Why Church Discipline Goes Awry—And How to Avoid It
Churches should work hard against the possibility of abusive church discipline, and we should act quickly against it. In my writing and speaking on this topic, most of the churches I address suffer from complacency and laxity in discipline. A few, however, approach it too stridently.
CHARACTERISTICS AND CAUSES OF CHURCHES THAT ABUSE DISCIPLINE
Anecdotally, most (or all?) of the unfortunate cases of church discipline I have heard about in recent years have occurred in non-congregational churches, where the elders are free to impose their will on the congregation. I’m sure congregational churches have failed in this area as well. But the mere fact that a group of elders or pastors in a congregational church must sit in a small elders’ meeting before the big congregational meeting, scratch their heads, and ask themselves, “How are we going to explain this to the church?” tends by itself to moderate their decision-making. It slows them down. A group of well-meaning but tired elders might get highjacked by a bad strain of thinking in their meeting at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night. But Sunday’s congregational meeting will serve as a useful reality check.
In my observations, wrong approaches to discipline can occur in large churches when the sheer size impels them to rely on regulated processes instead of personal pastoral care. The need for economies of scale is met with consistent and tidy procedures and precise codes of conduct. Treating each case uniquely and thoughtfully becomes difficult. Yet just as a wise parent treats each child individually, so wise discipline treats each member individually. From personal experience, I can say that disciplining and training my children is slow, inefficient work that consumes hours. And so is the work of disciplining and training our fellow members.
Abuse seems more common among churches and church leaders who are uncomfortable with theological and practical tensions, tensions that I believe are inevitable in a fallen world. A fundamentalist mindset, I’ve remarked in other writings, prefers things in black and white. It takes one principle and makes it ultimate, instead of letting that one principle be tempered by competing principles. For instance, there’s a tension between not gossiping and getting outside counsel before confronting someone.
An egregious example of the fundamentalist error occurs in churches with a strong concept of male headship and parental authority. These are biblical principles that I entirely affirm. Yet I’ve been angered to hear of churches where the elders, in the name of respecting headship, condone or at least overlook reports of husbands who are harsh, severe, and demanding with their wives. They’ve let one principle become too dominant, uninformed by other biblical principles.
In general, you should be leery of joining a church where the leaders play favorites, punish those who disagree, have a temper, use the silent treatment, must always have the last word, cannot be wrong, emphasize external conformity, are consistently dogmatic on both the big and small issues, seldom if ever admit they are wrong, have difficulty giving authority to others, only promote their closest friends or family members, and generally need control. You can probably think of more yellow flags. You might even look for a few in yourself. Personally, I like to have the last word. That’s not a good sign for my use of authority. I better trust the authority of the man who is willing to give another person the last word. He’s less concerned about appearances or forcing outcomes. Speaking of which . . .
It’s commonplace that abusive authority roots in pride. But another way of putting this, I think, is to say that abusive authority and discipline root in “fear of man.” A person who fears God more than anything is less likely to abuse God’s subjects. But a person who fears man cares too much about appearances. He or she needs control over the façade of things.
The most tyrannical rulers in the home, state, or church are the insecure and fearful ones. Please do not place me under a leader who lives in fear.
A man or a church who says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” is far less likely to abuse authority and discipline. The man or the church who is always trying to “increase” is more likely to abuse it.
Perhaps the most vivid and damnable form of a spiritual abuse on the pages of the New Testament, besides the false teachers who would mislead a flock, is the legalistic religion of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They impose laws where God imposes none. They condemn others for the sake of their own gain. They lord it over others so that they might be honored. And finally they are willing to kill God himself for the sake of maintaining control.
CULTIVATING THE RIGHT CULTURE
The best way to avoid an abusive church culture where discipline is pursued harshly is nothing other than working to cultivate a gospel culture.
I once had the opportunity to address a number of the elders of a church who handled a terribly complex case of church discipline piously but poorly. The media had picked up on the story, and a number of writers, Christian and non-Christian, charged the church with abusiveness. In fact, I know the church and its leaders, and it is a gospel-centered and healthy church. The brothers made a mistake in complicated situation, a mistake for which they quickly apologized and altered course.
