Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Lord’s Supper and Church Discipline
But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner– not even to eat with such a person. 1 Corinthians 5:11NKJV
This morning we look at Westminster Larger Catechism Question 173, which asks, “May any who profess his faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s Supper, be kept from it?” It gives the answer, “Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s Supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ hath left in his church, until they receive instruction and manifest their reformation.”
Though very few denominations would agree, today’s question clearly affirms the right and duty of churches to practice church discipline. The Scriptural admonition at the head of this article cannot be kept without some recognized authority in the church having the power to carry it out. Many other Scriptures could be added whereby churches are commanded to:
“Purge the evil person from among you,” (1 Cor. 5:13);
“withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly,” (2 The. 3:6);
“Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all,” (1 Tim. 5:20);
“when you are gathered together… deliver this man to Satan,” (1 Cor. 5:4, 5);
“let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector,” (Mat. 18:17).
The Book of Church Order of the PCA states that the proper exercise of church discipline, “maintains the glory of God, the purity of His Church, and the keeping and reclaiming of disobedient sinners.” God does not command discipline within His Church as a punishment, but as a means of grace, as an expression of love. Real love will not allow the object of that love to corrupt itself for its ultimate harm, but it will do anything and suffer any discomfort to see real good come to that object. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives,” (Heb. 12:6). God loves His Church much more than the most godly parents love their children. Therefore, God disciplines His Church for the Church’s own everlasting good.
Church discipline begins with each person disciplining himself: “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness,” (1 Tim. 4:7). Likewise, all sound preaching is the exercise of church discipline, “Preach the word… reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction,” (2 Tim. 4:2). Christian parents are responsible to discipline their children in the church, and those children are commanded to obey them (Eph. 6:1). In fact the word discipline and disciple are related Biblically. A disciple is one who walks in the discipline of his avowed leader and master. You cannot be an undisciplined disciple, such a concept is a contradiction. Thus, Scripture explicitly affirms: “But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons,” (Heb. 12:8). The formal steps of church discipline are first admonition, then suspension from the Lord’s Supper, then excommunication. Each one is taken only after much counsel, instruction, and prayer, and always with the hope that the sinner will repent and be fully restored to the fellowship of Christ and His Church.
With all of this clear Scriptural evidence supporting church discipline why do so few congregations of Christians affirm it? First of all because it is hard. Taking a stand for godliness and insisting on real Biblical righteousness requires diligence, patience, wisdom, courage, much humility, and most of all REAL love. Those who are subject to discipline often do not see the sin and so they resist in a sinful way, in that they malign those seeking to administer the discipline. To continue to lovingly help someone who is resisting you is hard. It is much easier to opt for a surface kind of love which is always smiling and affirming whatever someone does or desires. Second, since so few churches discipline, those who do are seen as hateful or legalistic. The objects of discipline can leave their church and be accepted by the next congregation down the road with open arms. Thirdly, those administering the discipline are themselves sinners. We never do things rightly or perfectly and many times discipline results in being too severe or too soft, and no one is pleased. But then again the Church is not supposed to be in the man-pleasing business; and Jesus commands church discipline! So if we love Jesus Christ and if we truly love His Church, we will trust Him and seek to, as well as we can, practice church discipline.