The Protestant reformers named three "marks by which the true church is known": the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline to correct faults. Today, church discipline is feared as the mark of a false church, bringing to mind images of witch trials, scarlet letters, public humiliations, and damning excommunications. Does discipline itself need correction and redemption in order to be readmitted into the body of Christ? We have asked several experts from different (and sometimes contrasting) professional and theological backgrounds to explain how church discipline fell into disrepair and how it can be revived, so that the true church can fully embody the pure doctrine of the gospel once again.

Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five | Day Six

Maybe the most fundamental dynamic in church discipline is also the simplest: Sin happens. It happens in big churches, it happens in little churches. It probably happens at roughly the same per capita rate no matter what the congregation's size. It should sadden everyone, but it shouldn't shock anyone. So the question is not how to respond if it happens. The question is how to respond when it happens.

A second dynamic is also a constant across congregations regardless of size: In any biblically authentic community, sin is confronted, not ignored.

I believe churches try to cover up sin even more than people outside the church do, and larger churches are more prone to this temptation than smaller ones. Maybe it's because we are apt to confuse "bigger" with "more blessed," and mistakenly confer spiritual maturity. Maybe it's because we erroneously think that covering up sin in a highly visible ministry will protect the reputation of the gospel.

But God does not cover up the embarrassing misbehavior of his leaders. From Adam and Eve's sin to Noah's drunkenness to Abraham's lying to David's adultery and murder, the writers of Scripture are brutally honest. "Judgment," Peter says, "begins with the family of God." We ought to set the standard for coming clean. Ironically, when people see the church voluntarily coming clean, confessing sin, truly repenting, it creates credibility. And heightened visibility only increases this responsibility.

Correction and discipline are necessary for all believers, but in the large church we tend to give particular attention to church leaders because of their unique potential to seriously weaken the church's spiritual health and witness.

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Restoring Trust

Facing sin honestly is about more than reputation. As Paul wrote to Timothy: "Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning" (1 Tim. 5:20).

At first glance, this verse looks daunting, especially for large churches. If every sin committed during the week by every member were rebuked at every service, it would create a new format: All rebuke, all the time.

But Paul's statement comes in a section on how to handle accusations of sin against elders. The principle seems to be that leaders who break trust can be restored only after an appropriately open response.

Sometimes it takes pain to get it right. I think of one large church where a powerful pastor had faced rumors of sexual misconduct for some time. Church elders never investigated—they didn't want to know. When the reality of the misconduct became inescapable, the pastor was allowed to announce his resignation without any real explanation. He got a standing ovation, and rumors circulated that he had been treated unfairly. The elders had to start over with themselves, the pastor, and the church. This time, an appropriate public explanation was given, the ex-pastor went through a denominationally supervised repentance/reconciliation process, and the end result was an exercise in redemption.

The general principle is that confessing and seeking forgiveness must extend to the community that has been directly damaged by the sin. If I sin against my wife, I need to confess to my wife. If that sin has damaged the small group I lead, I need to speak to them as well.

Make no mistake: For those who teach or lead, breaking trust with anyone (especially one's spouse) means breaking trust with all those who trust you. Such misbehavior, then, requires confession to all those we lead and teach. I had a chance to watch this principle lived out firsthand when I was on staff at Willow Creek Community Church. It wouldn't be appropriate to share specific stories, but I saw adventures in redemption from the small-group sphere, to the staff level, to congregation. They led to moments of sheer beauty.

This doesn't mean that everyone who violates a leadership position should return to their old position. Some experts in the field distinguish between wanderers (like David) whose fall was not premeditated, and predators (like Eli's sons) who may go through repentance and reconciliation but not re-installation.

Church discipline is really about the spiritual health of the whole body. In larger churches, people can start to think of it simply as scandal avoidance. But the lack of appropriate administration is really a failure of love and a compounding of sin: "Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt" (Lev. 19:17). Discipline does not merely protect the church from contamination: It builds and strengthens the bonds of love.

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Another word for church discipline, then, is simply accountability. One of the best forms of this is ensuring that someone always knows where you are. While it sounds simple, I've noticed over the years that one of the first yellow flags for trouble is a staff member spending significant time off campus when no one knows where he or she is.

Larger churches can sometimes forget they are communities, not corporations. Therefore, church discipline is not an obstacle to the mission of the church; it is foundational to the mission. "The practice of discipline in the community of faith begins with friends who are close to each other," Bonhoeffer wrote. "Words of admonition and reproach must be risked."

John Ortberg is teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California and author of God Is Closer Than You Think and The Life You've Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles in this series include:

How Discipline Died| The church should stop taking its cues from the state. (July 22, 2005)
Shaping Holy Disciples| Mark Dever says church discipline is not about punishment or self-help. (July 25, 2005)

More articles on church discipline or the need for it from CT includes:

To Judge, or Not to Judge | Christ commanded us not to judge others, but aren't there times when common sense or prudence requires it? (June 29, 2005)
The Evangelical Scandal | Ron Sider says the movement is riddled with hypocrisy, and that it's time for serious change. (April 13, 2005)
Canterbury Crackup | Eschewing church discipline has come back to haunt Anglicans. A Christianity Today editorial (Dec. 03, 2004)
Weblog: Debates on Debates on Church Discipline | Catholic bishops will issue statement on Communion as a Matthew 18 lawsuit is reinstated against a Texas Bible church. (June 18, 2004)

Articles from our sister publication, Leadership Journal, include:

Taking Church Membership Seriously | Why it's time to raise the bar. (April 18, 2005)
Church Discipline Really Works (pt. 1) | When you make it loving and redemptive. (Jan. 24, 2005)
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Church Discipline Really Works (pt. 2) | How to find courage (and avoid lawsuits) when confronting sinning believers. (Jan. 31, 2005)

Mark Dever's Nine Marks site has a section on church discipline.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Theological Seminary, wrote a series on church disciple. It is available on his website:

Should a Church Discipline Members Over Politics? | None of us wants to see churches identified as "Republican Baptists" and "Democratic Baptists." Such partisan identifications violate the autonomy of the church as the Body of Christ.
Mohler also covered this topic on his radio show.
The Disappearance of Church Discipline—How Can We Recover? Part One | The decline of church discipline is perhaps the most visible failure of the contemporary church.
The Disappearance of Church Discipline—How Can We Recover? Part Two | The disappearance of church discipline has weakened the church and compromised Christian witness.
The Disappearance of Church Discipline—How Can We Recover? Part Three | Spiritual leaders of the church are to confront a sinning member with a spirit of humility and gentleness, and with the goal of restoration.
The Disappearance of Church Discipline—How Can We Recover? Part Four | When should the church exercise church discipline?

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