Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – What kind of authority does the church have? How should church discipline function?

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In this chapter on the power of the church, Wayne Grudem The power of the church can be defined as “its God-given authority to carry on spiritual warfare, proclaim the gospel, and exercise church discipline.” 

There are several areas Grudem covers in this chapter on the power of the church. For one, he reviews spiritual warfare. He then provides Scriptural justification for the authority of the church and compares it to the power of the state. Finally, he outlines a biblical justification for church discipline.

Spiritual Warfare

Christians have spiritual authority through Christ. Paul tells us, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4) This power is not confined to the apostles but is granted to every believer since every believer encounters spiritual opposition (Ephesians 6:12). This authority includes power over demonic forces through Jesus’ name.   

Within the church, there are also different levels of authority vested in individual Christians. For instance, Paul exercised a particular kind of authority in Corinth when he said, “…that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.” (2 Corinthians 13:10). Paul, as an apostle, exercised a particular spiritual authority. Other believers will have other levels of authority. 

The Keys of the Kingdom

The authority of the church is tied to the “keys of the kingdom.” Occurring only once in the Scripture in Matthew 16:19, Jesus said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Though there is debate on its exact meaning, it suggests the power to preach the gospel since believing the good news is the way to enter the kingdom of God.

But these keys also entail removing people from the kingdom – in a manner of speaking. In the same gospel, Jesus tells his followers to enact progressive church discipline where ultimately the church removes an unrepentant person from the congregation. The Lord said, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:17-18). So the keys of the kingdom involve both “entry into” and “exit from” the kingdom in a manner of speaking.       

The Power of the Church and the Power of the State

Though the church has been given spiritual authority, it is not the same kind of authority as the state. The church is never called to “take up the sword” in Scripture. That is, the church is forbidden to use physical force to carry out its mission. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36) That tells us there is a limit to the power of the church in terms of physical force. The state retains the power of the “sword” (Romans 13:4).

Jesus drew a distinction between civil and church governments when he said, “therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21). The governing authority at the time of Jesus’ ministry was Rome – and by extension Caesar. So Jesus recognized different jurisdictions with the state and the church. The church assumes certain responsibilities and the state retains other responsibilities. This does not mean there is no interaction between the spheres, but there is a distinction between the jurisdictions. 

Church Discipline

The practice of church discipline is a core responsibility of the church. The purpose of church discipline is three-fold. For one, it aims to restore and reconcile the believer who is going astray. When Paul judged a church member for incest, he told the church at Corinth “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:5). The goal was not to destroy the man, but to ultimately reconcile the man to Christ. 

Secondly, church discipline keeps sin from spreading to others. Paul wrote of the effect of sin in a congregation when he said, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump.” (1 Corinthians 5:6,7) Sin affects everyone around the sinner. And when it’s not properly handled, sin can poison relationships and cause sin to spread. 

Third, church discipline protects the purity of the church and the honor of Christ. Paul condemns hypocritical Jews when he said, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:24). Sin ruins the reputation of a church. If a church cannot police unrepentant sin in its own flock, the negative effects will spread both inside and outside the congregation. So in this way, proper church discipline protects the purity of the church and the honor of Jesus.

But every sin should not be treated the same. Scripture provides a list of sins that are deemed serious enough to enact church discipline. This does not appear to be a comprehensive list, but it does provide some guidance for which sins are serious enough to begin church discipline. These sins include:

  • Divisiveness (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10)
  • Incest (1 Corinthians 5:1)
  • Laziness and refusing to work (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10)
  • Disobeying what Paul wrote (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)
  • Blasphemy (1 Timothy 1:20)
  • Teaching heretical doctrine (2 John 10-11) 

How Should Church Discipline Be Carried Out?  

Church discipline should never be carried out in a haphazard manner. After all, we are dealing with real people in difficult situations. That’s why Scripture reveals several principles to follow when carrying out church discipline.  

  1. Mature believers should conduct discipline “in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  2. Knowledge of the sin should be kept to the smallest group possible (Matthew 18:15-17).
  3. Disciplinary measures should increase in strength until there is a solution (Matthew 18:15-16). 
  4. For anyone wronged, always take the initiative to confront privately first (Matthew 5:23-24).
  5. True church discipline is a reflection of God’s judgment on a situation (1 Corinthians 5:4).
  6. Christians are not to fellowship with excommunicated believers (1 Corinthians 5:11).
  7. Unrepentant church leaders are to be disciplined “in the presence of all.” (1 Timothy 5:20).
  8. Forgive and accept back into fellowship repentant believers (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
  9. Personally forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 18:21-35).  

Application: The Power of the Church is Real

In conclusion, the church is no weak-sauce institution without authority on earth. On the contrary, the church has been granted the “keys to the kingdom” of heaven (Matthew 16:19). As such, we should respect the church’s authority from Christ to execute God’s will on the earth through individual congregations. The power of the church is real and is active right now.    

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)

Special Terms

  • binding and loosing
  • excommunication
  • keys of the kingdom
  • power of the church
  • to take up the sword

Resources: Wayne Grudem

Related Resources

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