Church discipline is one of the most misunderstood means of grace that some will even shudder at the thought that it should be called “a means of grace”. Our perception of it is always negative and because it is negative our attitude is either passive or abhorrent. This unfortunate negative perception must be corrected if are to expect a right attitude and a hearty God-glorifying participation. Among the things that must be vigorously taught are: the aim, the means, the fruit and the abuses of church discipline. This article will briefly touch on these.

Discipline as it is stated in most Reformed Baptist Church constitutions has two aspects to it: formative and corrective. Both aspects have one goal and use basically the same instruments. Formative discipline is a shaping tool which, through the Word, forms a Christ-like character. Corrective discipline is a rectifying tool employed to remove the impurity (sin) that hardens the heart against being shaped into Christ-likeness. In both aspects of church discipline, the elders and members, collectively and individually, have God-ordained roles to play. This article will briefly explain how these roles work in the church. Let us start by briefly stating why the church requires church discipline.

Why Church Discipline

Church discipline, whether formative or corrective, aims at conforming the church to the image of Jesus Christ. Thus, both aspects are corrective in nature because they transform the church into a better state by drawing the church closer to Christ’s image. It is important for the church to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ because:

  1. We are his people and as such we must be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:14–18). If our new status changes at our new birth then so must be our disposition and appetites. Our new calling requires us be holy (1 Peter 2:9). This holiness is only possible in Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 2:10) who himself is the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15).
  2. God loves the church and so he subjects it to fatherly correction (Heb 12:5–11). It is on account of this that God will not spare his beloved church from the furnace of affliction. Through the severest pain he removes the most stubborn stains. So discipline, whether formative or corrective, feels painful because it destroys the old to remake the new. For that reason we must love it.
  3. True love, peace, unity, obedience and growth in the church is only possible in the conducive atmosphere of a disciplined church (Eph 4:11–16). As elders faithfully do their work of preparing members for works of ministry, the church members become valiant soldiers.

When the church fully appreciates these issues, elders and members will play their roles in church discipline diligently and joyfully.

Why We Must Play Our Roles

After giving the above summary, I must now show why all members must play their roles. There are three depictions of the church, which obligate us to play our roles:

  1. The one body concept: The Bible says we are members of one body with many body parts and Christ is the head (Eph 4:15,16; Col 1:18). The Bible goes further to actually name body parts and their functions relative to one another. This portrayal alludes to roles members play which, if neglected or not performed to the best of capacity, will affect the church negatively (1 Cor 12:27). The body must be physically fit (formative discipline) so it must have good nutrition and physical exercises. This means that the church as a body must be devoted to sound doctrine, other means of grace, and to works of charity (Acts 2:42–46). When the body falls sick, it must be treated for its infection (corrective discipline). The type of treatment usually matches the ailment, from the taking of a pill to amputation of a body part. The side effects of the pill on the patient may be very uncomfortable but that should not cause any caring member to discourage the patient from taking the full course. Even the picture of an amputated limb should not divide the family if a life is to be saved. So play your role faithfully for the sake of the body.
  2. The one family concept: Such verses as Gal 3:29; 6:19; Eph 2:19; 1 Tim 3:15, etc, teach us that as members of the church, we are one family with a common heritage and specific obligations to each other. Sound discipline in the family holds it together. Each family has some order of authority and responsibilities for its members. As each family member faithfully discharges their responsibility (formative discipline), there is family harmony and happiness. When one member errs, sanctions are imposed upon the guilty party by the innocent party (corrective discipline). This is done for the sake of restoring harmony. The sanctions imposed will hurt the offender and may cause grief to the family, but it is all done for family harmony. This is the picture coming out of 2 Corinthians 2:1–11.
  3. The one army concept: Passages like 1 Cor 9:7; Phil 2:25; 1 Tim 1:18; 2 Tim 2:3,4 depict the church as an army of soldiers. Firm discipline defines a successful and valiant army. Of all earthly institutions, the army epitomises disciplined living. The unqualified obedience to their line of command results from long periods of training and experience. There is rigorous training to shape the body and change the civilian paradigm of recruits. The body is tortured, the heart is broken and the will is made to experience cycles of frustrations. Recruits are made to act in unison with others. What looks cruel and foolish in the civilian eye is an essential ingredient of forming the final character. It is the discipline of each individual soldier that makes the entire army magnificent in its outlook and performance. Deviation from the code of discipline even by one soldier spoils the beauty of the whole. Paul said, “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Tim 2:3–4).

