By Jim Tune
The words church discipline can conjure up vivid imagery that seemingly affirms the world’s worst perceptions of church. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter serves up a twisted picture of the ostracizing of an adulteress by both church and community. Is this what we mean by church discipline—visions of Hester Prynne skulking around her nightmarish New England town?
A solidly biblical approach to church discipline is the only way to heal fractures, restore right relationships, and ensure the health of the church. Discipline is not simply the unhappy task of ordering troublemakers out of the church. Indeed, discipline has a positive function. God’s name is lifted up, the welfare of the church is secured, and, whenever possible, the reclamation of the offender is achieved. Rather than the puncturing sting of a scarlet letter, church discipline done biblically is ultimately an act of grace and kindness.
Greg Wills, in his book Democratic Religion, looks at history and says, “A church without discipline would hardly have counted as a church.” John Dagg considers our situation today and writes, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”
Church discipline is about concern for the offender. Whenever I read the story of the lost son in Luke 15, I am reminded of the beauty of repentance, reclamation, and ultimately, restoration. This should be the motivation behind our efforts to do church relationships God’s way.
The apostle Paul reminded the Galatian church: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently” (Galatians 6:1).
I’m trying to get a better handle on the application of church discipline in the congregation where I serve. As a church that reaches out to the unchurched, we’ve tried to model an attitude of acceptance toward newcomers. That creates tension as the church is challenged to live with the rough edges accompanying many of those at the beginning of their spiritual search.
But frankly, the unchurched are not the problem. The worst blowback happens when we confront so-called mature Christians and longtime churchgoers.
I recall a couple who had attended our church for years. It became necessary to confront them about a gnawing sin and attitude problem that was eating them up and spreading strife. They were approached with gentleness and respect. No one threatened to disfellowship them—it was a very tender reprimand.
Almost immediately and without notice, they stopped attending our church. Phone calls and e-mails were not returned. I learned they were attending another church a few blocks away. I fear this couple will never be challenged to grow like they should. Those unwilling to be disciplined can always find another church eager to take them in. I also fear for the churches that receive them. Is it more important for two more seats to be filled than to maintain a God-honoring body life?
Believers who are sincere in their desire to grow in Christlikeness need to be open to receiving hard-to-hear admonitions from time to time. Leaders need the courage and resolve to give such admonitions when necessary.
How does your church discipline? Or does your church discipline at all?