Sometimes when we discuss the third mark of the true church as listed in Belgic Confession Article 29 (i.e. the faithful administration of discipline), we could exchange the word ‘discipline’ with ‘love’ for discipline is a sign of love. The disciplining of Church members is always a difficult thing to implement, however, the ruling elders have been given this responsibility. They not only have to ensure the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments administered, but to also discipline those who are behaving in a way that shows they have no regard for God’s word or live in obedience to it as it reflects the way of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Of course, the process of disciplining members can sometimes take months and even years. Part of the process is for the elders to make regular visits to encourage, implore, caution, warn with tears if necessary, those who are deliberately being disobedient to God’s word to repent and again love Him above all else, especially because of His great love to them in Christ. The ruling elders, as servants of the Chief Shepherd have a responsibility to keep the ‘bride of Christ’, the Church, as pure as can be humanly achieved (Eph 5:21ff). Just as a human bride wishes to stay pure for her future husband (also vice versa), so also, the ‘Bride of Christ’ needs to remain pure for her Husband, just as He who bought her with His own precious life is pure and holy. Hence those who deliberately live a life of sin and have no desire to repent, need to be lovingly disciplined, not unlike a parent disciplining a naughty child.
When little children are naughty, parents who love their children will discipline them. It may mean sending them to their bedroom for some ‘time-out’ or an occasional loving ‘smack’ to correct bad behaviour. In fact, if children are constantly allowed to do what they wish to do without boundaries, then they usually grow up to be teenagers and young adults without boundaries as well, often with vastly more serious consequences to their bad behaviour. As one wise father said, “Better that our children shed a tear when they are small than parents having to shed many tears when they are older.”
What does this have to do with church discipline? As ruling elders, we love our Church members dearly, but we love Christ more. Hence, when the need arises, we lovingly discipline those who are being disobedient so that they may turn and again love the Lord as they promised to do when they professed their faith in the Lord Jesus as Saviour. The Psalmist says that the man is blessed who the Lord disciplines (Psa 94:12). Solomon writes that he who heeds discipline shows the way to life (Pro 10:17).
Now I would be the first to admit that parents and ruling elders get it wrong on occasions with discipline. Sometimes they’re too slow and at other times far too quick. Sometimes they don’t act when they should have and at other times they have acted when they shouldn’t have. Please show patience and forgive them when they err.
Thankfully, our Father in heaven doesn’t get it wrong. The writer to the Hebrews writes, “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” That’s good news, for none of us would want to miss out on glory due to lack of discipline. What a great sign of our Father’s love that He would lovingly discipline us to make us holy and fit for glory! When the need for loving discipline comes our way from the under-shepherds, may we also receive it as such. JZ.