The Marks of the True Church: 3. “The Faithful Exercise of Church Discipline”


Sermon Text: Ephesians 4:25-32
Main Points:
I. Church discipline – A ‘family rule’
II. The vitality of family life
III. A missing mark
IV. Restoration of God’s promised blessing

On this day we thank God for His incalculable blessings given to His Church through the 16th century Reformation, we focus on the last mark of the three marks of the true church, namely, ‘the faithful exercise of church discipline.’ I guess that this might surprise some people because hardly does anyone hear these days of such thing as ‘church discipline,’ nor see ‘church discipline’ practiced in many churches. So, hearing it as one of the three ‘marks’ that characterise the true church of Jesus Christ might surprise some people. But, let me assure you that ‘church discipline’ and its ‘faithful exercise’ is an indicator of the church truly belonged to the Lord Jesus.

I think that considering this third mark on a Reformation Sunday is quite meaningful because, as I’ve just mentioned, ‘church discipline’ is almost lost in the life of many Protestant churches. It is like picking up the last yet almost-forgotten piece of a picture puzzle, then, putting it at its designated place to complete the picture of Jesus’ true church. This will be a meaningful commemoration of the 16th century Reformation. After all, that Reformation was to restore the Church to be true to her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.

So, let’s see what ‘church discipline’ is about and why it is one of the three marks; then, why it has been forgotten or lost. And all these points will lead us to consider what we must do in order to be true to Christ as His Church on earth.

We begin with this question, ‘What is church discipline?’ The simplest answer is that church discipline is a ‘family rule’ for God’s family. And this rule is for God’s children to be ‘holy’ before God as commanded in both Old and NTs. For example, in Lev. 19 and 20, God said, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. … You shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.” The apostle Peter taught the same in 1 Pet. 1:15, 16 and 17, “as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ And if you call on Him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear.” So, our ‘family rule’ is to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy.

This is exactly what takes place in a ‘healthy’ family; parents who are upright in hearts and love and care for each other and their children teach their kids to grow and be likewise. That’s a house rule for a healthy family. Instead of fighting, boys are admonished to be gentle toward each other and, instead of being jealous, girls are commended for helping one another. Siblings grow together, learning to love and work together, respecting their parents. Once this family rule is set in their hearts and lives, their bond is strong and lasts long.

‘Church discipline’ is a term that describes the ‘rule’ given to all members of God’s household. This rule teaches Christians to awe, fear and love our heavenly Father and love each other in His church and, through all these, build one another up in Christ. The passage we’ve just read from Eph. 4 is one of the numerous sections of the Bible that teach this ‘rule’ for God’s children. In short, church discipline refers to the process of educating and training Christians as well as of their reproof, correction, warning and chastening.

I guess this might make some of you confused or puzzled because my explanation of church discipline might not match with your idea of it. Some of you might conceive that church discipline is to dig someone’s backyard and accuse and kick him out of the church. That idea is not entirely wrong but a slightly misunderstood version of church discipline because admonishing and chastising and even excommunicating anyone in sin is also a part of church discipline. And the main purpose of such a disciplinary action is to restore any church member to faith in the Lord Jesus. But disciplinary, corrective measures are not all; that’s rather a small part of church discipline whereas loving, caring and building one another up take up the most part of church discipline. It is exactly like how an ordinary healthy family go. Learning to love, care and respect usually takes up more than 90 percent, if not 99 percent, of family life, and being admonished, hearing a warning or having a lesson with punishment is only a small part of it. Church discipline is a ‘family rule’ and all necessary process for maturing Christians in Christ’s church.

So, its faithful exercise is vital to the life of God’s family. Like the house rule keeps the integrity of a family, church discipline preserves the integrity of God’s family through promoting God’s holiness, protecting the church from infection of worldliness, and restoring the rebellious back to Christ.

In this sense, church discipline is the implementation of the other two marks of the true church, namely, ‘the true proclamation of God’s word’ and ‘the right administration of the Sacraments.’ God’s word read and preached changes a sinful heart, makes that heart to repent – turn from sin – and face Jesus to trust Him as the Lord. God’s word expounded and taught convicts every Christian to deeply realise his/her daily need for Christ, thus, urges him/her to solely depend on Jesus’ grace and righteousness. This is what church discipline is all about, and it is carried out corporately in God’s church as much as individually in homes. This is the beauty of our holiness; we’re not separate islands in the sea, but fellow sailors on a ship sailing on the sea of God’s sanctification.

