If We Won't Discipline Are We Really A Church?

re-post from 12 September 2007

One of the clearest commands our Lord gave during his ministry, before his crucifixion, death, burial, and ascension, was to practice discipline in the congregations (Matt 18). It has been abused, but more often it has been neglected. The Apostle Paul also commanded that we love the congregation and love the impenitent by disciplining him.

In our age, we’ve come to tell ourselves that “love” means tolerating everything and anything one does. That such an attitude and practice is not actual love is easy to see. If a child is sitting near an electrical outlet with a pair of needle nose pliers, to watch that child put the pliers (as he is likely to do) into the outlet is not loving is it? (Yes, I was that boy and Mom didn’t see the pliers and it all happened so quickly. I don’t blame her and I don’t think it did lasting damage; but the reader will reach his own conclusions about that). Love requires that, if possible, one intervene and say, “Wait a minute! What you are doing is neither safe nor right. Stop or there will be consequences.”

We might more easily accept the necessity of this sort of love when it comes to practical sins such as theft, murder, or sexual immorality but what about doctrinal error? Well, we Americans aren’t very good at “ideas.” We like practical projects that give us the satisfaction of completion. It’s hard to see the outcome of a doctrinal error or of discipline for error, at least right away. So, we make good pronouncements and we’re tempted to leave it at that.

Pronouncements are grand and important but they are only the beginning. Serious doctrinal error, such as corrupting the gospel by adding works to faith in the act of justification, is every bit as dangerous as any “practical” sin. It has even greater consequences for greater numbers of people. God hates it as much as he hates practical sin.

Look at it this way. For which did Paul pronounce an anathema (eternal condemnation)? A practical sin or doctrinal error? In Gal 2 it was the latter! Sin is no light thing. It is worthy of death. It required the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of our Lord but doctrinal, theological error destroys the foundations of the very church. It is insidious. It might seem that we’re getting away with not doing anything, but eventually the wind will blow and the church will topple. By then, of course, it will be too late. What destroyed the mainline churches and what will destroy the borderline churches and the sideline churches, was not “immorality” of the sort we normally think, it was latitudinarianism — doctrinal pluralism.

The Reformed churches have recognized errors in our midst. We have addressed them. Will we have the courage to actually do something about them in concrete cases or will we content ourselves to have received reports and adopted pastoral advice and the like?

The real question is whether we will have a church.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Seems I was sneakier than you, as I waited until both parents were gone to see what happens when you stick tweezers into a light socket in dad’s bathroom. Turns out, it shuts down all the lights in the lower level. I think those melted tweezers are still buried in the backwooded lot.

    I certainly hear you on the doctrinal point being made. But I remain sufficiently chaffed over our church’s bungling of practical sins while similtaneously wagging a boney finger at the world (in the form of petitions against strip joints). Turns out, Transformationalism does very little to keep one’s own house in order. I’d make a connection between plunging tweezers into sockets, but my synapses aren’t all firing today yet…

  2. Uh, make that a connection between plunging tweezers into sockets and Transformationalism…see what I said about synapses?

  3. Discipline begins in the home and then moves from there. If we cannot assume that a Father is performing his obligations in the discipline of his own family (cf. 1 Tim 3:4-5) how then can he discipline the church?

    Another problem facing the church vis-a-vis discipline is the willingness of the congregant to be disciplined. This is itself one of the major problems with the fracture of the church because there is no stricture that would keep the person who is in need of church discipline from just going down the street to another church who does not accept the reasons for the discipline in the first place. This is of course not to say that discipline is not a necessary and required part of church life but it does explain somewhat the disappearance of church discipline from our communions.

  4. I don’t assume a board of regents of a seminary is bound by a BCO in adjudication, but do they function the same way in disciplining/removing offenders that say a corporation would? Does tenure work at a seminary in the same way it works in broader academia?

  5. Hi Sean,

    It probably varies from institution to institution. Some schools don’t have “tenure.” We have a tenure process but there are provisions in our by-laws to remove a tenured faculty member. We have a disciplinary process in our by-laws.

  6. The auto-link provided by WP is, in this case, interesting. It’s a news story about the return of church discipline and the shock it creates. OTOH, we don’t practice “banning” or “shunning.” I can’t imagine that we would call the police to evict someone from a service, unless they were a physical threat or violating a civil/creational law.

    We place people under discipline in order to see them come to repentance and faith. The ordinary way that happens is through the means of grace. So it’s counter-productive to shun/ban people from the preaching of the gospel.

    Parishioners who are under discipline should be the subject of prayer and love from the congregation without creating the impression that nothing has happened.

    I agree that a major problem with discipline is the refusal by other congregations to honor it. More than once I’ve seen members under discipline walk away to broad, evangelical congregations. A consistory/session member calls the receiving congregation and there is silence or resistance on the other end.

    All this urges on us diligence in receiving new members and diligence in instructing current members. We need to review the membership vows with them on a regular basis as a way of sort of renewing the covenant that exists between us all.

  7. I quite agree that we ought to see discipline more as an effort to heal than to “ban,” “shun,” or “kick out.” But just as the “fear of God” should be understood as not just the sort of reverence with which many are naturally comfortable but also the sort of fright we tend away from (you know, the sort of appropriate fright that attends sharing open water with sharks), it does seem to me that those who go without much sensitivity on their parts or those who receive them might also be seen as, well, less a problem than a solution. That might be some bitter salt water hard to swallow, but I’ll take that over sharks any day. They freak me out. And I’m good with that.

  8. Well as my father said, “if it was easy everybody would do it.” And off into the septic tank cleaning business we went.

  9. Sean,

    Pardon the incidental corniness, but have I told you yet how much I appreciate your references to your father? It trumps “family values” up one side and down the other.

Comments are closed.