4 Reasons Churches Don’t Practice Church Discipline

Article
11.02.2017

Some churches don’t practice discipline because they’re unaware of the biblical mandate or unsure how to start the process. Others, however, have concerns about the potential consequences of such a practice. They know what Scripture teaches on the matter but remain unconvinced as to its legitimacy or pragmatic viability.

Churches reject the practice of church discipline for lots of reasons. Some believe the practice doesn’t comport with the biblical concept of love. Related to that idea, some will point out that none of us are perfect, and therefore we should not be focused on getting rid of people when they sin. Still others maintain that the church can err in their practice of church discipline since the church is filled with fallible, sinful human beings. Finally, some maintain such a practice is far too invasive of private lives. These objections will be considered and answered.

Objection #1: Discipline is unloving.

Many look at any form of discipline as arrogant, cruel, and unloving. Love is meant to look past sin and let things go; it covers a multitude of sin (1 Peter 4:8). However, ultimately knowing that sin leads to death (Rom. 6:23), the church must understand that discipline is in fact a loving act. As a declarative sign of potential eschatological judgment, discipline is meant to serve as both a call to repentance and a means to persevering in the faith.[1] What may seem unloving is in fact meant to demonstrate the greatest kind of love, pointing someone to eternal life.

God demonstrates his love through disciplinary acts (Heb. 12:3–11; cf. 1 Cor. 11:17–32), as he seeks to turn the hearts of his people toward holiness. He has delegated a version of this divine authority to the church as well, so as to discipline for the same purposes (Matt. 16:16–19; 18:15–17). The goal of church discipline is to see members of the church pursuing maturity in godliness. God makes it clear that his people will be marked by holiness (1 Peter 1:15–16; cf. Heb. 12:14), and discipline is one means toward pursuing holiness. Therefore when done as God directs, discipline is a loving act.

Objection #2: The church is filled with sinners.

Others object to discipline in the church because everyone is guilty of sin. The argument here is that discipline is hypocritical since no one is guiltless; we’re all marred by sin. While this is true, it doesn’t negate the obvious texts in Scripture that call for church discipline to be exercised. Far from negating the practice of ecclesial discipline, the presence of our own sin should chasten our approach and humble us.

Consider, for example, Matthew 7:1, wherein the reader is told, “Judge not, lest you also be judged.” Interestingly, in our present-day culture, the idea of judging another person is seen as arrogant and narrow-minded, and this verse is often used as ammunition against a concept like church discipline. This, however, would be a misreading of the text. In fact, we’re specifically told to judge one another within the church (though not in the final way that God judges); Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5–6  clearly show that the church is to exercise judgment. [2] Judgment in the local church context is necessary and appropriate, but it must be done in a certain way, or else it is sinful (cf. Matt. 7:2–5; Gal. 6:1).

The church is certainly not to condemn others unjustly. The imagery in Matthew 7:1–5 (the speck and log in one’s eye) suggests we must be self-critical when it comes to our own sin, but this is done not for the purpose of excluding the judgment of others altogether, but as a prerequisite to judging.[3] This fits with Galatians 6:1, which tells us we who are spiritual should seek to restore those who have sinned with a spirit of gentleness and an eye on ourselves, lest we too be tempted to sin. Therefore, Jesus and Paul haven’t condemned judging altogether but have rather called the church to be above reproach in the way they do so by examining their own hearts first.

Objection #3: The church can be wrong.

Some will question the legitimacy of the church’s authority in issuing a warning to unrepentant sinners.[4] If the church is not infallible, will the judgment rendered against a sinning individual always be correct? This is a crucial question to answer.

