The discipline of the church (LD 31 q&a 85)


In Matthew 16, Peter made the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The Lord then said: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” From this, the catechism concluded that the preaching of Jesus as the Christ is the first “key of the kingdom”. Two chapters later, Jesus repeated this statement, but this time in the context of dealing with sin in the church. Therefore the catechism in q&a 85 now speaks of church discipline as the second key of the kingdom. Just like preaching church discipline also opens the kingdom for believers and closes it for unbelievers in the name of the Lord Jesus.

The discipline of the church
1. The principle of discipline
2. The process of discipline
3. The purpose of discipline

The principle of discipline

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind to go after one wandering sheep. When he finds it back, he is more excited about that one sheep than about all the others sheep. It is not difficult to understand that the wandering sheep represents someone who walks away from God into a life of sin. That is a dangerous thing to do! But the Lord Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd, cares to bring this person back. The repentance of one sinner gives him great joy.

As the church of Jesus, we must have the same attitude. We should give high priority to finding back those who wander from the Christian faith. We should be eager to see such a person repent and once again faithfully serve the Lord.

We can easily make the mistake of thinking that the “lost sheep” are those who no longer come to our church services. Certainly, the lack of worship and fellowship can be signs of wandering away from God. But wanderers may also be sitting in church with us. They may identify as Christians, as churchgoers, as active members. The catechism talks about people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be un-christian in doctrine or life. We must understand two important things about these people. First, if they are truly behaving in an un-christian way, we may not pretend that they are real Christians, but we must be firm in pointing out their sin, and distance ourselves from that sin. Second, we must try to bring them to repentance and if they do, be eager to receive them back.

We may not tolerate openly sinful behaviour in the church of Jesus. This is especially clear in Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 5. In Corinth, there were church members who quite misunderstood Christian liberty. They thought that, because Christians don’t need to follow the details of the Jewish law, it didn’t matter at all how they lived. These Corinthians were proud to be tolerant, so tolerant that they allowed wickedness that even the world around them condemned. The exact circumstances are not known to us, but there was a man in that church who was intimate with his father’s wife—his stepmother, supposedly. Paul is very firm about this situation. He declares that the church, when they gather together, must “deliver this man to Satan.” They have to “purge the evil person from among them.”

Here, Paul points to the Jewish ritual of removing all traces of yeast from the house in the week before the Passover, as a sign of holiness and consecration. The Apostle says: “Christ, who is our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” Therefore the church must be holy and consecrated, free from the “leaven” of unholiness and sin; whatever doesn’t fit with the holy identity of Jesus’ church must be removed. But the goal is not to destroy and completely condemn the sinful person. Paul writes: “Deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved.” If he rids himself of the old, sinful nature and puts on the new life of the Holy Spirit, there is a way back to the church.

So we see two principles at work in church discipline, which must be balanced. On one hand, we must be serious about removing sin from among us. Yes, we are all still sinners; but we may never get comfortable with our sin and tolerate it in our life. If we do that, we no longer deserve to be called followers of the Lord, and there is no longer a place for us in the church of Jesus. Then the Kingdom of heaven is closed for us, until we repent and hate that sin and fight against it.

On the other hand, we should never forget the positive aspect of church discipline. We don’t want to see anyone wander away. We want them to come back, in the way of repentance. Just as the shepherd in the parable went out of his way for one lost sheep, so we must work hard to reach out to the sinners among us. Just as in the parable of the Prodigal Son the father received his son back with open arms, we must be ready to receive a repentant sinner. This positive side of church discipline must be generous. We should not dwell on the sin, or exact punishment. When there is true repentance, we should be glad and forgive, just as our Father in heaven forgives us. Jesus emphasizes this later in Matthew 18: forgive, not just once or twice, not even seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Mat. 18:22)

The process of discipline

We will now look at the process of church discipline outlined in Matthew 18:15ff. Strictly speaking, Jesus discusses the case when “your brother sins against you,” that is, someone commits a sin in which you are a victim. Someone steals from you; someone dishonours your wife; someone slanders you. In that case, Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18 apply literally. But the pattern presented here also applies in other cases, when there is sin that is not clearly directed against one person.

First, says Jesus, “go and tell your brother his fault, between you and him alone.” Start with a private conversation. “You treated me unjustly; please acknowledge this and do what is right.” Or: “What you have done is offensive; please, repent, so that God may forgive you.” The catechism says: such people are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. Note two important words here. Repeatedly: if this person doesn’t agree with you right away, don’t storm out in a huff and conclude that he is stubborn and unrepentant. Try it again; be patient. And: in a brotherly manner. That means that we treat the offender with Christian love, not with disgust and condescension, not with anger and harshness, but in a gentle way and as an equal, as a brother or sister. There is a huge difference between: “I can’t believe what you did to me and you better fix it right now or else…!” and “Brother, what you did to me was wrong, don’t you see that?” The goal of this private admonition is, as Jesus says (18:15), to gain your brother, that is, to win him over, to get him back on the right track.

Jesus adds that at some point, there may be a need to bring one or two others. Not to gang up on the sinner; it may never become a power play. Having another person may bring balance to the situation, more objectivity and wisdom, and if necessary witnesses who can corroborate that this person is indeed guilty of sin and unwilling to repent.

In a healthy church, this private admonition, face-to-face with perhaps one or two others, should be the most common form of church discipline. It is wrong to run to the elders with accusations before you have really tried to resolve the matter privately. It is even worse to make public accusations or to gossip instead of approaching the offender personally. Christians must be gentle and discrete, especially in situations like this.

