By Jeremy M. Kimble
Many will doubt the benefits of practicing church discipline, but there are numerous ways the health of the body of Christ will increase through this practice. One benefit of church discipline is the connection it has to discipleship. The concept of discipleship can summarized as learning from Jesus to live like Jesus, and discipline plays a key role in this process.
Disciples of Jesus are not merely to learn cognitive content for right belief. While this is certainly part of being a disciple of Jesus, there is a cost to following Jesus as a disciple (Matt. 16:24–28). Becoming a disciple means embracing all of who Jesus is and what he has done in his life, teaching, death, and resurrection. An all-encompassing embrace of this includes cognitively assenting to the truth he taught, affectively embracing him as our all-satisfying treasure, and volitionally bowing the knee to Jesus in full submission of one’s life. A disciple willingly renounces all the world has to offer to fully and unswervingly follow Jesus in every facet of life.
While “disciple” is a prominent term in the Gospels and Acts, the concept of following in God’s ways as God’s people (i.e., discipleship) is found throughout both the OT and NT. More commonly one can think of God as Father and the people of God as his children. God redeems Israel from Egypt, proclaiming that he is the Father of Israel, his firstborn son (Exod. 4:23). Relating to his people as a Father, God not only redeems and makes covenants with Israel, but also disciplines them when they go astray. He wants to ensure that his people are living out their identity as his sons, and thus he disciplines them to bring them back to a fitting lifestyle of holiness (Deut. 8:5; 2 Sam. 7:13–14; Prov. 3:11–12). This pattern of OT discipline is foundational for understanding the enactment of discipline within the NT church. God is holy, and he requires his people to be holy if he is to dwell in their midst (Lev. 11:44–45; 19:1–2; cf. 1 Peter 1:14–16). While God is also a loving Father, this expectation of holiness grounds God’s actions as it relates to his covenant with Israel. God, who is certainly loving and merciful, will not allow his people to dwell in sin for long without enacting dire consequences (Deut. 28:15–68). Holiness means that God will discipline those in unrepentant sin, though he always does so with an end to love and forgive the one living in sin (Deut. 30:1–10).
We receive discipline to help us understand how we veered from living faithfully as disciples.
As salvation history progresses, the NT will testify to the new covenant of God in Christ and how the idea of the fatherhood of God will find a deeper and fuller expression in the life of God’s chosen people (Rom. 8:14–17; Gal. 4:4–7). Divine discipline, therefore, is an encouraging affirmation of God’s fatherly love as he disciplines us as sons for our good, so that we might share in his holiness (Heb. 12:5–11). Divine discipline is used to show God’s love in bringing about their full adoption, and family status means a call to live as a son (or disciple) in line with that status.
God directly disciplines us to bring about purity, and he also has deemed that the church exercise discipline so that disciples of Jesus live out their identity in holiness and righteousness. As holiness was held as a standard for Israel, so it is also required of the NT church (Heb. 12:14). A culture of discipleship is one where formative discipline is normal, and formal corrective church discipline is practiced. As disciples of Jesus, and as children of God, we joyfully receive instruction and correction so as to continue growing as disciples and to persevere in our faith until life is done. It is crucial, therefore, that Christians understand their identity as sons of God and as disciples, in order to rightly embrace the call to live a certain kind of life. As disciples we follow Jesus in our mind, affection, and volition, and when we deviate from his path we receive discipline to help us understand how we veered from living faithfully as disciples, and then to repent and pursue the right path by God’s grace. Thus, disciples live under the Lordship of Christ in ongoing sanctification, celebrating the ordinances together, and—if needs be—corrective discipline. In the call to discipleship and the call to discipline the end goal remains the same, namely, maturity in Christ (Col. 1:28).
Dr. Jeremy Kimble (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Cedarville University in Cedarville, OH. He served in pastoral ministry for eight years and currently serves as an elder at Grace Baptist Church in Cedarville. He is passionate about teaching college students, as well as the local church, the truth of God’s Word. He is the author of 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline.