A Step-by-Step Primer for Church Discipline
Church discipline makes sense when you understand what the church is. If the church were a building, then discipline might involve better property management. If the church were just an institution, then discipline might be about organizational restructuring. If the church were merely a weekly show, then discipline might require better event planning.
While those things play into our experience of church, the New Testament is clear that the church is fundamentally a people, a congregation marked by their commitment to Christ and to one another. Therefore, when the Bible talks about church discipline, it involves the spiritual care of people. It’s the process by which members of a church guard one another from the deceitfulness of sin and uphold the truth of the gospel.
Church discipline largely takes place informally, as Christians speak the truth in love to one another and point each other to the grace of the gospel. However, in this fallen world, there will be times when informal discipline will not be enough; there will be times when those who belong to the church refuse to repent and continue down the path of sin. It’s for these situations that Jesus provides instructions for church discipline:
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matt. 18:15–17)
Every single step of this process is an expression of Christ’s loving and wise rule over his church, and therefore every step ought to be followed.
Step #1: Have a private conversation.
It all begins with private confrontation (Matt. 18:15). As mentioned above, this happens regularly in the life of the church in all kinds of contexts. The member who knows of unrepentant sin is to go to the one who has sinned and, in love, call him to repentance. Rather than fostering gossip and division, Jesus commands his people to speak privately first, “just between the two of [them].” And in God’s grace, so often this is the means by which God works repentance among his people.
But what happens if that initial confrontation is rejected? What does it look like once we get beyond that informal step? Though details will vary depending on the church and the circumstances, below are five steps that church leaders should generally take in the process of church discipline:
Step #2: Take one or two others along (Matt. 18:16).
The next step widens the circle of involvement, while not yet involving the church as a whole. Jesus instructs the members to take one or two others along to confront the one caught in sin. If the elders have already been notified, it might be appropriate for one of the elders to go along with the member making the charge. It’s also worth considering whether there might be another member of the church—perhaps a trusted friend—to speak into his life. Ideally, this step would happen in a personal meeting, but in certain situations, a phone call, voicemail, or perhaps even written correspondence may have to suffice.
Those involved up to this point should evaluate the response of the one caught in sin and determine if there’s evidence of genuine, lasting repentance. Of course, the goal isn’t perfection but rather a heart that’s broken over sin and clinging to Christ, evidenced by humility and a willingness to follow wise counsel. In many cases, this step may take weeks, or months, or even longer. Often, it’s here that God brings about repentance and reconciliation. But in some cases, it will become evident to those involved that there’s no genuine repentance and, in obedience to Christ’s instructions, the church should proceed to the next step.
Step #3: Involve leaders or elders by informing them of the situation.
Somewhere around step 2, maybe before, maybe after, a Christian should consider involving a few elders or other leaders of the church (like a small group leader). This might begin with a conversation, but eventually the elders should have a way of formally receiving charges (for example, the elders might require that the charges be made in writing or they might invite the person to meet with one or two of them). Jesus does not speak of the involvement of elders in Matthew 18, but given the responsibility over the church that the apostles assign to them in other passages, it makes sense that elders would be involved in the process of church discipline at some point. In more difficult situations, the elders will need to be involved sooner rather than later.
Here, the leadership has the responsibility to consider the nature of the charges. Is the sin concrete and serious enough to warrant taking the next steps of church discipline? Are there extenuating circumstances that the member might not know? Are there other members who might better speak to the one caught in sin? How do we care for those who have been wronged? The leaders of the church will need to think through these and other important questions, and prayerfully shepherd those involved in the following steps.
Step #4: Give adequate notice to the one caught in sin.
Before making the matter public, the elders will want to make formal contact with the one caught in sin. This is especially in cases where there has been minimal contact with the elders, as when communication has been rejected or most of the information has been communicated secondhand. The goal of this contact is to explain the charges and express their love and concern. If the person remains unrepentant, then it’s necessary to notify them of when this will be shared with the congregation. Given the need for clarity and precision in communication, the initial contact should probably be some form of written communication, followed up by a phone call or a personal meeting.
