Let’s Just Admit It: Church Discipline Is a Tough Subject


Pastor Sam was not “fired” over the issue of church discipline (not his real name). But you might say he lost his job because of it.

A member of Sam’s congregation had become outwardly divisive and slanderous toward other church members. When Sam confronted the man privately, he turned his guns on Sam publicly.

Sam and his fellow church leaders pleaded with the divisive member to cease in his destructive activity. Yet the member refused to relent. In fact, his public attacks escalated. After more personal attempts at bringing him to repentance proved futile, the church leadership and Sam presented a motion to the congregation to remove the division-maker from membership.

The motion passed. Approximately 60 percent of the congregation present checked “yea” on little slips of paper, folded them up, and handed them down the aisle to be counted. Around 40 percent marked “nay.”

If you have pastored a congregational church for any length of time, you know that 60 percent support for your motion is not necessarily a “win.” Forty percent of the congregation opposes you. And the other 60 percent knows that 40 percent opposes you, so now they are a little less sure of you too. The bullets Pastor Sam took through this ordeal did not directly kill his ministry. But the infections that followed the bullet wounds did.

Shortly after the church discipline vote, several members of the congregation became disgruntled over another decision of Sam’s. This time, the other church leaders didn’t back Sam up. Sam had “spent all the change in his pocket,” as a friend of mine from Scotland says. Then something else happened. Then another thing happened. Then Sam finally resigned, knowing that his presence in the church had become more of a hindrance than a help.

So Many Questions…

What exactly is church discipline? In the narrowest sense, it is the act of excluding a professing Christian from membership in the church and participation in the Lord’s Supper. It is excommunication, or ex-communion-ing. If the topic of church discipline is new to you, Sam’s story probably provokes all sorts of questions, beginning with—church what? Church discipline? Isn’t Christianity about grace through faith, not works? Isn’t this judgmental? How did Sam know he was right? Is everyone in the church who sins at risk? Won’t this turn the church into a political house, where factions lobby and speech-makers rant? Where’s the love? And what will become of the disciplined man, his family, and their faith?

If the idea of church discipline is not new to you, Sam’s story might raise these and other kinds of questions: Should the whole congregation really be involved? When is the right time to “go public”? Is there a process to follow? How does a pastor know this solution is best? What if a significant minority of the church disagrees? Can disgruntled members sue the church?

We could extend this list of questions for pages. And in a series of articles on the topic of church discipline beginning with this one, I hope to address a number of them. But let’s begin right now by admitting that church discipline is tough. Real tough!

Why So Tough?

Yet it’s important to understand why it is so tough.

Church discipline is tough, said one pastor from Texas, because “people aren’t used to the idea of being held accountable for their sin.” Not only that, “pastors are sinful too.” How can they then discipline others?

Church discipline is tough, said another pastor from North Carolina, because “you live, in some cases, with doubt about whether discipline is the best action.” Maybe the apostle Paul was wise enough and Holy Spirit-filled enough to “hand them over to Satan.” But you or me?

On a similar note, a pastor from Washington, DC said that church discipline is tough because you wonder if “you have done all that you could reasonably do to reclaim the offender first.” Maybe you could pursue longer. Maybe a gentler approach would work better.

Church discipline is tough, a pastor from Wisconsin offered, because “the person can completely misunderstand the intent of the discipline and get angry, incite rebellion, or become resentful and drop out of contact.”

One pastor in Virginia candidly admitted, “I’m a people pleaser. I don’t like confrontation.” Not only that, “our church is small and poor, we can’t afford to lose anyone.”

A pastor who serves overseas observed that it’s tough because it presupposes “a climate or culture in your church where church discipline makes sense.” Consider how much is required for that to be the case: a genuine community, meaningful membership, a strong understanding of sin and repentance, a desire for holiness, and more.

I asked Pastor Sam—who still believes in the practice of church discipline—what was toughest for him. His answer: “You’re disciplining their friends, the people who they will still be friends with after you leave.” Think about it: the friends of someone brought up for church discipline can often know that their friend is out of line. But you don’t kick the brother or sister out, right? You forgive. God does not give up on us, does he?

And not only can our friends face the church’s discipline. Family members do as well. When he was in his early twenties, one of my brothers was disciplined from a church for “non-attendance.” He had not been living as a Christian and had attended his church only once or twice in the previous year. My entire family struggled to come to grips with his church’s decision. Discipline for non-attendance? When a family member’s faith is in jeopardy, the last thing you want to hear is that he or she is being “excluded” from Christian fellowship. “No!” the gut responds. “He needs Christian fellowship, not another excuse to avoid it!”

