I Belong (13): Do You Believe Church Discipline Is Necessary & Loving?

You may have heard the horrific news story about the 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher, Abigail Zwerner. School employees say that Zwerner asked for help with the boy several times earlier in the school year. [1] According to Diane Toscano, Zwerner’s attorney, multiple concerns about the boy were reported to the administration that day before the shooting. Allegedly, Zwerner reported to an administrator that the boy threatened to beat up another student. Another teacher searched the boy’s backpack and believed he put the gun in his pocket and took it to recess. Yet another teacher told an administrator before the shooting that the boy showed a student the gun at recess and issued a threat. A fourth school employee asked to search the boy but was told to wait till the end of the day. Supposedly, Zwerner texted a loved one before the shooting about the boy being armed and expressed her frustration at the school’s lack of response. After all this, Zwerner was shot in the hand and the chest and is now on the long road to recovery.

This is an awful story. Listen to what Diane Toscano said about the terrible event her client experienced. She said:

What did administrators do? Did administrators call the police? No. Did administrators lock down the school? No. Did administrators evacuate the building? No. Did they confront the student? No.” [2]  

Now, keep in mind that this case has not gone to court. There’s a lot we don’t know. I don’t want to bear false witness. But I’m struck by the leaders’ alleged lack of response to such a serious situation. It appears that multiple alarming events led up to the shooting, a shooting that brought pain to many people, and yet the leaders appeared to take no definitive action to address the problem; the boy was not confronted before the situation escalated. The boy’s actions were dangerous for himself and others, and Toscano said of administrators, “Did they confront the student? No.”

I think we’d all agree that in a life-threatening situation like this, confrontation would’ve been most loving and helpful and would’ve likely prevented the shooting. Though uncomfortable and difficult to do, the leaders confronting the boy would’ve prevented much pain. I doubt you hear about this horrible situation and think, “I’m glad the leaders failed to respond. Think of it. They may have upset the little boy and hurt his feelings. Maybe he would’ve left school, and kids need to be in school.” That would be a ridiculous conclusion. The seriousness of a gun at school necessitates a confrontation. Think about it. A confrontation would’ve been loving for the boy and those around the boy.

You believe discipline is necessary and loving, correct? It would’ve been best for the boy to be apprehended and escorted off school property, right? At least a suspension from school would be appropriate for the boy, agreed?   

Now, what does this have to do with theology and church life? Well, this situation powerfully illustrates the necessity and love of church discipline. Church discipline is uncomfortable to think about and even more difficult to implement. That’s why many churches simply avoid it. But discipline is Biblical and good. Why? Because sin is deadly. Sin is worse than a gun. Sin has killed more people than guns. God has designed church discipline to protect his beloved church from the devastating and eternal effects of sin. Sin in the church is like a loaded gun in the classroom; it endangers the one holding it and those around them. God gives us the grace of church discipline to protect and restore before people are destroyed.

Church discipline attempts to confront unconfessed and unrepentant sin and to take action before it damages, divides, and destroys. Turning a blind eye to sin in the church only leads to greater sin, sorrow, and pain. And whenever sin isn’t confronted, at least some in the church will likely think, “Why isn’t anything being done about this?” Talk to those being sinned against! To disregard unconfessed and unrepentant sin in the church will not only promote the destruction of the one sinning but will also promote the destruction of those being affected by the sin.

There are three marks of the true church. Belgic Confession Article 29 reads:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. [3]

Church discipline is absolutely essential. It accompanies Word and sacraments to protect and preserve Christ’s church. Many children were deeply harmed by the lack of discipline in their homes; many church members are deeply harmed by the lack of discipline in their churches. Proverbs 3:11–12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (c.f. Heb. 12:5-6). Hebrews 12:10 says that our heavenly Father “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”

A church that takes church discipline seriously is a church that takes God’s Word, sin, the destructive effects of sin, holiness, righteousness, and the souls of its people seriously. A church that refuses to implement church discipline for the protection and restoration of its people is a dangerous church, and unloving church, maybe even a false church. Isn’t that right? Isn’t there a striking parallel between the lack of church discipline and the Richneck Elementary School shooting?  

Heidelberg 83 asks, “What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?” It answers, “The preaching of the holy gospel and church discipline. By these two the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and closed to unbelievers.” Naturally, Heidelberg 85 then asks: “How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by church discipline?” The answer is profoundly helpful. If a church takes this answer seriously and applies it lovingly, tenderly, and patiently, yet also firmly, it will be a powerful and restorative church. Heidelberg 85 answers:

According to the command of Christ, people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation and by God himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.2

Did you hear that? Discipline aims at restoration. Church discipline is used to bring about true repentance and holiness in order to protect and preserve God’s beloved people. The true church utilizes discipline for the good of its people. And yet Belgic Confession Article 29 says of the false church, “it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.”

I hope you expect your church shepherds to oversee your soul (1 Pet. 5:2; Heb. 13:17). I hope you expect your church to rebuke you if you persist in sin (Ps. 141:5; Titus 1:9; 2:5; 2 Tim. 4:2). I hope you believe that Jesus shepherds his church through discipline and that his discipline in and through the church is not only necessary but also deeply loving and good for your soul.   

[1] Info for the article was taken from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/teacher-shot-6-year-old-texted-dire-warning-loved-one-was-wounded-sour-rcna67290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://threeforms.org/the-belgic-confession/#29

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021). Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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