Though often passé in contemporary churches, the practice of church discipline is vital to the health and mission of the church. Jeremy Kimble, recent SEBTS PhD graduate and current Assistant Professor of Theology at Cedarville University, has published an important book that demonstrates the vitality of this oft-forgotten doctrine. In That His Spirit May Be Saved: Church Discipline as a Means to Repentance and Perseverance (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Kimble provides biblical, historical, and theological warrant for church discipline. His thesis, and the defense of it, holds significant implications for scholars and pastors alike.
In this published version of his SEBTS dissertation Kimble argues, “one purpose of church discipline is to serve as a declaration of potential eschatological judgment both to warn offenders of their need to repent, and, by implication to exhort the church members to persevere in faith” (pp. xv, 2). To argue his thesis, Kimble examines the biblical, historical, and theological evidence for such a claim. Significantly, he finds no lack of evidence for it.
The first chapter contains his assessment of “The Need for Discipline in the Church” (pp. 1–15). Anecdotal evidence of this need comes in the form of the absence of and/or fear of church discipline in many contemporary churches. Also, however, a survey of recent theological studies indicates the need for Kimble’s proposal (pp. 3–6). He then defines church discipline, eschatological judgment, and the perseverance of the saints, terms that appear again and again in his study. Significantly, he rightly points out that all humans will face eschatological judgment though not all will share the same eternal destiny (p. 9).
In chapter two, Kimble provides a “Biblical Analysis of Church Discipline” that demonstrates a biblical-theological respect for the continuity and discontinuity between the OT and NT. First, he identifies Old Testament trajectories on the subject, namely, the exile from Eden (pp. 20–24), expulsion from the camp (pp. 24–29), and ejection from the land (pp. 29–33). Key phrases like “purge the evil person from among you” in key texts (e.g. Deut 13:1–5; p. 26) illuminate God’s concern for holiness in and among his covenant people. Second, Kimble notes “the shift in discipline” present in Ezra 10:7–8 that aligns with God’s desire for repentance and restoration in his people (pp. 34–35). Kimble then explores the key NT texts (Matt 16:13–19; 18:15–20; 1 Cor 5:1–13; Gal 6:1) that build upon the trajectories set in the OT. He finds that, across the Bible,
God deals with sin in a direct and indirect manner, sometimes bringing consequences upon people himself, and at other times allowing the people of God to mete out discipline. Regardless of the means God uses, his aim is to persevere his covenant with his people, maintain holiness, deal with sin, and persevere his people in their faith (p. 61).
So Moses, Jesus, and Paul each cared about and taught “church discipline” because God cares about his people.
In chapter three, Kimble explores the historical precedent for the practice of church discipline. He finds such precedent in the life and work of Martin Luther, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Jonathan Edwards. The survey indicates the key theological and ministerial role played by real church discipline. He shows how, for example, Edwards’s understanding of “visible sainthood” stems from a tight connection between the doctrines of salvation, sanctification, and church discipline (see pp. 102–7). While these historical figures evince differences, they each held that “ecclesial discipline was a sign of eschatological judgment” (p. 110). They also, though, practiced it so that by repentance the sinner might be renewed and restored.
Chapter four contains Kimble’s “Theological Analysis of Church Discipline.” In this discussion he reiterates the connection between eschatological judgment and discipline (pp. 117–22), perseverance and discipline (pp. 123–31), and the interrelationship between all three. Helpfully, Kimble shows that such a conception is part and parcel with the church’s mission (pp. 133–35). He then addresses questions, or potential objections, to his study (pp. 135–44): does the fallibility of a church affect this view; does a different view of perseverance affect (undercut) his thesis; what sins require discipline and what sins require the cover of love; and what is the process for restoration after discipline? His answers to these questions produce a clear, concise, and convicting presentation of this vital doctrine and practice.
Kimble concludes his very important book with some practical implications. The practice of regenerate church membership, the role of pastors as stewards and shepherds, and the significance of the ordinances show the important place of church discipline. Inevitably, this chapter will aid pastors and elders as they pray through and apply church discipline. Indeed, this is the great achievement of Kimble’s book. He has produced a rigorous academic work that at the same time feeds and equips the church. That His Spirit May Be Saved will be a valuable resource for all, especially teachers and pastors, who desire to see the church spotless and unblemished before Christ (Eph 5:27).