The term discipline is an elastic term. We can speak of the discipline of a particular subject, activity or skill, such as the discipline of music, or running, or brick laying. Still further we can speak of discipline in terms of consequences brought for bad behavior, and for the purpose of trying to change that behavior. It is likely in this latter sense that many think of church discipline. Yet we need to understand that because of what the gospel of the Lord Jesus is, church discipline should be thought of, first and foremost, in the first sense mentioned before it is thought of in this second sense.
The gospel of the Lord Jesus is, through the power of the Holy Spirit; it the presence and power of God’s new and eternal life, the life of repentance from sin and faith in Jesus. Thus, the Christian life is a discipline. This is why true Christians are regarded as Jesus’ disciples and Christian evangelism is the making of disciples of Jesus. To be Jesus’ disciple means one submits to the discipline of being a part of Jesus’ covenant community.
Disciples of the Lord Jesus are made as they receive his word by the power of his Spirit for the removal of sin so that they might be God’s holy people obeying his commands and glorifying and enjoying him forever. When Moses spoke to the Old Covenant Community of God’s people to recount God’s law to them, he declared that God had rescued them from Egyptian enslavement, and formed them as a community in order that they might know that Yahweh alone is God. “Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire” (Deut. 4:36, italics mine). All this was because God chose to love their forefathers in such a way that he would reveal himself to them and their offspring by rescuing them from the sinful way of Egyptian life by his great presence and power (Deut. 4:37-38). All this was a physical demonstration and application of the spiritual reality of salvation.
In other words, the biblical doctrine of salvation does not teach us that every individual Christian is on his or her own private journey. Salvation in and through the Lord Jesus is not rightly defined and determined merely by our personal perceptions of our feelings and thoughts. Just because someone may feel very strongly that they are correct in their convictions does not make their convictions correct. Our freedom in Christ is not a license for us to declare what is true for us.
On the other hand, the biblical doctrine of salvation does not teach us that the leaders of God’s church are possessed with an authority that allows a smaller network of people to dictate what does and does not happen in the church. As it turns out an individualistic licentiousness can morph into a communalistic legalism; same sin just a different demonstration of it. Just as Korah, Dathan and Abiram challenged and undermined Moses and Aaron and their legitimate God-given and defined authority (Numbers 16), so too Moses and Aaron were capable of misunderstanding their role and abusing the authority God had given them (Exodus 2:11-14; 4:1-26; 32:1-24). No one among God’s covenant people is without sin.
So, the discipline that God brings or applies to and within his covenant community so that it is freed from sin takes place through the ministry of God’s word by his Spirit, but it is never administered perfectly, or without sin by the ones ministering it. This is not, however, an excuse for sin. Far from it. It is, in fact, cause for all who claim the Lord Jesus as their Savior from sin to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ and to submit to the discipline of God’s word (Eph. 4:1-5:32; Hebrews 12:1-17).
The discipline of the Christian faith and life means all God’s people work out their salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who is at work in his people both to will and work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13). It means that those who claim to have new life in Christ will demonstrate their love for their King by obeying his commandments (John 14:15). They will strive together as a community for the sake of the gospel (Phil. 1:27)—not their pet hobby horses, or the hot political or social goal of their culture—but what has formed and defined God’s people throughout every generation of the church—the reception of God’s word by God’s Spirit for the glory of the Triune God.
David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.