When congregations practice church discipline today, they’re seen as crazy and controlling. Charges like, “that place is a cult,” are thrown around, for sure. But don’t we see similar practices in our culture at large? My wife’s MOMS club, certainly not a Christian organization, once expelled an unruly member. Reality shows like Intervention have been popular, while the practice of rescuing friends from danger has been the subject of sit-coms, as well. A transformed homosexual won’t hold his membership in a gay and lesbian organization for very long before being removed. But, speak of practicing discipline among the people of the God who invented it, and you’ll get called out for being unloving every time. Church Discipline is Loving
Church discipline, however, is loving. Are the family members dragging their celebrities to Dr. Drew seeking to love them? Is Drew himself showing hatred as he seeks to love those struggling addicts in hard ways? As the church pursues wayward brothers and sisters, calling them back to the gospel, they’re not ceasing love and beginning discipline. They’re loving through obeying Christ in biblical church discipline. I regularly have this conversation when disciplining my children. When they say, “You hate me,” which they often do, I remind them that they’re listening to the words of the crafty serpent and not Jesus. As Proverbs 13:24 puts it, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son.” It’s the absence of discipline that communicates hatred, not its presence. Good fathers love their children well by doing the difficult work of discipline. Good churches do the same.
Church Discipline is Difficult
The difficulty of church discipline is the problem. It’s hard to love people in this way. People lash out. Culture mocks. Churches back down. It’s not just a postmodern problem seen in the objections of the younger generation. It’s also seen in grandmas and grandpas who can’t imagine taking brother Bob or sister Susie off the rolls. Yet, in not obeying their Lord’s commands, they dishonor Him and fail to love their brothers and sisters. I often tell my children that it would be far easier not to discipline them. If I didn’t, though, it would be selfish. I would choose, in those moments, my convenience and my comfort over their growth. I would choose keeping them happy over seeking their good. Good fathers don’t make that choice. Neither do healthy churches.
Church Discipline is Better
Certainly church discipline, when actually attempted, has often been done poorly. However, the presence of poor, unloving cases doesn’t remove our responsibility to follow the loving commands of Christ well. In the Bible, discipline is meant to be restorative. It seeks to win back a brother or sister (Mt. 18:15). The goal isn’t to harm, but rather to deliver from harm, bringing the Christian back into the realm of grace and safety. Unlike secular forms of discipline, church discipline shouldn’t attempt to push a person to the curb or try to make him or her go away. It seeks to bring that struggling sinner back into the fold, where he or she can work through that sin in community.
Our love for others, then, should also be transformative, much like our heavenly Father’s love for us. David Powlison has written, “God’s love is more than unconditional, for it is intended to change those who receive it.” Grace is not simply accepting people as they are. It’s even better than that. Grace is accepting people as they struggle to grow and being beside them as an encouragement in that struggle. Calling someone out on sin can be a very gracious thing. Leaving someone in a self-destructive state can likewise be quite hateful. Christian tough love has a different goal: it seeks gospel restoration and transformation. Sadly, many point and yell, “How unloving!,” turning their backs on a love too great for them to imagine.
Love Through Discipline
Here is our calling: loving our brothers and sisters enough to do difficult things that they might be changed, no matter what cynical non-Christians or deceived Christians might say. Picture the reality show crack addict, having just stumbled and taken a hit, lying desperate in his room. Picture his friends bursting into the room, picking him up, dragging him back to rehab. That’s love. Before we find ourselves drunk in our sin and slipping away from God and His community, let’s surround ourselves with people who we know will rescue us when we don’t want to be rescued. Let’s rid ourselves of the idea that autonomy is either biblical or healthy. Let’s admit together that it, in fact, kills. And, as we see our brothers and sisters stumbling in our midst, let’s show them love, doing hard things, seeking their wellbeing, no matter what anyone thinks, including them. After all, if the world calls us fools, we’re in good company.