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.
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