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

Among American Catholics, the collapse of church discipline is symbolized by empty confessionals and more than $1 billion in settlements for clergy sexual abuses. Mainline liberal Protestants present the fool's gold standard of church discipline on every count: the hemorrhage in church membership, the closure of churches, the dilution of doctrinal and moral integrity, the absence of confession in worship, hyper-optimistic ecumenical romanticism, the avid neglect of Scripture, and knee-jerk politics. American Episcopalians maintain stubborn resistance to warnings by the world Anglican Communion that they have recklessly broken fellowship. American evangelicals also avoid church discipline as they acclimate to client-driven church strategies, desperately popular preaching, the health-and-wealth gospel, and the appetite to be really okay within modern culture.

Meanwhile, the attempts to revive church discipline are strewn with a long series of either ambiguous victories or utter defeats: the oft-ignored Mandatum on strengthening Catholic teaching in higher education, the epic struggle within the Evangelical Theological Society to resist openness theology, the thwarted efforts of the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church to enforce the discipline on sexuality and doctrinal issues, and the basket case of the United Church of Canada. Like grade inflation in academia, the lowering of standards for the Christian life seems to have invaded every level of the Christian aspiration to accommodate neatly to modernity. Just try to enforce church law and see what happens.

Whenever laity or clergy are disciplined, it seems to modern eyes, and especially to the secular press, like overbearing legalism, moral insensitivity, and exclusivism. If any constraints are put on reception of Communion, it appears undemocratic. When church trials have sought to call voluntary believers to accountability to their own voluntary decisions and commitments, the press paints a picture of social injustice. Any attempt at accountability, even for the worst abuses, looks to modernity like oppression. Believers understandably wonder: How can meaningful church discipline be recovered in a culture that prefers no accountability at all?

It's true that at times some have been oppressive in their exercise of church discipline, but we must recall that the historical norm for church discipline has held reasonably firm for 18 centuries, from Irenaeus to Athanasius to Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to the Reformers to the Evangelical Revival and finally up to the reckless phase of accommodation to modernity. Then it comes to a full stop. The last century has seen discipline grow increasingly relativistic, flabby, ambiguous, or altogether disappear. Only our contemporaries regard a precipitous drop of standards for baptism and Communion as acceptable and inevitable—maybe even normative and healthy.

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Now we delight in our supposed freedom to baptize without catechizing, and to receive communicants without repentance. If it sounds modern, it is. Such things were seldom heard before modernity among either Catholics or Protestants.

Historical examples

During a time of bloody persecution in 3rd-century Carthage, many believers were tempted to lapse into evasive acts of idolatry. Cyprian, their caring and courageous bishop, painstakingly and compassionately brought them back to a strong community of confession. He carried out this work even amid continued persecution by rigorous discipling and by allowing those who showed thorough evidences of sincere repentance that they were ready to re-enter the community of faith.

Cyprian set the bar assessing those evidences high. Those who wanted to return to the Christian community but spurned the grace that enables godly living were not cast away entirely from the pastoral care of the church. But neither were they allowed to return cheaply into full communion until evidencing a meaningful repentance with acts of reparation. Cyprian himself was willing to die for his faith, and later did.

Martin Luther, in guiding the 16th-century church back to the apostolic teaching of salvation by grace through faith active in love, was aware that the gospel of grace is so freeing that it might become an excuse for licentious behavior. Like Paul, he was ready to answer the question: "Shall we sin that grace may abound?"

Many of his time were ignorant of the meaning of their baptism. Under his reform, every Lutheran communicant was called upon to learn the deeper personal meaning of each of the Ten Commandments in the light of grace, to ask for the grace of repentance through the Lord's Prayer, and to understand each article of the Apostles' Creed as a summary of faith.

Among other significant models of historic church discipline, we see Ignatius nurturing the continuity of the apostolic witness, and Nicaea challenging Arius. The distortions of the Marcionites, Gnostics, and Montanists were carefully examined under the criteria of apostolic testimony. The lapsed were allowed to return, but only with repentance. Efforts to bring the Donatists back into full communion continued for centuries.

Later, Calvin worked tirelessly to tame both the Genevan church and society. Bunyan sought to keep Christian on the narrow path to the celestial city. Spener and Franke sought to transcend conventional, nominal Christianity. Especially Richard Baxter provided Protestants with a rich and thoroughgoing model of lay and clergy church discipline.

We can challenge each of these examples as to its adverse effects, but the point is that Protestant discipline succeeded early patristic, monastic, and medieval forms of discipline with a grace-grounded discipline of faith active in love. The church did not exempt its own orders from the same discipline it taught to the baptized. This is what the church is doing when it is following the Lord's call to the disciplined life in a disciplined community.

John Wesley, in resisting the laxness and hyper-tolerance and relativism of his 18th century Anglican culture, provides a prototype. He tended his vineyard by carefully bringing together small intensive groups to study Scripture, pray, and seek mutual accountability. The only requirement for persons entering these small groups was sincere readiness for repentance—acknowledging how their own decisions had put them at a great distance from the holiness of God ("flee from the wrath to come," in 18th-century language). Grace-forming rules provided boundaries so that, if a participant persistently flaunted, he could not continue until demonstrating a readiness for repentance. Faith by grace was looking for practical means of better reflecting the holiness of God.

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How to restore church discipline

Why did these time-tested Christian efforts succeed more fully in nurturing Christian accountability than recent failed attempts? The short answer is that we have neglected the powerful biblical teachings of confession, repentance, faith, and the holy life. The longer, practical answer requires more unpacking.

