Discipleship & Discipline

Introduction

God’s overarching purpose in sending the Lord Jesus Christ to earth is to redeem for Himself (from the world) a people who are His very own, called to bring Him praise and glory (Is. 45:21; Rom. 8:30) and do what is good (Titus 2:14) – being conformed as individuals into His likeness (Rom. 8:29) and being formed together as bodies of believers who are “a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21) in and through whom the Lord may dwell in Spirit as He builds & expands His eternal kingdom.

To this end, the Lord Jesus provided His disciples with the Great Commandment – to “love the Lord your God with all your heart … soul … mind, and … strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31), and to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20). Scripture is clear that those who claim to follow Christ are to be distinctive from the world around them in their mindset (Rom. 12:2, II Cor. 10:5), lifestyle (Eph. 4:15-5:21), and love for one another (John 13:34-35). Jesus calls all Christians to be disciples (Matt. 16:24-25; Luke 14:26-27, 33) – not just casual followers who give intellectual assent to His teachings without allowing Him to transform their lives (Matt. 7:13-27; Luke 13:23-30).

Discipline – defined as “training that corrects, moulds, and perfects … the moral character” (Webster’s Dictionary) –

 

is a central element of the path of discipleship: the process of imitating a teacher or master so that we become like Him, thus fulfilling God’s purpose for every born-again believer. In voluntarily joining together as a CMP within The Way, we aspire to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Eph 4:15-16 ESV)

Church discipline has both a formative and a corrective aspect. The shared goals of discipleship – and of church discipline – are:

  • to create an environment that helps all Christian believers to become faithful disciples of Christ, and to enable each and every believer to enter into the fullness of Christ’s teachings and example;
  • to teach and equip all believers in such a way that we may respond with confidence rather than shame when the Lord calls us into His Presence (Eph. 4:13-16, I John 4:17);
  • to admonish and correct where members of the community stray in ways harmful to themselves, others, and/or the reputation of Christ (II Thess. 3:11-15; II Tim. 3:16-17, 4:1-5);
  • to protect the community against false teachings and persistent behavior disruptive to the well-being of the community, including the removal from positions of responsibility and/or fellowship within the church when necessary (1 Cor. 5; Gal. 1:8-10; 1 Thes. 5:11-15; II Tim. 2:24-26; Titus 1:9-11); and
  • to provide a pattern for repentance and restoration through renewed commitment to Christ, His Word, and the well-being of His people (Titus 1:9-11, Gal. 6:1-3).

Christian discipleship – the shared path of discipline under the Lordship of Christ as expressed through the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit – has several elements. For purposes of brevity and order, these are summarized under three main headings: doctrine / teaching, holiness, and unity.

Doctrine and Teaching

The first involves teaching and doctrine – passing on the teachings of Christ and the apostles (Eph. 2:19-21) so that each of us “may observe (or carry out) all the things (He) has commanded” us (Matt. 28:20), that we may be “transformed by the renewing of (our) mind(s)” rather than being “conformed to (the pattern of) this world” (Rom 12:2). In doing so, we seek to achieve “unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God“ (Eph. 4:13), so that each one of us allows His teachings and example to shape every area of our lives, attitudes, and behavior.

While we aspire to internalize the teachings of Christ and His Word in order to become more like the Master, those responsible for leadership within the church also have the responsibility to correct, resist and rebuke false teachings – defined as those which are contrary to the explicit teachings of Scripture, or which call into question its authority as the supreme and inerrant guide to every area of the believer’s life and the collective life of the church.

Holiness in Thoughts, Words and Actions

The second group involves a shared commitment to holiness – a deliberate and systematic turning away from attitudes and habits characteristic of our fallen human nature, and towards a wholehearted commitment to become ‘new creatures’ in Jesus Christ who embrace a Christ-like character and lifestyle (Matt. 5-7; Gal. 5:16-26; Eph. 4:17 – 6:9; Col. 3:1 – 4:6; II Peter 1:3-11).

While all Christians should seek to overcome our fallen, sinful nature (Rom. 3:23, 7:14-25; 1 John 1:9), with God’s help, to attain these goals, the corrective application of church discipline applies to individuals within the church who willfully live a continuing lifestyle of sin, refusing to repent and change (John 14:21-24; 1 John 2:3-6,15-17, 3:3-10, 5:18). Scripture clearly and repeatedly identifies behavior that is unacceptable among professed followers of Christ (e.g. Rom. 13:12-14; I Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:16-21; Eph. 5:1-7; Col. 3:5-9; Rev. 21:7-8). In such cases, church discipline is to be applied according to the Biblical injunctions against sin, not contemporary cultural standards. The ultimate goal of church discipline is the restoration of the church member to full fellowship with God and fellow believers, while honoring His purposes for our lives.

 

Unity

A central purpose of this covenant community is unity with Jesus Christ and one another under the authority of the Word of God, with the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures speak of the church as a living body, with many diverse parts and members, that are to fit and serve together for the glory of God, the ‘edification’ – or well-being, encouragement, and mutual example – of one another as we grow as followers and imitators of Christ, and the growth of the kingdom of God within, among and around us (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:1-16).

