In light of recent conversations and other events in our congregation, the question of whether church discipline is appropriate has arisen among some of our members. Should we discipline?
My answer, of course, is "yes" — not least, because the very idea of being Christ's "disciples" is that we are people devoted to spiritual discipline. (Did you note the shared root of the words disciple and discipline?)
We do well to keep in mind that when we refer to "discipline" generally we mean many things. We say that children are to be disciplined when they are shown their errors and corrected in them; that soldiers are people of discipline when they function well as a part of a larger unit; and that a musician is disciplined who devotes herself to the study and practice of her craft. All of these are true descriptors, also, of the discipline that those who profess their faith in Christ must be given to take up.
This is why, in the vows of membership that we ask of everyone seeking to unite with the local church in faith, we ask, "do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?" (emphasis added). The discipline that is expected of believers is part and parcel to our faith's expression, and it requires the accountability of the local church for it to be properly exercised.
This kind of accountability is assumed by Jesus of His disciples. Consequently, we find the kind of discipline that becomes publicly enacted in churches: someone who is obstinate in their sin, refusing to receive or accept the accountability of the church, is brought into some state of discipline; maybe they are barred from the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper for a time, or perhaps they are excommunicated (which is to say, they are removed from the membership of the local church and regarded as unbelievers). How else could the church — or any individual believer — claim to be faithful to Jesus' explicit teaching in Matthew 18:15-20?
One thing to note here, though: while this corrective sort of discipline is the most public sort that is seen in the church (and the most difficult to handle and accept by the membership), it shouldn't be the only sort of discipline that is found in the local church. The other kinds — of devoted study and practice of the faith, and of the proper functioning of each member as part of a larger unit — must also be present. These are seldom highlighted or even recognized by the whole body, so it can be tempting to assume that they aren't present — or that the leadership of the church rushed to the corrective kind of discipline.
Here a certain degree of trust and benefit of the doubt is required for the leadership; first, that they were patient, gentle, and loving in their encouragement of discipline, and second, that the need for corrective discipline was met with a humble, pastoral spirit. Inevitably, there are more details that the members of the church don't know; there was a lot of attention and care given to the process of discipline that cannot be adequately conveyed in an announcement. As with so many things in the church, assuming that something wasn't done — or that it was done poorly — simply because one wasn't a part of the process is presumptuous, and it may also become sinful, when attitudes and/or conversations are divisive and contrary to our vow for submitting ourselves to the church's leadership and to its purity and peace.
Finally, we should keep in mind that discipline always has the aim of building up and growing true believers in their faith, and of reminding unbelievers of their need. While it can be hard to accept that discipline is what is needed, we should ask: which is more loving? To allow someone to remain in their sin, and leave it unaddressed? Or to urge and plead with them to turn from it — and be willing to be uncompromising in our hope for their righteousness? Though it seems counterintuitive, biblical discipline does affect the restoration and turning from sin that we desire and pray for; those of us who have seen it done have also seen the work of God's blessing in it.
Parents who love their children will sometimes say to them in a moment of discipline, "this hurts me more than it hurts you." So it is with the church (and leadership) that disciplines its members. We don't relish it, but we should do it. We MUST do it.