CHURCH DISCIPLINE AND GROWTH
James A. Beil
The Church of Jesus Christ, as it carries out the dictates of the Lord, the Head, is actively engaged in the proclamation of the Gospel. The Church in obedience to the Lord's commands becomes engaged in a spiritual warfare. When an army is engaged in battle, discipline is of the utmost importance if victory is to be achieved. The soldiers of the cross cannot expect to triumph in their war for and with God without discipline.
Discipline, when spoken of in terms of the Church, is all too often considered to be only that of excommunication. To be sure this is a part, a very vital and needy part of the Church's exercise of discipline over its members, but it is only part and not the totality of it. Discipline in its root meaning comes from the Latin disciplina meaning to train. It is also significant that the word disciple also comes from this same root word, which would indicate that its basic idea is one who being trained; a trainee.
This training, in keeping with current concepts of the word, is that which corrects, strengthens, molds, or perfects as well as bringing to the obedience of a given set of standards, These concepts set forth the basic discipline needed by the Church.
That the church needs such discipline can be expressed in the words of John Milton:
"The flourishing and decaying of all civil societies, all the moments and turnings of human occasions are moved to and fro upon the axle of discipline."
The Church in order to conquer for Christ must be disciplined,
Elton Trueblood in his small book, Alternative to Futility, in the chapter entitled, "The Recovery of Discipline says:
"The notion of making strict lines of distinction, of having a defined membership, is alien to our popular mentality. After all, we don't want to seem pious. And, in any case, we must let the winds of freedom blow. The end of this kind of freedom is emptiness, but emptiness does not give people much to live by in a time of strain. The more narrow groups, by contrast, may make some mistakes in the direction of dogmatism, but at least they do have something positive to unite them. (pp. 83-84)
The Church in order to accomplish its God-intended program must of necessity have unity. Discipline is one of the vital ingredients necessary to obtain true Christian unity. The evangelistic thrust of the Church, whether we think of it in terms of a cooperative effort, or whether we think of it in terms of a particular church, must have unity if it is to succeed. In Chapter 8, "Slings and Arrows", Dayton Roberts in the book, Revolution in Evangelism, declares:
"The unity we seek is centered primarily in the proclamation of the gospel. It is a unity of witness, and a united testimony may be given in ways that require very little organizational involvement .. .Somehow, despite differences, we must learn to love each other, pray for each other, pray with each other, work together for the glory of Christ and the extension of His gospel. (p.91)
Another factor related to the unity of the Church is that of prayer. But in order for prayer to be successful discipline is required. Much discipline is required in order to spend time in prayer, in order to have meaningful prayer, in order to have answered prayer. Much spiritual discipline is required in order to pray in the will of God. A study of Christ's prayer in the garden immediately before His arrest teaches us the value of a disciplined prayer life– both positively as displayed by Christ, and negatively as displayed by the sleeping disciples. Notice also must be made that Christ's engagement in God's will is related to a disciplined prayer-life.
Related also to this disciplined unity of the Church is love. Jesus tells us in John 13:35: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." It is here clearly stated that the outstanding mark of Christian discipleship is that of love. Paul near the end of his inspired treatise on love declared in vs. 11: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Maturity and discipline are necessary to adequately express God's imparted love. Dayton Roberts speakes of this on page 91:
“Unity. . .provides for successful communication of the gospel of Christ to the unbelieving world beyond us. As we love each other, it is easier to love the non-believer. As we pray for each other, it is easier to pray together for the unsaved."
Discipline is necessary for unity, effective praying, and a proper expression of love; all of which are necessary for effective evangelism.
Discipline is not something to strive for just for the sake of striving. But, rather it must have a definite purpose. Discipline must be maintained by the church in order to have doctrinal and moral purity. Doctrinal as well as moral laxity will never engender a vigorous dynamic and winsome church. Little if any attractiveness will be presented to the unsaved. Close scrutiny by them will disclose that the Church offers little more if anything at all than what the world gives to them. It is a sad commentary when one realizes that many times civic organizations such as the Rotary Club requires more from its members by way of faithful attendance and participation than do many local churches. Again quoting from Trueblood's, Alternative to Futility:
"Not content with secularizing our social agencies and colleges, we have done the same to the church itself. Members are eagerly accepted in order to swell the rolls and give appearance of success, when there is no serious attention to either belief or conduct. This way lies the very futility to which a redemptive society should provide an alternative." (p. 87)
The church must be taught, trained, and brought: to obedience in that which it believes. Without such, it will never be persuasive in the winning of lost men.
At this point discussion must be given to that extreme form of discipline, excommunication, for this must be relied upon to maintain doctrinal and moral purity. From my own personal experience I have discovered that laxity in doctrinal or moral purity will soon lead to divisions and party factions within the church. When some lapse of doctrinal fidelity or moral purity occurs within a particular church, it must be dealt with quickly and as stringently as necessary to maintain purity. The method and the scope of such disciplinary action is not thought to be within the limits of discussion at hand. However, we must keep in mind that the Church when dealing in matters of discipline, no matter how general or how specific, how mild or how severe, we are always working with people. Discipline must have as its goal that of producing a lasting vital relationship with God. In the case of excommunication, the goal, in-so-far as the individual(s) is concerned, is that of restoration to such a relationship.
This form of "extreme" discipline must be held in '"readiness" for use when the occasion demands it. It must not be held or used as an axe hung over the heads of members, but rather as that of a surgeon's scalpel, to be used with Spirit-directed skill and love so as to remove the cancerous tumor of sin before it sends out its destructive tentacles which will strangle the spiritual life, dissect the unity, snuff out the love, nullify the prayers, and divide the church itself into factions, yes, even schisms.
Whenever the discipline of excommunication is to be used, it must follow the pattern and principles as declared in Scriptures. Any deviation will cause disaster. Love by those who administer it must be manifested: a love which transcends human compassion: a love which flows from the very heart of God Himself. Recognition must be given that the sin which has caused the need for excommunication has also caused a severe wounding of the body of Christ. Some of the most tender and sensitive portions of the body of Christ have been exposed, hence extreme care must be used to rectify the problem so as to promote quick healing.
If excommunication is properly used, it will serve to unite the church, deepen its spiritual life, aim it for conquests for God, and also spur the individual members on in a disciplined life. It can and will when directed by the Spirit of God serve in leading the individual members to discipline each other.
The admonition of Galatians 6:1-5 will be adhered to:
"Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing he deceiveth himself. But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For every man shall bear his own burden."
When such admonitions are heeded and lovingly followed in intra-church relationships, the church will move forward in the fulfillment of Christ's commands.
How is discipline related to church growth? It may be preferable to phrase the question, how is discipline related to the fulfillment of the great commission? Let us consider the first in the light of some scriptural examples. We are all aware of Israel's conquests under Joshua, and their resounding defeat at Ai. The nation was mobilized for conquest, but the discipline broke down. Sin was in the camp, and the whole nation was defeated. When the sin was properly removed, the nation triumphed.
We are also aware of the events recorded in the early portion of Acts 5 relating to the in of Ananias and Sapphire. Again we note this as a breakdown of discipline. Note that at the conclusion of the account we read in verse 11: “And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.” Verse 14 further adds, "And believers were the more added to the Lord..." and verse 13 declares, “Of the rest durst no man join himself to them."
These two incidents clearly indicate that there was no mediocrity, either a complete identification with the cause of Christ or complete severance from Christ and His Church.
Further we must recognize the need for discipline. That year after year far too many names of members are placed in the "dropped" category indicates a lack of discipline - a lack of training of our people, and also an easy way out of a problem which should have required some disciplinary measures, perhaps even that of excommunication. Many times, too, we are like the Quaker with his cow, very willing to transfer them to the Baptists rather than properly disciplining them as responsibility demands. Transferring the "problems" to another church means that we are also failing to recognize the true nature of the Church of Jesus Christ. By the same token we should be unwilling to receive into membership those who so rapidly transfer from one church to another without at least investigating and counseling thoroughly. Those who have to be excommunicated should not be received at all until they have made proper restitution to the Church from which they have been cut off.
The third consideration is directed to pastors. We, as the leaders, shepherds of the flock, must be disciplined in our practical Christian life. An army will never be highly disciplined, mobilized, and victorious if its commanding officer is undisciplined. We must be disciplined in our practical expression of Christianity. This is necessary so that we can express love and sympathy as did Christ, and so that we can lead our particular church into a united front against sin. It was Paul who said, "I keep under my body and bring it unto subjection.. lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." I Cor. 9:27. Paul also declared previously, ". . .I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." (vs.22). From this disciplined man came this heart cry, "For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren. . ."(Rom. 9:3). True Christlike sympathy and love issues from the properly disciplined pastor. We also must recognize that when excommunication must be used, the proper directions for use must usually come from the pastor. Excommunication directed by a undisciplined pastor will often be used as a dull axe in the hands of an untrained woodsman, rather than using it as a finely honed scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon. The purpose of excommunication is so far as the individual(s) involved is concerned must have as its goal restoration not retribution. Also concerning our personal discipline, we must follow the admonition of the inspired apostle to the young pastor Timothy: "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." (II Tim. 2:2) In essence, Paul is saying, "Train others!" This is a difficult task which requires real discipline because it is often easier to do the task ourselves than to adequately train others. Perhaps that is why this admonition is followed by another admonition: "Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ." (vs. 3)
Finally the church in order to evangelize must be mobilized, Ken Strachen elucidated the principle: "The growth of any movement is in direct proportion to the success of that movement in mobilizing its total membership in the constant propagation of its beliefs." Mobilization requires discipline for success in fulfilling Christ's commission which in turn requires obedience.