Discipline is Essential to the Church

Church just ain’t what it used to be. For so many good people in so many good places, church is lacking.

Church planters say that churches are lacking focus. Churches need to focus on outreach, focus on becoming a part of the community, focus on worship, and the list goes on.

In my humble opinion, those things are secondary results of just being Christian. They are not essentially what a church is.

Pastors like to focus on preaching. Preaching is central to the church, they might say. So, if that’s true then is church essentially the place the Word is administered? That’s definitely a piece of the puzzle, but is that all?

Some of the more theologically astute might say that church is where the sacrament is administered. Baptism builds the church through admittance and the church is edified or built up by the bread and the wine, but the sacrament can’t be separated from the Word. They work as a team rather than two individuals. There is no doubt that baptism and communion are essential to church though, but do they complete what is essentially a church?

The sacraments should never be divorced from the Word, for they have no content of their own, but derive their content from the Word of God; they are in fact a visible preaching of the Word[1]-L Berkhof

A lot of churches do these things well. A lot of those churches still find themselves trying to figure out what’s missing. A piece of the puzzle that is church is being left out. What is it?

It is true that churches should place a great emphasis upon the proper preaching of the Word of God and the proper administration of baptism and communion. These two marks are essential to church. If one of them is absent, there is no church. Although this would even give Berkhof pause, (Strictly speaking, it may be said that the true preaching of the Word and its recognition as the standard of doctrine and life, is the one mark of the Church. Without it there is no Church[2]), he admits and agrees with Calvin that the sacrament is essential as well.

There is another mark of the church, although with Calvin it is less obvious at first, which is essential to a church’s very being. That mark is discipline.

Calvin admits over and over that wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists[3]. You have to be careful here though not to exclude discipline as essential to the church. For Calvin, it seems to be less of a mark and more of an intrinsic element. “Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place[4]”, is his description of the necessity of discipline to the church.

One of the weaknesses of the modern American church is the lack of discipline.

Discipline is seen as meancommunion-1042687_1920 or unnessesarily exclusive.

With one of the most popular verses of the Bible now being “Judge not, lest thou be judged”, to practice discipline seems at the very least archaic and to many contemporary Christians, it is flat out unchristian.

With that being said, who among you will cast the first stone? Well, I guess it has to be me.

An undereducated, biblically illiterate laity and its equally unqualified leadership has left the authority of the Church impotent. If you were to go to the websites of most churches, it would be extremely difficult to find anything about discipline in their doctrinal statement, if there is even a doctrinal statement to be found. Most of what churches promote are their welcoming, come as you are, relaxed, and informal atmospheres. They go out of their way to get formality out of your way, so that you’ll come their way.

Who can win the numbers game when there is a real fear of being disciplined?

Although formality for formality’s sake promotes legalism; and churches should be welcoming in a sense, the idea that those things promote when they are at the forefront is one of disorder. As you know, the church is to be orderly.

Now some of you just had a kneejerk reaction. You are probably equating discipline with traditionalism when traditionalism not what I mean to promote. I am not promoting dress codes or certain brands of worship music or church covenants limiting Christian liberty. The fact that most folks minds go to those things and become defensive about them in a discussion of this sort is a sure sign that churches have done a poor job teaching their people about discipline.

What I am saying is that most modern or contemporary churches don’t practice discipline and have no inclination to do so. They are missing a key element of what it means to be a church.

This is also true in many small, rural churches. Although there may be a policy of church discipline somewhere in the back of their church constitution, small congregations have a hard time being faithful to their own disciplinary process.

Small churches are often made of neighbors, family, and close friends. They understand discipline as merely excommunication and this unhealthy perspective causes them to neglect true discipline. Rather than beginning with a Biblical process of working to bring members to repentance and reconciliation, small churches have a tendency to ignore sin, something God never does. This ignorance can have a lasting effect and the testimony of that church, the holiness of the Church as a whole, and the glory of God suffer for it.

Yet that would happen, if to the preaching of doctrine there were not added private admonitions, corrections, and other aids of the sort that sustain doctrine and do not let it remain idle. Therefore, discipline is like a bridle to restrain and tame those who rage against the doctrine of Christ[5]-Calvin

Those are the reasons that discipline is necessary. The holiness of God’s Church and the glory of God himself are the victims of an ordinance of obstinacy. A church that decides to forgo the proper discipline of God forgoes the teaching of God and stands as unfaithful stewards of their own self-righteousness, instead of standing faithfully on the precepts of a merciful God who gives and glories in the repentance to his children.

Its easy though to talk academically or theologically about the importance of church discipline. It leaves it out there in space, just out of reach of practicality. It remains a concept, an unreality, rather than an integral part of church life.

It might be better to put some feet on it.

As I went through an almost year long process of attempting to convince the leadership in a small church the necessity of discipline in the case of an elder, one in which the two-thirds of the church made it clear that they desired resolution, I wrote this down in my frustration…

“Sin is like pet poo. It doesn’t matter who does it or how they cover it up, its still the same when you step in it and our church has it all over its feet because we covered  it (up) in our house.  Everyone smells it and we can’t pick it out of the tread with (our) smiley faces or (we) pretend not to smell it. We try to ignore it but it overpowers all else. We walk with a limp but we still track it everywhere. Finally though, we get used to it and its stench no longer affects our nostrils. Unfortunately when a visitor comes, it hits them like a ton of bricks. They can’t see it and they don’t know who did it or tracked it in, but they know it’s there. It hangs in the air over our little church. It sneaks into the hallways and the classrooms. It permeates the walls. Finally, it sticks to our reputation and testimonies. We are associated with it instead of holiness. Instead of on us, it becomes us, our shadow of sin, and our putrid personality. It’s the opposite of the sweet aroma we should be to The Lord. There’s only one way to get rid of it and that’s to wash it off with the water of confession and repentance. We have not, so we leave it up to God to purge us with fire. Oh that we would have had men who love righteousness and holiness rather than security and congeniality, truth rather than facade. Why do we despise discipline? Why do we fear correction and rebuke? Are the words we preach false? Do they not apply to us? I wonder if we trust them?

As for now, we will keep teaching, preaching, praying, worshiping, gathering, and partaking, but will it matter? We will look like a church and wear the church garment, but are we dressed in the nakedness that we ourselves are oblivious? Will we find correction in our teaching? Conviction in the preaching? Confession in prayer? Humility in worship? Accountability in fellowship ? Discipline in the bread and wine?”

That church imploded ten months later. People scattered. Some of them who were faithful don’t even go to church anymore. A community that loved eachother is now separated by anger, hatred, and pride. An almost empty building testifies each Sunday of a failure to trust God and a willful ignorance of public sin. People still hurt a year and a half later.

This is the collateral damage of a failure to properly discipline. Discipline is essential to the Church.

Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration—whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance—are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church[6]-Calvin



[1] Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (pp. 577–578). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co.

[2] Berkhof, L. (1938). Systematic theology (p. 577). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co.

[3] Calvin, J. (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. (F. L. Battles, Trans., J. T. McNeill, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 1023). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[4] Calvin, J. (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. (F. L. Battles, Trans., J. T. McNeill, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 1230). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[5] Calvin, J. (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. (F. L. Battles, Trans., J. T. McNeill, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 1230). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[6] Calvin, J. (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. (F. L. Battles, Trans., J. T. McNeill, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 1230). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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