By Lise Caldwell
Recently I sat down with three remarkable men to discuss church discipline. Howard Brammer, John Samples, and John Caldwell have 150 years of preaching ministry experience between them. All three are retired from “official” full-time ministry, but continue to teach, preach, and guide.
From country churches to megachurches, they have watched church discipline succeed, fail to happen, and just plain fail. When I asked them to share their experiences, I heard wonderful stories, much laughter, great humility, and tremendous wisdom. I want to share the best of that here.
First, a word about their most recent ministries:
John Caldwell served as senior pastor at Kingsway Christian Church in Avon, Indiana, for 36 years. He continues to preach and serves as a church consultant.
Howard Brammer served for 24 years as senior pastor at Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He works with Kairos, a ministry that reaches out to declining churches and pastors who are struggling financially.
John Samples retired last September, 50 years to the day after his ordination. He has served congregations in Tennessee, Indiana, and California, as well as working for Standard Publishing. He is currently working with a mission in Israel as well as serving in the local church.
What is church discipline? What purpose does it serve?
John Samples: Church discipline is more than just correcting a problem. Church discipline is a form of discipleship.
Howard Brammer: It’s like child rearing. We discipline with a goal in mind. We don’t do it to punish for no reason, but to help people grow and mature. The goal of discipline is to get someone right with the Lord, not to kick him out of the church.
Samples: That’s right. Paul chastises the Corinthians for tolerating a man who is living with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5), but then in 2 Corinthians 2 he says, Now, wait a minute, guys. You’re punishing this man. I want you to love him and bring him back into the body.
John Caldwell: There are three primary purposes to church discipline: The first and foremost is to correct and restore. That’s what you see in the Corinthian incident John referred to. The second purpose is to protect the church. Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 5:6 how “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” When a behavior should bring about discipline and is not challenged, that sin will impact the whole church.
The third purpose of discipline is to uphold God’s standard of righteousness in the world. The church is often criticized for hypocrisy. To combat that, the church must show that it will not tolerate what is wrong, sinful, or disobedient.
Brammer: I agree. The protection of the church is critical. I don’t think you can have a strong church if you don’t have strong church discipline. I heard John MacArthur speaking to a group of pastors one time. He was asked, “What is the secret to the growth of your church?” He replied, “Church discipline.” I was stunned by that. He said it’s absolutely essential.
So how do you go about the church discipline process?
Caldwell: The Bible gives us the process in Matthew 18:15-17. If you’re offended by someone, go to the person individually. If he responds, great, and if not, you take two or three witnesses. If that doesn’t work, you take it “to the church.” That doesn’t necessarily mean an entire congregation needs to be involved, but certainly the elders.
Samples: We have to be careful with church discipline and keep it in the hands of seasoned leaders.
Do you find that elderships are willing and prepared to do that kind of work?
Caldwell: I think it’s difficult to deal with confrontation, and I think that’s the main reason why churches don’t do a good job of church discipline, if they do any job at all.
But there’s another reason we don’t do it today, and that’s because many times it’s futile. You discipline someone in this church, and the next week they go straight to another church and start all over again.
Brammer: Plus it takes a long time to do it. How long did they spend with Gordon MacDonald? [MacDonald is a pastor and writer who was serving as president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the 1980s when an adulterous relationship was revealed.]
Samples: He spent two years in intensive counseling with the church elders. MacDonald is an example of the value of careful, spiritual restoration. But I’m aware of preachers who have fallen and repented and have not been forgiven. Some ministers in Eastern Europe once told me about a fellow minister who had fallen. I asked them, “How do your churches handle that?”
“Oh, he’s cut off forever,” they said. “We won’t fellowship with him. He’s done.”
And I thought, There’s got to be forgiveness and restoration. The other half of discipline is forgiveness.
Caldwell: There are two levels though, especially when we’re dealing with professional ministry. On the one hand, ministers can be forgiven and restored to fellowship. But restoration to leadership? That’s a much larger question. There are some people who don’t belong in ministry, so we need to make sure we understand the difference between forgiveness and restoration to leadership.
Samples: But refusing to restore to leadership because of anger or personal insult is not forgiveness.
Brammer: I think that’s why Paul says in Galatians 6:1, “You who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” He doesn’t say, “Get a committee to do it.”
Caldwell: Well, supporting what you just said a moment ago about the need to forgive, of course, is the illustration we’ve already used, 2 Corinthians 2, where Paul tells the Corinthians the man has been sufficiently punished. He instructs them to forgive and even comfort him, lest somehow he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Paul urges them in verse 8 “to reaffirm your love for him.”
Samples: The process of discipline brings with it humiliation that will either draw a person back into the fold, or will remove him completely. If you just put him out on the edge, he’s going to create more damage than he did originally, because he’s going to be throwing rocks back into the pool.
What should prompt church discipline?
Caldwell: I think usually we think about blatant immorality. But there are a number of different reasons for church discipline mentioned in Scripture. One of the most interesting—laziness—is found in 2 Thessalonians 3. False teaching is another occasion for discipline, as well as blasphemy. Second Thessalonians 3:14 refers to people who refuse to submit to the authority of the Word of God.
But one of the most frequently mentioned in Scripture is divisiveness. I think churches miss that, and they pay the price. Divisiveness is not to be allowed because it breaks up the body of Christ. So there are many more reasons besides sexual or financial sin—the ones that we think of most often.
