Holiness, like unity and catholicity or universality, is an essential mark of the Church of Christ, who is himself the one, holy Saviour of all men; but it has never yet been perfectly actualized in her membership on earth, and is subject to gradual growth with many obstructions and lapses. The church militant, as a body, like every individual Christian, has to pass through a long process of sanctification, which cannot be complete till the second coining of the Lord.
Even the apostles, far as they tower above ordinary Christians, and infallible as they are in giving all the instruction necessary to salvation, never during their earthly life claimed sinless perfection of character, but felt themselves oppressed with manifold infirmities, and in constant need of forgiveness and purification.
Still less can we expect perfect moral purity in their churches. In fact, all the Epistles of the New Testament contain exhortations to progress in virtue and piety, warnings against unfaithfulness and apostasy, and reproofs respecting corrupt practices among the believers. The old leaven of Judaism and heathenism could not be purged away at once, and to many of the blackest sins the converts were for the first time fully exposed after their regeneration by water and the Spirit. In the churches of Galatia many fell back from grace and from the freedom of the gospel to the legal bondage of Judaism and the |rudiments of the world.| In the church of Corinth, Paul had to rebuke the carnal spirit of sect, the morbid desire for wisdom, participation in the idolatrous feasts of the heathen, the tendency to uncleanness, and a scandalous profanation of the holy Supper or the love-feasts connected with it. Most of the churches of Asia Minor, according to the Epistles of Paul and the Apocalypse, were so infected with theoretical errors or practical abuses, as to call for the earnest warnings and reproofs of the Holy Spirit through the apostles.
These facts show how needful discipline is, both for the church herself and for the offenders. For the church it is a process of self-purification, and the assertion of the holiness and moral dignity which essentially belong to her. To the offender it is at once a merited punishment and a means of repentance and reform. For the ultimate end of the agency of Christ and his church is the salvation of souls; and Paul styles the severest form of church discipline the delivering of the backslider |to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.|
The means of discipline are of various degrees of severity; first, private admonition, then public correction, and, finally, when these prove fruitless, excommunication, or temporary exclusion from all the means of grace and from Christian intercourse. Upon sincere repentance, the fallen one is restored to the communion of the church. The act of discipline is that of the whole congregation in the name of Christ; and Paul himself, though personally absent, excommunicated the fornicator at Corinth with the concurrence of the congregation, and as being, in spirit united with it. In one of the only two passages where our Lord uses the term ecclesia, he speaks of it as a court which, like the Jewish synagogue, has authority to decide disputes and to exercise discipline. In the synagogue, the college of presbyters formed the local court for judicial as well as administrative purposes, but acted in the name of the whole congregation.
The two severest cases of discipline in the apostolic church were the fearful punishment of Ananias and Sapphira by Peter for falsehood and hypocrisy in the church of Jerusalem in the days of her first love, and the excommunication of a member of the Corinthian congregation by Paul for adultery and incest. The latter case affords also an instance of restoration.