Recently, the subject of church discipline has hit the radar in many circles due to some high-profile controversies and scandals. The way some churches appear to poorly exercise church discipline is as distressing as the way many Christians reacted to the concept. There has been a collective incredulity about church discipline as some kind of “strange fire” in the evangelical world.
I can’t help but think that this aversion is partly because, as God has built his church, his church leaders have not always kept up with what makes a church a church. So even to mention the idea of a church disciplining its members strikes tenderhearted and undereducated Christians as weird, mean, and legalistic. How do we work at keeping church discipline from seeming weird? Here are five ways:
1. Make disciples.
Many local churches have simply becoming keepers of a fish tank. A surface level of fellowship is often in place, but the central mission of the church—to make disciples—has been neglected. Instead, churches are structured around providing religious goods and services, offering education or even entertainment options for their congregational consumers. People aren’t being trained in the context of ongoing disciple relationships. But this is largely what “church discipline” is—training.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” — Matthew 18:15
In discipling relationships, we are always disciplining one another, not chiefly or only in the fight against sin but largely in our encouragement of each other, edifying one another, teaching one another, and sharing one another’s burdens. In short, disciples know each other. And so Matthew 18:15 might be happening all the time, perhaps weekly within loving relationships where there is no imminent danger of somebody being kicked out of the church but rather a constant iron sharpening of iron.
In churches with healthy discipleship cultures, church discipline is going on all the time in helpful, informal, everyday ways. When the more formal processes of church discipline become necessary, they are much less likely to be carried out too harshly or received strangely. The church will already have a positive training context for knowing that discipleship requires obedience, correction, perseverance, and mutual submission.
2. Create clarity about church membership.
In many churches, there is no church membership structure at all. But even in churches that maintain formal church membership, the expectations and processes are unclear. Prospective church members need to provide more info than merely their profession of faith, previous church membership, and the area of service they are interested in. They need to know what the body is promising to them and what they are promising the body. If church membership is a Christ-centered covenant relationship—and it is—their needs to be a clear, mutual promise between all invested parties that their yes will be yes and their no will be no, so that there can be no surprise when someone’s yes to sin is received with a no from the church.
3. Teach the process.
I remember a church meeting once upon a time where elders were sharing the grounds for dismissal of the lead pastor. The evidence was extensive and serious, and there was plenty of testimony about the elders having sought for years the pastor’s repentance and his getting counseling to no avail. One woman, visibly upset, shouted, “Where is the grace?!” The whole idea seemed weird and unchristian to her. She did not have the biblical framework to know that the last several years’ of pleading for the pastor’s repentance was a tremendous act of grace, and that indeed, even his dismissal was a severe mercy, a last and regrettable resort in seeking to startle him into godly sorrow over his sin. But churches aren’t accustomed to thinking of discipline that way; they think of grace as “tolerance” and “niceness.” This is because we don’t teach them well. Consequently, grace becomes cheap.
For some, church discipline will always be objectionable because it seems outdated and unnecessary. But for many, their objection is a reflection of simply not knowing what the Bible teaches on the matter. If a church never broaches the subject until a church’s response to someone’s unrepentant sin must be made public, church discipline will always seem alien. “What are you doing bringing all this law into a place that should be filled with grace?” And the like. So we have to preach the relevant texts.
One word of caution, however: Some churches love teaching the process of church discipline out of all proportion; they love it too much. In some church environments, church discipline is mainly equated with the nuclear option of excommunication and the leadership of the church is not known for its patience but for its itchy trigger finger. Teaching the process of church discipline is not about filling the church with a sense of dread and covering the floor with eggshells. It’s about providing enough visibility about the guardrails and expectations that people can actually breathe more freely, not less. Church discipline—rightly exercised—is motivated by real, sorrowful love and concern.
4. Follow the process.
Once again, we fail our congregations when we don’t begin church discipline until we feel pressed to remove someone from membership and refuse them the Lord’s Supper. It’s as if there aren’t previous, patient, hopeful steps in Matthew 18. Even the context of Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 5:13 appears to demonstrate excommunication is the final straw, not the only one. If we will follow the biblical process of church discipline, beginning with confidential and humble rebuke of a brother’s or sister’s sin, if unrepentance persists and the circle of visibility widens, expulsion will be seen as a regrettable and sorrowful necessity, and as something intended for a person’s repentance and restoration, not for their punishment.
5. Practice gospel-centeredness.
God will get the glory and our churches will give him glory when church discipline is practiced in the context of a grace-driven culture. You can expect church discipline to seem unnecessary and legalistic in churches where the gospel has not had any noticeable effect on the spirit of the people. But in churches where God’s free grace in Christ is regularly preached and believed, church leaders will be regularly setting aside their egos and narcissistic needs and the laity will be bearing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things, and believing all things (1 Cor. 13:7), including that while no discipline feels pleasant at the time, in the end it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb. 12:11).