Last week in this column I talked about the importance of steering clear of divisive doctrines, as we are instructed in Paul’s letter to Titus. One of the main reasons we must do that is because those who embrace divisive doctrines in the church will become divisive people. We are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace,” not eager to divide the church and separate the sheep and create chaos and confusion. Paul follows the warning in verse 9 with another warning, and with essential instructions for how the church is to deal with unrepentant divisive people. Sadly, even though church discipline is vital to both the health and the witness of individual members and to the health and witness of the church as a whole, its practice has been largely dismissed by the evangelical church today. Even worse, the modern church has embraced the mantra of the modern culture in reversing the truth of the biblical statement, “God is love” and replacing it with “Love is God.” If love is god, the reasoning goes, then we must not even speak of putting someone out of the church, as that could not possibly be a loving thing to do. And in fact, neither should we judge anyone. If love is god, then our highest calling is to love without judgment.
Though that sounds logical and nice, it in fact is misguided at best and highly destructive at worst.
In Josh Harris’s book, “Stop Dating the Church,” there’s a chapter called, “Choosing Your Church: the 10 things that matter the most.” Number nine on the list of 10 questions he says you should ask about a church before you join is, “Is this a church that is willing to kick me out?” Harris writes, “I gain a wonderful sense of protection in knowing that if I committed a scandalous sin and showed no repentance, my church wouldn’t put up with it. They would plead with me to change. They would patiently confront me with God’s Word. And eventually, if I refused to change, they would lovingly kick me out.”
The Belgic Confession of 1561 states that “The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.”
The church has been guilty at times of shooting its wounded rather than doing the hard work of restoration. Sometimes, though, it is the disobedient brother or sister who shoots the church, destroying it through divisive doctrine or sinful rampages that have been winked at by the leadership rather than dealt with according to the “pure Word of God.” The Bible gives clear instructions for how we are to exercise church discipline: the person (is unrepentant), the process (warn him twice and then remove him from the fellowship, if he persists), and the purpose. The purpose of church discipline is never punishment but always restoration. Never “putting someone in his place,” but “loving someone back into the place of obedience.” When restoration takes place, it is a glorious picture of the Gospel at work.
Church discipline has not been tried and found lacking, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton in his classic quote on Christianity. Rather, church discipline has been found difficult and left untried.