Cultivating unity of doctrine, spirit, and purpose is vital as we seek to integrate our lives individually and collectively with the teaching of the Word of God and the fulfillment of His purposes for our lives. It is essential to our integrity – both as individual followers of the Lord Jesus Christ and as a community of believers who aspire to model His example and be used in fulfilling His purposes in this world. At the same time, it allows for the expression of different gifts and personalities – but in ways conducive to the well-being of others and the body as a whole, rather than a focus on self (Rom.12:3-8; 1 Cor. 10:23-31; 12:12-30; 13:1-7; Eph. 4:1-6; Phil. 2:1-4).

The principal focus of unity – both within the church community and when interacting other local bodies of Christ – is to be the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. All spiritually mature members of the community share in the responsibility for encouraging and, when necessary, admonishing one another to live up to our common commitments to Christ, the gospel, and one another, as well as supporting the leadership of the church. (Rom. 15:14; Gal. 6:1-5; Col. 3:12-16; 1 Thess. 5: 12-15; 1 Tim. 5:17-20; Jude 3-4, 16-19.)

The purpose of church leadership is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” (Eph 4:12-13 ESV) Those in leadership are also accountable to God for setting an example in their lives and teaching (Acts 20:28-30; 1 Tim. 4:12-16; 5:20; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-3); the protection of fellow believers from false teachings (Gal. 1:8-9; II Tim. 4:1-5; II Pet. 1:19-2:3), as well as for admonishing those who are active sources of division within the community (I Cor. 1:10; 3:1-15; II Thess. 3:6-15; Titus 3:9-11).

Our attitudes and behavior are to be shaped by a consistent commitment to the well-being of one another, in humility under Christ, rather than our own personal advantage, comfort, or self-will (1 Cor. 13:1-7, Eph. 4:1-3, James 4:1-10). Understanding and living out such principles in community requires believers to cultivate spiritual discernment (Phil. 1:9-11) so that they can distinguish between matters of personal preference (our individual “likes” and “dislikes” and differences among personalities) and the principles of God’s word. Our attitudes and behavior are to be based on a shared submission to the latter, rather than emphasizing or indulging the former. Failure to live by this principle often contributes to disputes and divisions that are harmful to the body of Christ and dishonoring to God and His reputation in the broader community.

When differences, disputes or personal offences occur, individual believers are to deal directly with the specific person whose actions or attitudes are in question – whether that person is a member of the leadership or another member of the congregation – rather than discussing the matter with other people (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1-2). Similarly, members who recognize or recognize that their words or actions have caused offence to others within the congregation are to take the initiative in approaching the person to seek forgiveness and reconciliation (Matt. 5:23-24; 1 Cor. 11:31). However, in some cases, an individual’s behavior may call for more formal measures of discipline.

Scriptural Precedent and Process for Church Discipline

The Lord Jesus Christ provides a model for church discipline in Matthew 18:15-18. Accordingly, our order of church discipline is modeled after Jesus’ instructions:

  1. If a covenanted member of the church fellowship is clearly involved in sinful behavior, including behavior condemned by Scripture as divisive (e.g. Prov. 6:19), a member of the church should privately admonish him or her with the issue, acting in a loving manner that is visibly intended to serve the well-being of the individual and the community.
  2. If the confronted person refuses to change, then a group of two or three, preferably including the pastor or an elder, as appropriate, shall meet with the individual. If the matter cannot be resolved, and the group did not include the pastor, they should seek guidance from the pastor, who may find it necessary to confront the person directly.
  3. If the person still refuses to acknowledge and/or change the behavior in question, the pastor and elders shall determine the manner in which the matter is taken before the entire covenanted membership of the church. Dealing with matters of formal church discipline requires sensitivity, discretion, and Christian maturity. Cases of church discipline often involve sensitive details that do not need to be revealed to the church body. However, the point of discipline is to express the truth of Christ and acknowledge our shared accountability to Christ, not humiliation – so that it may produce “the peaceable fruit of righteousness (in) those who have been trained by it”. (Heb. 12:11)

God disciplines His children individually with this goal in mind (1 Cor. 11:32, Heb. 12:5-13), as members of one body. However, the elders of the church also have responsibility for those aspects of corrective discipline which may involve formal sanctions against members involved in serious violations of the church covenant. Sanctions may range from a formal, written warning, to removal from ministry responsibilities, to removal from membership within the church until s/he has made substantial progress in correcting the situation which activated the disciplinary proceedings. (Substantial progress in most cases will include not only correction of physical circumstances, but a period of counseling and accountability under the guidance of the pastoral staff to substantiate spiritual, emotional, and mental change, as well as a physical change of circumstances.)

Every matter of church discipline will depend upon a number of factors, such as the flagrancy, severity, repetition, and duration of the problem. Therefore, to some extent, each instance of church discipline will call for different responses from the pastor, elders, and covenanted members of the congregation. Each case is to be handled with love, respect, and discretion, and always according to clear Biblical standards.