Many would add another feature to an accurate description of a true church. In view of the holy character and intent of word and sacrament to rescue sinners and build up the saints it is indispensable but it is to be exercised with enormous skill and sensitivity imparted by the knowledge of the Word and the discernment of the Holy Spirit. Because we are fallen, discipline in the church, the third mark of identification of the people of God, for all of its correct motivation, can be exercised harshly and harmfully, and tempered by impatience, ill feeling, and self righteousness. Discipline in the church of God can be a cover legalism and even self loathing. Vengeance is wrought upon those who reflect our own discomforting tendencies as a way of diverting punishment to another and clearing the conscience. It is a subtle perversion of our innate need for a substitute to bear our guilt and relieve it.
Discipline must be impartial and dispassionate, restorative before retributive, and spiritual cleansing, humility, and holiness are essential on the part of those called to carry out this awesome pastoral duty. Sinners have no right to judge sinners or adjudicate their cases unless God gives evidence of the calling and the abundance of his influences in fulfilling it. Only those alert to their own helpless depravity and their utter, “desperate” reliance upon grace and forgiveness at all times can meld seriousness and sympathy together for the oversight of believers besieged by sin and drawn by their native evil and natural weakness into paths that dishonour the name of God, imperil their souls, and injure others. We are all mired in sin, susceptible to falling, if left to our selves, in an instant. Any “human tribunal” must function in the fear of self, the fear of God, and the fear of faulty judgment and procedure. In every situation there is the lurking danger of the legalistic approach, the lenient attitude, and the neglect of a comprehensive and threefold love that is to prevail.
Discipline is pursued, first of all, through love for God. We are anxious for the glory of his Name and the reputation of his Person. This aspect of discipline begins with ourselves in the maintenance of our daily walk before him and with him. Here, Word and sacrament, prayer, private and public devotion, and fellowship with believers claim our attention and participation. Lapses in the care of the soul lead to our being ill attuned to God and the members of his family. We lose tact in our relationships and trouble soon ensues. Out of sorts we are out of line, governed by our grouchiness, murmuring against the Lord and complaining of our friends in faith.
When this area of discipline breaks down we are vulnerable to wandering into temptation and self will. Our ties to God and the support of his people, which we eventually become too proud to accept, expose us to the beckoning of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The tyranny of this vile trinity can rapidly take charge of our lives in various ways both subtle and overt, even if we labour to conceal or excuse them, and carelessness fosters commission of heart sins and actual misdemeanours displeasing to God and hazardous to ourselves. When this drift occurs and becomes obvious the love and concern of the people of God moves into action for the reclamation and restoration of the offender. If there is consternation over the sin and concern for the cause of God, there is also compassion for the sinner. Who among us is immune from the entrapment of the soul by our mortal foes inward and without? It could be so easily ourselves who fall prey to any wrongdoing and we tremble at its occurrence in the life of any individual. Haste to condemn is a symptom of the ignorance of the real power and prevalence of sin in every heart and we have to be protected from our own pride and eagerness to pounce upon another. The sin angers us but it haunts our natures as well. Without measureless mercy where would we be? To minimize the abuse of discipline it would seem wise to follow the counsel of D.B Knox in his treatment of 1 Corinthians 5. Whatever grave steps may have to be taken ultimately with an errant brother or sister before fellowship is withdrawn, the person must be committed to the Lord Jesus and his power in earnest prayer, congregational if necessary, and the personal expulsive action of the Holy Spirit sincerely evoked to effect removal so that discipline cannot be ascribed to the haughty or hurtful intentions of man. We must do nothing to goad to further rebellion or engender a grudge.
Discipline is an act of love towards the assembly of believers. The infection and offence of sin must be prevented so that tender souls will be healed and tempted souls guarded from its allure. It is fear of sin that dominates in discipline, not the legalism that expresses superiority over others and a disgust that is to be equally directed at ourselves. There is not to be a leniency that underestimates the seriousness of sin in ourselves and others. A fierce love of God and his holiness fights against this tendency. Salvation is the rescue from the love of sin. Who can grants us a balance of approach that reflects the perfection of God in his righteous hatred of sin and his gracious redemption of the sinner? In essence it is beyond the capacity of man for we are always the guilty gazing upon the guilty? Who can save us from our ugly legalism, our self-pandering leniency, and uphold the honour of God and promote the healing the one who falls? The compassion of the Lord allied to his wisdom must coalesce in the expression of love that renders its due to him primarily, the sinner in peril, and the folk who pray for a happy deliverance.