Word, Sacrament, and Discipline: Discipline, a True Mark?
Not all the 16th century Protestant Reformers agreed that church discipline should be considered one of the marks of a true church. Calvin, for example, spoke only of the pure preaching of the word and the right administration of the sacraments. The Second Helvetic Confession, like Calvin, identified word and sacrament as marks of a true church. In contrast, the Belgic Confession explicitly included discipline. In the following century, the Westminster Confession of Faith identified a spectrum of more or less pure churches rather than definitive marks of a true church: “This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them” (WCF 25.4). Instead of church discipline, the focus turned to public worship as an identifiable mark.
So, should we regard church discipline as a mark of a true church? I’m persuaded the answer is a qualified “yes.” Here’s what I mean. A church that ignores or refuses to engage in discipline is at best an unhealthy church. Unhealthy doesn’t automatically translate into being a “not true” church but it does indicate a dangerous trajectory. Why?
Central to the purpose of church discipline is to foster submission to Christ. As discipline is applied, it serves to aid individual Christians and the church as a whole to stay the course in following Jesus. To be a Christian is to be one who seeks to obey the Lord in all details of life out of gratitude for his love and grace. Church discipline is a means to foster and encourage obedience to the Lord. How does this take place?
Broadly construed, church discipline takes two forms: formal and informal. The phrase “formal discipline” is shorthand for the carefully delineated processes, based on Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18, by which serious sins that have become known are addressed by the leadership of the church through official charges and their adjudication in a church court setting. In these instances, rules are followed to protect the rights of the accused and to be sure accusations are proven true rather than simply assumed. It would be wrong to apply disciplinary action if the accused is not guilty! In formal discipline, the hope is for the restoration of the person to a life of obedience to Christ. Now, if a church doesn’t practice formal discipline, it isn’t immediately disqualified from being a church but it’s certainly missing out on a God-given means to help the members follow Jesus.
In contrast to formal discipline, “informal discipline” doesn’t follow a specific set of procedures. Instead, it takes place through preaching and the relationships between members of the church. In preaching, calls to repentance and faithfulness manifest God’s discipline. Paul urged Timothy, for example, to include rebuke and reproof in his preaching: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1–2 ESV; emphasis mine). In preaching, reproof and rebuke is not to be directed to a specific person but to all the listeners, challenging them to search and examine their lives and hearts to see if there be any hurtful way in them (Ps. 139:24), and calling them to confess, repent, and reform their lives for Christ’s honor and God’s glory. Church discipline is not about putting people out of the church but restoring and strengthening by helping us see where we are weak or in error that we might know what needs changing.
In the relationships among members of the church, informal discipline takes place as brothers and sisters in Christ admonish one another regularly. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16a ESV). If this kind of “one-anothering” takes place, discipline is present since, through the admonishment, Christians are being trained and built up in faith and godly living. Church discipline is about admonishment and encouragement to obey Jesus, not about being penalized for wrongdoing.
So, is church discipline a mark of a true church? Put a little differently, is a church faithful to the Lord that doesn’t seek to help its members follow Jesus? An unfaithful church is on the brink of becoming no true church but a synagogue of Satan (cf. WCF 25.5). Where there is church discipline, there’s at least the effort to remain faithful and thus to be a true church.
Michael J. Matossian was ordained to gospel ministry in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1998. He has served since 2009 as Senior Pastor at Emmanuel OPC in Wilmington, Delaware. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Marquette University. He and his wife, Judy, and their Son, Matthew, are all natives of southern California.