What is Church Discipline?
Let’s be honest, in today’s day and time, Church Discipline sounds mean spirited. I think it’s because of two reasons: a) the connotation of the word “discipline” is negative, and b) because many churches have done it so poorly. Let me address both issues.
First, the English word “discipline” used to carry the sense of concern, prevention, and education. Discipline and correction were not necessarily synonyms, but were two separate things. It was later that the word “correction” was caught up in the English Word “discipline.” 1 The word “discipline” was actually meant to be POSITIVE rather than negative.
Secondly, many churches have made a wreck out of this practice! Many of us have witnessed tons of “dead bodies” that have been run over by legalistic, self-righteous church leaders driving the bus of “church discipline” to “rid troublemakers” from all aspects of church. However, biblical church discipline is motivated by LOVE, not by condemnation (see my blog post on “Why We Practice Church Discipline”). When done properly, church discipline helps the person, sustains the church, and upholds Jesus’ reputation.
Church Discipline IS NOT:
-kicking people to the curb
-condemning others by tossing them out of the church
-unloving or mean spirited
Church Discipline IS:
-Loving toward the person, the church, and the name of Jesus
-A part of the discipleship process
The heart behind Church Discipline is the discipleship process where the church corrects sin and lovingly points the disciple toward Jesus.
Our working definition of Church Discipline is “a disciplinary action motivated by love and performed by the church towards an unrepentant church partner who is unwilling to set aside sin that is hurting a) himself, b) the church, and c) the reputation of Jesus, all in the hope of restoration.”
What kind of sins call for church discipline?
So, what are the exact sins that need to be corrected? Jonathan Leeman helps us to think wisely about what kind of sins need discipline. He teaches that formal church discipline is usually warranted when an individual crosses from sins we expect to sins we don’t.2 In other words, you may expect a new Christian with no religious background to possibly sin in some prevalent ways. However, you don’t expect an elder to sin in the same way. Both men need to be confronted – the new believer in a formative way, and the elder in a corrective way. Each case will be different and everything should be considered. The end goal is always the same – reconciliation, repentance, and restoration. That never changes. That takes time, love, sacrifice, wisdom, and prayer.
The church’s role
When a person chooses to join a church, the church does its best to conclude whether or not the person has made a believable profession of faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. If the church comes to that conclusion then it AFFIRMS the person’s salvation, and he is received into membership. The church doesn’t determine a person’s salvation, but it vouches for the person that he belongs to Christ. Formal church discipline takes place when a person’s failure to represent Christ becomes so habitual and characteristic that the church body no longer believes that member is a Christian. That means the church member has fallen into a sin from which he won’t repent – even after loving brothers, sisters, and elders warn him and try to help him. If he remains unrepentant, the church will make a determination that it can no longer AFFIRM the individual’s profession of faith. In the same way the church affirms a person’s salvation, it also has the authority (Matthew 18:18) to no longer affirm a person’s salvation. When this happens, the person is NOT kicked out of the church, but removed from membership and participation in the Lord’s Supper. The church will allow the person to continue coming to the general assemblies and events. This follows the commands of Jesus to treat an unrepentant person like a heathen and tax collector (Matthew 18:17). However, if the person is divisive and has been warned once or twice, then he is to be removed from the midst of the body (Titus 3:10). Church discipline is always to help the person, sustain the church, and uphold Jesus’ reputation.
Hope for restoration:
When a sinning brother repents, the church forgives and restores. It’s as simple as that. That’s what the church desired all along. We should rejoice like the father did with his prodigal son.
1 Handbook of Church Discipline. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Ministry Resources Library, 1986.
2 Church Discipline How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
For more about Church Discipline, listen to this sermon.