Church discipline is a tough topic. Tough to talk about. Even tougher to practice.
My wife and I once had to confront a close friend for a serious and public sin. She was a young Christian with a wonderful testimony, but she argued her sin wasn’t sin. Multiple conversations followed. A couple more of her close friends joined us for the confrontation. I found myself having difficulty sleeping (and I never have difficulty sleeping). My stomach was upset. Throughout, the question loomed before me: would I have to bring this matter to all the pastors and eventually the whole congregation?
Church leaders struggle with church discipline for all sorts of reasons. How can we confront someone else’s sin when we are sinners too? What if the person gets mad and never comes back? What if people take sides and divide the church? Have we given the matter enough time? On and on the questions pile up.
Church leaders struggle with church discipline for all sorts of reasons. How can we confront someone else’s sin when we are sinners too?
Travel around the world to teach on this topic—as I’ve had the “privilege” of doing—and you’ll discover that pastors everywhere have context-specific reasons not to practice church discipline. In Brazil, they said church discipline is too difficult because of the crucial role played by family structures. In South Africa, it’s the tribal structures. In Hawaii, it’s the easy-come, easy-go culture. In Ohio, well, it’s because they’ll sue you.
What have I learned from this? First, people can always find good excuses not to obey God’s Word. Adam and Eve did, after all. Second, church discipline, as I said, is just hard.
But let’s take a moment to stop and think through the topic.
What Is Church Discipline?
First, church discipline is one part of the discipleship process. As in many areas of life, Christian discipleship involves both instruction and discipline, just like soccer practice or math class.
Narrowly, church discipline is correcting sin. It begins with private warnings. It ends, when necessary, with removing someone from church membership and participation in the Lord’s Table.
Is Discipline Biblical?
Church discipline is biblical and applicable for all times and places. It first shows up in Matthew 18, where Jesus says concerning the person in unrepentant sin, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17). That is, treat him as outside the covenant community. The person has proven uncorrectable. His life does not match his Christian profession.
Another well-known passage on discipline, 1 Corinthians 5, helps us see the health benefits of discipline. First, discipline exposes. Sin, like cancer, loves to hide. Discipline exposes the cancer so that it might be cut out (see 1 Cor. 5:2). Second, discipline warns. A church does not enact God’s judgment through discipline. Rather, it stages a small play that pictures the great judgment to come (v. 5). Third, discipline saves. Churches pursue it when they see a member taking the path toward death, and none of their arm-waving causes him or her to stop. It’s the device of last resort (v. 5).
One of the health benefits of discipline is that discipline exposes. Sin, like cancer, loves to hide.
Fourth, discipline protects. Just as cancer spreads from cell to another, so sin quickly spreads from one person to another (v. 6). Fifth, discipline preserves the church’s evangelistic witness. Strange to say, it serves non-Christians because it keeps churches distinct and attractive (see v. 1). After all, churches are to be salt and light. “But if the salt loses its saltiness…” Jesus said, “It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matt. 5:13).
For all these reasons, church discipline actually helps a church grow in health. God’s discipline, the author of Hebrews says, helps us to “share in his holiness” (12:10). It “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (v. 1). We want healthy churches because healthy churches better proclaim, protect, and promote the gospel.
We want healthy churches because healthy churches better proclaim, protect, and promote the gospel.
Discipline and a Gospel Culture
A pastor from Afghanistan told me he was concerned discipline wouldn’t work in his context because of shame culture. I was glad he was sensitive to the dynamics of his culture. Yet I reminded him that our work as shepherds is to cultivate a new creation, Holy-Spirit indwelled culture. Don’t let “shame culture” win. Jesus lived in a shame culture, after all. Let “Holy-Spirit-new-birth” culture win.
Also, his concern illustrated why churches should only practice discipline in the context of strong and robust teaching about the gospel. The gospel is only for people who feel shame for their sin. If you have nothing to be ashamed about, the gospel is not for you, because shame is what the gospel addresses.
To be sure, a church needs a number of other foundation blocks in place before it can practice discipline: regenerate and meaningful membership; a culture of accountability and discipleship; but perhaps most importantly of all, a robust understanding of the gospel.
Church discipline is a call to repentance and the promise of the end of shame.
Church discipline is to those inside the church what evangelism is to those on the outside: a call to repentance and the promise of the end of shame.
Wonderfully, 99 percent of the discipline in my church never reaches the pastors, much less the whole congregation. Such was the case with the woman that my wife and I confronted. She repented while only a few of us were involved. At the same time, I’ve seen people removed from membership in the church, only to be restored later in repentance. Picture a man who left his wife and children standing before the church and confessing in tears, followed by a unanimous affirmation and embrace from the whole church. Picture the same story with a drug addict who stole from members of the church to support his addiction.
Church discipline may be difficult, but we can trust God’s Word. He’s wiser than we are. Our loving Father disciplines those he loves. He promises the peaceful fruit of righteousness for all those who are trained by it.
Jonathan Leeman is an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., editorial director of 9Marks, and author of several books, including Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus. You can find him on Twitter at @JonathanDLeeman.
For more information on healthy church practices, see David Platt’s 12 Characteristics of a Healthy Church.
All Scripture quotations from the ESV.