The Grace of Discipline
Published by Matthew J. Tuininga
Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and the History of Christianity
In his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned Christians in 1930s Nazi Germany against the subtle deceitfulness of what he called cheap grace. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession”. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (Bonhoeffer, 47). To put it simply, cheap grace turns the gospel into a façade that can be slapped in front of just about anything. It makes a mockery of the gospel, which quickly devolves into an all too easy accommodation and affirmation of the idols of our hearts.
Bonhoeffer’s exhortation echoed the apostle Paul’s warning that during the “last days” there will be many religious people who know nothing of the power of grace, “having a form of godliness but denying its power,” people with whom Christians should “have nothing to do” (2 Tim. 3:1-5). His words recalled John Calvin’s refusal to serve as the pastor of Geneva unless the State granted the Church the authority to preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Supper through the practice of church discipline. They reflect our own Belgic Confession’s teaching that one of the marks by which the true church can be recognized is that “it practices church discipline for correcting faults” (Article 29).
Despite their drastically different contexts, Calvin and Bonhoeffer both realized that discipline is an essential means of preserving the church from a sort of cultural captivity in which church membership is seen as an entitlement or birthright rather than a commitment rooted in life-changing grace. Insofar as discipline has slipped from practice in recent years, we would do well to ask ourselves whether this is because we have fallen into a cultural captivity that makes us determined to preserve our individualism and autonomy while avoiding suffering at all costs.
For many people, of course, church discipline sounds anything but gracious. And the reality is, church discipline has so often been abused – even within the Reformed tradition – that it is necessary to clarify what church discipline is not before we even begin to discuss what gospel-centered church discipline is.First, church discipline is not a discretionary, coercive power that elders or pastors can wield at will to manipulate church members into submitting to their authority. This was what discipline had become under the medieval papacy, and the reformers would have nothing to do with it. A person cannot be disciplined for refusing to submit to the council or consistory, per se. A person can only be disciplined for the refusal to repent of behavior clearly condemned as sinful by scripture.
Second, church discipline is not a means of punishing sins, or even of requiring public penance for sins. This too had become habitual in the medieval church. Those found guilty of sin would be banned from communion for a time and made subject to humiliating public exercises, even if they were repentant. Calvin and his colleagues utterly rejected this practice because it obscured the grace of the gospel.
Third, church discipline is not ostracism. Its goal is not to isolate a person from love, friendship, or hospitality, nor to drive a person from gathering with Christians for worship. Such a practice would hardly be in accord with the love of Christ.
What, then, is church discipline? It is the means by which we as the body of Christ hold one another accountable to the gracious power of Christ’s death and resurrection through the confession of our sins and – in the power of the Holy Spirit – the growing obedience of discipleship. To put it another way, it is the means by which we ensure that we are not merely professing faith in the gospel (i.e., cheap grace), but that we are living in the grace of the gospel (i.e., empowering grace). Its objective is not perfection but confession. It is a function not of the law, but of grace (Rom. 6:14).
When a brother or sister stubbornly refuses to repent, discipline eventually requires excommunication (Belgic Confession, Article 32), the barring of a person from (ex-) communion (-communication), which is to say, from the Lord’s Supper. This is essential to preserve the truth of the gospel that is taught and celebrated in the Lord’s Supper. For when the Supper is observed in a manner that does not communicate the truth of the gospel, as Paul taught the Corinthians, “It is not the Lord’s Supper you eat” (1 Cor. 11:20). It is also essential as a means of liberating the unrepentant person from the deceitfulness of sin and into the power of grace.
As Paul puts in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who practice homosexuality nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Nowhere does the graciousness of discipline appear more clearly than in Jesus’ description of it in Matthew 18. The context, often forgotten, is Jesus’ telling of the parable of the wandering sheep, in which a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to seek out the one sheep who has wandered astray. “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish,” Jesus says (18:14). For this reason, Christians may not simply let their brothers or sisters who sin wander off to their own destruction. First, we must approach them individually, hoping to win them over. If that fails, we must return to them with a brother or sister. Only then, “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (18:17). When a church faithfully and lovingly walks this journey to the point of making such a judgment, Jesus promises, its judgment is that of the Father himself (18:18- 20).
But even this judgment only stands with an eye toward grace. To treat a person as a pagan or a tax collector is not to shun her (as the Pharisees imagined) but to treat her as a lost sheep to be pursued with steadfast love and compassion until safely back within the fold. Peter demonstrated that he grasped this when he asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother. Jesus’ answer – seventy times seven – has become famous, as has the parable of the unforgiving servant that follows it (18:21-35). Christians must extend the same radical grace to the sinner that God has extended to us in Christ. Only when we forgive one another can we be confident that we ourselves are the recipients of God’s powerful grace. For in the final analysis, as Augustine reminded us, the Church is not the body of those who have been made perfect, but the body of those whose daily prayer, commanded by Jesus himself, is “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12; Cf. 6:14-15).
This grace is not like the cheap grace against which Bonhoeffer warned, which welcomes and affirms us in our sin. Rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit, it graciously conforms us to the image of Christ, enabling us, as genuine disciples, to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him.
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