Q. What is the Office of the Keys?
A. The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 83)
Church discipline is one of those topics no one really wants to talk about. Not only do people fear that such discipline entails church officers snooping around in their private business and then outing their private sins to others in the church, church members also don’t want to be perceived as being judgmental toward others. If snooping is what biblical church discipline entails, then people would be right to be worried. Fortunately, this is not the case.
One example where church discipline is applied in the New Testament is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul describes a situation in which a member of the church (presumably a prominent member) has taken “his father’s wife.” Paul seems completely perplexed that someone could do such a thing. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (1 Cor. 5:1). Not only was this man’s behavior a violation of biblical commandments, but such an act was considered scandalous among pagans outside the church. Paul’s remedy for this was to excommunicate this man: “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” (v. 5).
In this case, this man was to be disciplined because his sin was public, scandalous, and ruining the reputation of the church. The exercise of church discipline is like cancer surgery. The disease must be removed before it sickens the whole body. Notice that Paul doesn’t mention the man’s name (or the woman’s for that matter). The apostle is not about shaming people or embarrassing them in public. Indeed, Paul holds out the hope that this action on the part of the church will lead to this man’s restoration and salvation on the day of the Lord. This action (removing the man from the church) was taken so that he might consider his sin and repent of it. This action was also taken to protect the reputation of the church.
In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus gives very specific instructions about what to do when disputes arise with members of the church. Christians who feel they have been wronged by another are to approach that person directly. If they get no satisfaction, they are to bring a witness. If the matter remains unresolved, only then are the leaders of the church to get involved, and only after a persistent pattern of failure to repent and listen to biblical counsel is the matter to be made public and the party treated like “a tax collector.”
Taking note of the importance of maintaining the peace and doctrinal purity of the church, the Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 83 rightly connects the practice and necessity of church discipline to Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about the keys of the kingdom.
According to Jesus: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18–19). Christians in the Reformed tradition take Jesus to be speaking of the church’s mission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. As the Heidelberg Catechism points out, the preaching of Christ and Him crucified is the divinely-appointed means through which the kingdom of heaven is opened to all those who respond to that message with faith and repentance.
But the church’s “binding” function — through which the entrance to the kingdom is closed — is connected to those who reject the message of the gospel when it is preached to them, for they remain bound in sin. This function of binding (shutting) is also connected to church discipline. Those who profess faith in Christ, but who do as the unnamed man in Corinth was doing, have the door to the kingdom of heaven closed to them through the means of church discipline.
In those tragic cases where the church must make the determination that someone’s conduct and refusal to repent raises serious questions about his commitment to Christ, the church must shut the door of the kingdom to him, with the goal of that person’s eventual repentance and restoration.
As tough as it is, church discipline is commanded by Paul, and the procedure to be used is given us by Jesus. Through the preaching of the gospel, the church opens the kingdom to all who believe. But for those who reject the gospel, and who insist upon behaving in such a way as to bring scandal to Christ’s church, the door to the kingdom is closed.