From the folks over at Cardus:
The question of authority has haunted Western civilization throughout history. The competition between church and state for the ultimate allegiance is a subtext of history, and the less-than-noble power games, self-aggrandizement, and bloodshed that forms part of that story should not be overlooked. True, historical norms have evolved—today, both church and state politics are exercised using intellectual and social weapons rather than physical ones, for the most part.
For most of history, the idea that God had authority which ought to shape the decision of both church and state had broad acceptance. The debate was which circumstances and which institutions were the appropriate ones to interpret the will of God. For the past few centuries, within the context of liberal democracy and pluralism, we have separated the functions of church and state much more clearly. “Freedom,” rather than obedience, became the watchword.
It is a particular understanding of freedom, quite different from the libertine version that some champion today, which accompanies Christian notions of church governance. I would also contend, however, that this Christian notion of freedom is far more liberating than we usually consider. Those who seek satisfaction in hedonistic license are certain to disagree, but I have yet to meet the person who will not concede that the short-term thrills of that lifestyle hardly warrant its commendation as a way of lasting satisfaction.
Biblical belonging is much more humane and principled than the democratic sort of self-reliance relied on by the secular orthodox crowd. When an individual believes and lives in a manner which publicly declares “I do not belong” while wanting to stay within a community of those who belong, a tension that must be resolved. The church discipline process is about resolving that tension.
Discipline affirms that authority in the church is top-down, not bottom-up. The church has the duty to maintain her identity as the bride of Christ. Failure to do so is living in continued infidelity to her bridegroom—the metaphor helps us intuitively understand why this is unsustainable. When the church fails to exercise discipline, it doesn’t take long for her identity as a church to become so sullied that there is nothing left to “belong” to.
Admittedly, it is most often in the “how” that church leaders stumble. The focus must always be on restoring the fallen member to a right relationship within the church. The aim is the wedding. Church leaders come alongside the wayward member, teaching, encouraging, helping, and, when necessary, providing discipline. Their intention must always be to restore the relationship.
This approach is different than in every other human institution. Other institutions kick members out in order to protect the institution, but the church relies on higher powers to protect her, and protecting her “brand” should never be the first motive. The salvation of the lost is the overriding focus. In fact, the Catholic canon refers to censures as “medicinal penalties,” while the forms in Protestant traditions almost universally speak of the intention that the offending brother “be brought to repentance and recovered to the will of the Lord.”
To be sure, the reality of church discipline is also a testimony to the ultimate authority of God, even against those who do not acknowledge Him. It is publicly proclaiming to the nations that even they, at long last, will also come to bow. Church discipline is a foretaste of that judgement, but also the mercy of God to the nations to the end of days. Is the implicit discomfort with church discipline tied to an implicit rejection that God is a God who judges? The good news is that church discipline takes place in time, and is also a witness to the fact that now is a time of grace, when reconciliation and forgiveness remain possible.
The manner in which church discipline is carried out also distinguishes the church from other institutions. To continue with biblical metaphors, the church is a body and when one part hurts, the entire body suffers. A cleric who exercises the authority of his office in matters of church discipline without feeling pain and prayerful tears dishonours his office. He denies the organic connection that ought to exist between members of a church, between himself and the wayward member with whom he is dealing.