The Church’s Discipline - 1 Corinthians 5:1–13
There is only one gospel, but it is so often taught and expressed in ways that are
incomplete. Let me give you an example of a true, but incomplete gospel:
God is holy, and we have all sinned. The result is that we are separated from God,
but in his love for us God sent his Son into the world to die on the cross and rise
from the dead so that we could be forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life.
Everyone who believes in God’s Son Jesus will receive eternal life, not because we’ve
been justified by our own works or good deeds, but by the work of Jesus on our
behalf. Because we receive Jesus by faith alone, the call is, ‘Just believe’, and God
will take you to heaven as you are.
Notice, this incomplete gospel is full of truth. It presents Jesus as Saviour. It accurately diagnoses that the greatest human problem is separation from God caused by sin. It correctly describes the aim of Jesus’ work on the cross for our forgiveness. It properly anchors the gift of eternal life in God’s grace to be received through faith, and not in our good works. So if all this is true, what’s it lacking?
It fails to emphasise Jesus as Lord. It doesn’t mention the Spirit’s work in making us more like Jesus as we live as his disciples. It doesn’t talk about what we are to do as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom and members of his church here on earth. It has no eye to God’s intention for us to express our love for him by loving one another. It presents aspects of Christ’s work on our behalf, but it fails to identify the goal of our salvation which is to glorify God by reflecting his character here on earth.
In short, this incomplete gospel focuses on Jesus as Saviour, but it fails to present Jesus as Lord. As we read the scriptures we see the truth that Jesus is both Saviour and Lord, and that any presentation of the true gospel must highlight his work in salvation, as well as his ongoing work in motivating us to obey everything he has commanded us. As the 16 th Century German pastor Martin Luther put it, ‘We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone’.As the disciple Mark clearly shows us from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth,
‘After John [the Baptist] was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come
near. Repent and believe the good news!”’ (Mark 1:15–16).
Jesus’ call was to repent and believe. He had in mind faith and obedience. In fact, the good news that Jesus came to bring was that we can now repent and put our trust in God! And as we read through the rest of the New Testament we see this play itself out in the lives of the churches.
In fact, a careful reader of the New Testament will notice that in all the letters written to churches in the New Testament, they begin by describing who we are, then end with commands about what we are to do since we have received Jesus as Saviour and Lord. It’s the New Testament’s way of emphasising what God had said through Moses long ago, ‘Be holy because I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:45). It’s who we are that shapes how we act.
This means God’s will for us doesn’t end the moment we’re converted, he’s called us to become disciples, and disciples are life-long learners. In the same way that the goal of evangelism not simply faith in Jesus, but establishing a new disciple into the life of a healthy church (as we looked at in Study 3 – The Church’s Mission), we also need to understand that God’s goal for us as Christians is not simply to be saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8–9), but to go on to do the work that God has prepared for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). And Jesus will do that work through us so long as we continue to remain trusting in him. But the warning to God’s people throughout the New Testament is clear, ‘Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.’ (1 Peter 5:8–9)
And we resist him by God’s Word, through prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit, and through the church as we take care of one another. You might remember in Study 2 as we looked at The Church’s Authority, Jesus gave us a procedure to follow if we see someone caught in sin. Jesus describes this in Matthew 18:15–17, culminating in verse 17 with the words, “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)
There’s a lot about this that we need to understand, but one thing is clear, Jesus has given all of us the collective responsibility to care for the flock we’re part of, for the sake of the one sheep who drifts away from Jesus through sin, and for the sake of the church’s witness in the world as we represent a pure and holy God. This is the foundation of Church Discipline, and if we are to take our responsibility to love one another seriously, we’ll need to understand what Church Discipline is and why Jesus commanded that the church be involved as we apply it to maintain purity and order in his church. Church Discipline does not deny the sovereign work of God drawing people to himself through Jesus and working in them by his Spirit to accomplish his purposes. It also recognises that God in his wisdom chose to work through his church to shepherd his flock, separate sheep from goats, identify wolves, feed the lambs, and point them to their True Shepherd Jesus who, for a time, has chosen for us to accomplish his purposes in the world before we come home to rest with him in his Kingdom.
This work of shepherding is the work of every disciple, and is an expression of the
‘priesthood of all believers’ that the Apostle Peter speaks about (1 Peter 2:5 & 9). Despite the fact that the vast majority of churches don’t practice it, according to Jesus, any church that is governed according to the rule of scripture would.
This is a massive responsibility, and one of the reasons God promised to raise up biblically qualified overseers was to equip the church for complex tasks such as these. Although it would be easier (in one sense) to neglect the practice of Church Discipline, we have to face the fact that it was the will of our Lord Jesus that Church Discipline was not neglected, but enacted in ways consistent with God’s purpose for it. As we’ll look at in more detail in Study 8 on The Church’s Leaders, the role of the overseer was to manage the authority that Jesus has given to his church. That is, every member of his church who bears his name.
We also recognise that Church Discipline can sound legalistic, cold and unloving; and we could also give a heap of examples of ways it’s been done in ways that dishonour the gospel of grace and the glorious character of our Lord Jesus. We also recognise that many of us haven’t been in churches that have had healthy expressions of discipline either. But in this study we hope to show the reason our Lord Jesus has commanded it to be done, as well as discuss God’s intention for the use of Church Discipline through examples found in the New Testament for the purity of his church, the salvation and restoration of Christians who have strayed and are caught in sin, and for us to continue being salt and light in a world that has a desperate need to see the holiness of God in us.