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Definition

Church discipline is the process of correcting sin in the life of the congregation and its members.

Summary

Church discipline typically starts privately and informally, growing to include the whole church only when necessary. In its final, formal, and public stage, church discipline involves removing someone from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Table. The goal of discipline is always redemption (1Cor. 5:4), protecting other sheep (v. 6), and honoring the name of Christ (v. 1).

“You understand that the Bible is very clear on this, right? It’s wrong to leave your wife for another woman.”

“I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think you get how hard our marriage has been. I’m sure she would prefer to be married to someone else. All she does is criticize me. She never wants to be physically intimate. It’s been a long time since we were in love, if we ever were. Plus, this other woman is my soul partner. I can’t imagine God means for us to miss out on that just because our timing of meeting one another was off by a few years.”

“I’m sorry the marriage has been difficult. Still, you profess to being a follower of Jesus, and Jesus would never leave his bride. Would you say you’re following Jesus now? That you’re a Christian?”

“Of course I’m a Christian! I don’t follow him perfectly. Do you? You’re the one who has always taught me we’re saved by grace, not works. But now I feel like you’re being a little judgmental. Didn’t Jesus say, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’?”

*****

Maybe you, too, have had such a conversation. My first experience with public church discipline began with a private conversation just like this one. I had known the fellow church member for a little while. We would go running together and occasionally share meals. Then one day he informed me over lunch that he had decided to give himself to his favorite sin. We discussed what the Bible said about the sin. He agreed the Bible explicitly opposed it, but then he said, “God told me it was okay.” I replied, “No, he didn’t.” Yet his mind was made up.

A few days later I brought another friend. Together we challenged our fellow church member. The response was the same. God had said his sin was okay.

We then involved our church’s elders; they received the same reply.

Several weeks after that, the elders informed the congregation of the circumstances and gave them a couple of months to pray for the man and to encourage him to repent. He never did.

Sadly, two months later the elders led the congregation in voting to remove the man from church membership and the Lord’s Table as an act of discipline. He was “excommunicated” or ex-communioned.

What Is Church Discipline?

This whole process is called church discipline. What is church discipline? It’s correcting sin.

Sometimes the discipline process starts loudly and publicly, as when a church learns of a member’s sin because it shows up in the news. Typically, it starts privately and informally, growing to include the whole church only when necessary. In its final, formal, and public stage, church discipline involves removing a church member from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Table. People often refer to this final step as excommunication, as in ex-communion.

That final step of discipline or excommunication doesn’t mean a church consigns someone to hell. It doesn’t have that power. The final step doesn’t even mean the church is declaring with certainty that someone is a non-Christian. A church does not possess Holy Spirit X-ray vision eyes to see into a person’s soul. Rather, the final step simply means that a church no longer affirms a person’s profession of faith.

After all, to receive someone into church membership through baptism is to affirm their profession of faith. It’s to say, “Yes, we believe Joe is a Christian, and we will affirm his membership in the body of Christ through the Lord’s Supper” (1Cor. 10:17). The final step of discipline, therefore, means just the opposite: “We no longer affirm Joe’s profession, and therefore we remove him from membership.”

Which means, church discipline doesn’t require a church to forbid someone from attending its weekly services, unless there are extenuating circumstances such as the threat of physical harm. The weekly gathering is usually open to the public, including nominal Christians and non-Christians (see 1Cor. 14). Therefore, the pastors of my own church will explain to the congregation we hope a disciplined individual will continue to attend and sit under God’s preached Word. Yet we also explain the individual should not take the Lord’s Supper and should not be treated as one of us. That means personal relationships with the individual must change. No longer should we spend casual time together, say, watching football. Rather, any time together should be used to call him or her toward repentance.

Church discipline only makes sense in churches that affirm Jesus is not just Savior, but also Lord, and that he calls us not just to believe the gospel, but to repent and believe the gospel. It works best inside of a culture of discipleship, where church members lovingly and regularly encourage one another in gospel faithfulness.

