When should a church practice church discipline?
The answer to that question depends on whether we’re speaking about what Jay Adams calls formal or informal church discipline. Informal church discipline involves private confrontation, whereas formal church discipline involves a church-wide process.
- Informal. Any sin, whether serious or not, might elicit a private rebuke between two brothers or sisters in the faith. That’s not to say we should rebuke every single sin that a fellow church member commits. It’s simply to say that every sin, no matter how small, falls into the realm of what two Christians may lovingly raise with one another in a private setting, prudence depending.
- Formal. One way to summarize the biblical data is to say that that formal church discipline is required in cases of outward, serious, and unrepentant sin.
- A sin must have an outward manifestation. It must be something that can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. Churches should not quickly throw the red flag of ejection every time they suspect greed or pride in someone’s heart. It’s not that sins of the heart are not serious. It’s that the Lord knows we cannot see one another’s hearts, and that real heart problems will eventually rise to the surface anyway (1 Sam. 16:7; Matt. 7:17ff.; Mark 7:21).
- Second, a sin must be serious. Pursuing every tiny sin a church’s life will probably induce paranoia and propel the congregation toward legalism. There clearly needs to be a place for love to “cover a multitude of sins” in a congregation’s life (1 Peter 4:8). Not every sin should be pursued to the utmost. Thankfully, God has not done so with us.
- Finally, formal church discipline is the appropriate course of action when sin is unrepentant. The person involved in serious sin has been privately confronted with God’s commands in Scripture, but he or she refuses to let go of the sin. From all appearances, the person prizes the sin more than Jesus. The only exception to this is when the sin is so serious that it immediately calls into question the validity of a person’s profession of faith in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 5 for an example of this).
(This material has been adapted from Jonathan Leeman’s article, “A Church Discipline Primer”)