8 Reasons Your Excuses for Not Practicing Church Discipline Don’t Work
Church discipline—the very phrase sends a shiver down the spines of some. Questions arise about fairness, forgiveness, grace, compassion, and love. Accusations fly—of pride and divisiveness, self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
And if we’re honest, we fear what it will say about us, as a local church, if we appear to punish someone for sinning, when we know Jesus has forgiven us of so much.
The objections and hesitations are understandable, but they’re also a bit too self-conscious. They betray a little too much concern with what other people think. Awash in the spirit of our non-judgmental age, we church discipline feels acutely judgy, and that can’t be good for business.
But shouldn’t we be concerned about our church’s reputation in the local community? Jesus himself wants us to shine like a city on a hill whose light can’t be hidden (Matt 5:14–16). He wants the world to know we’re his disciples by the way we love one another (John 13:34).
So how does a commitment to the practice of church discipline relate to a right-headed care for the public reputation of a local church?
Recently, I read 1 Corinthians 5 in my quiet time, and the apostle Paul confronted me with a different way of asking the same question. The question is not, “What does it say about the church if we exercise discipline?” but rather, “What does it say about the church if we neglect church discipline?” Paul says that our refusal to discipline unrepentant church members—by taking their names off the membership rolls, refusing to admit them to the Lord’s Supper, and helping them see that their sin calls their professed faith into question—says at least eight bad things about us.
Ironically, these eight things are precisely what we’re afraid the world will think if we do exercise church discipline.
1. We think it’s arrogant to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s arrogant not to discipline.
The argument sounds something like this: “Who are we to condemn the behavior of anyone else? Since we’re all sinners, isn’t it arrogant for any of us to single out someone else’s sins as somehow worse than ours—as if theirs are worthy of public rebuke and ours aren’t?”
Paul argues just the opposite in 1 Corinthians 5:1–2: “for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from you.” In other words, it’s not arrogant to remove the man; it’s arrogant not to remove him. Why? Because the Corinthians thought they were being the “bigger Christians” by “giving him grace,” perhaps as if “he who is most lenient with others is most humble himself.”
Not so, says Paul. It’s arrogant to let professing Christians get away with acting worse than non-Christians and re-naming that Christianity. That’s not a humble submission to Scripture. That’s over-writing Scripture.
2. We think it’s divisive to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s divisive not to discipline.
It’d be easy to think that removing an unrepentant sinner is divisive. But Paul actually commands the Corinthians that “he who has done this be removed from among you.”
Meditate on that phrase for a moment: “removed from among you.” The preposition “among” implies that as long as this unrepentant sinner remains among you—talking as one of you, counted as one of you by others—then he’s the one sowing division. How? By introducing a pattern of rebellion where there should be a pattern of repentance. When a member makes peace with his own sin, it disturbs the peace of the church.
3. We think it’s foolish to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s foolish not to discipline.
Our fallen assumption here is that the word will get out about us—we just couldn’t be patient with a really bad sinner, or we’re not a very forgiving church, or whatever. If even faithful discipline gets bad press, then why do it? Besides, who wants to come into a church where they make a practice of kicking people out? Talk about bad for business—how do you expect to grow a church that way?
But Paul had already made up his mind on the matter before he ever put pen to papyrus: “I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.” It’s obvious to Paul what you do when a fellow church member makes peace with his own outward, ongoing sin (he “has” his father’s wife, present tense, ongoing). You should break peace with him, so that the world might respect the church for practicing what it preaches. That’s wisdom, not foolishness
4. We think it’s unloving to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s unloving not to discipline.
“Doesn’t discipline violate the golden rule?” Only if you want people to love you by patting you on your back while you sin yourself to Hell. Too strong? Not at all. It’s exactly what Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 5:5: “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
In other words, send the man into the world he seems to love so that he would become sick of his sin, repent, and be saved from hell when Jesus returns (cf. Matt 5:29–30; Js 5:19–20). Repentance is a necessary response prior to redemption.
5. We think it’s unholy to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s unholy not to discipline.
We might think of church discipline as engaging in dirty church politics, or acting on a personal vendetta. How dare we—and in the church no less!
But listen again to Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:6–7, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” Sin spreads. Letting it metastasize is both dirty and deadly.
6. We think it’s hypocritical to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s hypocritical not to discipline.
“Oh, that church is a bunch of phonies. They exclude people who aren’t like them.” To be fair, there are hypocritical churches. But that’s no reason to disagree with the Bible’s clear teaching on discipline here in 1 Corinthians 5:8: “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
The lack of discipline creates an environment that excuses and nurtures hypocrisy. Sincere congregations discipline. Find that congregation, and chances are, you’ve found a genuine church.
7. We think it’s confusing to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s confusing not to discipline.
“Aren’t we confusing the world about God’s goodness by treating our own with such severity?” Not to Paul’s way of thinking. Indeed, it’s just the opposite: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”
It confuses the world to let someone identify as a Christian while he still identifies with his own sin. Was Christ immoral or greedy? Was Christ a reviler, a drunkard, or a swindler? The church should not complacently allow ungodly people to place Christ’s name on themselves. That’s confusing to the world.
8. We think it’s unjust to discipline, but Paul thinks it’s unjust not to discipline.
Isn’t public, corrective discipline just the congregation ganging up on one helpless sinner? How is that fair? But the Bible says otherwise. Paul asks the question: “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you” (1Corinthians 5:12–13). Justice doesn’t relinquish judgment. Justice requires judgment (John 7:24).
The world might say bad things about the church if we discipline unrepentant members. But you know what? The world will also say bad things about the church who doesn’t discipline. And in some ways, they’ll be echoing the displeasure of God.