The Secular Case for Church Discipline

imageThere’s an old saying—“You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Sometimes, Christians employ this adage when it comes to exercising church discipline, whether it be on an individual basis or over an entire congregation. We’d rather try to win the errant brother over with honey, rather than calling a thing what it is. When Christians act in this way, they show that they don’t really believe God’s Word has the power to bring a sinner to repentance.

Though the sinful flesh doesn’t take God at His Word, it’s interesting that the world often does. In a sense, secular society around us practices a form of church discipline…just without the church part (or at least the holy Christian kind). St. Paul writes in Romans 2, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts…”

Take, for instance, the case of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. This was a man who was more than qualified to serve as Mozilla’s CEO after working with the company from its inception—even working on predecessor projects to the now famous Firefox browser. In 2014, after Eich was promoted to CEO, the news broke that he made a $1,000 contribution to the campaign of California’s Proposition 8, a measure that sought to protect natural marriage in that state. Moral outrage, stirred up by the gay lobby, resulted in Eich’s resignation from the position. In effect, church discipline had been carried out.

We can almost certainly think of many such cases of bakers, florists, photographers, and venue owners who have committed a manifest sin against the orthodoxy of American culture; surely, there has been enough ink spilled over these cases. However, what we ought to note is the effect that such measures have. First, this secular exercise of the keys sends the message that heterodoxy and heresy will not be tolerated. If there is any deviation from the creeds and confessional documents of the culture, the cultural clergy warn and threaten the errant brother. If the errant brother continues in his sin, he is put under discipline. Smiting the blasphemer in this way serves to silence him, so that his ideas would not spread to those around him. The cultural clergy recognize that failure to discipline such a man would only embolden him and put a tacit stamp of approval on his false teaching. Second, secular church discipline also makes an example out of the fallen. Others who may hold to the false teaching may be deterred from speaking of it publicly, or they may even be dissuaded from that opinion. Additionally, the weaker brothers, who don’t understand all the nuances of the controversial doctrine, are shown the narrow way. Even the College of Cardinals that sits in the judges’ chambers of our nation has asserted itself in this matter, exercising the discipline from the upper ranks of the hierarchy. In the case of homosexual “marriage,” this discipline has proven to be quite effective. It appears that our nation is heading toward full acceptance and canonization of this doctrine.

But what of the holy Christian Church? Will the Church stand up to false teaching in her midst? Will she warn the errant brother? If he doesn’t repent, will he be removed? Without exercising the keys rightly, the false teacher and his followers will only grow bolder in their teaching. Some say that a little leaven leavens the whole (like Jesus and St. Paul). As if this were not bad enough, the weaker brethren of the church are left in confusion. Some of their leaders say to ordain women is perfectly acceptable, others do not. Some say the creation account in Genesis is a poem, others say it’s historical fact. Some say the means of grace aren’t important in the Church’s mission, others say that those means are the heart and center of it. When two contradictory theological ideas persist, the Church must act to protect the weak and discipline the one in error.

We need not be afraid. God’s Word is like a hammer that breaks the rock (Jeremiah 23:29). The Lord’s Word accomplishes that for which He purposes it, and it succeeds in the thing for which He sends it (Isaiah 55:11). God’s Word has the power to create a clean heart and renew a right spirit within a person (51:10). There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance (Luke 15:7). O Lord, send us a Nathan to kill us with Your Law and revive us by Your Gospel. Amen.

  1. Preserve Your Word, O savior,
    To us this latter day,
    And let Your kingdom flourish;
    Enlarge Your Church, we pray.
    O keep our faith from failing;
    Keep hope’s bright star aglow.
    Let nothing from truth turn us
    While living here below.

  2. Preserve, O Lord, Your honor,
    The bold blasphemer smite;
    Convince, convert, enlighten
    The souls in error’s night.
    Reveal Your will, dear Savior,
    To all who dwell below,
    Great light of all the living,
    That all Your name may know.

  3. Preserve Your Word and preaching,
    The truth that makes us whole,
    The mirror of Your glory,
    The pow’r that saves the soul.
    Oh, may this living water,
    This dew of heav’nly grace,
    Sustain us while here living
    Until we see Your face.


(LSB 658: stzs. 1, 2, and 4)

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