Add to all these difficulties the fact that churches don’t always (ever?) get to witness the ultimate goal of church discipline achieved. “My honest personal experience?” asked a pastor from another church in Texas. “Unfortunately, I have yet in all my years to see the desired outcome of discipline—‘for the purpose of restoration’—actually happen. No doubt it does in some cases. But in every situation I have been personally acquainted with, the discipline drove the person out of the church and into the arms of another church with unbiblical teaching where he or she was accepted by everyone. Or it simply drove them away from the fellowship of the church entirely.”

To sum up, church discipline is tough. Just plain tough. And we have not even begun to consider all the contemporary cultural forces in the West arrayed against such an apparently archaic and intolerant relic of the past. (Didn’t you guys read The Scarlet Letter in high school?)

The heart of the matter, I would propose, is this: church discipline is tough because it feels like the opposite of salvation. It feels like anti-salvation. It feels like salvation’s evil twin. Salvation brings ‘em in; discipline kicks ‘em out. And if our job as Christians is to bring sinners into the church—didn’t the resurrected Jesus say something about that right before he ascended to heaven?—why would anyone talk about kicking them out?

Most of us don’t naturally think in precise formulas like the following, but our trouble with church discipline as Christians, I suspect, comes down to an impulse which instinctively recognizes this tension:

  • salvation depends on (i) God’s grace (ii) in spite of sin (iii) because of Christ’s work on the cross. Whereas
  • church discipline looks like (i) the church’s judgment (ii) because of sin (iii) in spite of Christ’s work on the cross!

So here’s the challenge: Is church discipline really salvation’s evil twin, or is it something else? Is it really the church stepping where angels fear to tread—playing judge; or is it what the Bible commands churches to do? If the Bible does, how important is it? And how do you do it wisely?

Just a Few Isolated Passages?

The starting point for this series of articles on church discipline is that Scripture is the authority for what Christians should and should not do in our churches. We will discover, moreover, that the entire Bible—from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22—teaches that church discipline is an integral part of working out our salvation. The ancient practice does not depend on just a few isolated passages like Matthew 18:15-20 or 1 Corinthians 5. It’s woven into the storyline of Scripture as a whole.

God created humanity to image forth his beautiful holiness and love to the universe. They did not, so he removed them from the Garden. He did this, of course, so that he might redeem some. Salvation occurs through judgment.1

Then God called a man and his many sons to form a nation that would image forth his beautiful holiness and love to the world. He even gave them another land and a covenant, and he told them to remove from the land those who did not reflect his image. But they did not listen. They mixed holiness and unholiness, purity and impurity. So he removed all of them from the land. He did this, of course, so that he might redeem some. Salvation occurs through judgment.

Then God sent another man to do what no man before him could do, perfectly image his beautiful holiness and love for all nations to see. And this new man offered a new covenant in his blood that joined a new people to himself, so that they too might image God’s beautiful holiness and love. (Several aspects of this new covenant are different, but several aspects have stayed the same.) He has also repeated his instructions to this new people: remove those who knowingly mix holiness and unholiness, purity and impurity. He commands this, of course, so that he might redeem some. Salvation occurs through judgment.

I want to spend my next few articles with you listening to biblical authors recount this story throughout the whole canon. Because once we do, this is what we will discover: church discipline makes sense of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

In other words, church discipline helps us to see that the gospel is meaningful and powerful. It shows that God radically forgives and then changes people. It puts the gospel’s power on display as healthy churches increasingly image forth his beautiful holiness and love. It spurs on discipleship and holiness. It spurs on evangelism. It makes the gospel attractive to outsiders. It makes the church’s Lord attractive to outsiders! You might say that church discipline helps the church look like a deep oasis of sweet, tree-shaded water in the middle of a vast, sun-beaten desert—not a murky puddle of sandy sludge left over from one rare day of rain several weeks gone-bye. It makes the water’s edge clear, so that the church can say to the world, “Come drink here.”

What’s more, church discipline keeps the church from playing the harlot and falling into the awful judgment of God, eternally cast from the Promised Land. It helps transform her into a holy, radiant, and spotless bride, prepared for the day on which the bridegroom comes.

1. Jim Hamilton, “The Glory of God in Salvation Through Judgment: The Centre of Biblical Theology?Tyndale Bulletin 57.1 (2006), 57-84.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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