If you have children, you have probably felt that leaden thud in the gut—“ugh”—when you realize it’s time to discipline one of your kids. You let her explain any extenuating circumstances. You have second-guessed whether your instructions were clear. But now the facts overtake you like a foul stench: she is guilty. Your precious, heart-enrapturing little Cinderella flagrantly disobeyed you. Or lied. Or nailed her sister in the face. And now love requires you to discipline her. Ugh.
For the Lord disciplines the one He loves,
just as a father, the son he delights in. (Prov. 3:12)
The one who will not use the rod hates his son,
but the one who loves him disciplines him diligently (Prov. 13:24)
Discipline your children, for in that there is hope;
do not be a willing party to their death. (Prov. 19:18, NIV)
Striking verses, no? Failing to discipline our children is hating them. It is forsaking hope for them. It is being a willing party to their death. Love disciplines. And it’s our job as parents to discipline. We do it for love and life.
For a command is a lamp, teaching is a light, and corrective discipline is the way to life. (Prov. 6:23)
Just as it is a parent’s job to discipline his or her children, so it is your job, Christian, to participate in the discipline of your church. Did you know that? This is as basic to being a Christian and a church member as it is for a parent to discipline a child. It is part and parcel of following Jesus: “If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. (Matt. 18:15).
This may be hard to hear. Maybe Matthew 18 elicits an “ugh” of its own. But this is what it means to be a true friend.
The wounds of a friend are trustworthy, but the kisses of an enemy are excessive. Prov. 27:6
What is church discipline? The broad answer is to say it is correcting sin in the church. The final answer is removing someone from membership in the church for unrepentant sin—sin they refuse to let go of.
Why do we discipline? The Bible, that counter-intuitive and counter-cultural book of ours, contests that God disciplines us “for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness.” It continues: “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10b-11).
Do you want the fruit of peace and righteousness for yourself and your church? If not, never mind discipline.
Lord, happy is the man You discipline and teach from Your law. (Psalm 94:12)
I remember the first time I took a pair of trimmers to a rose bush in my front yard. It didn’t feel right. It made me nervous. “Am I really supposed to cut these branches off? Won’t this hurt the plant?” But I went ahead and trimmed—on faith. A year later—lo and behold—the bush overflowed with blossoms.
So we discipline for the sake of love, holiness, health, and growth. But we also discipline for the sake of our witness. What good is salt if it loses its saltiness, Jesus asks, or a light that’s hidden under a basket (Matt. 5:13–16)?
Western culture increasingly pushes against Christianity. Nominal Christianity is withering. Christians need to know who “they” are. And the world needs to know who “we” are. Discipline helps to draw the line between church and world. It clarifies the witness of the church and its power as a distinct society and counter culture.
The purpose of this Journal is to help you grab hold of this job responsibility of yours, whether you are a church leader or member. The practice can be abused. Move very slowly. Take every case on its own. Be sure to only act in love. Err toward grace. But move forward in obedience, knowing that all the ways of the Lord are righteous and good.
— Jonathan Leeman
This has been adapted from the introduction of Jonathan Leeman, Understanding Church Discipline (Nashville: B&H, 2016), 1-2,4,5,8.