Step One

Previously, I said that church discipline starts privately and informally. Jesus tells us to do it that way: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). There might be times when you need to get counsel from a pastor before confronting a brother or sister for sin. There might be times when you need someone to confront sin on someone else’s behalf, as with a woman who feels unsafe confronting a man who has made inappropriate advances. Yet ordinarily, Jesus wants us to refrain from gossip and confront sin privately, quietly, directly, lovingly.

Suppose you think church member Joe has lied to you. The best thing to do is ask Joe directly about the lie. Don’t accuse him. Instead, give him the benefit of the doubt and ask questions. Explain to him you’re having difficulty reconciling what he said with the facts. Then give him the opportunity to explain. Maybe you’ve misunderstood.

Your motive when correcting sin, of course, must always be love—not just love for the individual under scrutiny but for other church members, non-Christian neighbors, and of course Christ himself.

You love the person caught in sin and want him or her to be rescued from it. You love other members of the church and don’t want them to be led astray. You love your non-Christian neighbors and want your church to present a holy witness. And you love Christ and want his people to reflect him.

Does every offense require this kind of confrontation? Not necessarily. After all, “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1Pet. 4:8). But many do. So we need wisdom even now, at this early stage.

Step Two

If the first conversation goes poorly and you remain convinced your friend is sinning, then you might follow up with another conversation or two. Yet soon enough, you’ll need to take the matter to step two. Jesus set it up this way: “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (v. 16).

Here Jesus invokes a courtroom principle from ancient Israel (see Deut. 19). Church discipline should not succumb to mob justice. It requires due process. We must presume Joe’s innocence until proven guilty. It might be that the other two individuals you bring don’t agree with you that Joe has lied. They might say you’re being too critical.

Step Three

Suppose, however, that they agree with you, yet Joe remains recalcitrant. That brings us to step three. Jesus explains: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (v. 17a). This step need not occur immediately following step two. Often, a group of pastors and connected members might spend months seeking an individual’s repentance before telling the church. This third step is a last resort, taken only after conversations have been exhausted and the person in sin refuses to repent.

Typically, the pastors or elders who possess oversight over the congregation are the best people to lead this process. They, too, should heed Jesus’ instruction about two or three witnesses. This means they should never stand in front of their congregation armed with little more than “best guesses” or interpretations of a person’s heart. Rather, they should only bring facts that everyone agrees upon—everyone except, perhaps, the unrepentant church member.

Church leaders don’t need to expose every detail of every sin, particularly when they might embarrass other members or involve sexual information that could cause people to stumble. The whole church is not a jury, called to pore over the facts and debate the matter late into the night. They should ordinarily trust the elders’ recommendation. Yet enough information should be given to allow the congregation make a decision patiently and with integrity. More on this below.

A clear biblical example of this relationship between leaders and the congregation occurs in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul raises the subject: a church member is sleeping with his father’s wife (probably a step-mother). He tells the church to remove him (vv. 2, 5), after declaring that he has already passed “judgment” on the man himself (v. 3).

But notice: that doesn’t mean the deed is done. He wants the church to follow his cue. After all, he won’t always be looking over their shoulder, and he wants them to know how to handle such situations on their own. Therefore, Paul calls them to pass the same “judgment” (v. 12), and to do this when they are “assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus … with the power of our Lord Jesus” (v. 4).

Step Four

This brings us to the fourth step. Once the church has been given sufficient time to pray for an individual and to encourage him or her to repentance, the church leaders should raise the matter again. Assuming Joe has not repented and continues in his lying, the elders must play the part of Paul: expressing their judgment and calling upon the church to make the same.

In my own congregation, that sounds like this: “The elders recommend that the congregation remove Joe from membership for unrepentant lying as an act of discipline. This comes as a motion from the elders.” The congregation then has the opportunity to discuss the matter and ask questions. Finally, a vote is taken. If the vote passes—usually two-thirds or three-fourths is required, but church constitutions vary—the church will treat the person as an outsider. Again, Jesus explains this final step: “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (v. 17b).

