The healthy practice of communal discipline can reestablish our churches as holy refuges from the world.
Consider the term, “church discipline.” For many evangelical Christians, these words cast nightmarish images on the back of the mind—images of excommunication, inquisition, and witch-hunting. For others, it is a loving, positive term, a reminder of a time when they were brought back into the fold after they had been involved in sinful practice. For still others, it is a foreign term; it is something they have never encountered in a church.
Whatever pictures the expression calls up, Scripture makes it clear that church discipline exercised under the leadership of godly pastors, elders, and church members is a mark of a God-glorifying fellowship of believers (2 Cor. 5; Gal. 5:1–2).
Scripture clearly delineates the process of church discipline in other passages: Matthew 18:15–17; Matthew 5:23–26; James 5:19–20; and 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15. The steps of discipline might be summarized as follows:
If a Christian sins, he is to be restored through a personal confrontation by one who is spiritually mature. If no change results, two or three others are to accompany the original spokesman and again confront him. If there is still no change, the matter, along with the errant one, is to be brought before the church, and the offender is to be reprimanded publicly. If the problem persists, the church is to regard the sinner as a Gentile and tax gatherer.
Simple and clear as this process is, many Christians find it difficult. The question is, Why? Furthermore, what are the implications of the reasons they find it difficult? And finally, what actions can church members and leaders take to begin making the process of discipline a reality in the local church?
Through interviewing several prominent pastors and church leaders, I have discovered five general problems that have made discipline cumbersome. By identifying these, perhaps we can gain insight into how to change the situation.
1. People wonder whether discipline will do any good. If someone confronts another about a spiritual problem and the latter doesn’t like it, he can always leave the church and go elsewhere. There is often little communication between churches in the average community, and the erring Christian thus can easily hide his secret. Haddon Robinson, president of Denver Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, points out that, “Too often now when people join a church, they do so as consumers. If they like the product, they stay. If they do not, they leave. They can no more imagine a church disciplining them than they could a store that sells goods disciplining them. It is not the place of the seller to discipline the consumer. In our churches we have a consumer mentality.” The result is that confrontation often carries little clout except perhaps to drive people away.
2. No one is clear about what sins we are to discipline. One pastor related to me the story of an elder who left his wife and children for a divorced woman. When the pastor confronted the man about the situation and told him divorce was sin, the man disagreed and said, “I really believe this is God’s will.” (Because of the sensitiveness of many of the illustrations given here, most will remain anonymous, including those that are positive.)
In today’s church, sin is often a hazy issue. In some cases, it has been reduced to drinking, smoking, adultery, dancing, and swearing. On the other hand, if Christians began cracking down on each other for any and every fault listed in Scripture, the result might be constant nit-picking and fault finding rather than the building up of one another in the faith. Thus, it is difficult to find the middle ground where action against a sin is clearly required—that is, except in extreme cases.
3. People fear for the outcome. Many Christians have been burned when they offered constructive criticism by way of admonishment and thus they recoil from ever trying it again. Often there are hard feelings, grudges, and the taking of sides, resulting in splits and power plays. It’s just not worth it, because so much trouble inevitably results. John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, wrote me, “There is a fear of offending people and driving them away.… People are afraid that it will create problems and scare people off.” People naturally shy away from creating situations when they recall greater problems have resulted in the past.
4. People associate discipline with excommunication, church courts, and intolerance. For this reason we reject the idea of putting someone through disciplinary circumstances for a minor fault. We’ve all seen pictures of the Salem witch hunts, the Spanish Inquisition, and more recently, the Iranian theocratic purges. When the church begins to judge people and starts legislating all kinds of laws and regulations, we believe it is off limits, becoming too political and legalistic.
5. People have few models of positive discipline to reflect on and do not know how to“speak the truth in love,” or “admonish the unruly,” or “restore those caught in a fault.” An old Christian aphorism states, “The average church takes on the personality of its pastor and leadership.” If the leaders are evangelists, the church often becomes highly evangelistic. Where leaders concentrate on “body life,” this is the practice. But many of the pastors interviewed felt that because of the other problems mentioned, and the lack of models, discipline is often regarded as just too touchy to become a consistent practice.
What are the implications of this? What are we teaching or not teaching that has caused these departures from Scripture?
First of all, the practice of discipline is probably not being sufficiently taught and applied in daily life by church leaders. That is most obvious. But second, many of us may have unwittingly communicated the notion that the preaching of the Word of God is more an intellectual exercise than a guide for living righteously and justly in the world. We have been so caught up in the battle for the Bible that we have lost the battle to obey the Bible. Third, success through numbers and building a “big” church may be overshadowing the need to build a pure church. Fourth, sin is often regarded as a private matter rather than a matter of the body; American individualism may be at fault. Finally, there is often no strong sense of responsibility to one another as part of Christ’s body.
