May 19, 2022

Is Church Discipline Unloving and Harsh?

Nathan W. Bingham & Burk Parsons
Is Church Discipline Unloving and Harsh?

When we talk about church discipline, sometimes the idea of heavy-handed punishment comes to mind. Today, Burk Parsons explains that true, biblical church discipline is actually an act of love with the goal of restoration.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: I’m joined this week by the senior pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel, also the editor of Tabletalk magazine, Dr. Burk Parsons. Dr. Parsons, if the church is supposed to be a loving community, isn’t church discipline unloving and too harsh?

DR. BURK PARSONS: Well, the first thing we need to understand when it comes to church discipline is that discipline is a good thing. A lot of times when we hear the word discipline, it doesn’t bring warm thoughts. It doesn’t immediately bring comfort. But when we really understand what the word means and we understand why it is so fundamental, then we begin to see that discipline is a really beautiful thing.

Another thing that a lot of Christians fail to understand is that as members of a church, we are all under discipline. Just like someone who’s studying in a certain field or to gain a certain degree, they are studying a discipline. They are in training to achieve that degree so that they might enter that discipline. So as members of the church, when we make our vows as members, we are putting ourselves under the authority and under the discipline of the church. We are saying to the Lord and to God’s people, “We need accountability. We need authority in our lives. We need to be under men who are under God, who are striving to be faithful in caring for us, and shepherding us, and teaching us, and training us from the Word of God.” So we need to understand that we are under discipline, all of us, under the training of God’s people. One of the things that people used to say all the time—we don’t hear it much anymore—when they would come and be in worship, they would come and sit under the ministry of the Word of God. That’s a very important way of looking at it. That we are coming and sitting not so much under a pastor, but we’re sitting under the ministry of the Word of God. We’re placing ourselves under it.

So, every one of us is under church discipline. And the reality of it is that discipline is a part of caring for peoples’ souls. And that fundamentally is why church discipline is most loving. You see, here’s how it works. If someone comes into the church, and they vow as a Christian coming into the church to love the Lord and follow the Lord, all resting on their trust in the Lord, well, we want to help them do that. And we want to strive to help them be faithful to the end. So, one of the ways we do that is shepherding them, teaching them, instructing them.

Well, we find from time to time that people sin. And sometimes when people sin, they’re not repentant. Now, most of us, I trust, when we sin, which we do every day of our lives, we are repentant. We’re broken over our sin, we’re contrite and humbled by our sin. We confess our sin, and we consecrate ourselves to a new pattern or a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of speaking. Oftentimes, we sin again, but we continue to live a life of repentance and confession. But there are times when people sin and they don’t repent. And sometimes those sins are public. Sometimes those sins are grievous and heinous sins. And sometimes those sins are such where people dig into their sins. They don’t repent. They become hardhearted over their sins. They become prideful in their sin. And that’s when the church steps in and admonishes that individual and tells them how much the Lord loves them and cares for them and how they need to repent of their sin and how they need to come clean. They need to be broken over their sin. They need to confess their sin. That they have a loving Shepherd who’s willing to embrace them. That they have a loving Shepherd that wants them to repent.

The Lord receives those who repent. The Lord welcomes those who repent. And it’s only those who do repent that demonstrate that they are true Christians. We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is our mediator, and He is always ready to hear, always ready to forgive. But sometimes when people are admonished in their sin and they’re not repentant, well, we have to take the next step, and we have to strive to care for God’s people and care for the souls of God’s people. So the next step in church discipline, after they’ve been admonished, after we’ve prayed for them, after we’ve reached out to them, after we’ve tried to come alongside them, wrap our arms around them and try to bring them back, the next step is to suspend them or bar them from the Lord’s Table.

Now, those of us who know the Bible well know the threats that the Apostle Paul gives for those who would partake of the Lord’s Supper unworthily, not examining themselves. So, we are caring for their souls because we don’t want them to come under that judgment. Paul even says, “Some of you have even died.” So, again, it’s another step of loving an individual who is not repentant in his or her sin and saying, “Listen, for your own sake, for your own soul, do not partake of the Lord’s Supper because of the warnings that Paul gives.” Now, if they continue in their sin, and they continue not being repentant, well, then sadly, and with much grieving, we have to take it to the next step. We have to ultimately get to the point of excommunication. That means declaring someone not to be in the church. And that means not just in our local church, it means that they’re no longer a Christian. It means that they’re no longer, from what we can tell, truly one of the church of Jesus Christ. They went out from us because they were not of us, because a true Christian is repentant. A true Christian lives a life of repentance.

But I’ve only mentioned three aspects of church discipline. Really, the fourth is very significant. And the fourth aspect of church discipline is the hope of church discipline. The goal of church discipline, the reason we do it, caring for people’s souls because we love them and we love the Lord, is their restoration—is seeing them come back in repentance and in faith trusting the Lord Jesus Christ, walking with Him, following Him, living a life of repentance, living a life of faith, living a life filled with grace, and all for the glory of God.