Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum
The real difficulty in corrective church discipline is not so much in knowing what to do or even how to do it, though those questions can be problematic. The hardest part is in actually administering it. It is painful. There is no easy way to confront a brother in his sin. If he persists, there is no easy way to take one or two others with you to confront him again. If he still refuses to repent, there is no easy way to tell it to the church. And if he refuses to hear “even” the church, it is absolutely excruciating to remove him from membership: to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5).
Coming to terms with this fact—that there is no easy way to carry out these steps—has been one of the most sobering yet helpful lessons that I have learned as a pastor. When leading a church to take the final step of discipline, certain questions always lurk in the shadows: “Isn’t there another way? Is there anything more that we can do to avoid this?” These questions arise, I think, out of a proper desire to avoid taking the most serious step a church can take in dealing with a person’s soul. Yet by reconciling myself as a pastor to the fact that doing what Christ commands in such a case is unavoidably painful, and by teaching the church to view it that way, we are encouraged not to shrink back from our duty but to take up this cross with a view to God’s glory and the welfare of the wayward member.
In God’s kindness, I have had the privilege of seeing the fruit of church discipline borne out not only in the restoration of brothers and sisters who have submitted to it but also in the strengthening of the church in the fear of the Lord and in the conversion of unbelievers. I fully identify with the following words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne as he describes his own pastoral grappling with church discipline.
When I first entered upon the work of the ministry among you, I was exceedingly ignorant of the vast importance of church discipline. I thought that my great and almost only work was to pray and preach. I saw your souls to be so precious, and the time so short, that I devoted all my time, and care, and strength, to labour in word and doctrine. When cases of discipline were brought before me and the elders, I regarded them with something like abhorrence. It was a duty I shrank from; and I may truly say it nearly drove me from the work of the ministry among you altogether. But it pleased God, who teaches his servants in another way than man teaches, to bless some of the cases of discipline to the manifest and undeniable conversion of the souls of those under our care; and from that hour a new light broke in upon my mind, and I saw that if preaching be an ordinance of Christ, so is church discipline. I now feel very deeply persuaded that both are of God—that two keys are committed to us by Christ, the one the key of doctrine, by means of which we unlock the treasures of the Bible, the other the key of discipline, by which we open or shut the way to the sealing ordinances of the faith. Both are Christ’s gift, and neither is to be resigned without sin (Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew Bonar; Baker, reprint, 1978, pp. 104-5).
Tom Ascol is the senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida.
Myth #1: After you master church discipline, you can move on to something else.
Church discipline is not like learning to ride a bike, in that once you have mastered it, you don’t need to work anymore to maintain it. Whenever I have neglected to emphasize church discipline in private and public ministry, the health of my flock has suffered.
Lesson learned: The discipleship and discipline aspect of church life is as normal and regular as preaching, teaching, and evangelism. Church leaders must regularly teach on discipline and regularly involve themselves in formative discipline, and, when necessary, corrective discipline.
Myth #2: If I ignore the situation, it will resolve itself.
When there’s a situation to be addressed, I can find all sorts of reasons why I don’t have to do anything about it today. However, whenever I have failed to stay on top of a problem, personal attachments and emotional reactions have tended to define the situation, instead of clear biblical principles.
Lesson learned: It is never too late to do the right thing, but doing it earlier helps to clarify the real issue before the congregation takes sides.
Myth #3: Of course people will understand church discipline; it’s right here in the Bible.
I have been met with many looks of amazement when people are told that we actually practice this. We shouldn’t be all that surprised when people choose family allegiances over the Bible, but what’s particularly grievous is when people who have been disciplined go to another local church that fails to recognize the discipline that we have carried out.
Lesson learned: Never assume that people or other churches understand and support church discipline. Therefore, a pastor should continually look for ways to help the flock grow in this.
Myth #4: No one would be part of a church that does this.