So, God’s word rightly proclaimed becomes active through church discipline, in other words, through teaching, nurturing, admonishing, encouraging, comforting, loving and, sometimes, chastening. If there’s no such thing of church discipline in church, that proves that God’s word is improperly or falsely proclaimed – in other words, a heresy (literally, a ‘different teaching’) is proclaimed and that church shows no ‘mark’ of the true church.

Likewise, church discipline is exactly what is practised with the Sacraments such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism is a sign and symbol of God’s renewal of a sinner through washing his sins with the blood of Jesus Christ. Through water baptism, a sinner is accepted into church as a member of God’s covenant family and that symbolises God’s adoption of a sinner into His eternal church through Jesus’ redemption. The Lord’s Supper is the same in effect. Everyone who approaches the Lord’s table must examine himself/herself with God’s word. ‘Examining’ here means all things of church discipline, that is, being holy as our heavenly Father is holy, and we receive from the Lord Jesus the symbols of the holy heavenly food.

After all, like a family whose members do whatever each one likes to do is an unhealthy, dysfunctional family, a church whose members do anything they please is not a ‘true’ church of Christ Jesus. Such is a false church and it creates disunity in faith, doctrine and fellowship.

So, John Calvin, an outstanding Reformer of the 16th century who is regarded as an important teacher of Reformed faith, pointed out the vitality of church discipline in the life of true church. This is what he said in his book, The Institutes of Christian Religion, ‘If no society, no house with even a moderate family, can be kept in a right state without discipline, must more necessary is it in the Church, whose state ought to be the best ordered possible. Hence as the saving doctrine of Christ is the life of the Church, so discipline is … its sinews.’ Calvin emphasised its importance further, saying, ‘those who trust that churches can long stand without this bond of discipline are mistaken.’ For this reason, the ‘faithful’ exercise of church discipline is vital to the life of a church that is true to Christ Jesus.

Having said, let me point out to you that this church discipline is missing in the life of most contemporary Protestant churches. Although all 16th century Reformers and their successors up until now agree that this is vital to the life of Jesus’ true church and, without it, there’s no guarantee of biblical unity in faith, doctrine and fellowship, why do churches and their members in our days know little about church discipline and, if some do, have an incomplete, if not false, understanding of it? Why do churches and their members hear little about it?

The fact is that this vital mark of the true church is a missed mark. Albert Mohler, Jr. diagnoses the decline of church discipline as ‘the most visible failure’ of the contemporary church. No wonder some Christians in our days regard the Word and the Sacraments as the only two marks of the true church, omitting church discipline completely. John Calvin warned churches of this failure even in 1536 that were there loss of discipline, the church would suffer ‘complete devastation.’

Surely, we are experiencing that ‘complete devastation’ prophesied about 500 years ago as the biblical church discipline is missing in the life of many churches. Let me elaborate what I mean with a hypothetical but plausible situation of a local church. ‘Mary has left Bill and announces to him she is going to divorce. After a loud and protracted argument, Rebecca and Jane have declared that they do not care to speak to one another again; it has been four weeks since the fight and they refuse to reconcile. Barbara knows she is pregnant out of wedlock. Oliver has discovered that the church organist is a homosexual. Freddie wonders why his pastor doesn’t believe Jesus’ virgin birth. Max has gone, disappeared, from the church when his serious sin was pointed out by the church elders.’ Some of you might not see these examples as seriously devastating cases, but probable, if not usual, happenings in any local church. Unfortunately, however, that is a clear evidence of a complete devastation this missing mark has created. People’s senses of holiness have been overwhelmingly impaired and they remain in spiritual numbness.

See how numb we’ve become due to loss of church discipline by carefully reading the Bible like our text passage for today. God says in Eph. 4 that each of us are to speak the truth with each other in church; we can be angry but not to sin with our anger, not to give any opportunity to the devil; each of us should sin no more and share good things with others in church; we should not say corrupting talks, nor foul language but speak to build others up in Christ. Finally, as vs. 31-32 tell us, we must let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from us, along with all malice, but be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave us! With this teaching, we can see how numb our spirits have become toward sins and how far we of the modern churches have departed from the way of ‘true’ church! We’re surely and definitely in a complete devastation caused by missing of this third and last mark of the true church.