The American church must now relearn from the world church and the historic church the vitality of gentle admonition grounded in love. This requires restating clearly and grasping plausibly the basic purpose of church discipline:

  • to lead each believer toward full participation in the benefits of life in Christ,

  • to respond to the holiness of God,

  • to warn neglectful communicants of the serious character and eternal consequences of sin,

  • to restore to full fellowship believers who may have fallen or are tempted to fall into sinful actions harmful to others, and

  • to embody so far as possible the integrity of the church.

The goal of the Christian life is to be reshaped daily by God's own incarnate love, to reflect the image of Christ in actual behavior. The Christian life noticeably differs from the life of the world. When the church understands that, the Spirit blesses it.

The reasonable restoration of discipline requires a renewed vision of the very purpose and mission of the church. Nothing important will happen without doctrinal renewal. As the young and immature Christian requires constant nurture and care, so does the lapsed church. As the delinquent desperately struggles to test set boundaries, so does the apostate or apostatizing church. The grateful believer already hungers for discipling toward righteousness, and deserves from church leadership that guidance. God witnesses to himself in creation and the human conscience, but these witnesses are not complete without the revelation of God in Christ and the actual community that receives it. God's mission to the world is most fully made known in the Father's sending of the Son into the world to become its Savior and in the Son's sending the church into the world to spread the gospel, enabling works of love and justice, and seeking to bring into full maturity all who have received new birth in Christ.

The community life that preaches the Cross must itself be marked by the Cross. Those who fittingly proclaim the messianic servant seek to exemplify their proclamation in a life of holiness and love; otherwise their testimony loses credibility. The church may itself become the first obstacle to belief when it fails to show forth the gospel in actual behavior—when it lacks works of love, clear identity, or moral integrity. God calls the faithful to act in a manner worthy of the gospel, and even to adorn it, enhancing its beauty by their grace-enabled choice to live the holy life insofar as possible. They know that their message rings true only if they can embody the love and forgiveness they talk about. The risen Lord becomes more recognizable to others insofar as the new creature in faith shows some plausible evidences of having died to selfish ambition, dishonesty, and covetousness, and of walking on the way toward a life of integrity and generosity.

The people of God are called simply to be God's redeemed community, to worship the true God who has made himself known in history, to reverence him in confession, prayer, and praise, to proclaim the gospel of God's redemptive love to the ends of the earth by word and deed, to care for all of God's creatures, actively seeking the good of each one, especially the poor and needy. Yet the church remains keenly aware that it continues to fall short and so needs to pray daily for grace. God intends the church to be a lively sign of his governance in the actual world. It lives to provide a convincing indication of what human community looks like when it comes under God's rule of righteousness, justice, and peace.

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No serious readers of Scripture can pretend not to know that those redeemed by God have profound obligations. They are called by grace to make apparent the grace that saved them. They look to reshape their behavior in whatever ways their faith enables and requires. Similarly, the worshiping community is called to make evident the presence of Christ in the fallen world. Christians live under the promise that the Holy Spirit will assist them in this, indwell in them, and equip them to embrace new life in Christ. The Spirit enables the people of God to refract the holy life in worship, witness, prayer, discipleship, and acts of compassion and justice.

Today the church suffers from the neglect of biblically grounded discipline on one hand, and an excess of undisciplined narcissistic license on the other. It is sick from pursuing a pretended absolute religiosity instead of living out the biblical understanding of a true humanity released from bondage to sin and being renewed by the Holy Spirit. The corrective love found in living Christian communities seeks to grasp by faith the full measure of Christ's sanctifying work, grounded in unmerited forgiveness, offering personal freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and newness of life through the outpouring of his Spirit. This is how church discipline will be gradually recovered. And it is happening. It will take time, but the Spirit has plenty of time.

The recovery of church discipline will not happen without prayer, grace, and obedience to the Word. God expects every believer to live a life responsive to grace, in which every area of one's life comes under the lordship of Jesus Christ and the fruit of the Spirit becomes increasingly evident.

Never is the social process so far gone that it is beyond the grace of repentance. Even today, with the gross loss of discipline, the Spirit is at work to turn around church discipline. Disciplinary procedures long established through hard-won Christian experience can be taken seriously once again. The path to baptism can be set forth with the rigor it deserves. The Communion table can be a place of celebration of life in Christ rather than merely life in an egalitarian community of toleration. The ordained leaders who promise to draw the church toward the truth must be willing to submit themselves to the power of apostolic teaching.

The disciplined community is once again being born. It is being taught by God the Father that his Word and Spirit are at work to give birth to and nurture the one holy catholic and apostolic church. Broken people from broken families and political orders all over the world are being called into fellowship with Christ. The Spirit is guiding and preserving through time that redeemed humanity, which is being formed in every culture and is spiritually at one with the unnamed faithful people of God in all ages.

Thomas C. Odenis a Christianity Today executive editor, Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University, general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and author of The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity.

Related Elsewhere:

See also today's related article, "'Do You Desire to be Told of Your Faults?' | How early Methodists practiced small-group accountability."

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)
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Spheres of Accountability | The dynamics of discipline in the megachurch. (July 26, 2005)
Keeping the Lawyers at Bay | How to correct members while staying out of court. (July 27, 2005)
Healing the Body of Christ | Church discipline is as much about God as it is about erring believers. (July 28, 2005)

More articles on church discipline from CT include:

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)
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?