesn’t leave us in our sin but comes to us in rebuking grace, so we also extend that grace to others.

So, despite the pain and discomfort it can bring, we shouldn’t treat dealing with sin in the church as a dirty chore. Instead, we should count it a solemn privilege to imitate the Good Shepherd who left the ninety nine on the hillside to go after the one straying sheep—which is each one of us.

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