So far we have considered Christ’s promise that he would build his church and it would withstand the very gates of Hades as well as his teaching regarding the process of what we call church discipline. But the subject of church discipline can be subdivided into two categories which we might call corrective and formative. Corrective church discipline is the practice that we have already studied, namely, the confrontation of a sinning brother in the hope of restoring him to fellowship with Christ and with the saints in the church. Of this type of discipline, Baptist theologian E. Y. Mullins wrote, “Church discipline is simply the group protecting itself against the individual. The church has no power of coercion in the religious life of the individual. Individuals stand or fall to their own Master, and are judged only by God. The right of the church, however, to protect itself against the disorderly individual is an unalienable right in Christ.” It is by the faithful practice of corrective discipline that believers are held accountable for their own words and actions and pointed toward repentance.
On the other hand, we may also speak of formative church discipline, by which we mean the instruction and training that ought to be ongoing in the life of the church and which ought to prevent the need for corrective discipline in the majority of cases. This is where you will find, at least according to the Bible, church leaders involved in guarding and protecting the purity of Christ’s flock. The New Testament defines only two offices in the church, that of elder and of deacon. The office of elder is sometimes called by other names including overseer (a word that is translated “bishop” in some older versions) and pastor. Each of these three titles carries some aspect of the responsibility and ministry that our Lord has given to this one office. Paul Jackson explained it this way: “’Elder’ indicates the dignity of the office and ‘bishop,’ the duties. ‘Pastor’ gives the relationship to the flock.” As an elder, he is to be respectable and thus given the dignity and honor that is due. As an overseer, he is to care for the souls of his people and to lead them by humble service after the pattern of Jesus Christ. And as a pastor, he is to feed the flock, guiding them in righteousness and guarding them from wolves by the faithful teaching and preaching of God’s word.
To the deacons is given the responsibility of the material ministries of the church, specifically caring for the poor and needy among the fellowship and assisting the practical needs of the church. In this way the deacons are able to relieve the elders of some of the burdens of ministry, especially those of a physical or material nature, which would otherwise interfere with the spiritual oversight of the flock of God. Nowhere in the NT description of the office of a deacon do we read any instructions concerning their involvement in church discipline, either corrective or formative, other than as members of the body who are responsible to confront an offending brother.
On the other hand, the NT does describe a distinct role for elders in the area of formative discipline. Consider the apostle Paul’s words to the elders of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20. He expects that this will be his last opportunity to see these beloved brothers face to face, and so he gives them solemn instructions about their responsibility to their church. Beginning in v.28 he tells them to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Their duties require constant vigilance, just like a shepherd must remain always on guard for danger to his sheep, so a pastor must always be wary of threats to his congregation. Paul continues, saying, “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The duties which should occupy the elders of the church are essentially those of the shepherd of sheep, namely, to feed and lead and correct and guard the flock. In other words, the pastor’s role in discipline is primarily on the front end by teaching and preaching God’s word, leading the flock by setting an example of godly conduct, and standing against any and all who would harm the sheep under his care.
The apostle continues by describing the nature of the enemies that they must face. First he says, “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” These are threats from outside, wolves who are vicious and uncaring who will tear and devour the sheep unless they are met with force. Now he’s not saying that pastors must physically defend the church from violent men, but that spiritual invaders must be repelled like wolves from a flock of sheep. Then he warns about another threat, saying, “Also from among yourselves men will rise up.” Paul knew that there would be men who would insinuate themselves into the church, even becoming pastors themselves, who would draw away followers after themselves. Against these kinds of internal threats, Paul’s command is to “watch and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.”
When the church practices both corrective and formative discipline, we may be confident that God’s people will be taught to grow in obedience and faith according to the truths of God’s word, and that they will be held accountable for the practice of biblical truth. This is how Christ intended for the church to be kept from the powers of death and the plots of the devil. It doesn’t require an external body of authority or some specialized group of guardians, but it does require God’s people to commit themselves to obey the word of God, to train faithful disciples, to confront sin and error, and to repent when we have fallen short of God’s standard.