“To him who … made us a kingdom, be glory and dominion forever,” John declared in the opening paragraphs of the apocalypse he penned on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:5-6). Living in union with Christ the King, God’s new covenant people have been made into “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6).
But what does it mean, in the day-by-day life of a leader in God’s church, to be part of a people who are—because of our participation in Christ—a kingdom of priests?
One much-neglected component of this shared status of kingship is the practice of church discipline.
In the first two churches I served as a pastor, I practiced church discipline poorly, if at all. This was partly because I’d never seen church discipline practiced in a healthy way. It was also because my vision for church discipline was far too small. I saw church discipline primarily as a process to fix a problem. Such a perspective that falls far short of God’s design for church discipline. Practiced in the way that God has prescribed, church discipline is not a mere process to fix a problem; it is nothing less than present participation in a judgment that is yet to come.
With that in mind, let’s look together at what this participation in the kingship of Christ means for our practices of discipline in the church.
Church Discipline and the Kingship of God’s People
The ideal king in the Old Testament was an exemplar of covenant faithfulness who judged his people according to God’s Word. When Jesus told the apostles that those who remained with him would also reign alongside him, he tied this reign to participation in the judgment of God’s people (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28-30). When the saints were enthroned in John’s heavenly vision, they were “given authority to judge” (Revelation 20:4).
It seems, then, that one of the primary expressions of our union with Christ the King will be participation in his judgment at the end of time. And yet, our participation in this future judgment will not wait until the end of time! The church’s participation in God’s future judgment begins in the present. Whenever God’s people join together in the holy work of church discipline, we participate in the very judgments of God.
When Christ returns and reigns at the end of the age, all those united with him will join him in judging the cosmos (1 Corinthians 6:1-11; Revelation 20:4). Whenever we engage in church discipline, we rehearse this future prospect by staging small plays that picture the great judgment that is yet to come. This proleptic participation in God’s future judgment is not merely symbolic; neither is it accomplished fully in the church’s present pursuit of justice. It is an actual—albeit incomplete—participation in God’s future judgment, made possible through our union with the one whom God has appointed to enact justice in his world.
This is not to suggest that new covenant believers possess any sort of independent or individual capacity to pass judgment on anyone! (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37; Romans 14:1-13; James 4:11). In the New Testament no less than in the Old, God alone remains the supreme Judge (2 Timothy 4:8; Hebrews 12:23-24; James 4:12), and he has designated his one and only Son to enact his judgments (Acts 17:31). United with Christ the King, we never become the judges; instead, we participate together with Christ in the judgments of God on the basis of his Word.
The Purpose and the Process of Church Discipline
Church discipline is sometimes misperceived as the expulsion of errant members from the congregation—but the goal of church discipline is never removal. The lives of believers have been joined with the Judge who delivered us from death by dying in our place; therefore, the desired consequence of a guilty verdict in the new covenant community is never destruction but deliverance (1 Corinthians 11:31-32; Hebrews 10:1–12:13). God’s design for church discipline is to call wayward believers to repentance and to restore them to full fellowship with God’s people. Church discipline thus serves—in the words of Robert Cheong—as “God’s ongoing work through his living Word and people as they fight the good fight of faith together to exalt Christ and protect the purity of his Bride.”
The process of church discipline begins with a personal expression of concern from one believer to another; this confrontation occurs in a conversation between individuals—not in a group, not from a platform or pulpit, not in a blog post or on a social media page, but personally and privately. Obviously, if a criminal act has occurred, the act is simultaneously reported to appropriate legal authorities. If sin is present but the concern is ignored, the confrontation extends to include one or two other believers so that evidences can be assessed fairly. If it becomes clear that the church member is persisting in sin, the entire local congregation is made aware. If the offender still refuses to repent, he or she is treated as someone who needs to hear the gospel and trust Jesus for the first time (Matthew 18:15-19). This final, heartbreaking step of separation happens only when a professed believer chooses to persist in behaving or believing like an unbeliever. If a leader is removed because of sin, it is particularly important for the entire congregation to hear the rebuke, because the leader’s sin is a sin against the whole community (1 Timothy 5:20).
Church discipline is not a process for removing troublesome members from a human organization. Church discipline is the holy work of participating proleptically in God’s future judgment for the purpose of preserving and expanding God’s present reign in the lives of his people. Whenever we as God’s people call one another to repentance, we—united with Christ through faith—join in Christ’s final judgment on sin by concurring in the present with a verdict that God in Christ will pronounce in the future. In this foretaste of the final judgment, the sinner’s embrace of transforming grace culminates in sweetness and joy throughout the community; if the sinner persists in his or her rejection of God’s goodness, the result for the individual and the community is the bitter pain of separation. “Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded the seminary students that he trained. “It is a ministry of mercy, an ultimate offer of genuine fellowship, when we allow nothing but God’s Word to stand between us.”
Pursuing Justice through Participation in the Kingship of Christ
The merciful ministry of church discipline is, however, in decline. In a culture that boasts “only God can judge me,” perhaps this decline shouldn’t surprise us—but the decline does reveal the degree to which the world’s values have shaped the practices of the church. “The decline of church discipline is,” R. Albert Mohler has noted, “perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church.” There are historical reasons for this decline, but the failure to pursue a biblical pattern of church discipline ultimately represents a failure in the leadership of churches and in the training of the church’s leaders.
Regardless of the reasons why a church fails to participate proleptically in God’s future judgment, the result is the same: An undisciplined church allows injustice to flourish.
- A deacon continues to dehumanize other church members through his angry outbursts.
- Pornography weakens and perverts the sexual bond in a staff member’s marriage.
- A child’s report of abuse at the hands of a popular youth leader is disregarded.
- A pastor’s racist comments are ignored—or even smirked at—instead of being confronted as an assault on God’s glorious creation of a kaleidoscope of colors in his own image.
Whenever a situation calls for church discipline and we ignore this opportunity, we—like King Saul ignoring the words of the prophet Samuel—implicitly declare that our ways are better than God’s ways. The results of this arrogant declaration are disastrous for the church’s witness in the world. In Old Testament terms, justice is denied, and the privileged persist in their oppression of the vulnerable and weak (Exodus 23:6; Deuteronomy 16:19; 24:17; Isaiah 29:21; Lamentations 3:35; Malachi 3:5). Such a church soon ceases to reflect the glorious revelation of God’s kingdom through Jesus Christ.
When Moses stood before his people in the plains of Moab, he knew the necessity of righteous judges and he foresaw the need for a king—but he saw only dimly and from a distance the One in whom God’s righteous judgments would be fulfilled. More than a millennium after Moses described the ideal judge and king, God would place Moses on a mountain far north of Moab. There, the mediator of the old covenant would glimpse the mediator of a new covenant gleaming like the sun, swathed in royal robes that shone as white as light (Matthew 17:2). This new mediator was God’s appointed Judge and the King of kings, and the entire congregation of new covenant believers now lives in union with him (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8). Every leader of God’s people is called to lead these people to participate with Christ the King in a judgment that is yet to come.
If you asked a typical member of your church why and how your church practices church discipline, how would they respond? What does this reveal about whether or not they have a kingdom-shaped vision of church discipline? What could you change in your church’s new members’ class to develop a deeper understanding of church discipline in your congregation?