More Than Worth It: Costs and Benefits of Church Discipline
He was a middle-aged pastor of a nice-sized and fairly affluent church. The church was theologically conservative and held a high view of Scripture, which is what made his comment so tragically memorable.
He had asked me what I was working on, to which I answered, “A case of church discipline.” I had been strongly convicted about taking God at his Word concerning church discipline. My own congregation had recently endured a difficult and painful situation, so I shared that I felt we would not be faithful if we did not strive to obey God in this area.
This was his response: “You’re right, of course. But, you know, I decided early in my ministry what I would and would not be about, and that’s just not a road I’m going to go down.”
I’ve never forgotten his words. It’s no small thing to deliberately decide to not heed Christ’s instructions (Matt. 18:15-18), apostolic application of divine truth (1 Cor. 5:1-7,12-13), restorative congregational instruction (2 Cor. 2:6-8), a call to “fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:1-5), clear apostolic command (2 Thes. 3:6-10, Titus 3:9-11), injunctions to steer clear of those who disobey these instructions (2 Thes. 3:14), a God-ordained tool for instruction against blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:19b-20), and an unambiguous command that we “keep these rules” (1 Tim. 5:19-21).
Even so, many pastors have chosen not to go down “that road.” They want job security. They want to avoid the difficulties of confrontation. They want to steer clear of the complex dynamics that inevitably surface in a congregation when we practice church discipline.
It’s worth reminding ourselves as pastors what we stand to lose if we neglect biblical church discipline, as well as what we stand to gain by faithfully following God’s Word.
WHAT WE STAND TO LOSE
- The Blessing and Favor of GodBy neglecting church discipline, we stand to lose the blessings and favor of God. To make a knowing, intentional, and deliberate decision to write “No!” over the biblical teachings concerning church discipline is to write “Ichabod!” over the church. One seeks in vain for the blessing and favor of God when one chooses to ignore his instructions for his bride.
- Our Fallen MembersWe may also lose our fallen members. Here is a sad irony: the fallen members that we don’t want to “judge,” “hurt,” or “drive away” will, if left in their sins and robbed of the church’s call for repentance, find themselves eventually despising and leaving the church anyway. Even if they don’t leave, their inward distance from God makes their presence a mere façade, which means we’ve lost them anyway.
- Our Faithful MembersIf we fail to take seriously the whole counsel of God, we risk alienating those members who do take God’s counsel seriously. How odd it is to give up faithful members because we fear lovingly calling wayward members back to the Lord through the ministry of church discipline!
- Our Witness Before the Watching WorldThe world may despise the gospel, but at least it respects consistency. When we fail to speak the truth to those who shipwreck their faith, thereby complying with their harmful rebellion, the watching world turns away in derision at the open hypocrisy of the church.
- Our Authority to SpeakWhat right do we have to speak a prophetic word to our culture about unhinged sexual libertinism if the very same rebellion runs unchecked in our churches? What right do we have to speak against corruption and greed if we fail to confront those things in our own church? To tear out the passages on church discipline is to tear out our own tongue.
WHAT WE STAND TO GAIN
- The Favor of GodBy practicing biblical church discipline, we stand to gain the favor of God. It is appropriate to apply “Well done thy good and faithful servant!” to local congregations in addition to individual Christians. The favor and pleasure of God should be our primary motivation for embracing biblical church discipline.
- The Growth of Our Brother or SisterDiscipline also leads to growth. Church discipline is almost certainly the most neglected avenue of Christian growth in the body of Christ today. Yet lovingly administered church discipline helps believers grow in obedience to Christ.
- Power in the PulpitAnother benefit pastors often miss by not practicing church discipline? Obeying Christ in difficult ways empowers our preaching. A congregation that watches its ministers faithfully apply the Word will take that Word more seriously, and listen more intently. And, as he leads the congregation in obeying God’s Word, the preacher himself will grow in rightly grasping and boldly applying God’s Word in his preaching.
- The Unity of the ChurchUnity around anything other than the whole counsel of God is not unity. It is merely a shadowy, patchwork peace constructed on whatever bits of God’s Word we deem acceptable. Only authentic unity, a unity that embraces all of God’s Word, can claim the blessing of God.
- Evangelistic ContrastIn a day that has seen many churches reduce its evangelism to programs and its outreach to gimmickry, we too often forget the inherent evangelistic appeal of the people of God being who they’re meant to be. This works itself out in what we might call the evangelistic ministry of contrast: as the church grows in holiness, it creates an increasingly stark contrast with the lost culture around it. When this happens, the world begins to see that the church presents a genuine countercultural alternative, an alternative that emanates from convictions clearly founded on a higher standard than its own.
CHOOSING THE BETTER ROAD
It was some years after the sad conversation that I recounted earlier that I crossed paths with another minister, roughly the same age as the first. He was likewise the pastor of a good-sized church. He, too, was conservative in theology and held a high view of Scripture. We were talking about ministry, life, and the challenge of church discipline, and he too said something I will never forget: “You know, I just want to pastor a New Testament church once before I die. I believe we can be that, and I want to lead my people to be that.”
Two men. Two paths. Two alternatives. The first brother, I am convinced, is going to pay a high a price for pursuing ease and comfort. The latter may occasionally pay a temporal price in discomfort and possible conflict, but his reward will be great.
Choose the better way. Isn’t the choice obvious?