But, it’s too early for us to despair and give up of hope; no, that’s not the case. By God’s grace, still many churches and Christians are eager to both understand what this mark means and apply it in their individual and corporate life. If we consider our own denomination, we’ve left the false teaching of the liberal theology since 1977, come many steps closer to the restoration of biblical church discipline. God’s word we read every day at home and hear from the pulpit on Sundays works in our heart and soul, changing us daily to be conformed to Jesus. In our church, God-ordained Elders pray for the Lord’s church, guide and protect the flock; Deacons serve the needy and everyone in the congregation seeks to serve and love one another. We see this happening in our midst, don’t we? This is church discipline happening in our midst. This is why we shouldn’t give up of hope, instead, give thanks to our gracious and love Lord! Biblical church discipline is coming back to our individual and corporate life! And we’ll surely see the Lord’s church receive rich blessings of this mark, as we already enjoy some.

Yet, there are still some areas of church discipline we must grow in knowing and implementing. Let me point out to you only two things. Firstly, we should regard ourselves as the members of one another, family members, siblings to each other, so that we could freely exercise our love for one another. I mean, we should come to a brother/sister with love and freely talk about any uneasy, bitter feeling between two, and freely apologise and readily forgive. This is a truly important beginning of church discipline as Jesus teaches in Mt. 18:15. If this happens, that is a clear sign of full restoration of biblical church discipline. Imagine that you could go to a member you’ve been holding a bitter feeling over some time, and with a bright smile, speak to him/her, saying, ‘I love you, my brother/sister, in the love of Christ, but I need to sort out with you and resolve our uneasy relationship.’ Then, your brother/sister smiles back to you and agrees, saying, ‘Yes! I was going to do the same with you! And I’m sorry for my words and behaviour that hurt you; forgive me!’ Can you picture that in your mind? What if a whole church does the same? The whole church is much closer to the fulfilment of what Eph. 4:13 points out in these words, “we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”! I guess that all church members would love to see each other every day at church, sharing all good things together in great joy, wouldn’t they? Truth is, that’s exactly what happened to the church in Jerusalem in the apostles’ time, straight after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Acts 2:42 and following records, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” Vs. 46-47 continue, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people.” What an incredible blessing they received from the Lord! It was a result of church discipline! We need to restore our loving relationship with one another and taste this blessing.

Secondly, we must restore the biblical way of submitting to the authority of Jesus’ church. When the church court decides and the decision is faithful to the biblical truth, we all should submit to its governing authority. I mentioned Max in my hypothetical examples of discipline-less Christians, he disappeared from the church when his serious sin had been confronted by the church Elders. He showed no respect toward a church court and its guidance and admonition. Such apathy toward church’s courts – such as Session, Congregation when it meets as a church court, Presbytery and Assembly – proves resistance and disobedience to God and His command. Such is a rebellion against God’s intention reflected on those courts of His church. Listen to His words in Heb. 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Obedience to various church courts is not putting oneself under a burdensome slavery; it’s in fact the opposite. Biblical obedience and submission is another way of expressing Christian love, like the case of wives submitting to their husbands. That submission is to learn from marriage relationship the way of church submitting to her Head, Jesus Christ. So, with that submission, not only wives learn, but also their husbands grasp it. After all, Jesus Christ the Son submits to His Father and His submission completes His love for the Father. By the way, the basis of disobedience or not submitting to God’s law is “the mind that is set on the flesh which is hostile to God,” as Rom. 8:7 clearly states.

So, we must restore our submission to God and His authority given to His Church. Jas. 4:7 clearly concludes, saying, “Submit yourselves therefore to God.” And by submitting ourselves to God is to ‘resist the devil,’ and ‘making him flee’ from us. This is another blessing promised with restoration and faithful exercise of church discipline.

In conclusion, let me point out to you that this mark completes the other two marks such as ‘the true proclamation of God’s Word’ and ‘the right administration of the Sacraments.’ These three marks are like three legs of a tripod; these three marks are like a strand rope with three threads interwoven together. ‘The true proclamation of God’s Word’ is the beginning of church discipline, and ‘the right administration of the Sacraments’ is church discipline visualised.

Concluding this series of the marks of the true church, let me share with you the words of a fellow Christian, regarding this third mark: ‘How can a student be expected to learn to observe Christ’s commands in the midst of an undisciplined, disorderly, unstructured congregation? He can’t. … It is time that we recognise the importance of [church] discipline to good order and learning in the church. … [after all] church growth … is impossible in the lives of members apart from church discipline.’ ***

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