Church Discipline Starts with You
What comes to mind when you think of church discipline? If you’re like me, you immediately go to high-profile cases that necessitate robust measures from church leaders. You think of the “big sins” and how the “big guns” respond (i.e., elders/pastors or church leaders).
Church discipline may involve the whole church and its leaders. But church discipline actually starts, and by God’s grace ends, with you and me. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt.18:15, NIV).
In love, you confront sin in hopes of growing together in godliness. And you do it over and over again throughout the ordinary course of discipleship, much like a grassroots movement. Plain and simple, right?
Yes and no. It is simple but it feels so scary! I struggle with fear when confronting someone. I question and focus too much on myself (Who am I to judge them? Or, what if they reject me? ). In fact, I’d do almost anything to get out of an uncomfortable and inconvenient conversation.
But Jesus’ teaching is clear—church discipline starts with you. So, we need to take it seriously and work toward cultivating an atmosphere in which discipline is a healthy part of the discipleship process.
I once heard an elder say that we need to put the “disciple” back into discipline. Amen! The emphasis of discipline should always be on growing as disciples of Jesus. As we put the proper weight on discipleship, discipline will become less “scary” and more natural. That said, here are five things I’ve learned in my discipling relationships that can apply broadly to both men and women.
1. Build Meaningful Relationships
You need to be in real relationship with others in your local church, close enough that you come across others’ sin from time to time. You don’t need to be “besties” with everyone or become an extrovert. But you know each other’s stories, lives, and families. You spend time together, share meals, enter into one another’s joys and sorrows. You do all the stuff of life that makes for a meaningful relationship, including fighting sin together. Within this context, a gentle rebuke to or from a friend isn’t so earth-shattering. It’s the norm. But it starts with developing a real relationship with at least one person from your church.
2. Set the Tone
Set a redemptive tone for the entire relationship. Talk about Jesus…a lot! Meditate on his grace together, read the Bible together, talk about how the Spirit is working in your life. Choose to be transparent and vulnerable, confessing your own sin and temptations on a regular basis. Ask for discipline from those close to you. Let them know your chief desire is to become more like Jesus and you need their help to do this. My husband and I set this tone for our marriage over a decade ago. We committed to each other’s sanctification above all else, which means we’re routinely disciplining one another. Just last week I asked Neal about his priorities because I hadn’t seen him in the Word. Yesterday he called me out on wanting accolades for an idea that I didn’t need. Do we always love this? No way! But do we love Jesus more than we did ten years ago? Absolutely. That’s the gift of discipline.
3. Make Frequent Deposits
This is relationship 101. Make ten life-giving deposits for every one withdrawal. Look for evidences of grace and growth in other people’s lives and then go out of your way to share it with them. Have you noticed your friend being softer toward his kids? Or a young mother fighting for time in the Word? If so, tell them! Build relational capital by giving consistent encouragement so when the time comes to make a “discipline withdrawal” it won’t empty their account. I’m much more quick to receive instruction from someone I know is in my corner and unconditionally for me. When that person says, “Whitney, you’ve been too critical lately” I’m all ears. Frequent deposits tell that person you love them and are for them.
4. Ask Good Questions (and LISTEN!)
One good question goes further than ten accusations. Questions help you better understand the situation and disarm the other person’s defense mechanism, making the conversation more fruitful. Better to come alongside a sister and say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been talking about so-and-so lately. Why haven’t you gone to her?” than to sit her down and say, “You are a total gossip and here are the ten times I’ve caught you doing it.” By asking a question you’re not only illuminating the sin of gossip, you’re drawing out reasons why she might be prone to gossip, like insecurity or fear of man, which also needs to be addressed in the context of loving discipleship. It’s like a “twofer.” You confront them but also seek to understand where they are and what they need in this season of life. Leading with questions rather than pre-determined judgments allows for the complexity of life and the layers of a situation.
5. Choose Your Battles
We want to exercise discipline on a regular basis, but let’s not become a community that’s always hunting for sin. I’ve been a part of a sin-hunting church, and it’s disheartening, not to mention weird! I felt like I had to fabricate sin just to fit in. This isn’t the heart of Matthew 18. True discipleship is knowing when to confront sin and when to cover it. Peter reminds us that above all we’re to love each other deeply “because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Some days you’ll see sin and just need to keep quiet until another time. This doesn’t mean we cover up sin (sin is always to be taken seriously); rather, we cover over it to protect and love that person. If you call out every sin you see, it will create a culture of anxiety, as people break beneath the burden of your scrutiny. So, with much prayer and Spirit-led wisdom, choose your battles.
Incorporating these points will go a long way in building a culture where discipline is a natural piece of discipleship. However, because this is a touchy topic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address one more area.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself—And Your Relationships!
The cat’s out of the bag—I’m a hip hop, rap, and R&B junkie. I was raised on it and the funk still runs deep in my veins. So when I think about concluding thoughts on church discipline, I can’t help but hear Ice Cube’s timeless words, “Check yo self before you wreck yo self.” There’s wisdom here. When left to our own devices, humans have a way of wrecking a good thing.
Church discipline is no different. It can become a good thing gone bad if we’re not careful. That’s why we need to put personal “checks” in place so that we don’t end up doing more damage than discipleship. No one will approach discipline “perfectly,” but we can all do it humbly, checking ourselves to make sure we’re loving, serving, and protecting the person(s) involved:
1. Check your life.
You won’t be sinless before you confront someone else’s sin, but don’t ignore the plank in your own eye. Ask yourself, “Is there any hidden or habitual sin in my life I need to confess?” You may have to begin the confrontation by confessing your sin before addressing the other person’s.
2. Check your heart.
Discipline is motivated by genuine love for someone. If you’re more concerned about “winning” the conversation or proving your point, then you don’t have their best interest in mind. There’s no room for personal vendettas or nursed grudges in godly confrontation. If you can’t rebuke someone in love, then let someone who can do the rebuking.
3. Check your emotions.
If you’re particularly heated over an offense, I’d suggest waiting until you calm down before you confront. You don’t need to be emotionless, but you want to be in control of your emotions. Often when we point out sin in the heat of our anger or frustration, we end up sinning ourselves. Better to wait and collect yourself than to say something you can’t take back.
4. Check your words.
Words matter. Careless words spoken, even with good intentions, can cause a world of hurt. Your words should be clear and firm, while also being gentle and restorative. If you need to jot a few things down beforehand to make sure you’re not too casual or too abrasive, by all means, do it!
5. Check your goal.
The goal of discipline is always repentance, restoration, and reconciliation, if necessary. Like Jesus, who laid down his life so you could be reconciled to the Father, you’re seeking the welfare of another, even if it comes at your own expense. Always ask, “Why am I doing this?” If it’s about anything other than repentance and restoration, wait and pray until your goals are in check.
With all of those “helps” in hand, I urge you to be bold in church discipline as it’s a vital means of grace. A loving church will be a disciplining church. And the burden of that discipline rests primarily us “ordinary Christians” who make up the discipleship community. May we love one another enough to confront sin and call each other to repentance so we can move toward Jesus together.