Church discipline. These two words seem to be an oxyomoron. Church and discipline belong together just as much as hot goes ice or happy with grief. Christians should love sinners, extend grace, and shower out love. Discipline, rebuke, and excommunication appear to be terms reserved for the religous dark ages when knights lived in candle-lit castles and bathed twice a year. As early as 1900, evangelicals had began to distance themselves from this ungracious practice. They said, “[Church discipline] sounds punitive. Its savors of transgression, conflict and punishment.” Give us Jesus, love, and mercy. No discipline! Fastforward 115 years. Little has changed. Most churches never discuss or practice discipline. And those congregations that do occassionaly execumicate people often discipline those who recieved 25 year prison terms. Church discipline continues to be an evangelical oxyomoron.
But church and discipline do go together. The Greek word “παιδεία, discipline” is credited with producing righteousness in believers (Heb. 12:11; 2 Tim 3:16). To grow in Christ, believers must discipline themsselves. They must form their hearts into the image of Christ by studying the Word, by submitting to sound preaching, by attending Sunday school classes, and by joining a local church. As believers seeks after the things of God with the people of God, their minds will be filled with knowledge of God. This knowledge will shape their thoughts and desires which in turn will determine theirs actions, resulting in increased godliness and biblical living. The positive nature of church discipline could also be labeled formative discipline or discipleship.
But the process does not stop with instruction. As Jay Adams helpfully notes, Church discipline is, “education with teeth…that sees to it that the job gets done.” Discipleship, sanctification, and spiritual growth cannot happen apart from meaningful accountability… apart from discipline.
If the Christian who faithfully attends church and who regularly repents of sin is treated by his church in the same manner as the Christian who never attends church and who regularly gets drunk, the church indirectly promotes sinful living. Hiscox rightfully warns:
Let the school be controlled by strict, yet wise and kindly discipline, or the pupils will learn more of evil than of good.
Many churches are unmotivated, apathetic, and filled with vices because they neglect church discipline. They refuse to confront sin. They actually boast in their ability to tolerate sin as did the church in Corinthian. They claim that their failure to deal with the divorces in their congregation is a sign of wisdom. After all, who has the time or ability to discern who is right and wrong? These churches do not want to get sidetracked from the gospel, from evangelism, and from their growing kids ministry. We are so spiritual we ignore sin to pursue God. Talk about non-sensical thinking.
Yet the opposite is true. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5:6,
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
When we turn a blind eye to sin, the sin does not go away and the church does not grow in holines. Unconfront and unaddressed sin makes nest and gives birth to new generations of sin, anguish, and controversy. If the church leadership winks at one divorce, more will come. If one example of greed is excused, the sin will grow and deplete the church’s budget. If the pastor refuses to address the members known gambling addiction and allows the man to gain influence in the church, to teach a Sunday schoo class, and to serve as a deacon, that gambler will sway the church towards error and foolish decisions. Unconfessed, unconfronted, and unrepented of sin destroys the local church.
Though church discipline seems counterintuitive to our human natures, the practice is needed. J.L. Dagg has prophetically warned:
When discipline leaves the church, Christ goes with it.
How Do We Do It?
If we see that a brother is sinning or has sinned, we go to him privately and encourage him to repent. If he repents or clears up the misunderstanding, all is good. The brother has been restored and won back. Our relationship is no longer broken. The rebuked brother has grown in his faith by putting off his sin and embracing righteousness afresh. If we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we will confront them in love, seeking their spiritual well being.
But if he both admits to his sin and refuses to repent of it, we take another friend and go back to to the brother. We repeat the confrontation. If that confrontation does not bear the fruit of repentance, we take the matter to the church. Then the whole church should seek out the man and call him to repentance. If that does not work, then he is to be kicked out of the church. We expell the man desring him to come to grips with and repent of his sin. Leviticus 19:17 says,
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.
Do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ? Go confront them!
Hopefully, most confrontation never moves beyond the first step of church discipline. The loving rebuke of a brother or sister should suffice a majority of the time. But when more actions is needed, the church must take it. The church must move forward with discipline.
Upon investigating and verification of the unrepentant sin, the church must be willing to excommunicate the former member, breaking off all familial, social contact with him. Paul tells the Corinthian believers to, “not even eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:11). God has already declared the believer to be worth of judgement. The church must follow suit and treat the unrepentant sinner as a sinner.
If she does not take actions, she allows the brother to wrongly believe that sin is tolerated in God’s eyes and acceptable in his kingdom. She encourages her other members to abandon the hard work of righteousness. And she proclaims to the world that redemption is a fraud, unnecessary, and unneeded. If believers never repent of sin, why should unbelievers?
The God of the Bible and of the church is a Holy God. He commands us, his people, to “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God (Lev 20:7).” The true local church will strive for holiness and execomunicate all who love their sin more than Christ. Dr. Albert Mohler correctly concluded,
A church lacking these essential qualities, is biblically defined, not a true church.
Is your church a true church? Does it practice meaningful church discipline?
If you wish to explore the topic of Church Discipline more, I encourage you to grab copies of one of the books below: