As the father of five grown children, I’ve meted out my share of spankings. What we glean throughout Proverbs proves true: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
The same is true in the church—-sparing the rod of discipline spoils the health and purity of the church. In Matthew 18:15-17, God lays out a careful, deliberate process for church discipline:
If your brother sins against you, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 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.
What are some considerations for a church seeking to effectively administer biblical discipline?
Understand the Hard Place Discipline Ultimately Goes
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—-not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
This is a hard text. Shunning “brothers” to the point of not sharing a meal. Judging your former closest friends by removing them from your midst. It reminds me of the gut-wrenching decision to cut off my college-aged son from all support in a desperate attempt to sober him to his responsibilities. Church discipline, in similar fashion, is a desperate, painful course of last resort. It must be entered into soberly.
Demonstrate the Willingness to Go There
I remember taking vacations with my kids. Their inkling was that now in the car, they were safe from dad’s discipline. I only needed to stop the car and administer the rod once to convince them otherwise. So it is with any local church. Unless the membership knows the church is willing to stop and administer the rod, there’s a serious threat to both health and holiness.
My church has excommunicated just one person in 20 years, but the effect was profound. One individual left, fearful of being excommunicated for his ungodly behavior. The rest experienced a holy fear of sinning, not unlike the apostolic church in Acts after the discipline of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:11, cf. I Cor. 11:30).
Work Tirelessly Toward Not Going There
The hard work of parenting is day-to-day discipline. I remember many nights coming home to a wife physically and emotionally drained by all the little battles, especially with our boys. How often they would hear me say, “Either you can adjust your own attitude, or I’ll adjust it for you.” Nipping sinful attitudes in the bud is the hard work of daily discipline.
This is also the hard work of shepherding. Ministers and church leaders are, like parents, guardians of the souls of their flocks. This requires constant attention to sinful attitudes. An unreconciled relationship or relational aloofness, spotty attendance, a critical spirit, an unhappy marriage and family—-all must be pursued and, as needed, lovingly confronted. This is the down-in-the-trenches work of church discipline, designed, like the small encounters in Matthew 18, to bring about repentance and, Lord willing, avoid the ultimate step.
We’ve seen this work pay off in our church. In one case the mere threat of bringing an issue before the elders as a preliminary step to going before the whole church was sufficient to bring about repentance. Another required a visit from two elders to elicit repentance from a lifetime habit of sin. And thousands of one-on-one encounters, where sin was confronted and quickly repented of, have kept situations from escalating and marriages from being torn apart. Even church elders experience this day-to-day discipline, taking mandatory sabbaticals from time to time to shore up areas of sin and neglect (1 Tim. 5:19-20).
Restore the Penitent to Full Relational Blessing
Sometimes my kids needed me to adjust their attitudes for them. After the spanking, I would receive them with warmth, love, and assurance of my affection, not holding the offense over their heads. Those were sweet times that continue to this day whenever we experience reconciliation.
So must the church receive the erring member back with grace and restoration of full fellowship, as our church did when our excommunicated member returned (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Those reconciled without excommunication must also be warmly accepted by all who were a party to the transgression (Gal. 6:1). We’re all fully deserving of God’s eternal wrath, forgiven only by his grace through faith alone in his crucified Son. Humility keeps the process of church discipline within the purview of love. Lovingly refusing to spare the rod helps keep the church unspoiled, anticipating that day when Jesus Christ will present her to himself without spot or wrinkle.