When Do You Practice Church Discipline? And How Do You Confront the Sin?
The vast majority of discipline in a church should occur in the ordinary course of relationships on Monday to Saturday. No, this doesn’t mean you want a church where people run around correcting each other all the time. That sounds awful. It simply means that you want a church characterized by people who hunger for godliness. Typically, members ask for correction, not hide from it, because they want to grow.
“Hey Ryan, do you have any feedback for me in how I led that meeting? What could I have done better?”
“Zach, I want you to know that you can always speak into my marriage and how you see me loving my wife. And, my flesh really doesn’t want to ask this, but . . . any observations about how you’ve seen me parent?”
Writers sometimes distinguish between formative discipline and corrective discipline. Formative discipline means teaching. Corrective discipline means correcting mistakes. But obviously the two go hand in hand. It’s hard to have one without the other. And in the life of the church, discipline as forming and correcting should characterize not just Sunday but Monday to Saturday. Discipline, you might say, is just another way of describing the discipleship process. When should discipleship and discipline occur? All week. That’s when.
THE HARDER QUESTION
But here’s the harder question: When do you take the process of discipline to the next level—from one to two or three, or from two or three to the whole church?
There’s no easy formula here. Each case has to be judged on its own merits. For example, there have been situations where our elders have seen the need to labor for a long time at all—and there have been other situations where we’ve labored for months or even years, never deciding to take the particular issue to the next level.
This will most often be the case when the people involved are working with us to fight their sin. I remember our elder board working with one married couple over the course of four or five years, long enough that the elders who began the process of counseling the couple stepped off the board because their terms had expired, and new elders stepped onto the board who had to be briefed on the situation, and this transition happening a couple of times during this couple’s troubles. Neither of them were ever publicly excommunicated.
A SLIGHTLY EASIER QUESTION
Here’s a slightly easier question to answer, at least in theoretical terms: Which sins warrant public exposure and excommunication? In order to answer this question, an older generation of writers would often compile lists of sins from Scripture, such as those in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6: “Now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler” (1 Cor. 5:11). But if we just stick to those lists, does that mean we should excommunicate the greedy but not the embezzlers? The swindlers but not the murderers or pedophiles? Embezzlers, murderers, and pedophiles are never mentioned in these kinds of lists.
Clearly, I don’t think we should treat these lists as exhaustive. Paul here is describing the kind of sins we should expect to characterize people who remain unbelieving and unrepentant (see 1 Cor. 6:9-10).
So, I think the short answer to the above question is, only those sins which are outward, significant, and unrepentant warrant public exposure and excommunication. And a sin must be all three of those things, not just one or two of them.
(i) A sin must be outward.
First, a sin must be the kind of thing you can see with the eyes or hear with the ears. It can’t be something that you suspect might be lying quietly within a person’s heart. Paul lists greed in the list above, but you don’t accuse someone of being greedy and then excommunicate him if you have no outward evidence for the greed. The secular court system is careful to weigh evidence. Should churches be any less careful? Jesus is not interested in mob justice.
But notice I said “outward,” not “public.” Fornication, for instance, is not public. It’s private. That’s why I said “outward.”
(ii) A sin must be significant.
Anxiety and fear and stress might be sin. But I don’t believe they warrant public exposure and excommunication.
If, for example, I catch a brother embellishing a story, yet he denies it, he might be sinning. But I won’t go public with it. Peter tells us “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Surely one of the chief characteristics of a healthy church is a willingness to overlook many, even most, of the sins we experience at the hands of our fellow members.
So what counts as significant sin? It’s sin that makes it difficult to continue believing someone bears the Spirit of God and is a Christian, at least if he or she refuses to repent. Remember what membership is: a church’s affirmation of a person’s profession of faith. Significant sin is sin that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to stand before the watching world and continue to affirm a profession of faith as credible. I can with a clear conscience continue to affirm the faith of someone who denies he exaggerated a story; I cannot with a clear conscience do so for someone who persists in sexual immorality, verbal abuse, drunkenness, and so forth.
Is the criteria for “significant” somewhat subjective? Yes, which is why the same sin in one situation may warrant excommunication while in another situation it might not, for a host of circumstantial factors. How easy it would be for Scripture to give us precise case law to deal with any and every conceivable situation. As it is, the Lord would have us appeal to him for wisdom and walk in faith. Incidentally, this is one more reason why churches should aspire to raise up as many elders as they can. You don’t want one or two men having to weigh these difficult matters before bringing them to the church.
(iii) A sin must be unrepentant.
The person has been confronted in his sin. And whether or not he acknowledges it’s sin, and whether or not he says he will stop, he ultimately refuses to let go of it; he keeps going back to it. He cannot (or will not) be separated from it, like a fool and his folly.
BUT HOW SHOULD WE CONFRONT SIN?
There were times when Jesus turned over tables in anger. There were times when the apostles spoke publicly with a sharp tongue toward particular individuals (think of Peter and Simon the magician in Acts 8; or Paul in 1 Corinthians 5). And there may be rare occasions when your correction of a fellow member must be a 9 or 10 on the severity scale.
But in the vast majority of circumstances, the manner of your confrontation or questioning should bear these characteristics:
- Discrete: the progression of Matthew 18 suggests that we should keep the circles as small as possible.
- Gentle: Paul tells us to restore people “with a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1).
- Watchful: In the same verse, Paul adds, “watch out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.” Jude agrees: “Have mercy on others but with fear, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh” (v. 23). Sin is sneaky. It’s easy to get caught, even when you’re trying to help others.
- Merciful: Jude says it twice: “have mercy” and “have mercy” (vv. 22, 23). Your tone should be merciful and understanding, not self-righteous, as if you would never be susceptible to stumbling in the same way.
- Impartial: We should not pre-judge but work to hear both sides of the story (see 1 Tim. 5:21).
- Clear: Passive aggressive or sarcastic confrontation is certainly out of order because it serves only to protect yourself. You should instead be willing to make yourself vulnerable by being very clear, especially if you are going to ask the person in sin to be vulnerable by confessing. At times, understatement can serve the purposes of gentleness and help to draw a person out on their own. But this cannot compromise the purposes of clarity. The broader the circles become, the clearer you must be. After all, a little bit of yeast works through a whole batch of dough (1 Cor. 5:6). People must be warned.
- Decisive: Relatedly, when it comes to the final step of discipline—excommunication or exclusion—the action of the whole church must be decisive: “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch” (1 Cor. 5:7); “reject a divisive person” (Titus 3:10). It must be clear that the individual is no longer a church member or welcome to the Lord’s Table.
Wisdom is always required in matters of correction because no two situations are alike. It’s easy to say, “Well, with this person, we did this.” While there’s much to be learned from precedent, we must finally rely upon the principles of God’s Word, the guidance of his Spirit, and a careful examination of the particulars and idiosyncrasies of every situation.
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Editor’s note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Jonathan Leeman’s new book Understanding Church Discipline (B&H, 2016).