In many respects, this is a uniquely American problem. Recent reports from churches all over the world and behind the Iron Curtain tell us that especially in areas of heavy persecution there is much discipline going on. Whether they like it or not, persecuted Christians take purity very seriously, and their commitment is very high. Perhaps it is too easy to be a Christian in America.
Yet, none of these problems indicates that the situation is hopeless. All of the pastors with whom I spoke told me that disciplinary procedures from lay to leadership levels are being used with success and are even creating a holy, heathful attitude in the local church. There are at least five practices in these churches that create a healthy, disciplinary environment. These practices indicate the direction other churches need to go to establish proper discipline within their bodies.
First, discipline is successful when people have a clear understanding of what sin is, and a love for holiness, according to such passages as Psalm 5:4–6 and 1 Peter 1:13–16. The problem cited earlier was that few people have a clear idea of what sins are to be disciplined. In response to this question, Dave Krueger, recently pastor of a church in Florida and now a staff member with Search Ministries, a discipleship organization in the U.S., cited 1 Peter 4:8, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” He said, “Loving people, moved by a spirit of forgiveness, do not focus on every little sin. If they perceive a persistent pattern of sinful behavior over a period of time, then they act according to Matthew 8:15–17. The first time they see it, they don’t confront it.” Krueger referred here to less extreme sins than, say, adultery, witchcraft, and drunkenness.
Krueger cultivated this mentality in his church through making God’s attitude toward sin clear (he hates it, judges it, and forgives it) and through practicing body life, whereby people were taught to go to one another if they had disputes, grievances, and errors. John MacArthur told me that in many cases, because his congregation has been taught God’s view of sin, many were restored in the first step of the disciplinary process: personal admonishing and confrontation. Such sins as comtemplating remarriage on unscriptural terms, separating or contemplating divorce, cheating in business, deception, taking advantage of others, slothfulness, and perversion all were dealt with by spiritual members of the congregation who spotted the sin, confronted the sinner, and helped him toward change and restoration.
The question is often asked, What sins are sufficient reasons to break fellowship with a believer? It should be pointed out, first, that the person involved in the sin must be a professing Christian. We can’t break fellowship with someone who does not even profess to be in the fellowship. Second, the lists of sins in Galatians 5:19–21; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Mark 7:21, and 2 Timothy 3:2–7 are a starting point. However, fellowship is not broken until it has been established that the sinner has finally resisted all attempts to effect change according to Matthew 18:15–17. That includes pledges of support in the effort to overcome the sin, as well as encouragement and help along the way. Most of those pastors interviewed for this article indicated that only when a Christian continues in his sin, without any confrontation by his brothers, does it get out of control. When there is an effort made to effect change immediately after the sin comes to light, rarely is discipline by disfellowshipping necessary.
There is a further issue: What sins prohibit Christians from holding office in the church? Considering that Christ forgives all sin, should the church prohibit someone from serving in the church because of a past, forgiven sin? Some churches disqualify divorced persons. Such disqualification is not clearly mandated by Scripture, but it would take an additional article to outline the problems involved. Ultimately, if a person is walking with Christ and has demonstrated maturity, and meets the requirements of 1 Timothy 3 and other related passages, then there is no past sin that should bar him or her from office. If, however, the past sin has continuing ramifications, as in the case of a man who can’t control his family, then this should be considered in light of the leadership passages.
Second, discipline is successful when membership in a church is regarded as a responsibility to love, admonish, encourage, and build up one another (Rom. 12:4–5). One pastor experienced the following situation:
A couple had been members of the church for several years, were involved in ministry, and seemed to be growing. Then it was rumored that the wife was seeing another man. No one confronted her. Two years later, when it began to be rumored that a divorce was imminent, the pastor confronted the woman, telling her she would be taken off the church’s rolls if she went through with the divorce. The woman was understandably upset. She complained that during the two years of the problem, no one had come to her. Yet now the pastor tells her the guillotine is about to fall. The situation could have deteriorated from there, but the pastor reacted with godly integrity. He apologized to the woman for not providing the proper spiritual counsel and support, and he committed himself to helping the couple in every possible way. While the situation is still bad, there has been no divorce. But the change in the pastor and the results in the congregation have been positive. He has been teaching the biblical concepts of confrontation and discipline, and many in his church are beginning to practice them on every level.
Another pastor experienced a situation in which an alcoholic woman was sinking deeper and deeper into her problem with no hope for change. When he and several godly men in the church got involved, the woman began to respond. Through the work of Alcoholics Anonymous and those men, the woman has dried out and is growing in faith. In membership classes, this pastor emphasizes responsibility to one another, and says he sees results every week.
