An Important Mark of a Healthy Church: Biblical Discipleship and Growth

by Mark Dever

(Adapted from chapter 11 of What Is a Healthy Church?)

Biblical church discipline flows directly out of a biblical understanding of church membership. Membership draws a boundary line around the church, marking the church off from the world. Discipline helps the church that lives inside of that boundary line stay true to the very things that are cause for drawing the line in the first place. It gives meaning to being a member of the church and is another important mark of a healthy church.

What exactly is church discipline? In a broad sense, discipline is teaching. In a more narrow sense, some discipline is corrective. In the narrowest sense, it is the act of excluding someone who professes to be a Christian from membership in the church and participation in the Lord's Supper for serious unrepentant sin—sin they refuse to let go of.

Imaging God's Character

In order to understand church discipline, it might help us to remind ourselves of God's purposes in creating the universe, humanity, Israel, and the church. God created the universe in order to display his glory. He then created humanity for the same purpose, and particularly by creating us to bear his image (Gen. 1:27). Humanity—Adam and Eve—didn't display his glory, so he excluded them from the garden.

God then called Israel to display his glory, particularly by displaying his holiness and character to the nations as they were revealed in the law (see Lev. 19:2; Prov. 24:1, 25). Along the way, this law was the basis for correcting and even excluding some people from the community (as in Num. 15:30-31). Ultimately, it was the basis for excluding Israel itself from the land.

Finally, God created the church, we have said, so that it might increasingly reflect the character of God as it's been revealed in his Word. In keeping with the storyline of the entire Bible, then, church discipline is the act of excluding an individual who carelessly brings disrepute onto the gospel and shows no commitment to doing otherwise. Discipline helps the church to reflect God's glorious character faithfully. It helps the church to remain holy. It's an attempt to polish the mirror and remove any specks (see 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 13:2; 1 Tim. 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 3:1-5). Why discipline? So that the holy and loving character of God might appear more clearly and shine more brightly.

How Does It Work?

How does the process of discipline work? Since the circumstances of sin vary tremendously, so does the need for pastoral wisdom in knowing how to treat each situation particularly.

That said, Jesus's words in Matthew 18 provide the general boundaries (Matt. 18:15-17). Begin by addressing a sinning brother or sister in private. If the sinner repents, the process of discipline ends. If not, then return a second time with another Christian. If he or she still doesn't repent, then, as Jesus put it, "tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matt. 18:17 NIV), that is, like an outsider.

Shalt Thou Judge?

This whole idea can sound harsh to many people today. Besides, didn't Jesus forbid his followers from judging others? In one sense, he certainly did: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Matt. 7:1 NIV). But in the very same Gospel, Jesus also called churches to rebuke—even publicly—their members for sin (Matt. 18:15-17; cf. Luke 17:3). So whatever Jesus meant by "Do not judge," he did not mean to rule out everything that might be called "judging" today.

Certainly God himself is a judge. He judged Adam in the garden. In the Old Testament he judged both nations and individuals. In the New Testament he promises that Christians will be judged according to their works (see 1 Corinthians 3). And he promises that, on the final day, he will reveal himself as the ultimate judge of all humanity (see Revelation 20).

In his judgment, God is never wrong. He is always righteous (see Joshua 7; Matthew 23; Luke 2; Acts 5; Romans 9). Sometimes his purposes in judgment are corrective, redemptive, and restorative, as when he disciplines his children. Sometimes his purposes are retributive, vengeful, and final, as when he bears his wrath upon the ungodly (see Hebrews 12). Either way, God's judgment is always just.

What may surprise many people today is that God occasionally uses human beings to carry out his judgment. The state is given responsibility to judge its citizens (see Romans 13). Christians are told to judge themselves (see 1 Cor. 11:28; Hebrews 4; 2 Pet. 1:5). Congregations are told to occasionally even judge the members of the church—though not in the final way God judges.

In Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, and elsewhere, the church is instructed to exercise judgment within itself. This judgment is for redemptive, not vengeful, purposes (Rom. 12:19). Paul told the church in Corinth to hand the adulterous man over to Satan "so that [the sinful nature may be destroyed and] his spirit may be saved" (1 Cor. 5:5 NIV). He says the same to Timothy regarding the false teachers in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:20).

Healthy Church Study Guides

Week 1 Is Discipline Loving?

Getting Started

1. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "discipline"?

2. What other things do you associate with the idea of discipline? Are these things good or bad? Pleasant or unpleasant?

This lesson begins a series of six studies on the topic of church discipline. Since this is a neglected and challenging topic, let's begin with some basic teaching before jumping into the Bible passage we're going to focus on.

Defining Discipline

Broadly speaking, discipline is everything the church does to help its members pursue holiness and fight sin. Preaching, teaching, prayer, reading and memorizing the Bible, corporate worship, accountability relationships, and godly oversight by pastors and elders are all forms of discipline. Theologians often call this kind of discipline "formative discipline" because it forms our character to be more like Christ.

In a narrower sense, discipline is when we point out fellow church members' sin and encourage them to repent and pursue holiness by God's grace. Theologians often call this kind of discipline "corrective discipline." It means correcting fellow church members when they begin to veer from the path of following Christ. As we'll see in coming studies, Jesus commands the church not only to correct sin and pursue the sinner's repentance but also to exclude someone from the church if they continue to cling to their sin instead of clinging to Jesus.

Is Discipline Loving?

Discipline involves correction, confrontation, and, if necessary, exclusion. When some people hear this, they throw up their hands and say, "I want nothing to do with that! That's the most unloving thing I've ever heard!"

Thus, this study answers the question: Is discipline loving? In order to do that, we're going to consider a passage of Scripture that teaches us about how God disciplines us and why.

Main Idea

God disciplines us because he loves us. His purpose is to help his children grow in holiness and humble dependence on him.

Digging In

The book of Hebrews is filled with stirring exhortations to keep on trusting in Christ through opposition, persecution, and suffering. In this study we'll consider Hebrews 12:3-11:

3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

"My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

nor be weary when reproved by him.

6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,

and chastises every son whom he receives."

7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

1. In verse three, what does the author of Hebrews exhort us to do? For what purpose?

2. According to verses 5 and 6, whom does God discipline? What does this teach us about God's attitude toward those whom he disciplines?

3. Many people have had human fathers who disciplined them in anger, in selfishness, and in excess. What can we be certain about when it comes to God's discipline?