What are some mistakes pastors make regarding church discipline?

  1. They fail to teach their congregation what church discipline is and why to practice it.
  2. They fail to teach about and practice meaningful membership. This involves cultivating a culture of personal discipleship and involvement in one another’s lives in which people transparently confess sin to one another. This also involves teaching what membership is, as well as having a clear list of who is a member of the church.
  3. They fail to teach their congregation about biblical conversion, especially the need for repentance. A congregation that doesn’t understand the role of repentance in the Christian life will have difficulty understanding why they need to discipline someone who is not repenting of sin.
  4. They fail to teach new members as they enter the church about the possibility and circumstances of church discipline.
  5. They fail to teach new members as they enter the church that the church may not grant a pre-emptive resignation from a person trying to avoid discipline. That misses the point of Matthew 18:15-20. Also, the nature of a church covenant requires the church’s consent to both enter into and leave the membership of the church.
  6. They fail to ensure the church’s public documents (by-laws, constitution, articles of incorporation, and so on) address the procedures of church discipline, thereby exposing the church to legal risk.
  7. They fail to follow the steps of Matthew 18:15-17 or 1 Corinthians 5, depending on the circumstance. In a Matthew 18 situation, for instance, they fail to begin the process by confronting sin privately.
  8. They don’t give adequate time to the process of moving through the various steps of Matthew 18:15-17. For instance, they move so quickly from step to step that they don’t give the sinner adequate time to be reasoned with and shepherded toward repentance.
  9. They call for the congregation to act too quickly. For instance, they fail to insert any time in between “tell it to the church” and “if he does not listen to the church, treat him as a pagan or tax collector.” Except when a church is dealing with a public scandalous sin of a 1 Corinthians 5 variety, which does call for immediate removal, leaders should give the congregation time to both digest the information and to pursue the unrepentant sinner themselves.
  10. They treat the processes of church discipline entirely as a legal process with little consideration for shepherding the unrepentant individual’s heart.
  11. They give little attention to the differences between kinds of sinners and how that might affect how long we should bear with a pattern of sin before proceeding to subsequent stages of discipline (see 1 Thessalonians 5:14).
  12. They forget that they too live by the gospel’s provision of mercy, and therefore prosecute the discipline from a posture of self-righteousness. Other mistakes follow from this wrong posture, such as an overly severe tone and standoffishness.
  13. They fail to truly love the sinner…
  14. …and beg the Lord for his or her repentance.
  15. They demand too much from a smoldering wick or bruised reed. In other words, the stipulations for repentance and restoration are too high for this one who has been deeply enslaved in sin’s grip.
  16. They fail to properly instruct the congregation on how to interact with the unrepentant sinner, such as how to relate to them in social situations and how to pursue their repentance.
  17. They fail to invite the disciplined individual to continue attending services of the church so that they might continue to hear God’s Word (except in situations where the unrepentant sin is a severe threat to the church). Also, they fail to inform the church that everyone should hope for the disciplined individual to continue attending.
  18. They put the responsibility for leading discipline entirely on the shoulders of one man, the senior pastor. Doing so will tempt individuals in the church to accuse the senior pastor of being personally vindictive. Such a charge is harder to make when a recommendation for discipline comes from an entire body of elders.
  19. They fail to have sufficient elder involvement in the congregation’s life, such that the elders are unaware of the state of the sheep. This failure of formative discipline will inevitably weaken the church’s ability to do corrective discipline well.
  20. They fail to teach God’s Word on a weekly basis.
  21. They allow the congregation to approach the case of discipline with a wrongful spirit of retribution, rather than with a loving desire to warn the unrepentant sinner about God’s ultimate retribution to come.
  22. They pursue discipline on non-biblical grounds (playing cards, dancing, and so on).
  23. They pursue discipline for any other reason than for the good of the individual, the good of the church, the good of the onlooking community, and the glory of Christ.