One of the three marks of a true Christian church is discipline. That is, a true Christian church will follow Christ’s command in Matthew 18 and discipline an unrepentant sinner (see also 1 Cor. 5:1-5). Now, not every church disciplines unrepentant sinners. Some churches are ignorant of Christ’s command, others are afraid to discipline because it might mean people leave. Still others think God will sort it all out so the church shouldn’t worry about it. However, no matter how difficult it is, no matter if it means people leave, the call of Christ is clear: unrepentant sinners must be reubked and disciplined (Mt. 18:17). D. M. Lloyd-Jones was emphatic on this point:
The third mark of the Church, and the one I am most anxious to emphasize, because it is so sadly neglected, is the exercise of discipline. Now if we had asked at the beginning: ‘What are the three essential marks of the Church?’, I wonder how many would have mentioned the exercise of discipline? There is no doubt at all but that this doctrine is grievously neglected. Indeed, if I were asked to explain why it is that things are as they are in the Church; if I were asked to explain why statistics show the dwindling numbers, the lack of power and the lack of influence upon men and women; if I were asked to explain why it is that so many churches seem to be incapable of sustaining the cause without resorting to whist drives and dances and things like that; if I were asked to explain why it is that the Church is in such a parlous condition, I should have to say that the ultimate cause is the failure to exercise discipline. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 14.
But why do (or should!) churches discipline unrepentant sinners? The Bible gives several reasons. Here are some reasons found in 1 Corinthians 5 (I’ve summarized them from Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism):
- So that the obstinate sinner may be put to shame and convicted to the point of repentance (1 Cor. 5:5).
- So that other Christians do not stumble because of the person’s sin (1 Cor. 5:6).
- To teach other Christians that sin will be disciplined (1 Cor. 5:6).
- So that the church may not be disgraced on account of public scandals (1 Cor. 5:7).
Also, one of the major reasons why churches should discipline unrepentant sinners is for the glory of Christ. We don’t want his name dragged in the mud because some in his church are allowed to live in a way that profanes his holy name.
On a positive note, a church disciplines unrepentant sinners out of love for the sinner and for Christ! We want the sinner to repent, his people to be edified, and we want Jesus’ name to be hallowed. Indeed, Christian discipline is a mark of a true church.
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)