Church discipline tends to get a bad rap. Pastors and congregations that practice it are often vilified as unloving, “religious” posers who misrepresent the tender and compassionate Christ. However, the tender and compassionate Christ was actually the first one to prescribe church discipline:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” – Matthew 18:15-17
Years following Jesus’ instructions, Paul instructed the Corinthian church not to associate or even eat with a person who bears the name of Christ yet is guilty of perpetual, unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:11-13). In the specific case of a man guilty of sexual immorality, he commanded the church to take the following action:
“For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 5:3-5
The aim of church discipline is restoration, of course. In Paul’s next letter to the Corinthian church, he implores them to invite this [now repentant] man back into the fellowship:
“For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.” – 2 Corinthians 2:6-8
To be clear, Jesus and Paul were not describing the Christian continually battling sin. There is always a place in Christ’s church for the struggling saint—and good thing, because we all bear that badge. The person Jesus and Paul were describing is the one who claims to know Christ yet persists in unrepentant sin. They were describing the person who revels in iniquity with no remorse and who expresses no desire to cease from their rebellion. They were describing the obstinate, hardhearted person who professes faith but whose life bears no markings of that faith.
They were describing the person I was four years ago.
The first quarter of 2013 was a scary, sin-soaked season for me. Depressive feelings were beating my happiness to death, and both Satan and my deceitful flesh were working double-time to convince me that the “restrictions” God imposed on my life were responsible for my misery. However, the truth was that an unrepentant disposition toward sin was solely responsible for every ounce of my misery. I had entered into an immoral relationship with someone and was unwilling to separate myself from that person and resume an obedient posture before Jesus.
I was very forthcoming with my pastor and fellow church members about my rebellion, as counterintuitive as that might seem. I wasn’t hiding my sins; they knew the ins and outs of the entire situation, and, as any truly loving church would do, they pleaded with me to turn from these poisonous vices and throw myself onto the mercies of God. They gently yet firmly insisted that my refusal to loosen my grip on sin was the reason for my soul’s anguish. With tears, they begged me to remember the goodness of Jesus and cling to him in humble trust, assuring me that faithful submission was the path to true peace.
But I plugged my ears to their pleas and continued in my sin. I still showed up at church, attended community group, and made regular late night visits to my pastor’s house (at his prodding) to talk about my “issues.” However, I persisted in my resistance against Christ’s call to repentance. I wasn’t “struggling” against my flesh; I was gladly and unashamedly embracing it.
Then the day of reckoning arrived. My pastor extended yet another invitation for me to turn from my sins and told me that, if I refused, we were going to have to move forward in the process of church discipline. He said he and other members of the church had confronted me on numerous occasions about my unwillingness to repent, and the next step would be the whole congregation confronting me and calling me to repentance. If in the months following that meeting I persisted in my rebellion, my exclusion from the covenant community would be the inevitable result. I would still be able to attend worship services, but I would no longer be a covenant member of the church.
My hard heart finally began to tremble—not necessarily because I feared losing my church family (as great as they are), but because I realized that the consequences I was facing with my church were indicative of the consequences I would face with God. Just as I would be severed from the visible body of Christ if I refused to turn from my sin, I would be severed from Christ if I refused to turn from my sin. This prospect terrified me. Something inside of me still knew that there is no life better than one spent knowing and walking with Jesus. Something inside of me still knew that I would be destroyed by the wrath of the Lamb if I refused to love and obey him. Propelled by both a great fear of God and great longing for God, I ended the immoral relationship, set my gaze Heavenward, and began running after Jesus—and I have yet to stop.
By no means have the past four years been easy or free of sin. I still struggle with the flesh. However, my spiritual disposition is entirely different than it was before. I do not approach the Christian life passively. I do not view myself as a helpless victim. By the strength the Spirit supplies, I actively resist my sinful urges as I run after the Lord. And when I fall, I take responsibility for my sin, confess my sin, and, by God’s empowering grace, get back up and keep running. My life has changed for the incommunicably better since that step of repentance in 2013—a step that I’m not sure would have been taken had my church been unwilling to practice church discipline. Had they, in the name of “love,” merely given me silent smiles and affirming hugs as I rebelled against Christ, I don’t know where I would be today. I don’t know *who* I would be today.