Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure- not to put it too severely- to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. (2 Corinthians 2:5-7)
This passage contains two simple, fundamental commands for the church of Jesus Christ: discipline and forgive.
The command to discipline is implicit in this passage. It’s an explicit command in other passages (like 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18), but here it’s only implied because the discipline has already been administered. The explicit command, the major theme of the score, is forgiveness. The church of Jesus Christ generally, and you specifically, must do these two things if she is to be a healthy, biblical, God-honoring church. She must discipline and she must forgive.
If a church doesn’t discipline, if she can’t hold sinners accountable and correct those who defiantly and unrepentantly disobey, then the church will cease to be the church. Protestants have for almost five hundred years talked about the three marks of the church. What distinguishes a true church from a false church is: (1) the pure preaching of the word of God, (2) the right administration of the sacraments, and (3) the practice of church discipline for correcting faults. The church is the body of Christ and as the body the church is supposed to look like Christ and bear a resemblance in her character to God himself. If the church fails to label sin as sin and fails to set boundaries for its faith and life, then the church is no longer striving to resemble Christ in all his purity and goodness and moral excellence. The church cannot turn a blind eye to moral sin and doctrinal error without becoming a pale reflection of its own culture. She will become nothing more than a social club of people that look alike, vote alike, or share the same belief in nothing in particular except for tolerance.
Likewise, and just as importantly, the church must forgive. A church that doesn’t forgive, Jesus would say, does not understand forgiveness. There are few things as foundational to Christianity as undeserved mercy. We have been forgiven much, much more than we will ever have to forgive another human being. So when we grow bitter, petty, vindictive, and devoid of grace (and graciousness), we grow more and more unlike the Christ we profess to worship. Christians who can’t get along with each other, Christians who tear each other apart and put impossible burdens on each other are doing the work of the Devil, not of the Lord.
In an excellent article several years ago J. Robertson McQuilken explained the tension between discipline (or faithfulness) on the one hand and forgiveness (or love) on the other.
There is a great polarization between the professional unifiers on the one hand and the professional purifiers on the other. It seems that a person must work at uniting all churches no matter how delinquent in doctrine or life or that he must give himself wholly to separating all the wheat from the tares now…It is impossible to have too much love or too much faithfulness.
However, it is quite possible to have unfaithfulness masquerading as love. When God’s people compromise through sentimentality or self-love or for some other reason are unwilling to exercise church discipline, they are unfaithful though they speak much of love. Again, it is quite possible to have unlove masquerading as faithfulness. When God’s people create schism by disciplining the wrong person, or with the wrong motive, or in the wrong way, they are unloving though they speak much of faithfulness. I do not ask the ecumenist to be less loving. I urge him to be more faithful. I do not ask the separatist to be less faithful. I urge him to be more loving.”
Read those paragraphs again. They are overflowing with wisdom. The true Christian will not pit grace against truth, love against faithfulness, discipline against forgiveness, unity against purity. But neither do we want the fullness of one half of the pair to be an excuse for a deficiency on the other side.
There are two things that will always tear a church apart, sometimes slowly and imperceptibly and sometimes quickly and loudly, but these two things will always rip the fabric of Holy Spirit unity: having no standards and having impossible standards. If you can get one of those two things going on in a church you will be well along your way to ruining that church. But if you can by God’s power find a way to uphold moral and doctrinal standards with a spirit of mercy, humility, and eager forgiveness, then that will be a mighty church and even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.