It’s rare to hear of churches exercising church discipline 1 but when they do it’s common for the story to end badly followed by a renewed conviction that “it’ll never work”.  So should we ditch church discipline altogether?

Richard Baxter thinks not and he gives 4 reasons to carry on in his book “The Reformed Pastor“.

  1. It’s not right for to call something the Bible says we should do (an ordinance as he puts it) “useless”.  Creatures telling their creator that he can’t make an instruction work doesn’t fit.
  2. Church discipline is effective in humbling sinners, calling sin sin, and showing that Christ is holy to a watching world. Unrepentant unchallenged sin in the church is bad for the individual, bad for the church and bad for their witness.
  3. Not disciplining an unrepentant sinner is cruel because the discipline is the means we’re given to bring repentance which is what they really need.
  4. Church discipline isn’t meant just for the individual, it’s meant to stop others following their example and it’s difficult to see that effectiveness because it’s seen in what’s not happening.

All that given Baxter does say carefully that church discipline should only be exercised cautiously and humbly and after many efforts in private. He then goes on to give a model script to read out to church which even given the antiquated English is really helpful:

Having heard of the scandalous conduct of ____ of this church, and having received sufficient proof that he hath committed the odious sin of _____, we have seriously dealt with him to bring him to repentance; but, to the grief of our hearts we perceive no satisfactory result of our endeavours; but he seemeth still to remain impenitent.

We therefore judge it our duty to proceed to the use of that further remedy which Christ hath commanded us to try; and hence we beseech him, in the name of the Lord, without further delay, to lay to heart the greatness of his sin, the wrong he hath done to Christ and to himself, and the scandal and grief that he hath caused to others.

And I do earnestly beseech him, for the sake of his own soul, that he will consider what it is that he can gain by his sin and impenitency, and whether it will pay for the loss of everlasting life; and how he thinks to stand before God in judgement, or to appear before the Lord Jesus when death shall snatch his soul from his body and he is found to be in this impenitent state.  And I do beseech him for the sake of his own soul and as a messenger of Jesus Christ require him as he will answer the contrary at the bar of God that he lay aside the stoutness and impenitency of his heart and unfeignedly confess and lament his sin before God and this congregation.

And this desire I here publish not out of any ill will to his person, as the Lord knoweth, but in love to his soul and in obedience to Christ who hath made it my duty; desiring that if it be possible he may be saved from his sin and from the power of Satan and from the everlasting wrath of God and may be reconciled to God and to his church; and therefore that he may be humbled by true contrition, before he be humbled by remediless condemnation.

These would doubtless be difficult words to read out in any setting but it is love that stands behind them and a concern not for church to be full of fake perfection but of heart felt genuine repentance.

Notes:

  1. Church discipline is when a local church publicly calls a member to repent of a particular sin for which they are unrepentant (see Matthew 18:15-18), there are normally a number of stages in the process  ending in the removal of the individual from membership if they still refuse to repent.