The good father: a church with Biblical discipline...

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We've been saying that a father does nothing more important for his children than choosing a church. But our culture presses us into the mold of individualism, so Christians have come to think of religion as "just me and Jesus" with the church a sort of religious social club. But get this: across history, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants have all been in agreement that the Church is essential for salvation.

This is typical of what Roman Catholics say. It's from their 1997 Catechism:

All salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.

Reformed baptists and presbyterians say the same. This is from our most loved doctrinal standard... 

the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The visible Church [is] the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

Anyone who reads the Gospels quickly comes to understand that Jesus founded and loves the Church. The Church is His bride and He died for her:

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word:
From heav’n He came and sought her
To be His holy Bride;
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.

Third century church father, Cyprian, said this:

Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church.1

It would be hard to forget Cyprian's warning.

Cyprian speaks for all Christendom when he compares the Church to Noah's ark and warns that no one will escape God's judgment who forsakes her. Protestant reformer John Calvin read Cyprian and in his Institutes Calvin repeated Cyprian's warning that those who refuse to submit to the church as their mother cannot have God as their Father.

Five-hundred years ago at the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Pope, his priests, and his scribes were furious that simple Christians were being given Bibles in their own language, and reading them. They hated the fact that people who read these Bibles were coming to understand Rome's hypocrisy in monetizing salvation through her seven sacraments. They were angry that men and women were now refusing to pay money to the Pope to get him to use his treasury of merit to spring their deceased loved ones from purgatory. They were angry that simple Christians were now going and listening to pastors who preached the Bible to them during worship each Lord's Day. For centuries, Rome had kept everyone pouring money into her coffers by licensing certain men to mutter Latin mumbo-jumbo over a bunch of stuff on a table up front, promising the people that their attendance at this hocus-pocus would save them. Now, though, people weren't buying it.

Desperate to protect their money and power, the Pope and his men tried to scare those who had come to believe the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ. They told these new believers that Rome was the only church founded by Jesus Christ, and thus anyone who left her and joined themselves and their families to these new churches was risking eternal damnation.

Loving and wanting to protect the sheep God had placed under their care, the pastors of these new churches responded saying that there were three tests or marks of a true church:

  1. The right preaching of God's Word.
  2. The right administration of the (two) sacraments.
  3. The right exercise of church discipline.

In two previous articles, we looked at how to examine the first two marks, the church's preaching and the church's administration of the sacraments. Today we turn to the third mark, church discipline. How can a dad tell whether a church has the right exercise of church discipline?

First, don't make the common mistake of thinking that church discipline is limited to public announcements from the pulpit about someone's sin or their excommunication. When things get that far down the road, it should be because all the prior steps of church discipline failed to bring the soul to repentance.

What are those prior steps? 

Start with self-discipline. The most basic form of church discipline is when a believer judges himself: "if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged" (1 Corinthians 11:31). Another basic form of church discipline happens during church fellowship times when men talk with men and women with women, together bearing one another's burdens, confessing our sins, and praying for each other. Another form of church discipline is done during small group meetings, Sunday school and Christian education classes, and worship services when church officers and fellow believers teach the Word of God to us, applying Scripture to our lives in such a way that we are led to see our sin and repent of it. Preaching also serves as a less formal kind of discipline when the pastor of the flock knows his congregation's sins and preaches Scripture with faith and boldness, applying it to the consciences of worshippers in such a way that they become convicted by the Holy Spirit and turn to God in repentance and faith. Beyond speaking to souls about their sin in a general way during meetings or worship, there are times when individuals—particularly pastors, elders, deacons, and older (Titus 2:3-5) women—speak to us one-on-one, drawing our attention to errors they have observed in our thinking, speaking, or how we live.

There are as many ways to give and receive discipline in the household of faith as there are in our families and homes, and it is these sorts of more basic, private, and informal discipline we should examine to see if a church is a true church. If we were thinking of moving in with a family and we didn't want to do so unless there was good discipline in the household, we wouldn't simply ask the dad whether he'd kicked any of his kids out of the house because of their sin. Instead, we'd spend some time eating and playing and working with the family, watching to see if the father and mother were honored and obeyed by their children and whether the wife submitted to her husband and the husband loved his wife. This is how we must check out a church. We can't simply ask a pastor or elder if they've excommunicated anyone. We must see if people confess their sins and pray for each other in the small groups. We must check out whether men who are lazy are exhorted to work hard by their small group leaders or elders. We must listen for appeals to our conscience and pleas for us to repent in the classes and worship services of the church.

And if we or members of our family are privileged to receive private exhortations or admonitions during this time of examining the church for the three marks of a true church, we know we've found a safe place to raise our family. We should not resent the wounds to our own or our family member's pride, but give thanks to God Who has led us into green pastures and still waters, and through them will restore our souls.

Yes, the number of Christians who understand that discipline is love within the household of faith and the family home is dwindling. But that doesn't mean that you should turn away from this mark of the church and focus instead on the first two marks. Think about it. It's not possible to have Biblical preaching without that preaching being the right exercise of church discipline. Preaching that isn't to the conscience and heart and that doesn't convict of sin is not the right preaching of the Word of God.

Think about it. It's not possible to have Biblical administration of the sacraments without the right exercise of church discipline at the Lord's table. The administration of the Lord's supper without warning and barring those who are living in unrepentant sin is not the right administration of the sacraments.

In other words, when you stop to think about it, the third mark of the Church is necessary for the presence of the first and second marks of the church. Meaning, for the church to exist, there must be disicpline. And why?

Because those the Lord loves, He disciplines.

Find a church that disciplines you and you've found a church that loves you. Find a church that disciplines you and you've found a church that loves our Heavenly Father. Find a church that disciplines you and you've found a church that you can trust to care for you, your wife, and children for a lifetime. From birth 'til death.

This is how God has chosen to protect your own soul, but also the souls of your wife and children:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)

  • 1. Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church.
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!