Before You Discipline, Teach This First
Pastor: «So, because of all that, it’s with great sadness that I move that we as a church remove Joe from membership as an act of discipline. Is there any discussion?»
Sister Sue: «Pastor, I have some discussion. I don’t see how we can do this. What right do we have to say whether Joe’s a Christian? Only God can say that!»
Pastor: «Yes, of course that’s true. But First Corin- . . .»
Brother Bill: «Oh come on! I agree with Sue. I believe in the Bible and everything, Pastor, but a lot of that just isn’t going to work now.»
Deacon Doug: «And we’re all sinners. Why should we single Joe out?»
Pastor: «[Sigh.] Alright. All those in favor, say ‘aye’.»
[the sound of crickets chirping]
Pastor: «Those opposed?»
[After the meeting] Chairman Charlie: «Pastor, the deacons want to meet with you tomorrow night. We have some concerns. . .»
That scenario or something like it has played itself out in far too many churches. Pastors with an admirable love of Scripture and their congregations, but with a lamentable lack of foresight and wisdom, find themselves in trouble because their people just aren’t ready to take the step of practicing church discipline—even after they’ve been taught about it.
Most every pastor knows that he’ll have to do a good deal of teaching about church discipline before his congregation is ready for it. What might not be so obvious, though, is that he will have to teach the church about more than just church discipline before they’re ready for discipline. In fact, a biblical understanding of church discipline—what it is, what it aims for, and how it functions—has to be built on a solid understanding of other Christian doctrines.
To put it another way, there are certain things you have to teach in your church long before you even broach the subject of church discipline. It’s really that simple. You have to teach a child to walk before you teach him to climb a mountain.
Let me list just a few things that a church needs to understand and embrace before it will be in a position to carry out church discipline.
1. THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
This, of course, is where it all begins. If your church is not convinced of Scripture’s authority over them—over their own lives and over the life and practice of the church—you will not be able to bring them to a biblical understanding of church discipline. Our authority, right, and responsibility to practice discipline are given solely by the Word of God.
If you don’t teach your congregation to look to and submit to Scripture in everything, the «We’ve never done this, pastor» argument will devastate any attempt to practice discipline. So will the «We don’t have the right to do this» argument. And the «This is mean» argument. And on and on and on.
2. WHAT A CHRISTIAN IS
If the idea of church discipline is to make any sense at all, your congregation must understand what it means to be a Christian in the first place. They’re going to have to understand the gospel. They’ll have to grasp the fact that being a Christian is not just about making a decision, but rather about ongoing faith in Jesus and repentance from sin.
They need to know that the church is for Christians, not just nice people, and they need you, pastor, to teach them the difference.
3. THE REALITY AND MEANING OF CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Your church won’t be willing to put someone out of the church unless they understand that there is an in and an out. The Bible is very clear about that fact. There are those who are «members» of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27) and those who are «outsiders» (1 Cor. 5:12). Your church needs to understand that, too, or the idea of putting someone «out» of something which has no «in» will quite understandably sound ridiculous.
Not only so, but your church needs to understand that church membership involves more than being a well-liked member of the community, or being a member of a certain family in town. Church membership means publicly affirming both someone’s profession of faith in Jesus as well as their decision to submit to the oversight of the church. When your church begins to understand that, the idea of church discipline will start to make a lot more sense.
4. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD
God intends his people to look different from the world. He intends them to live holy lives and to war against sin. That’s what it means to repent. Repentance does not mean that a person has stopped sinning, but it does mean that he has declared war against sin. Your church must understand this before you can expect them to understand discipline.
Of course, there is a world of nuance to be talked about here—the difference between unrepentant and repentant sin, or the difference between scandalous sin and private sin, just to name a couple. Those are important conversations to have, but they’ll only make sense within an understanding of the basic fact that God intends his church to be different from the world.
5. THE CHURCH’S RESPONSIBILITY TO JUDGE
Many pastors run into opposition to church discipline in the form of a church member quoting Matthew 7:1, «Judge not, lest ye be judged.» It’s an uncomfortable topic in our hyper-tolerant age, but pastors need to teach their congregations that, while Jesus does not give his church the right to determine who is to be in or out of heaven, he does give them the right to determine who is to be in or out of the church. That’s what Jesus meant by giving to the church «the keys of the kingdom of heaven» (Matt. 16:19; 18:17). It’s also what Paul meant when he asked, «Are you not to judge those inside [the church]?» (1 Cor. 5:12). Your church must understand and accept its responsibility to discipline before it will be able to exercise it.
Those are just a few examples of truths a pastor will need to teach his congregation before he gets to the particular subject of church discipline. I’m sure you could think of many others. I hope, however, that just meditating a bit on this topic will remind you that the job of the pastor is one of patient longsuffering. You don’t want to drive the sheep to the field of church discipline. You want to lead them there, step by step, correcting, rebuking, and encouraging with great patience and careful instruction (2 Tim. 4:2).