Third, discipline is successful in churches where believers practice the confession of sin to one another on the personal, small group, and sometimes corporate levels (James 5:16). In one church, an elder was involved in some clandestine business practices. The pastor became aware of this, and confronted the elder. The man was repentant but did not honestly know what to do. He was brought before the elder board, which advised him to take a leave of absence until the situation was worked through and corrected; when he had demonstrated a clearly repentant spirit through change he would be restored as an elder. He counseled with the pastor and with others. His attitude was most positive, and he quickly cleaned up his sinful business situation. Then he approached the pastor and asked for some form of church service—anything, even janitorial. Previously, he had been a major teacher in the church, but there still remained a problem. The whole church knew of his sin, but not necessarily of his repentance. What was to be done? The man conferred again with the pastor and together they decided a public confession was necessary. He made his confession and it was followed by worship and prayer. The pastor told me that this elder’s actions built up the church and resulted in growth, both spiritually and otherwise.
In one United Presbyterian church, the confession of sin is practiced as a regular part of prayer in small groups. Often, the group’s advice, forgiveness, support, and sense of responsibility for the sinner’s growth results in uplift for both the group and the erring one.
Pastor Thomas Graham of Aisquith Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, preaches the practice of discipline and confession and has noted an influence even on the youth. In one case, a teen-aged girl was teasingly confronted by a leader about a small fault. She asked, “Am I forgiven?” The leader replied, “Sure.” Then she said, “Then will you forget about it and not talk about it anymore?” That teen had caught a glimpse of the freedom of forgiveness and, though the example may seem trivial, she demonstrated an understanding of real forgiveness after confession, an understanding she could only have gotten through seeing it exemplified in her parents, friends, and leaders.
Fourth, discipline is successful when people are taught how to admonish one another, to speak the truth in love, and to confront each other about sin (1 Thess. 5:12–15). Pastors who have taught the process note that only good has resulted for their churches, even when erring members have rejected the grievance and left. John MacArthur told me, “It seems to us that many, if not most of those who respond to the admonition by repenting become better, stronger, and more faithful Christians because of the experience.”
In Peninsula Bible Church, Palo Alto, California, where its pastor, Ray Stedman, is noted for his teachings on “body life,” the practice of admonishing one another and of church discipline is taught and applied. In one case, a homosexual was confronted about his problem. The church leaders went through the whole process of discipline without immediate results and the man was finally regarded as a non-Christian (which Stedman believes is the biblical admonition, not excommunication). Five years later, the homosexual repented and wrote a letter to the church acknowledging his sin and affirming his recommitment. The man wrote, “It is impossible for me to retrace my footsteps and right every wrong; however, I welcome the opportunity to meet and pray with any individuals who have something against me that needs resolution. I am looking and waiting for the further grace and mercy of God in this matter. What you have bound on earth has been bound in heaven, and I now know your actions were done in love for my own good and that of the body of Christ.” This is healing discipline.
It might be asked, What sins should a believer confront another about? Paul’s statement in Galatians 6:1, “To be caught in a fault,” actually covers all overt sins. In effect, there is no sin that we should consider out of bounds or beyond our spiritual maturity to admonish a brother about. What is out of bounds, though, is for a sinning Christian to confront another sinning Christian. Paul specifically says, “Let he that is spiritual restore …” His restriction is not on the kind of sin, but on the qualities of the confronter: he must be pure and upright.
Fifth and last, discipline is successful when there are follow-up and support for those who have sinned. In many of the cases cited, the disciplinary procedure was not simply a confrontation situation, but also a restoration process in which the sinner was helped through counsel and support to overcome his problem. Thomas Graham has even set up in his church a “nouthetic counseling center” expressly to help those who are caught in faults and need biblical advice to resolve their problems. He has personally seen many positive results from the work.
In light of all these principles, some action must be taken on the part of church leaders, pastors, and members. There are several efforts we can make to create a healthy church discipline environment and so restore purity and holiness to our churches. First, study Scripture to gain God’s view of sin and what he regards as sin, and inculcate it into your outlook on life. Second, recognize that you have a grave responsibility to the body of Christ and that you are called to admonish those who sin, and then to support them. Third, begin by being open yourself with your brothers and sisters in personal confession of sin, seeking their counsel and support. Fourth, study the pertinent passages on discipline (listed earlier) and begin to practice it on a personal level. Finally, never merely admonish someone; always assure individuals of your love and your help through the repentance process.
Practicing these principles as a way of life could break the power of the flesh over some in our churches, and make the churches more habitable, functional, and comfortable refuges from the world.
“… to him that worketh not, but believeth …”
You have your work clothes on, my Dear,
That simply will not do!
The Wedding’s near. Please will you wear
The garments bought for you!
Jane W. Lauber
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