How Church Discipline Aims at Heaven
The church of Jesus Christ lives in the overlap of the old age and the new—the “already/not yet,” as it’s often called. We are at the same time living in the kingdom of God and seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6), but we are also longing to be with Christ personally and reign with him eternally. We find this tension throughout the New Testament:
- The believer is saved in Christ (Eph. 2:8), but yet to be saved (Rom. 5:9);
- The believer is adopted in Christ (Rom. 8:15), but yet to be adopted (Rom. 8:23);
- The believer is redeemed in Christ (Eph. 1:7), but yet to be redeemed (Eph. 4:30);
- The believer is sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1:2), but yet to be sanctified (1 Thess. 5:23–24).
- The believer is raised with Christ (Eph. 2:6), but yet to be raised (1 Cor. 15:52).
Churches must live in light of this tension. As the community of the new creation that still lives in the old order, our job as Christians is to build up the church and prepare her for the appearing of Christ so that no one is ashamed at his appearing (1 Jn. 2:28). One primary way we do this might surprise you: we practice church discipline (cf. Matt 18:15–18, 1 Cor. 5:1–13, 2 Thess. 3:14–15, Titus 3:10). We practice church discipline for the sake of the church’s holiness, to honor God, and to prepare one another to meet the Lord (Eph. 5:26–27, 1 Thess. 5:23–24, Jude 24–25).
You’re probably familiar with 1 Corinthians 5, one of the New Testament’s most important texts on church discipline. In this passage, Paul indicates that a member of the church is living in an incestuous relationship with his father’s wife. To add to the scandal, the church is seemingly tolerating the situation. Paul instead urges them to deal with the matter decisively and immediately.
But have you ever noticed the overarching goal in Paul’s counsel to discipline? By refusing to associate or fellowship with the man living sin (5:11), the church effectively hands the man over to Satan for the “destruction of his flesh in order that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5) In other words, Paul hopes that confronting this man’s sin today will lead him to repent so that on the final day he’ll be among those who truly know Christ and receive his mercy.
Church discipline is an advance warning to the erring brother of the inevitable end-time judgment against his sin. It aims at “saving his soul” and restoring him to repentance. In other words, church discipline aims at heaven.
Consider these three ways discipline aims at heaven.
1. Church discipline prepares us for the Lord’s appearing.
The goal of church ministry is to present God’s people holy and blameless before her Lord (Col. 1:28). The church is both saved and awaiting her ultimate salvation. So in the present, she is called to work out her salvation (Phil. 2:12). Believers must put off the old self, renew their minds, and put on Christ-like virtues (Eph. 4:22–24). The church must continuously grow to reflect the Lord they claim to know and follow. Moreover, they’re assured that when he appears they will be entirely like him (1 Jn. 3:1–3).
Therefore, when a believer isn’t living consistently according to his profession, the church has both the obligation and the opportunity to confront that person to help them live according to Christ’s commands. The vast majority of time this process happens through a single conversation. One believer confronts another about a sin; the confronted believer receives that rebuke with gladness and repents. Occasionally, however, such conversations about serious sin aren’t received well. Jesus outlines the process of what to do in those situations in Matthew 18.
This whole process—whether it ends after a single conversation or a congregational vote—ensures that God’s people will be prepared for the Lord’s return. When we practice church discipline, we’re preparing both the disciplined person and ourselves for the Lord’s appearing.
2. Church discipline fosters pure worship of God.
The church cannot worship God while living in sin. Scripture warns us that if we live in sin, God will not hear our prayers (Ps. 66:18). Our offerings will not be acceptable if we have unresolved issues with a brother (Matt. 5:24). A husband’s prayers may go unheard if he doesn’t treat his wife well (1 Pet. 3:7).
The standard here, of course, is not perfection. Every Christian is a sinner, and every church is full of sinners. But the standard should be holiness, a posture that takes sin seriously and doesn’t tolerate it either due to misguided compassion or ignorance. Simply put, a church cannot worship God rightly if she is not living righteously. Pure and honourable worship of God takes place insofar as the church pursues Christ, and a faithful practice of church discipline fosters pure worship.
The church’s worship on earth is a foretaste of our worship in heaven when God’s people will gather to worship her God in all purity and unity.
3. Church discipline exalts Christ.
Christ is the head of the Church. He is her source and her sustainer. She exists to please her Lord and master, to the praise of his glorious name. Christ offered himself as a sacrifice so that we may take on his righteousness and live righteously.
Believers therefore exalt Christ by pursuing holiness. When believers covenant together to follow Christ, they commit to helping one another grow in holiness and, in so doing, they honor his name. Through discipline the church holds its members accountable to live on earth as citizens of heaven.
When we think of church discipline, it’s easy for us to detach it from our future hope. We only think of the cost and the difficulty in the here-and-now. We don’t think about the future. But we must guard against that temptation. As we commit to helping each other grow in holiness by gently and graciously confronting sin in one another, we’re looking toward heaven. We practice discipline so that the church of Jesus Christ may be presented holy and blameless before her master. We practice church discipline because we long to see erring brothers and sisters restored, because we long to see them in heaven.