Putting People Before Policies in Church Discipline

Article
01.09.2018

In recent years, the number of churches committed to exercising biblical church discipline seems to be increasing. This is a good thing! However, in the process of implementing policies and revising bylaws, it’s easy to forget that people are both involved and affected. In the end, if we don’t put God’s people before our church policies, we may do irreparable harm to the body of Christ.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER: LOVING RESTORATION 

While there are several passages having to do with corrective church discipline, the most prominent is Matthew 18:15–17. The Lord Jesus provides a process of confronting sin with a view to godly restoration. Often seen as “the church discipline passage,” Matthew 18 outlines four steps [1] toward the restoration of a sinning brother or sister. However, the context of the passage helps us understand more than the process of engaging in church discipline; we see the heart behind it all.

It’s important to remember that Jesus’ words on church discipline come immediately after the Parable of the Lost Sheep (vv. 10–14). This is the set-up for what will come in verses 15–17. In the parable, the Lord describes a shepherd leaving his 99 sheep in search for the one that strayed. The story ends on a high note, with the sheep being recovered, and the shepherd rejoicing. Jesus concludes: “So it is not the will of My Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (v. 14). His very next words bring the parable to life in the realm of the church. The four steps listed in verses 15–17 are seated in the context of lost sheep who are now restored.

However, some churches have failed to understand the true purpose of church discipline. It’s not meant to be a three-strike rule for expelling sinful members; rather, it’s a process of increasing severity with a view to recovery. John MacArthur notes,

The goal of church discipline is not to throw people out, embarrass them, be self-righteous, play God, or exercise authority and power in some unbiblical manner. The purpose of church discipline is to bring people back into a pure relationship with God and with others in the assembly. [2]

To add the words of Stephen Davey,

[T]he main objective of church discipline is the restoration of the unrepentant believer to the blessed, productive lifestyle of godly obedience and intimacy with Jesus Christ. [3]

If we continually remind ourselves of Jesus’ goal for church discipline, then our policies and procedures will reflect that end.

PEOPLE OVER POLICIES

Once a church commits itself to obeying Scripture’s teaching on church discipline, it can become very easy to see Matthew 18 as “just another process.” But as we seek to honor Christ in church discipline, we ought to be mindful of individuals before adhering to a specific process or policy.

Churches have policies to help guide them along, but we’re not slaves to them. That was the Pharisees’ problem in Matthew 23. While adhering to the minutiae of their rules, they woefully neglected the weightier matters in dealing with people: showing justice, mercy, and faithfulness (v. 23). And so, in considering how we might elevate believers over bylaws, allow me to offer a few exhortations:

First, speak the truth in love.

In dealing with church discipline, honesty is paramount. We aren’t afforded the luxury of being diplomatic when it comes to drawing attention to sin in believers. In fact, minimizing or deflecting will only make the problem worse; sin will go unrepented of and will surely compound. However, in calling for recognition, repentance, and subsequent restoration, we ought to be “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15; cf. v. 25; Col. 3:9). Our tactic should be above-board honesty wrapped in grace and compassion.

Second, be humble and gentle.

In Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, he gives instruction for how to restore a sinning brother. He exhorts them: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). How do we measure who is spiritual? How gentle should we be? Paul doesn’t say. However, the imperative remains. We’re to humble ourselves, and work to gently restore the sinning brother or sister. He then adds, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2). In the end, spiritually mature believers working to admonish and restore those in sin is a blessed task; it fulfills “the law of Christ,” which is “the law of love” (cf. John 15:12; Rom. 13:10).

Third, treat others the way you would want to be treated.

It’s easy to look down on others who are caught in sinful patterns without realizing that we, too, have been freed from slavery to sin (Rom. 6:15–22; 1 Cor. 6:9–11). Even in the realm of church discipline, we should still consider others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), even placing ourselves in their shoes. How would I respond if I were being treated this way? In considering others, we ought to be treating them as we would want to be treated (Matt. 6:12). Remember, it’s not just about the witness and reputation of the church, but also about the spiritual wellbeing of the individual. Minister to them in such a way that they’ll thank you in the end (Prov. 27:6).

Fourth, be patient.

While strict adherence to church policies might dictate timelines, we ought to remember that not everyone responds and reacts in the same way. John MacArthur says, “How long should the church keep encouraging someone to repent? Perhaps until you sense that his or her heart is getting harder and harder, and they absolutely refuse to stop sinning. The Spirit of God has to give you that sort of subjective wisdom. I think it’s usually a shorter time than we often think, because God wants a response.” [4] Not all spiritual fruit—including repentance—grows at the same pace. Without dragging your feet in discipline, resolve to be patient with others (1 Cor. 13:4; Gal. 5:22; Eph. 4:2).

“GO GET HIM IN LOVE!”

What’s the hopeful outcome of putting people before policies? The following is a true story told by a church member:

One Sunday morning, our pastor asked the members to stay after service to discuss an issue. The elders assembled on the stage and told us they had been dealing with a matter of church discipline. Sam, a long standing member of the church, had “gone outside of his marriage.”

The elders read Matthew 18 and described the steps they had taken to try and persuade Sam to repent and return to his wife. They explained how they had met with Sam one-on-one numerous times, counseling him with Scripture, but to no avail. They told us they had warned Sam that his infidelity would be brought before the church and that he had gotten angry and threatened legal action.

As they addressed us all, we were counseled not to gossip about this matter, but to “go get him in love.” The elders stressed that our concern was for his repentance and restoration.

The congregation was in shock. However, we asked what could be done to help Sam’s wife and what should we do to if we run into Sam. Regarding Sam, we were told to love him, pray for him, and call him to repentance for the sake of his soul. Regarding Sam’s wife, those who were close to her were told to comfort her. Above all, we were all asked to pray for her. There was little said as the church dispersed, just sadness and, on our part, amazement at how well the situation was handled. It was clear the elders were unified and had done all they could do, and that they were following Scripture.

Many months passed. Sam’s wife continued to come to church. We all prayed. Then one Sunday, at the end of the service, we were asked to stay. The elders assembled on the stage and Sam came out and joined them. They explained that Sam had repented, reconciled with his wife, and was being restored to the congregation. Sam stepped forward and conveyed his sorrow in having sinned against God and his wife. He asked for our forgiveness and thanked us for our prayers and love. The church erupted in applause and tears of joy. A sheep who had been lost was found and returned to the flock.

While Sam could not return to all of his ministries immediately, the elders continued to counsel Sam and his wife. There was no gossip, no prying into details, just rejoicing. It’s been 10 years since the Sunday we were told, and today, Sam and his wife are happily married, and continue to attend the same church.


[1] In his helpful book, Handbook of Church Discipline, Jay E. Adams notes that there are five steps in church discipline, the first being “self-discipline.” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 27-30.

[2] John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 267.

[3] Stephen Davey, In Pursuit of Prodigals: A Primer on Church Discipline and Reconciliation (The Woodlands, TX: Kress, 2010), 12.

[4] MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church, 274.