In the interests of tolerance and positive reinforcement the whole idea of discipline seems a bit of an archaic concept. The lack of discipline in these post-modern times has come to affect everything from personal care habits to child-rearing, class-room education, police work, and so much more.
It is true that there are many sad examples of poor discipline in each of these contexts but it is self-evident that there can be no progress in any human enterprise without a proper sense of discipline. And this is also true in the church.
An approach to Christian living and church congregational life that doesn’t include a healthy understanding and application of discipline is sure to result in many spiritual and practical difficulties. Sometimes, in the interests of promoting the Gospel of grace in Christ we miss its larger meaning of bringing about a life and community of true holiness.
In pastoral work it is important not only to preach the Gospel of forgiveness but also about how it is able to bring about real moral change in people’s lives. Because this also is an important part and goal of Gospel ministry sooner or later those in pastoral ministry will have to process issues related to sin. If people and churches are going to make progress in their lives and communities they have to be willing to do the hard work of dealing with sin. It’s much easier to minimize sin as it occurs by saying we are all sinners and that God forgives sin and to leave it there. The effect of this is to ignore or generalize about sin and to focus instead on pragmatic approaches to ministry and to spiritualize biblical truth otherwise.
Consider the question as to whether there are degrees of sinfulness. Many would answer that there aren’t – that God looks at all sin the same way, and that all are under the same judgment of sin. After all, a cardinal truth of the entire Bible is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And it is true, from the perspective of sin as transgression of God’s moral law everyone is in need of God’s saving atonement. But once a person has come to believe and receive God’s salvation through faith in Jesus Christ he or she discovers that there is a difference between a sinful thought or attitude and the act of sin. Some sins when acted upon have serious social implications. People are victimized and hurt by sinful thoughts that are acted upon. In that sense there are degrees of sin that require different kinds of discipline from God in our lives.
For all Christians it is the will of God that we not only receive forgiveness for sin but also moral transformation. In Christian theology this is commonly known as sanctification. Essentially, sanctification is the means by which God seeks to turn sinners into holy-living people. He does this in the fellowship of the church through instruction from the Bible, through the supernatural ministry of the Spirit, and through discipline.
Just as parents discipline their children to train them in the ways of obedience and righteousness, so God uses discipline in our lives to refine our faith and bring a deeper practical holiness into our lives. This is what the Lord says in Proverbs 3:11, 12 which is also repeated in Hebrews 12: My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.
Discipline is essentially God’s business and He knows how to order circumstances in order to bring this about. Depending on the nature of sin Matthew 18 and other Scriptures make it clear that God has given the church authority to exercise discipline. He may also use civil authority for this purpose (See Romans 13). That is why it is a good idea for the church to practice some system of church membership – so that there is a means of accountability and also that there can be a means of discipline when someone sins. A commitment to church membership shows that a person is willing to accept God’s work of sanctification in his or her life by this means.