Rejoicing in Rebuke
Have Christians forgotten that discipline is a gift from God?

For the past couple of weeks, Ur-banites have been wrestling with questions about church membership. Below, Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries, takes one of the big questions head on: how does a church discipline its members?

On January 18, 2008, The Wall Street Journal Online published an article by Alexandra Alter on church discipline entitled Banned from Church. When Alexandra interviewed me before writing the article, I explained the biblical basis for church discipline and acknowledged how churches have sometimes neglected or abused the process. I also described how properly applied accountability can help people break free from sinful and destructive conduct. I even provided examples of churches that had used loving discipline to stop crooks from defrauding elderly people, protect lonely women from being seduced, and move child sexual abusers to confess their crimes ("A Better Way to Handle Abuse").

Despite our conversation, Alexandra chose to paint an entirely negative picture of discipline by using the example of a 71-year-old woman who had been removed from her church for questioning her pastor's leadership. Examples of protecting the elderly, the lonely, and the helpless from abuse apparently did not fit into her preconceived notions of church discipline.

I'm sad, but not surprised, when secular writers present a negative stereotype of church discipline. What troubles me far more is how many Christians share these distorted views.

Like Ms. Alter, most Christians seem to see church discipline either as a harsh, legalistic, and unloving process, which true followers of Christ should never practice, or (also well illustrated in the WSJ article) as a handy tool for getting rid of inquisitive, irritating, or challenging members.

Neither of these views is biblical.

The Bible never presents church discipline as being negative, legalistic or harsh. True discipline originates from God himself and is always presented as a sign of genuine love. Consider these three verses: "The Lord disciplines those he loves" (Heb. 12:6). "Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law" (Ps. 94:12). "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline" (Rev. 3:19).

God's discipline in the church, like the discipline in a good family, is intended to be primarily positive, instructive, and encouraging. This process, which is sometimes referred to as "formative discipline," involves preaching, teaching, prayer, personal Bible study, small group fellowship, and countless other enjoyable activities that challenge and encourage us to love and serve God more wholeheartedly.

March 25, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 13 comments

Ralph Bowles

April 02, 2008  5:33am

The Lord of the church is the one who disciplines his body. It is unusual to find observations on 1 Cor. 5:2 that interpret it correctly as the Lord who takes away the unrepentant person (lit. "that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you" - ie by God, in response to prayer (here, " mourned"). I accept that there may be necessary disciplinary procedures, but surely the best recourse (after admonition and challenge) is heartfelt prayer to the Lord Jesus to deal with the problem in HIS church.

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March 31, 2008  4:39pm

Jesus is coming back for a church without spot or wrinkle. What we consider perfection is FAR different than what Christ considers perfection. We are never going to be the worldly definition of holy and perfect. Let's be very, very careful when we these images start dancing in our minds. Sheep don't lead shepherds. If we are discussing pastors, remember that they are human [sheep] too. We all are following our Shepherd and all need guidance. Yes, we should respect our elders/pastors/ leaders and not give advice when unnecessary (and not see criticism when there isn't any). But if someone goes off-track, then a little nudge does good. (Who pastors the pastor?) The trick is to avoid becoming lemmings on a hamster wheel.

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March 27, 2008  5:47pm

To Mike, a messenger was already sent; his name was Jesus. But that aside I agree with Alfred why can't we just do as Christ asks and leave the outcome to him? The point in Discipline is to bring the straying party to repentence and back into fellowship, and to avoid infecting the rest of the flock. Sin left unchecked can and will grow like a disease, and since we are the "BODY" of Christ, if a part of us is infected we will all be affected. And I'm sure there are many a Pastor out there who can personally testify to the destructive results of that.

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Alfred Poirier

March 26, 2008  3:15pm

Sadly, most of the comments negative of Sande's article argue against the practice of church discipline from pragmatic, not principled, reasons – "they haven't seen it work." Do we really want to go down that road? Did Christ call us to obey him only when we see obedience to his comamndments work? I could list msyelf and many other pastors who have seen it work. But that just pits one form of pragmatisim against another. Rather, let us listen to Jesus commands, act wisely in implementing them, and leave the results to God.

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March 26, 2008  2:02pm

I agree, in part, with the one poster up thread who has pointed out, "It sounds like the lady had a point, but we don't know the manner in which she went about "making her case". Church by-laws are not Scripture and while I agree with her position–as outlined in the article–we still don't know the tenor of the disagreement and how she comported herself." I've been disciplined by the church, and I've seen discipline administered. And the common thread through all of it is that that church discipline is very subjective. Each case is different from the next, and treated differently as well...and I think that is a very good thing.