In case that word “vote” sounds too much like modern democratic thinking, we must keep in mind that democratic mechanisms were commonly used in the ancient world—everywhere from ancient Greece to the Roman republic to the Jewish communities at Qumran.1 Paul, too, describes the use of majority decision-making in the Corinthian church in a matter of discipline. Perhaps referring to the man mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul observes, “This punishment by the majority is enough.”

Somehow the church knew that “a majority” affirmed someone’s discipline, suggesting a minority did not. Did they take a vote? Perhaps. Or perhaps a majority simply arrived at a consensus after conversation.

Which Sins Require Public Discipline?

Not every sin requires public discipline. As I’ve said elsewhere, my wife might privately rebuke me for selfishly eating all the ice cream. I might even continue in this pattern unrepentantly. Yet that’s probably not the kind of sin which would warrant public discipline. Instead, churches should publicly address those sins which are simultaneously outward, significant, and unrepentant.

To say a sin is outward is to say it can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. Church leaders shouldn’t speculate about the state of people’s hearts, as if to say we accuse their hearts of being “proud” or “greedy” when we have no evidence for it. Remember, Jesus calls for two or three witnesses.

To say a sin is significant is to say it’s consequential enough that the church doesn’t feel like it can continue to affirm the person’s profession of faith because of it. Selfish ice cream consumption probably doesn’t rise to this level. Leaving one’s wife for another woman does. In between these two examples is a vast spectrum that requires much wisdom.

To say a sin is unrepentant is to say that the person has been challenged but refuses to let go of the sin with his or her actions, even if their words promise otherwise.

How fast or slow should this process be? It depends entirely on the demonstration of repentance. After all, public discipline occurs not because of sin. Public discipline occurs because there is unrepentance. Christians sin. Christians also repent. So the pace of discipline depends upon a person’s willingness to fight sin. Sometimes, it moves slowly, as with a cycle of addiction where the person takes steps to change, even if they don’t fully succeed. Sometimes, it moves quite quickly, as with my friend mentioned above who was resolute in his sin because “God told me it’s okay.”

When does restoration occur? When there’s repentance. Sometimes repentance is obvious, as with a man returning to his estranged wife. Sometimes it’s difficult to discern, as with someone waging war against a substance addiction, but who takes a step backward with every step forward. Wonderfully, my own church has witnessed multiple cases of restoration following discipline. A man returned to his wife. An addict and thief confessed before the church. A liar came clean.

For the Sake of Love

Church discipline was once common in Protestant churches. But toward the end of the nineteenth and moving into the twentieth century, churches seemed to grow tired of holding their members accountable. They became more interested in other things, like attracting the “unchurched.”

Yet as one nineteenth-century theologian put it, when church discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it. Churches that don’t practice discipline undermine their own preaching. For instance, they might condemn adultery from the pulpit, but if they don’t remove the known adulterer from their membership, they tell the church that adultery is not that big of a deal after all. You can have both Jesus and adultery. Further, such a church will soon find that it looks just like the world. Its evangelistic witness will be compromised. “Why join that church when they look just like me—only they’re hypocritical about it?”

To be sure, church discipline can be done badly, even abusively. This occurs when churches require what Scripture doesn’t require, and when they don’t exercise case-by-case pastoral sensitivity. Abusive church discipline is a great evil to be guarded against, as with abusive husbands, parents, or police officers.

Yet we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Discipline, I said a moment ago, should always be done for the sake of love: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6). To forsake discipline when it’s warranted is not to show love but hate (see Prov. 13:24).

The goal of discipline is always redemption (1Cor. 5:5), protecting other sheep (v. 6), and honoring the name of Christ (v. 1).

So, do you want a church that’s healthy, loving, and evangelistically vibrant? Then practice church discipline.

Footnotes

1See Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (B&H, 2016), 91–96.

Further Reading

  • Greg Wills, Democratic Religion: (Oxford University Press).
  • Jonathan Leeman, Understanding Church Discipline, in Church Basics (B&H, 2016).
  • Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (Crossway, 2012).
  • Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Re-introducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Crossway, 2010).
  • Jonathan Leeman, “Church Discipline Primer,” 9Marks.org.

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.