Brammer: We’re pretty selective in what we choose to discipline. Who’s ever been called on the carpet for gossip? Or backbiting?
Caldwell: The Bible talks about abusiveness and idol worship, too. Usually we think about graven images, but there are a lot of other idols.
Can you tell me about a time church discipline successfully restored someone?
Caldwell: We had two youth coaches—one was married to someone else—get involved in a romantic relationship. I met with them before it became a full-blown affair because I saw they were on dangerous ground. They didn’t heed my warnings. They moved in together. They both were removed from their leadership positions. We made many efforts to persuade them to give up the affair.
Finally, the chairmen of the elders and I went to their house. The man came to the door—the woman wouldn’t come—and we told them we’d made all these efforts and had gotten no response, so they were going to be publicly removed from the fellowship at Kingsway.
Some weeks later they both came forward, individually, in public services, and repented. The woman and her husband were restored, and the man is now happily married and involved in another church. It doesn’t always work out like that, but it’s encouraging when it does.
Brammer: That’s a great example. Too often the goal has been to deal with the problem rather than the person. We address an issue, the person leaves the church, and the problem is “solved.” I’m not suggesting that’s the right way to do it. I’m just confessing—I think much of our discipline is scantily done because it requires the things we’re talking about: hard work, love, and time.
Caldwell: I think we fail to follow through. We think, the problem is out of the way; let’s move on to other things.
Samples: Sometimes we react without thinking.
Brammer: Sometimes we pick and choose. For example, people ask me what I think about homosexuality. I tell them first of all, there are more people who are heterosexual who are having sex outside of marriage than there are homosexuals. So if we’re going to deal with the homosexual, we need to deal with the heterosexual. We often don’t even put the two in the same category. We’re quick to condemn the one and ignore the other.
Caldwell: But that’s not an excuse for failing to deal with either one.
If you were talking to someone facing a discipline issue, what general advice would you give them?
Caldwell: Matthew 18 is the process. First of all, go one-on-one. I think we can approach a person without putting them on the defensive, by saying, “I’ve been feeling this way” or “I saw this, and it concerns me. Help me out here—what’s going on?” When I confront, I also say, “Look, if you do have a problem, I’d be willing to help in any way I can.” Someone might not respond, but you’ve still done the right thing. We don’t have to be accusatory.
Brammer: I’ve taught people to go and inquire. Even if there’s just a tension between me and someone, I go to them and say, “Hey, I have the sense that maybe I’ve offended you. If I have, I want to know about it so I can make it right.” And most of the times the answer is “No, no! Everything’s fine!” but I often find that subsequently their attitude improves.
Samples: Yes, often we can dissolve things pretty quickly. Our fear keeps us from resolving a lot of discipline problems—or supposed problems.
What advice do you have for pastors who want to make sure someone is holding them accountable?
Brammer: I heard someone say one time that as a pastor you’ve got to have somebody in your church who loves you enough and is courageous enough to look across your desk at you and say, “I love you brother, but on this issue I think you’re full of baloney.” Do you have anybody in your church like that?
When you follow all the steps in Matthew 18, and the person still isn’t willing to repent, what do you do?
Caldwell: We developed a policy of removal from membership early on at Kingsway. It was very specific. If people placed membership at another church, moved away, or absented themselves from services for a period of a year despite our best efforts at shepherding, they were removed from membership. If people failed to respond to a Matthew 18 process, they were removed from membership. And when people died, they were removed from membership.
That might sound silly, but our thinking was this: When you pick up the obituary page, so many people are listed as “member of such-and-such church.” Many times that person hasn’t stepped inside a church for 20 years, but a lot of people think they are “OK with God” if they are members of a church. Obviously if a person is a shut-in or in a nursing home, it’s a whole different matter. But if people simply refused to return, they were notified by a letter from the chairman of the elders that they would no longer be considered members at Kingsway.
Surprisingly, many people returned to church when confronted with the fact that they were out of fellowship. The Lord compares his people to sheep. Sheep don’t intend to get lost; they just wander away. People were always told—in a letter and a personal visit—that they would be welcomed back at any time.
What about people who refuse to repent of specific sin?
Caldwell: In certain cases—a divisive issue or blatant immorality—there were times (and they were few and far between) when it was so obvious the sin was hurting the body as a whole that we went public with it and asked the congregation to respond in accordance with what the Scripture teaches.
Brammer: To advocate the other side—do you want people coming because they know they’ll get a letter or a visit if they don’t? Wouldn’t you rather the kids come to the dinner table because they want to be there?
Caldwell: Sometimes you have to make the kids come because they need to eat.
Any final thoughts?
Samples: The purpose of discipline is to practice the love of Jesus, and if that’s not our motive, I don’t know why we’d do it.
Caldwell: That also has to be tempered by love for the body as a whole.
Samples: And that’s the love of Jesus in his body, the church.
Brammer: Church discipline is one of the most difficult things to do—to look a brother in the eye and say, “I love you, but on this issue I think you’re full of baloney.” However, it’s also one of the most loving things we can do. It’s difficult to confront. But if we really love people, we’ll do it.
Lise Caldwell is a freelance writer and editor. She also happens to be John Caldwell’s daughter-in-law. She lives with her husband, Shan, and their two sons in Indianapolis, Indiana.