Good churches will make mistakes, just like good parents and good presidents will make mistakes. Name one leader famous leader in the Bible who didn’t—Abraham? Moses? David? Solomon? Jesus knows this. And he knew it when he granted each of these institutions meditating authority. The fact that even our best leaders make mistakes helps us to put our final hope in Christ, the only mistake-less leader.
So let’s assume that mistakes, even sinful mistakes, will happen. The question is, what’s the best environment for absorbing the harmful effects of those mistakes, like a paper towel absorbing grape juice in a mid-day television commercial? And what’s the best environment for preventing mistakes? The answer must be, a gospel environment. The brothers in the church just mentioned were able to apologize and reverse course as quickly as they did because they know and live by the gospel. They have no image to defend, no life or decision-making pattern to justify. They are justified in Christ, which frees them to apologize quickly.
And, ironically, I think the healthier church just might be the one where the leaders make mistakes and apologize for them than the church where the leaders seem to never make mistakes and never apologize.
This is a lesson I have had to learn in parenting. Suppose you have two parents: the parent who maintains excellent external appearances and so never perceives his or her need to ask for forgiveness, and the parent who sins, both against the children and otherwise, but who is quick to ask for forgiveness and live transparently in the gospel. Which is the better parent? Which parent will do a better job of shepherding his or her children down a gospel path?
In the early years of parenting, I was more the first parent. I generally kept up good appearances, and I found it difficult to apologize or admit mistakes to my daughters when my conscience suggested I might. After all, I wanted to give them a good model to look up to. I didn’t want to spoil their image of me by admitting weakness. And at times—tragically—they said that they thought I never sinned. What an anti-gospel lesson I had been teaching! Oh, girls, if you only knew the pride and selfishness of your father’s heart.
Churches and their leaders, too, must learn to live transparently in the gospel, meaning we confess our sins to one another and rejoice in the grace that God gives. The witness of these embassies of Christ’s kingdom does not depend upon our moral perfection. How attractive is a building full of Pharisees? Rather, our international witness depends upon our gospel love and forgiveness amidst the sin that remains.
I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
What does it mean to love one another as Christ has loved us? It means loving mercifully and forgivingly. And of course doing that means confessing our sin to one another so that we can be forgiven. This is how you live transparently in the gospel. And it’s this kind of corporate life together that shows the world that we are his disciples.
Notice then who it is that churches excommunicate: they excommunicate the Pharisees. Pharisees are the ones who never acknowledge their sin as sin, and so never repent of it. Of course I’m using the word Pharisees a little more broadly than you might be accustomed to. You’re probably thinking of the Pharisees whom we read about in the Gospels who kept the law “perfectly.” What I’m saying here is, they are of the same breed as the so-called wayward sinner who refuses to let go of his sin. Neither is poor in spirit. Neither will confess. Both will justify themselves to the very end. Both, in other words, are legalists. And the successful legalist and the failed legalist are both legalists, both “Pharisees.” Church discipline, done wisely, is nothing other than a device for striking against Phariseeism in the church. Not only do the Pharisees refuse to see the planks in their own eyes, they refuse to let others point out the specks.
Ironically, it’s the people who eschew all church discipline that might be the biggest Pharisees of all, because they cannot imagine themselves being self-deceived or in need of correction: “How dare you call out the speck in my eye!” The poor in spirit, the meek, and the lovers of the gospel, however, both acknowledge their planks and welcome those who might point out the specks.
Don’t rebuke a mocker, or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. (Prov. 9:8)
Which home or church would you prefer to live in—the one where everyone is “perfect”? Or the one where people confess their sin and live trusting in the vicarious righteousness of Christ? If the latter, do you take the initiative, not in correcting others, but in confessing your sin? If not, could it be that you are the one who is more likely to pursue church discipline abusively?
Moving forward, know that confession is a necessary prerequisite for correction, and that the person who cannot be corrected probably doesn’t know how to confess either.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Jonathan Leeman’s book Understanding Church Discipline, from the B&H Church Basics series. Reprinted by permission