This so-called informal church discipline is not limited to the elders of the church. It is a path for all of us to follow. If a person has specifically offended you, it is on you to address this matter first in a private way. Even if the sin does not involve you, it may still be your calling to warn the offender of the danger of sinning, as long as you can do so in a truly brotherly manner, with humility and compassion. In order for this to work, it is important to have a relationship with that person already. You can’t expect someone to receive your admonition and rebuke graciously if you have never even shown interest in their lives. This is one of many reasons why we should foster close fellowship among church members: so that admonition can be effective at a personal level.

Only when none of this works begins the more formal discipline. “If he doesn’t listen, tell it to the church,” says Jesus. The catechism echoes this and explains: they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. Why the elders? Because the elders, including the minister, have been given a special role of leadership in the church. That leadership also includes judging. Judging who is right and wrong in a dispute; judging whether an offence is indeed sinful, and how it should be remedied.

Even when the matter is brought to an elder, there is no immediate official judgment. Usually, one or two elders will approach the sinner and try to convince them. Eventually, all elders and ministers of a church may be involved, and together they admonish the person and try to win him back. They become a team of shepherds, working hard to find and bring back the lost sheep, by pointing out the sin, by proclaiming the gospel, by inviting them back, through prayer, pleading, and persuasion.

Only when none of that works, is there an official judgment. This is the moment where the key is turned, and the unrepentant sinner is told that the kingdom of heaven is now closed for him, until he betters his life. The elders of the church should make this judgment on the basis of the teaching of the Bible, and with much care and prayer. If they do so, then this judgment is made on behalf of the Lord Jesus himself; and it should be taken very seriously.

In practice, even this judgment takes place in small steps, because we still hope and pray that there may be repentance. First, people under formal discipline are forbidden the use of the sacraments. The elders withhold them from the Lord’s Supper. This is not just a warning; it is a serious matter, because the Lord’s Supper is fellowship with Jesus for all believers. Being withheld from the Lord’s Supper means that you are denied this fellowship, because unforgiven sin stands in the way.

In Reformed churches, the other members of the church also become involved. They don’t need to know all the details of the case; at first, they are not even told the name of the offender. But the elders do announce that there is a case of formal discipline, so that the whole church can pray for this person. Because as a church together we do the work of our Lord Jesus: together we want to find and bring back the wayward sheep.

Ultimately, excommunication takes place. In the language of old Israel, Jesus said: let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. The catechism explains: they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God himself from the kingdom of Christ. That last phrase is very serious, but it is true: as Jesus said, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” If the elders execute discipline according to the teaching of the Bible, their use of the keys of the kingdom reflects a heavenly reality, and the judgment of the church is the judgment of God himself.

The purpose of discipline

The entire process of church discipline has two clear goals. First of all, to remove from Jesus’ church those who don’t really want to follow him. The membership list of the church should, as much as possible, contain only sincere Christians; because the church is not a club of people who sign up and pay membership fees, but the assembly of those who have true faith in Christ. The second goal is to bring sinners to repentance, to bring back the wayward, to “gain our brothers” if they have offended.

Therefore we should never think of excommunication as the endpoint. We must always hope and pray for the next step: that the excommunicated member, like the prodigal son, comes to his senses, repents of his sin and unbelief, and returns home. A church that has a procedure for excommunication must also have a procedure for restoration. A church that properly uses the key to close the kingdom of heaven for unrepentant sinners, must also be eager to use the key to open the kingdom for repentant sinners who come back. The catechism says: They are again received as members of Christ and of his church when they promise and show real amendment.

In this regard, the church has a task that is easily overlooked: after a member has been excommunicated (or after he has simply withdrawn his membership to avoid it), we should continue to pursue him, pray for him, present the gospel to him, try to persuade him to come back. We should never pretend that his sin and unbelief don’t matter; but we can lovingly proclaim the grace of God, who will take back the prodigal son or daughter.


In church discipline, we visibly apply the gospel of Jesus to the members of his church. The church is only for true believers who repent of their sins. Those who don’t must be admonished, and if they remain unrepentant, we must eventually proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is closed to them, and that they are excommunicated from the church. This is a fearful calling for the church; it must be done carefully, in a gentle and winsome spirit, with discretion and wisdom. Eventually, the elders of the church must act as judges who rule on behalf of God.

But the ultimate goal of church discipline is to open the kingdom of heaven, to welcome back sinners who have repented, who were lost but now are found. Jesus said: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.” That is also the task of his church. This task begins and ends with much prayer, that the church of Jesus may be holy and that those who have wandered away may be found back and restored.


  1. What does the parable of the lost sheep show?
  2. According to 1 Cor. 5, what should the church do with an unrepentant sinner?
  3. What are the steps in church discipline?
  4. Why do the elders have a special role in church discipline?
  5. What are some purposes of church discipline?

Suggested Bible reading schedule

MondayNumbers 15:22-36. What principles of church discipline are shown here?
TuesdayMatthew 18:15-19. How does the discipline of the church relate to heavenly reality?
WednesdayLuke 19:1-10. How did Jesus “discipline” sinners?
Thursday1 Corinthians 5. What principles of church discipline do you find in this chapter?
FridayJude :17-25. What should our attitude be toward those who stray away from God?
Saturday2 John. Does this chapter tell us not to have fellowship with people under discipline? Why or why not?

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