When considering the legitimacy of such a pronouncement coming from the church, one must take into consideration key passages from Matthew 16 and 18. These deal specifically with the authority given through the keys of the kingdom, as well as the concomitant power granted to the church in binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). Jesus doesn’t give the church carte blanche to do whatever it pleases and assume his blessing on all actions. In fact, he offers a stern warning to churches not to abuse this principle and practice. Jesus is giving a promise concerning a very specific situation: the maintenance of the integrity of the body of Christ.[5] As such, if the church is to possess the authority as stated in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, the community must act in accord with the truth of Scripture and distinct details of each disciplinary situation.[6]

So, when a church—no matter how large and influential or small and seemingly inconsequential—acts in accordance with God’s Word, their authority is real, albeit mediated. The church possesses a kind of power such that there’s heavenly recognition of earthly transactions—but only when handled according to divine directions.[7] Exercising discipline in the church, then, is a most delicate affair. Kevin Vanhoozer helpfully summarizes the proper interpretation of these passages, saying, “Ultimately, only God can judge the human heart. At the same time, the church has received a dominical and apostolic commission to preserve the truth and to pursue holiness.”[8] The church, therefore, must humbly and discerningly apply their authority granted to them by Christ.

Church discipline, therefore, is a “warning,” not a binding “pronouncement.” The church recognizes God as the ultimate judge of all things. So, even though discipline connotes a proper tone of serious admonition, a warning of “potential” judgment, it doesn’t become unerringly certain because the church is filled with fallible sinners. It should, however, be taken with all seriousness.

Objection #4: Discipline is overly invasive.

One final objection that may be raised is over the issue of privacy. Discipline seems to be too far-reaching because it “invades” the privacy of people’s lives and turns often private sin into a public spectacle. To exact discipline, some would argue, would bring about undue humiliation over details that ought not to be known by the public.

This objection may feel right in a culture that so highly values autonomy and individual expression, but it goes against the grain of the Bible. Faith involves the end of self-enthronement. At the heart of faith is the idea of submitting to the authority of another. Specifically, believers are called to submit to God and his kingdom rule, the local church and its leadership.[9] Submission to Christ’s kingdom means a submission to the present earthly outpost of his kingdom, that is, the church. In becoming a member of this new covenant kingdom community, we submit ourselves to the divinely mediated discipline of the church. As Mark Dever often says, if you’re a Christian, your spiritual life is other people’s business.

In summary, church discipline isn’t an unloving, invasive act, perpetrated by wicked people. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes, “Nothing can be crueler than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”[10] As such, discipline must be exacted in the church and done humbly, gently, and carefully, always aiming for love and always pointing someone to repentance and life in Christ.

Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Jeremy Kimble’s new book, 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline.

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] This thesis is defended in Jeremy M. Kimble, That His Spirit May Be Saved: Church Discipline as a Means to Repentance and Perseverance (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013).

[2] Mark E. Dever, “Biblical Church Discipline,” SBJT 4, no. 4 (2000): 29.

[3] Bruce Ware brings out this point and helpfully connects it to church discipline: “After Jesus says what is commonly quoted (‘do not judge lest you be judged’), he proceeds with instructions precisely about how properly to bring an erring brother to account. Recall that he warns to ‘take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye’ (7:5). What is often missed in this is that once the log is removed, one has the obligation then to help remove the speck from his brother’s eye. In other words, Jesus expects us to be used in the lives of others to help them advance in holiness, just as they may be used likewise in our lives to help us to grow. Church discipline is, most essentially, the formal structure that grows out of a healthy practice of corporate accountability” (Bruce A. Ware, “Perspectives on Church Discipline,” SBJT 4, no. 4 [2000]: 87).

[4] This section is derived from Jeremy M. Kimble, That His Spirit May Be Saved: Church Discipline as a Means to Repentance and Perseverance (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 135–37. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers (www.wipfandstock.com).

[5] Lauterbach maintains, “[Jesus] is building his church and care must be taken in that process. When the church acts according to his will, as described in his Word, then he is at work in its actions. Consider it his hand working through the glove of the church” (Mark Lauterbach, The Transforming Community: The Practise of the Gospel in Church Discipline [Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2003], 201).

[6] See Wray, who asserts, “The church is not by this text made infallible, nor is the holy God by it engaged to defend their errors. The only fact to be established at this point, however, is simply that the Lord Jesus Christ does indeed intend his church to govern its members even to the extent of disciplinary measures when these become necessary” (Daniel E. Wray, Biblical Church Discipline [Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1978], 3).

[7] See Roy Knuteson, Calling the Church to Discipline: A Scriptural Guide for the Church that Dares to Discipline (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1977), 36–37.

[8] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 424.

[9] Jonathan Leeman, Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule, Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 326–27. See also Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 117.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 107.