These days no one likes the term “discipline.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the Body of Christ, the local church.
When I was much younger, I grew up in an Independent Baptist environment where church discipline was more the norm rather than the exception. Of course, the few events I remember seemed to deal primarily with going to movies, listening to the wrong music and the occasional affair in a marriage—which the last one was certainly legitimate! Yet the occasion of “discipline” had all the hallmarks of a massacre scene in movies like Scream—minus the ominous foreshadowing music.
Why is the consideration of discipline—as outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-13—is so shocking to people who profess the name of Christ? Well, it’s kind of like this: as a cat owner (a euphemism for being owned by a cat), there have been those nights where I had to get up and get a drink (another euphemism) after going to bed. Now I have owned cats for most of my life and am familiar with kitty behavior.
Yet even though I know what cats do, it is still a jarring shock to step in a cold, congealed mass of kitty cat ack! I know they do it, I even know I will eventually find it with my toes; it’s just so shocking to stick one’s toes in something I don’t even want to see—much less squish between my toes!
Church discipline is much the same way for many people. James in his New Testament letter makes it clear “we all stumble in many ways”; we all make mistakes, we all sin and everyone is error prone. So in reality, the shock is not the fact there is a corrective action and tool which exists within the church, it is, more often than not, that we rarely consider the importance and necessity of obedience!
As those who profess the name of Jesus Christ, our obedience is to be observable and unquestionable by believers and the world. Peter tells his readers judgment begins with those who belong to Christ—we are His; bought with the price of His blood and we therefore are to live according to His Word. If obedience is emphasized, taught and expected, discipline would then be moot. Unfortunately obedience is under-emphasized and the mention of a holy God almost a foreign concept in many churches. Obedience cannot exist without personal discipline and there is a massive misunderstanding of the concepts of freedom and discipline in the life of a believer.
The writer of Hebrews informs his readers without the presence of discipline by the Lord in the life of the believer, there is no evidence of a relationship with the Lord. The same is true of the Body of Christ: if obedience is not exemplified, is not proven, by the everyday lives of those who profess Christ as their Lord, there is no evidence of the truth of that profession. If the church in turn chooses to not discipline and correct those who have wandered away from obedience to Christ, where then is the evidence of relationship?
American Express used to have “membership has its privileges” as its marketing buy-line. Membership does have its privileges, but membership also has responsibilities. If we row out into a lake in a small boat, you will not be allowed to exercise your freedom to drill holes into the bottom of the boat over which you are sitting; to do so would infringe on my right to remain dry and un-drowned! Drilling holes will affect others besides yourself—and this is why you may not drill holes!
To become a member of a church is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord. As a member, you are part of the Body of Christ, an interconnected organism where the actions of the individual affects the whole of the Body. The Body is maintained through obedience to the Lord, through mutual submission, through a people trying to out-love each other through their demonstrative love performed to each other. For someone who is part of this Body to think they may live any way they desire, engage in any activity they wish and to “love the one they’re with,” is reckless, unloving and inconsistent with their stated belief in Christ.
As a pastor, I would prefer to emphasize obedience and see the blessings of God poured out in abundance to His people, the church. Yet as a pastor, I am responsible to protect and care for the flock God has entrusted to me. This means on rare occasions I and the Body—the church—must discipline individuals for the good of the body and them. Because I am the pastor, I must above even my personal likes and dislikes, be obedient to the Lord and Scripture. The consequences of disobedience are far too great.
Think of it this way: someone who competes in track must discipline themselves to get out of bed at a specific time, eat a specific diet, exercise in a specific manner and order their life in a specific way. Their life is characterized by discipline. Discipline is not an end to itself; it is the tool, the means by which they have the ability to cross the finish line and win.
Church obedience, consisting of church discipline, is not an end to itself; it is the means by which we secure the blessings of God both now and in eternity.