No one enjoys conducting or receiving church discipline. At best, it’s awkward, and if there is no repentance, it can be devastating for individuals and families. The difficulty of addressing these situations can cause believers to shy away from initiating discipline. Yet, this must not stop believers from properly addressing sin in the church. One way to take back your courage is to remember that discipline is not an unloving thing to do, but the most loving thing to do, both for those who have sinned, and those who have been affected by their sin. In fact, there is such a close connection between discipline and love that John Owen lists love as a main purpose of discipline in his Inquiry Concerning Evangelical Churches. In short, he argues that Christ instituted discipline to preserve love between believers and represent his love for the church, and commands that it be done in an attitude of love with the hope of restoring love. If you need to do the hard work of confronting an individual about sin, or are the leader someone has approached about a disciplinary issue, remembering Owen’s teaching might relieve some of the stress of this process.
According to Owen, discipline…
1. Preserves love between believers
Christ “lays so great weight upon” maintaining love between his disciples because it his new commandment that marks his people, and discipline helps this by preventing or removing offences between his people and causing them to watch over one another. Believers cannot merely attend a church and think they have fulfilled the law of love, but must engage by exhorting, admonishing, praying, and watching over one another. In fact, not watching over and admonishing one another is hateful. In his commentary on Hebrews, Owen wrote “upon the officers of the church [mutual watchfulness] is incumbent by the way of office; on all believers, as members of the church, in a way of love: Leviticus 19:17, ‘Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart; thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.’ He that doth not watch over his brother to prevent his sin, or recover him from it, as much as lies in him, he hates him, and is so far a murderer.”
2. Represents Christ’s love for his church
Discipline also represents Christ’s love for his church, which means not doing it properly dishonours Christ. This is an important point for Owen. He solemnly explains that discipline represents Christ’s
own love, care, tenderness, patience, meekness, in the acting of his authority in the church. Where this is not observed and designed in the exercise of church-discipline, I will not say it is antichristian, but will say it is highly injurious, and dishonourable unto him; for all church-power is in him and derived from him. Nor is there any thing of that nature which belongs unto it, but it must be acted in his name, and esteemed, both for the manner and matter of it, to be his act and deed.
3. Must be conducted with love
This means that when believers conduct discipline, it must be done with an attitude of love, like that of Christ’s. Owen contrasts the right and wrong attitude to have in discipline by saying,
For men, therefore, to pretend unto the exercise of this discipline in a worldly frame of spirit, with pride and passion, by tricks of laws and canons, in courts foreign to the churches themselves which are pretended to be under this discipline, it is a woful and scandalous representation of Christ, his wisdom, care, and love towards his church. But as for his discipline, he hath ordained that it shall be exercised in and with meekness, patience, gentleness, evidence of zeal for the good and compassion of the souls of men, with gravity and authority; so as that therein all the holy affections of his mind towards his church or any in it, in their mistakes, failings, and miscarriages, may be duly represented, as well as his authority acted among them, Isa. 40:11; 2 Cor. 10:1; Gal. 5:22, 23; 1 Thess. 2:7; 2 Tim. 2:24–26; James 3:17; 1 Cor. 13.
4. Has the goal of restoring love
The law of love also means that discipline is only appropriate regarding scandalous sins that hurt the communion of a church, and that restoration of the person being disciplined is the goal. In Owen’s words, discipline in the local church is done so that at the end of the process, “the offending and the offended parties may continue together in the communion of the same church, in love without dissimulation.” In one of his other books on the church titled True Nature of a Gospel Church, Owen adds that the waiting period for repentance should not be rushed but “allowed its proper season for its use and efficacy” and all attempts be made to help the person repent because this represents “the patience and forbearance of Christ towards his church and all the members of it” and coheres with the rule of love.
In the end, those being disciplined and conducting the discipline should always remember that this awkward and potentially horrible experience is a necessary process intended to restore the love that is lost when one gravely sins against another, that it represents the love of Christ himself, that it always to be done in imitation of Christ, with tenderness and patience instead of harshness or abruptness, and that its goal is to reunite those who belong to the same family in sincere love for each other.
 John Owen, An Exposition of Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 4:104; John Owen, The Works of John Owen (ed. William H. Goould; Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 15:266.
Owen, Works, 15:267.