The Role of Elders

Formative Discipline: The primary functions of the elders in the church are prayer and ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). This then places emphasis on formative discipline. An elder ought to understand church discipline more in terms of conforming a soul into the image of Christ than just pronouncing sanctions upon an erring member. Where this is the understanding, elders are busy every day, joyfully equipping the souls under their charge for battle. This labour drastically reduces instances of corrective discipline. Reading Ezekiel 34 reveals this kind of elder as the one God is looking for in his church. This is the shepherd after God’s own heart. In view of this, elders must:

  1. Pray that souls under their charge may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding (Col 1:9; 1 Tim 2:4). If this is a burden in prayer, it will be a real burden in the teaching ministry also. Talk it over with God before you talk it over with men.
  2. Discharge a faithful pulpit ministry remembering always that it is in the gospel that “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). If the Word of God rules in people’s hearts, true holiness will be seen in their lives.
  3. Visit the flock as regularly as possible to familiarise themselves with their triumphs and struggles. Paul says of his labours in Ephesus that he “kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
  4. Be an example worthy of imitation (Heb 13:7). A garment on a model looks more appealing and sells more quickly than that put on a stand. Church members are looking for models.

Corrective Discipline: When a church member in good standing is involved in gross sin, it leaves many in a state of shock. Sometimes, the person who has sinned, and especially his family, are devastated by a sense of shame. The eldership itself may be shocked, disappointed, and very angry. Your primary role as an eldership, in this case, is preserving the unity in the church. All the members, including the offender, need your care. They need to be comforted and guided. You should not act while you are in a state of shock because then you may just make it an occasion for venting your prejudices in malicious anger.

As a first reaction, pray for yourselves and for the flock and then move out to the injured and try to calm them before you move in to implement the disciplinary code. It is prejudicial to pronounce judgement on any matter without much thought and prayer. It is your responsibility to ensure that there is agreement within the eldership on the disciplinary action to be taken before the matter is brought before the church. Disagreement in the eldership on matters like this could confuse and divide the church

When a gross sin has been committed, the eldership will need to guide the church on the nature of disciplinary action to be taken. You can be sure that on any magnitude of sin, there are as many divergent views as the little “juries” that spring up in the church. The verdicts may range from unconditional pardon to outright dismissal in any situation. The role of the elders will be to lead the church in disciplinary procedures according to the Word of God and the guidelines in their church constitution.

The Role of Church Members

Formative discipline:

  1. In formative discipline, the role of church members is to devotedly avail themselves to the preaching and teaching ministry of their elders (Acts 2:42) who prepare them to be healthy and strong soldiers in the work of ministry and worthy trophies for Christ (Eph 4:11–16; 2 Tim 3:16–17). The work of ministry flourishes where church members are filled with the knowledge of God’s will and his wisdom and spiritual understanding (Col 1:9–12).
  2. Church members are also exhorted to submit to their leaders as they rule over them (Heb 13:17). The church members are the direct beneficiary of the submission they render to their elders. Church leaders are at their best when their morale is highest, and their morale is highest when they can feel they are loved and their ministry well received by their congregations.
  3. Church members must be each other’s keepers as members of one body. Where this is neglected, some members weaken until they collapse without notice. Church members can sometimes be their elders’ eyes.

Corrective discipline:

  1. Trust, support, and pray for your elders as they lead in disciplinary matters. Being unduly technical and controversial is neither honouring nor loving to them.
  2. Cooperate with the leaders and other members of the congregation in ensuring that all the sanctions meted out on the offenders achieve their intended effect. Do not forget that these penalties are Christ’s sanctions too (Matt 16:19). The sanctions meted out are for the good of the erring member and the protection of the church.

3.    2Thessalonians 3:14–15 guides us on how we may relate to such a member. While all fellowship is withdrawn from an excommunicated member, civil good, such as will preserve their physical life, may be done to them. Praying for their recovery does not violate the spirit of excommunication.


Church discipline requires heart commitment by all concerned. Neglect of either aspect of church discipline (formative or restorative) slowly kills the church. Remember that church discipline is aimed at making you like Christ. This alone should be motivation enough for full commitment.