Tough Love: Why Church Discipline?

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Bible Images that Help Us Understand Church Discipline — Part 1 of 2

Picture 1: The Sharpening Iron. This picture emphasizes our influence on one another, by comparing the sharpening of a sword by another piece of iron (like a whetting iron) to the way one friend improves the character and choices of another. "Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another" (Prov. 27:17). That true friend whose "wounds are faithful" (v. 6) sharpens one another in a variety of ways, as we see from these eight action words in the New Testament: (a) Warn — "admonish" (1 Thess 5:14, Titus 3:10, Col 3:16) (b) Charge — 1 Tim. 1:3 - "command or instruct" (c) Correct — "educate" training a child, to chasten (2 Ti 2:24–26). (d) Convict - refute or prove wrong decisively (Tt 1:9). (e) Urge - or exhort (Php 4:2). (f) Rebuke - "As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear." (1 Ti 5:20). (g) Teach (1 Ti 4:11). (h) Encourage (Heb 10:24–25). How long should we encourage each other? As long as it's called 'today' (3:13).

Picture 2: Red Hands. When people say, "they caught you red handed," they are talking about obvious guilt. In Genesis 4, Cain responds to God's question about his brother's whereabouts: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen. 4:9) "And the Lord said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground." (4:10) God saw his brother's blood and the answer was, yes, to some extent he was his brother's keeper. God told Ezekiel he would be guilty of others' "blood" without doing anything to them, except being silent. "…Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul..." (Eze 3:17–21, cf. Eze 33:6–9). When a warning is needed, silence is sin. Doing nothing can be destructive. If we do what we can and they still choose not to turn, they will answer for that. But far be it from us to let them fall without doing our utmost. This picture emphasizes our responsibility to one another. 

Picture 3: Fire Rescue. This illustrates one of the aims of practicing church discipline. "And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh" (Jud 22–23). Snatching, plucking, grabbing as quickly as we can—the people in the fire—and pulling them out! They're in deep danger. We are the first responders, the search and rescue crew, the firefighters. But watch out for yourselves! If a fire fighter goes deep into a building whose supports are failing, though they risk their life, they still show caution. They may even decide, "it is too dangerous to go any further, I have to turn back." So we give care with"stained" garments (v.23). 

James describes perhaps the highest human achievement possible, the greatest good any person can do for another: "My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (Jas 5:19–20). Is there anything greater you can do for your friends, your family, your brethren — than saving them from death?

Picture 4: Feet at the Door.  A second purpose for church discipline is warning the church. After Sapphira lied to Peter, he said, "Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out." (Acts 5:9) She fell and breathed her last, "and great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things." (Ac 5:11). In a way, we could think of this as the first ever act of church discipline, but it's not an act initiated by Christians. God acted swiftly at the beginning of the church, to warn and protect his people from the spread of sin. Three verses later: "And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women" (5:14). Remember why Timothy needed to rebuke those who persist in sin? Not just for their sake... "As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear" (1 Ti 5:20). We need Divine boundaries, we need a culture of respect for God's will, and if that doesn't happen in the church, where will it happen?  

Picture 5: Gangrene. This is a vicious ailment, when the cells die in an area of the body. In his first letter, Paul told Timothy that he had handed Hymenaeus over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20). In his second letter he seems to explain why: "…and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some" (2 Ti 2:17–18). Often when there is gangrene, only an amputation will keep it from spreading. 

Picture 6: Yeast. Like a tiny ball of fermented dough leavens the whole batch, a little bit of impurity among God's people affects the purity of Christ's church. Paul writes to the Corinthians about a man who is with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5:1). "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump…I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with…anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one…'Purge the evil person from among you'" (5:6-11). When sin is tolerated, it increases. "But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel" (Re 2:20). "Jezebel" seduced people to sin and the church put up with it. Perhaps they thought of it as love, but Jesus considers it the wrong strategy. Often our greatest defense against sin is to be shocked by it (Rom. 12:9).