“Don’t do it!!” Why You Shouldn’t Practice Church Discipline

Article
02.25.2010

“Don’t do it.” That’s the first thing I tell pastors when they discover church discipline is in the Bible. I say, “Don’t do it, at least not yet.” Why this advice?

Let’s think about what happens in the process of discovery. When pastors first hear of church discipline, they often think the idea is ridiculous. It sounds unloving, counter-evangelistic, weird, controlling, legalistic, and judgmental. It certainly seems unworkable. They even wonder if it’s illegal.

THEY OPEN THEIR BIBLES

Then, when no one is looking, they look back at their Bible. They come across passages like 2 Thessalonians 3:6, or Galatians 6:1, or the classic text on discipline—1 Corinthians 5. They consider the Old Testament background of excommunication, and they recall that God has always purposed for his people to be a picture of his own holiness (Deut. 17:7; Lev. 19:2; Isa. 52:11; 1 Peter 1:16).

Then, somehow, they turn to Jesus’ own teaching, and discover that, in the same chapter in which Jesus condemns judgmentalism (see Matt. 7:1), he also warns the disciples to be on their guard against false prophets and against those who claim to follow him but do not obey his Word (Matt. 7:15-20; 21-23). Finally, Matthew 18 comes up, where Jesus instructs his followers to exclude the unrepentant sinner in certain situations (Matt. 18:17). Maybe churches should practice discipline?

What finally sends these otherwise nice, normal, well-adjusted, previously popular pastors over the edge is their discovery that some churches do, in fact, practice church discipline. Not strange, maladjusted churches, but happy, growing, large, grace-oriented churches like Grace Community in Sun Valley, California, or Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, or First Baptist in Durham, North Carolina, or the Village Church near Dallas.

Now these pastors are in trouble. They realize they need to be obedient. They feel compelled by the biblical picture of a holy, loving, united church, a church that reflects the one, holy, loving God. They understand their failure to practice discipline hurts their church and its witness to the world.

It’s at this point that a sullen resolve often seems to set in. “I will lead this congregation to be biblical at this point if it’s the last thing I do!” And, too often, it is.

LIKE A BOLT OUT OF A CLEAR BLUE SKY

Into the peaceful, well-meaning life of an innocent, Bible-believing congregation, the lightning bolt of church discipline strikes! It may be in a sermon. It may be in a conversation between the pastor and a deacon. It may be in a hastily arranged motion at a members meeting. But somewhere it hits, usually accompanied by great earnestness and a torrent of Scriptural citations.

Then, the sincere action is taken.

Then, the response comes: misunderstanding and hurt feelings result. Counter charges are made. Sin is attacked and defended. Names are called. Acrimony abounds! The symphony of the local congregation transposes into a cacophony of arguments and accusations. People cry out, “Where will this stop?!” and “So do you think you’re perfect?”

CHURCH DISCIPLINE: DON’T DO IT! AT LEAST NOT YET

What’s the pastor to do? My advice would be, “Don’t get yourself into this situation in the first place. Once you’ve discovered that corrective church discipline is biblical, hold off on practicing it for a while.” (Church discipline is both corrective and formative, the latter referring to the church’s work of teaching or forming Christians.)

Now at this point maybe you’re thinking, “Mark, are you telling us to disobey the Bible?!”

In fact, I’m not. I’m trying to help you do what Jesus instructed his disciples to do (see Luke 14:25-33): count the cost before you begin. Make sure your congregation sufficiently understands and accepts this biblical teaching. Your goal is not immediate compliance followed by an explosion, but rather a congregation being reformed by the Word of God. You want them going in the right direction. And that requires patient shepherding.

HOW TO SHEPHERD YOUR CHURCH TOWARD DISCIPLINE

First, encourage humility. Help people to see that they may be mistaken about their own spiritual state. Consider the example of the man in 1 Corinthians 5 as well as Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthian Christians more broadly in 2 Corinthians 13:5. Paul charges us to examine ourselves to see if we’re in the faith. Do your church members recognize that they are to help one another do that?

Second, make sure that your congregation has a biblical understanding of church membership. People don’t understand discipline because they don’t understand membership. Membership is a congregational relationship. It is not created, sustained, or ended merely by the act of an individual; an individual cannot join a church unilaterally without the congregation’s consent. Likewise, an individual cannot continue in membership, or leave the membership of a particular congregation without the congregation’s explicit or implicit approval (except by death). That’s a mouthful, but what I’m basically saying is that it is a church’s business to decide who its members are. And members cannot simply leave when they’re in unrepentant sin. (See Jonathan Leeman’s article, “The Preemptive Resignation—A Get Out of Jail Free Card?” for a fuller discussion of this matter.)

Such a vision of membership, however, must first be positively presented. Understand what the Bible teaches about church membership. Make sure that you’ve familiarized yourself with several crucial points and passages that you can remind members of when they ask. Look for opportunities in your sermons to teach on the distinction between the church and the world, and how that distinction is important for the nature and mission of the church. Help your congregation to assemble such a picture of God’s plan for his church that the outlines of discipline begin to become conspicuous by their absence from your church’s practice. Remember that the members must understand membership and discipline because they’re the ones who must carry it out.

Third, pray that God would help you to model ministry to other Christians in your church by your public teaching and your private work with families and individuals. Work toward creating a “culture of discipleship” and accountability in your church, where Christians understand that a basic part of their following Jesus is helping others to follow Jesus (both through evangelism and discipling other Christians). Help them to understand the special responsibilities they have toward other members of their particular congregation. Teach them that the Christian life is personal, but not private.

Fourth, prepare your congregation’s written constitution and covenant. Consult Ken Sande’s article on the 9Marks website, for some general legal advice. Begin teaching pre-membership classes in which matters touching membership and discipline are explicitly taught.

Fifth, and finally, in your pulpit ministry, never tire of teaching what a Christian is. Regularly define the gospel and conversion. Explicitly teach that a church is intended to be composed of repenting sinners who are trusting in Christ alone, and who give credible professions of that trust. Pray that you would be centered on the gospel. Resolve that, with God’s help, you will slowly but steadily lead your congregation to change. Pray that, rather than being a church where it’s strange to ask people how they’re doing spiritually, you would become a church where it would begin to seem strange if someone didn’t ask about your life.

YOU KNOW YOU’RE READY WHEN…

You know your congregation is ready to practice church discipline when:

  • Your leaders understand it, agree with it, and perceive its importance (mature leadership shared among several elders is the most consistent with Scripture and very helpful for leading a church through potentially volatile discussions);
  • Your congregation is united in understanding that such discipline is biblical;
  • Your membership consists largely of people who regularly hear your sermons;
  • A particularly clear case comes along in which your members would fairly unitedly perceive that excommunication is the correct action (for example, excommunication for adultery is more likely to yield agreement among your members than excommunication for non-attendance.)

So, my pastor friend, though you may have once thought that the idea of church discipline is ridiculous, I pray that God will help you to lead your congregation to see that it is a loving, provocative, attractive, distinct, respectful, gracious act of obedience and mercy, and that it helps to build a church that brings glory to God.

But remember, when you first become convinced of the biblical case for church discipline, your first step in an established congregation is probably to begin by not practicing discipline, so that someday you can.