Word, Sacrament, and Discipline: Discipline, a Means & Sign of True Body Life

Discussing the three marks of a true church during a seminary class (preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and disciplining members), our professor emphasized the third by rhetorically asking, “How many true churches are there today?”  His implication was, where are authentic churches to be found existing if there are few disciplinary signs of life?

Church discipline preserves her spiritual vitality and prevents a walking dead witness.  Without disciplinary care to the wounds of Christ’s body, well-fed churches can still bleed to death.  David Engelsma warns, “Failure to discipline guts the preaching.”[[1]

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) explains how true discipleship involves discipline: 

The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed government, in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate. (30:1)

To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof, they have power, respectively, to retain, and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word, and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel; and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require. (30:2)

Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren, for deterring of others from the like offences, for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump, for vindicating the honour of Christ, and the 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 seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders. (30:3)

For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord's Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime, and demerit of the person. (30:4)

Though this mark may smart by painful physical attrition at times, church discipline can induce spiritual growth.  J.I. Packer observes, “The New Testament clearly shows … that … judicial correctives have a significant place in the maturing of churches and individuals.”[[2]]  Rowland Ward shares about the beloved R.M. McCheyne’s positive experience:

When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline.  I thought that my great work and almost only work was to pray and preach…But it pleased God, who teaches his servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke into my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline.[[3]

While I once caught up with another pastor over coffee, he lamented his church’s looming excommunication of an unrepentant member.  His strained face and words expressed great pain.  Yet he also shared how that final step of censure caused a regular attender stalling formal membership to request joining the church, saying, “I need this kind of care over my Christian life.”[[4]

Our King’s seven Revelation church letters are mainly corrective—even graphically and shockingly threatening (especially for the lack of discipline in Thyatira).[[5]]  But His purpose as Governor over His Body members is to save them before they suck the very life out of themselves.

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010.  He and his wife, Fernanda, have five home-schooled covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, and Gabriel.  He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

[1] David Engelsma, Bound to Join: Letters on Church Membership, (Jenison, Mich.: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2010), 115.

[2] J.I. Packer, A Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs, (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993) , 221.  He provides these Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; Titus 1:10-14; 3:9-11.  He also qualifies this statement saying more is in view than judicial process solely: “Only where the personal disciplines of learning and devotion, worship and fellowship, righteousness and service are being steadily taught in a context of care and accountability … is there a meaningful place for judicial correctives (220-221). 

[3] R.M. McCheyne, Life of Robert Murray McCheyne, Andrew Bonar (reprint London 1960) ; 87-88, in Rowland Ward, The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Study Guide (Melbourne, Australia: New Melbourne Press, 1996) , 187.  Ward also sadly observes on page 186, “ … excommunication is relatively rare in Presbyterian circles particularly in the 20th century.  It is too rare.”

[4] Here it is important to consider WCF 25:2: The visible Church ... is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. [Emphasis, GVL]  Our church also recently enjoyed the spiritual and physical life growth of receiving a repentant excommunicated member back into our church’s formal fellowship about a year or so after that last disciplinary measure (having slowly gone through all the previous steps).  This readmitted member now expresses joyful gratitude for the Session’s careful care all along that is now understood and attributed to spiritual development which other church members comment on observing to their own great encouragement. 

[5] Note how Christ closes the letters in Revelation 3:19: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.”


Grant Van Leuven