The disappearance of church discipline has weakened the church and compromised Christian witness. The church’s abdication of its moral responsibility has also lead to public humiliation before the watching world. Any road to recovery will take the church through a rediscovery of the biblical and theological foundations for congregational discipline. The integrity of the people of God should always be a paramount concern. This story does not begin with the church, but with Israel.
Throughout the Bible, the people of God are characterized by a distinctive purity. This moral purity is not their own achievement, but the work of God within their midst. As the Lord spoke to the children of Israel, “For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” [Leviticus 11:44a] Given that they have been chosen by a holy God as a people of his own name, God’s chosen people are to reflect his holiness by their way of living, worship, and beliefs.
The holiness code is central to the understanding of the Old Testament. As God’s chosen nation, Israel must live by God’s Word and law, which will set the children of Israel visibly apart from their pagan neighbors. As the Lord spoke through Moses: “You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes which He has commanded you. You shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may be well with you and that you may go in and possess the good land which the Lord swore to give your fathers.” [Deuteronomy 6:17-18]
The nation is reminded that it is now known by God’s name, and is to reflect his holiness. “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” [Deuteronomy 7:6] God promised his covenant faithfulness to his people, but expected them to obey his Word and follow his law. Israel’s judicial system was largely designed to protect the purity of the nation.
In the New Testament, the church is likewise described as the People of God, who are visible to the world by their purity of life and integrity of testimony. As Peter instructed the church: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” [I Peter 2:9-10]
As Peter continued, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.” [1 Peter 2:11-12]
As the new People of God, the church is to see itself as an alien community in the midst of spiritual darkness–strangers to the world who must abstain from the lusts and enticements of the world. The church is to be conspicuous in its purity and holiness, and steadfast in its confession of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Rather than capitulating to the moral (or immoral) environment, Christians are to be conspicuous by their good behavior. As Peter summarized, “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your behavior.” [1 Peter 1:15]
The Apostle Paul clearly linked the holiness expected of believers to the completed work of Christ in redemption: “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach . . . .” [Colossians 1:21-22] Clearly, this holiness made complete in the believer is the work of God, and holiness is the evidence of that redemptive work. To the Corinthian congregation Paul urged, “let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” [2 Corinthians 7:1]
The identity of the church as the People of God is to be evident in its pure confession of Christ, its bold testimony to the Gospel, and its moral holiness before the watching world. Nothing less will mark the church as the true vessel of the Gospel.
The first dimension of discipline in the church is that discipline exercised directly by God as He deals with believers. As the book of Hebrews warns, “you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.’ It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” [Hebrews 12:5-7] As the passage continues, the author warns that those who are without discipline “are illegitimate children and not sons.” [Hebrews 12:8] The purpose of discipline, however, is righteousness. “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” [Hebrews 12:11]
God’s loving discipline of his people is his sovereign right and is completely in keeping with his moral character–his own holiness. His fatherly discipline also establishes the authority and pattern for discipline in the church. Correction is for the greater purpose of restoration and the even higher purpose of reflecting the holiness of God.
The second dimension of discipline in the church is that disciplinary responsibility addressed to the church itself. Like God’s fatherly discipline of those He loves, the church is to exercise discipline as an integral part of its moral and theological responsibility. That the church can fall into moral disrepute is evident in the New Testament itself.
The Apostle Paul confronted a case of gross moral failure in the Corinthian congregation which included “immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles.” [1 Corinthians 5:1] In this case, apparent incest was known to the congregation, and yet it had taken no action.
“You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst,” Paul accused the Corinthian congregation. [1 Corinthians 5:2] He instructed them to act quickly and boldly to remove this stain from their fellowship. He also warned them, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened.” [1Corinthians 5:6-7a]
Paul is outraged that the Corinthian Christians would tolerate this horrible sin. Incest, though not literally unknown in the pagan world, was universally condemned and not tolerated. In this respect, the Corinthian church had fallen beneath the moral standards of the pagan world to whom they were to witness. Paul was also exasperated with a congregation he had already warned. Mentioning an earlier letter unavailable to us, Paul scolds the Corinthians: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually I wrote you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” [1Corinthians 5:9-13]
The moral outrage of a wounded apostle is evident in these pointed verses, which call the Corinthian church to action and the exercise of discipline. They have now fallen into corporate sin by tolerating the presence of such a bold and arrogant sinner in their midst. Their moral testimony is clouded, and their fellowship is impure. Their arrogance has blinded them to the offense they have committed before the Lord. The open sin in their midst is like a cancer which, left unchecked, will spread throughout the entire body.
The Apostle’s concern about the Corinthian church is a startling catalyst for concern about today’s congregations, many of which are following a Corinthian pattern of moral compromise. Paul’s letter is a poignant reminder of what is at stake in the recovery of biblical church discipline–nothing less than the church’s witness before the world.