The Discipline to Discipline

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?

July16_JT_JNA 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?

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  1. Michelle
    July 17, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Great article, Jim! Church discipline is something that has been overlooked or distorted in a lot of churches. While some shy away from any confrontation at all, others take the approach of a social club – Our way or you’re out!
    It is time to shake off the main stream ideas of tolerance and conformity and continue to build God’s church in a loving way.
    If we were open to being held accountable to a firm but gentle authority, so many issues in our churches would all but disappear.
    I hope more pastors will take this biblical perspective and intentionally teach it from the pulpit. Thank you for bringing forward the need for a humble and gracious approach to church discipline.

  2. Halson
    July 28, 2014 at 12:10 am

    Studies indicate that church discipline is all but non-existent in most American churches and for a variety of reasons, one of which has already been mentioned by Michelle. Some others are that church leaders are afraid that by practicing biblical discipline they will loose members and potentially others as residual fall-out; with the predicted loss of income to the church. All of these reasons spiritually unfounded of course; scripture indicates that God will bless those churches that obey his word.

    The pastor of a church may be quite comfortable with and quite ready and willing to act on the issue of biblical church discipline, but if the elders of the church are shallowly grounded in their faith and lack doctrinal understanding on this sensitive issue, the pastor may then have a very difficult time obtaining the blessing of the leadership concerning its practice in that congregation.

    I know of churches that when the issue of biblical church discipline was resurrected and presented to its leadership, some of the leadership members went absolutely ballistic at the thought of such practices taking place within their church body. Unfortunately, sadly neglecting a vital responsibility of the church which is restoring the lost and wandering church members back to a restored condition to God and the church body.

    Of course, in order to teach or instruct the church body on this very biblical concept of church discipline, the topics of sin and repentance would need to be part of the curriculum which are two other topics that are seldom discussed or taught in many churches today.

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