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mike rucker

March 26, 2008  8:29am

roger wrote, The church needs more talk. less judgment. hallelujah. the only difference between (sweeping, overreaching, lumping-everyone-together term coming...) evangelicals and the Pharisees of Jesus' day is the color of our robes. troy wrote, Jesus is coming back for a church without spot or wrinkle. then i'd suggest we do like jacob did with esau and send some messengers to try and calm Him down. i think there's even a book out now that argues that church discipline is the key to church growth. "hey - does your church lean more to calvinism or arminianism?" "actually, we lean more to darwinism - survival of the legalist."

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Paul Dalach

March 26, 2008  8:11am

I personally have seen a brother put under church discipline repent by deed. Despite his protests against what he considers his needless expulsion, he says that he knew it was done out of love. And in fact, his life did change away from the sinful, self-destructive pattern and back into a place of greater health. After more than six years of repeatedly self-centered and self-destructive behavior, is it coincidence that he changes after the discipline? I don't believe so. We may not look like the good guys, but our brother's life has been positively changed through the events of discipline. And that's the hope, right? The point of church discipline in the individual's life is to force a crisis to promote godly change. To be honest, I don't buy pomoprophet's arguments. Discipline is a command from God not subject our judgments and it does work. It is, in my experience, the ones that don't understand how human hearts work that don't value church discipline...ones that don't realize that true, perpetual separation from God because of unrepentant sin is worse than the hurt of tense relationships.

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March 25, 2008  6:43pm

A careful read of Matthew 18, the primary place we find a process for dealing with sinful behavior, will give some specific insight. One thought is that asking someone to leave is a last resort not a reaction to un-repentance. Over my years in ministry I have walked through Matthew 18 more than a dozen times and only once did it not lead to repentance and restoration. Matthew 18 lays out a process for us to walk through and when we do it is very effective. I also use the processes principles "go to your brother" all the time and most all the time it heads of having to go any further. . If a brother sins against you… go show him his fault between the two of you. If he listens… you have won your brother. This is not outdated, it is simply poorly practiced. If he refuses take witnesses… one or two. Still not outdated but highly practical. If he listens you won your brother… if not take it to the church. If he listens you won your brother… if not treat him as a tax collector or pagan. It usually never has to get this far but what is important to note is what Jesus adds here. Three statements: You have my authority What you bind or lose is bound or loosed… You have my ear… What you ask here will be responded to by my Father… you have my presence… Where ever two or three are gathered (the witnesses) I am in the midst. This is significant to note that when the process is followed, difficult as it may be, uncertain as the end result might be… I will give you my authority, my ear and my presence to restore and if necessary, remove a brother. Not out of date just out of fashion or poorly used.

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March 25, 2008  6:32pm

Ummmm....since when did age make a person's opinion or behavior sacrosanct? It sounds like the lady had a point, but we don't know the manner in which she went about "making her case". Church by-laws are not Scripture and while I agree with her position–as outlined in the article–we still don't know the tenor of the disagreement and how she comported herself. For all we know, she could have been a grandmother with double knee replacements who served the church, gave sacrificially, and developed a spirit of entitlement about "her" church and for all her good work was bringing discord to the church...again, for all we know. In my church leadership experience I've seen many folk who disagree with leaders and then go on the warpath. That is sowing discord–even if they are right in principle. It's not about the substance of the disagreement, it's many times the manner in which congregants communicate their disagreement. The Alter article also mentions a different situation, a lawsuit, where a church leader described a gossiper as spreading the spirit of Satan. Well...hate to say it (not really), but that's a pretty accurate description of the effects of gossip. I've seen more church torn apart by "pillars" who didn't get their way on something. Bottom Line: Sheep don't lead shepherds. If we're not talking about biblical morality, orthodox doctrine, or proper disposal of funds, folk need to be very careful about how they treat and approach their leaders...even when they might be making a mistake. I repeat, sheep don't lead shepherds.

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Roger Kruger

March 25, 2008  12:04pm

I've never known of an instance when shunning led to repentance. The sole specific instance Sande provides, detailed in his referenced article "A Better Way to Handle Abuse," is of an abuser who confessed after people went and talked to him. The church needs more talk. less judgment.

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