While some choose to run away, I have found that many members of the flock are relieved to know that they are part of a family that believes and practices everything God’s Word says. Church discipline is a gift from Christ to the church to keep the doctrine pure, the wolves at bay, and the bride pure.
Lesson learned: God’s Word cannot be improved on.
Robert Johnson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan.
I’ve learned not to go into discipline with preconceived notions or prejudice. I’ve learned to investigate thoroughly, to interview the individuals involved with exhausting completeness. I’ve learned to do these things because I have drawn wrong conclusions and taken inappropriate actions due to a lack of facts. The results were painful, to say the least.
A pastor must not only have the details but also understand that once he has started down the road of discipline, it will be difficult to stop the forward movement. In other words, consider the end before you start the journey. We must practice discipline, but we should have our eyes wide open.
I’ve also learned that some church members will not agree that a person’s sinful actions were severe enough to warrant discipline. They will appeal to grace, forgiveness, patience, and call for mercy. We know that discipline may be one of the most grace-filled actions that we can take toward a sinning believer, but not everyone is going to recognize that. Therefore, elders should be prepared for pushback.
The most significant lesson that I’ve learned the hard way has come during those times when I failed to pursue it. We do more harm than good when we avoid discipline.
Some time ago, we had a man on our leadership team who worked behind the scenes creating disharmony. We delayed substantive action, hoping that the situation would fix itself. It didn’t, needless damage was done, and it took months to get past our negligence. When he failed to repent and was removed from membership, it was as if the clouds suddenly parted and a new day dawned.
Lessons learned? Practice discipline, but do it carefully, deliberately, and prayerfully.
Dennis Newkirk is the pastor of Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, Oklahoma
One lesson I’ve learned is that church discipline can be an opportunity for great joy. Each time we have taken the ultimate step of excommunication the church and its leaders have experienced deep agony. But in several situations the heartache has ultimately been replaced by joy.
Just recently a man who had been removed from membership ten years ago for blatantly unrepentant adultery came to my office in tears to tell of God’s deep conviction in his life. He was deeply repentant and grateful to me for accepting his apology and confession and will be meeting with our elders to express it to them. My tendency would have been to consider him gone for good. But I’m reminded again that God’s timing is seldom mine.
How grateful I am to the Lord that he allows us to experience the joy of granting forgiveness and being a part of the restoration process. Though there was a painful joy in knowing we had been obedient to the Scripture, the resulting joy in the presence of restoration is even more exhilarating. If we had been unfaithful in not practicing biblical discipline we would have been the poorer for it.
Walter Price is the pastor of Fellowship in the Pass Church in Beaumont, California.
The most painful difficulties I have had in pastoral ministry, by far, have involved the formal discipline of church members who have turned away from the Lord. In every case, the elders of Tenth Presbyterian Church have shed many tears.
What have I learned?
I have learned not to delay formal disciplinary process when circumstances demand it. Spiritual problems do not simply get better on their own; dithering only makes things worse.
I have learned to be sure that everyone involved in a disciplinary case is careful about confidentiality, including taking special precautions with electronic communication and exercising wisdom in conversations with spouses.
I have learned that the deceitfulness of sin can lead to a hardening of the heart that can only be addressed through fasting and prayer.
I have learned that most people will walk away from their church rather than honor their membership vows by dealing honestly and straightforwardly with their pastors and elders.
I have learned that when repentance is genuine, people confronted with sin will cooperate with their elders and treat them respectfully, without getting angry, or trying to seize control of the disciplinary process, or fighting against the consequences of their sin.
I have learned that few things cause more difficulty in the church than men (especially) who are too arrogant, or self-centered, or angry to see the damage they are causing to other people, especially their own families.
I have learned the wisdom of the following Proverbs 28:13, 14 and 29:1, 9, 19, 22.
I have learned that nothing brings greater joy to a pastor’s heart than a sinner who truly repents.
Philip Ryken is the Senior Minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.