If none of the elders have met with the one being confronted, they should make clear that they want a chance to hear his side of the story. If meeting with all the elders is too intimidating, they can offer to send a smaller group of the elders. The goal in this step is to give the unrepentant member a chance to meet with the leaders personally and make sure there is no misunderstanding.
If after this step it’s clear there’s no misunderstanding and there’s still no repentance, then the elders should proceed to the next step.
Step #5: Tell it to the church (Matt. 18:17).
At this point, Jesus commands the member to “tell it to the church.” Though “church” has been interpreted in many different ways, Jesus seems to understand the church to be a gathering of disciples in his name (Matt. 18:20, see 1 Cor. 5:4). The church is the congregation. In this step, the elders will communicate what’s taken place to the congregation.
Given the sensitive nature, it makes sense that the elders would present this at a regularly scheduled members’ meeting, rather than a public worship service. The elders need to think through carefully what and how much to communicate about to the congregation. They want to communicate enough so that the congregation understands what has taken place and the need for church discipline. However, they should not communicate so much that it makes returning upon repentance difficult because of public shame, embarrasses family members, or causes weaker sheep to stumble.
Given the need for carefulness and precision, it’s generally wise for the elders to craft a letter to be read at the meeting, rather than trying to explain it extemporaneously. In some cases, the elders may want to involve the member who initially brought the charges in crafting the letter. After the elders read the letter, they should allow for questions from the congregation, and invite people to talk to them privately if they have further questions. In more difficult cases, the elders might consider holding a forum for members of the church to bring questions.
Having been apprised of the situation, the congregation should be instructed to pray. Those in the church who have a personal relationship with the one caught in sin should be encouraged to reach out prayerfully. The elders will want to give the congregation enough time to participate in the process of confrontation.
This period may be the time until the next members’ meeting, or longer if needed. However, in certain cases, the church may need to act more quickly, perhaps even right away, if the church feels confident about a lack of repentance (1 Cor. 5:1-5).
Step #6: Remove the unrepentant person from membership (Matt. 18:17).
After following all the previous steps, if the individual continues to refuse to listen “even to the church,” then the elders should update the congregation on the situation, and bring a formal motion for the congregation to remove him from the membership of the church. If the vote passes, then the church needs to understand that they no longer affirm this person’s profession of faith. They are to relate to him no longer as one who belongs to the church but to the world, like “a pagan or tax collector.”
Following the removal, the elders should instruct the congregation on how to interact with the individual. As someone under discipline, the goal is not to shun him or to cut off all relationship. Rather, members should relate to him as someone in need of the gospel, yet who is self-deceived. In that sense, interactions are more complex than relating with non-Christian friends who know they are non-Christians. Any interactions should be used to call the person to repentance and to remind him of the hope of the gospel. Members should encourage him to attend the services of the church and to sit under the preaching of the Word. And yet, at the same time, they must avoid relating to him casually as if nothing has changed.
After the meeting, the elders should send a written communication to the individual, informing him of the act of discipline, and expressing their love for him and their desire for his repentance and restoration. The elders should also continue to follow up with the congregation in different settings (Sunday School classes, small groups, etc) to see if there are any concerns or questions about what has taken place. Church discipline can be a difficult time in the life of a church, and yet it can also be used by God to bring about maturity and growth. Elders should shepherd the congregation wisely both throughout the process and after.
Church discipline would be easier if the church wasn’t made up of people. But Jesus didn’t come for buildings or institutions or events. He came to save a people for himself, sinners like you and me.
It’s this reality that makes church discipline a wonderful gift. The church is a gathering of those who through repentance and faith have received the hope of Christ’s salvation and are helping each other persevere in that hope. To neglect church discipline is to fail to love one another in that way. So, as we labor to follow Christ’s instructions for the purity of the church, we cling to the hope of the gospel both for ourselves and for those around us.
Author’s Note: For more detail on these questions, consult Jonathan Leeman’s Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus .