A Healthy Church: The Aim of Discipline

Joel Wood

Discipline is hard–giving it and receiving it. Knowing the reasons and realities behind it doesn’t necessarily help, either. Perhaps you’ve cringed when reading: “Endure discipline; God is dealing with you as with sons. For what son is there whom a father does not discipline (Hebrews 12:7/MEV),” maybe even as much as the last time you heard: “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” Ouch! No thanks! We didn’t tend to believe our earthly parents when they told us that, and we don’t tend to believe the Lord when he says he disciplines us because he loves us. In fact, my heart tends to zero-in on how I messed up, rather than on the loving nature of discipline. Really, can anything be said or done that makes discipline easy, even easier? No. But, remembering the motive (Love!) and the goal of discipline can aid our endurance while under it or applying it. And, since discipline has long been understood to be a mark of the church, know that, at some point, whether you want to or not, you will participate in discipline! So love is the motive, but what is the goal? Before we remind ourselves of the goal of discipline, let’s quickly review the types of discipline experienced by the Christian.

The first is Self-discipline. Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) who is powerfully present and working in the life of every believer. This is the best discipline for the Christian, as it shows the Holy Spirit is laboring to convict him of his sin, dealing with it before it hurts a brother or sister, becomes scandalous, bringing shame upon Christ or His church.

When those matters of the heart grow up into sins that come out against others, the one sinned against may handle the situation through Informal Discipline. Enter Matthew 18. Take a moment to read Matthew 18:15-16. Imagine the heartache the fellowship of saints would be spared if these two, brief verses were joyfully practiced and received. If brothers and sisters would prayerfully approach, confront, and reconcile as matters arise, not allowing them to sit, soak, and sour. Let’s remember the steps of informal discipline Scripture gives us and take them.

            So if one doesn’t discipline himself, or if informal discipline doesn’t help, even after taking along a godly witness to his interaction on the topic, but he STILL doesn’t listen, what now? Matthew 18:17 tells us that we are to involve the appropriate church authorities. Check (and follow!) your local Book of Discipline[1] for your church’s agreed-upon steps from here,[2] and be patient for good results.[3]

But why? For what reason do we follow God’s Word in our dealings with ourselves and others who are beginning to ere or stray in some area of their life. In our more litigious society, we might be more attracted to those more aggressive reasons given by the Westminster Divines for “Church Censures”: deterring of others from the like offences (sic), for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honor of Christ, and holy profession of the Gospel, and for preventing the wrath of God, which might justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer His covenant and the seas thereof to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders.”[4] To keep things pure, to make sure Christ is honored, to keep others from doing the same things—this list, or one like it, might be the reasons we generally feel discipline to be a mark of the church and are willing to participate.

But Matthew 18:15 says that the purpose for the entire endeavor (the sweaty palms, nervous prayers, awkward conversations—all the experiences we associate with spiritual confrontation) is to “gain your brother.” The Westminster Confession actually starts with this reason, the “reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren,” then brings in broader biblical wisdom[5] to increase our motivation to practice discipline as a vital mark of the church. Our ultimate purpose in practicing church discipline is fellowship. This is a hard truth that, like surgeons, we cut to heal. Like mountaineers, we burn to conserve. Like oilmen, we ignite to cap and redirect. We handle hurtful things to heal and draw close.

At the end of it, what would motivate you to shine gospel light on the sin of a brother or sister? To show their sin for what it is? To protect others from erring in a way so offensive to you? To potentially rid the church and, ultimately, yourself of their irritating presence? How about being lovingly driven by the opportunity of drawing even closer to this sinning sibling, walking farther down the road of faith and repentance than you could have imagined in the beginning. The Lord does such in his discipline of us.[6] Let us do so in the discipline of one another.

Joel Wood is the pastor of Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, MD, between DC and Baltimore. He holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is 1/4 of The Jerusalem Chamber podcast, a roundtable discussion about the doctrine, worship, and piety of the Westminster Confession of Faith.


[1] For an example, see my denominations’s “Book of Discipline” online at http://reformedpresbyterian.org/convictions, starting on page E-1 of the download.

[2] If your church or fellowship of churches does not have some document or manual for how to handle issues of discipline, you may rethink why you are where you are!

[3] Hebrews 12:11.

[4] WCF 30.3.

[5] 1 Cor. 5; 1 Tim. 5:20; Matt. 7:6; 1 Tim. 1:20; 1 Cor. 11:27-34 with Jude 1:23.

[6] WCF 5.5. See also 11.5; 17.3; and 18.4.


Joel Wood