It’s not often that churches find themselves in the national news. Yet in recent memory, a number of prominent congregations have found themselves in controversies covered by The Washington Post, Slate, and The New York Times. And in each, it was about a case of church discipline gone wrong.
Such stories should grieve us. They’re tragic. Tragic for how they reflect shepherds who abuse their sheep thus misrepresent Christ, tragic also for how they can discourage other churches from practicing what Jesus (cf. Mt 18.15–18) and Paul (1 Cor. 5) so clearly command.
With that in mind, what are some good and bad excuses not to practice church discipline?
Let’s start with the good.
1. Misconceptions abound.
Due either to lack of practice or poor examples, church discipline is often misunderstood. Some view it as a form of public “shaming” or “shunning.” Some see it as a power-play by leaders to silence opposition within the body. Therefore, before any church exercises church discipline, deliberate and thorough instruction is imperative. If the congregation is confused, if they view church discipline as retributive and not restorative, if it’s all about legalism as opposed to love—then keep teaching. It’s far better to risk waiting too long to begin the practice than to rush in too early and cause irreparable harm.
2. Governing documents don’t address it.
Both in church practice and in a court of law, clear governing documents are critical. If your church constitution and church covenant don’t address what church discipline is and how it’s to be handled, then you’re inviting confusion and criticism. Churches can’t hold congregants to standards without articulating what those standards are.
3. The membership is ill-defined.
Churches can’t put people out of the body who aren’t first in the body. Thus, a church’s membership must be clear, and discipline only ought to be pursued on those who “bear the name of brother/sister” (1 Cor. 5:11). Churches don’t discipline those whom the church hasn’t affirmed as believers. They may call themselves a believer; they might even be a faithful attender. But if your church hasn’t affirmed that profession through membership, you don’t discipline them—in fact, you can’t. This is why the responsibilities and duties between the leadership and the body ought to be clearly communicated in new member classes.
4. The sin in question isn’t demonstrable, serious, and unrepentant.
A member may have a problem with jealousy, envy, or pride. They may have recurring unwholesome thoughts. They may lack faith, or persistence in prayer. While those are sins, and serious sins depending on degree, they’re not exactly clear and demonstrable, such as drunkenness or an unbiblical divorce.
How much pride is too much? These aren’t matters that discipline, as an admittedly blunt instrument, can best address. Since church discipline is the church removing the affirmation of one’s profession, the sin must be obvious and clear, it must be serious, and most importantly, it must be unrepentant.
5. There’s a history of authoritarian rule and abuse.
If a church has suffered under authoritarian leaders who lorded over the sheep as opposed to love them, then it might be wise to delay church discipline for a season. If previous leaders abused the sheep—instead of patiently instructing, guarding, and caring for them—then church discipline will likely be misunderstood, which returns us to Good Reason #1 above. It’s better to give time for the culture to turn, and for the leadership to win over the trust of the flock, than to proceed and possibly bring further harm to the body.
6. The pastor is the sole leader, or he’s acting without the support of his leaders.
If the pastor alone is bringing the charge to the congregation, or bringing it without the support of his leaders, it could look like a personal vendetta against an individual. It’s best to have a plurality of elders who are united and act together before bringing an individual before the body.
And finally, the church must recognize that while a pastor or set of leaders may bring a case of discipline forward, the final authority to act on such a case resides only with the assembled congregation. Churches remove members, not pastors (Mt. 18:17, 1 Cor. 5:2, 4, 13).
7. The first case is particularly contentious or unclear.
If the church isn’t accustomed to thinking through discipline together, then having a first case that’s highly charged or open to “various interpretations” won’t be helpful. It’s best to begin with cases where the facts are clear, indisputable, and thus minimize risks to the body’s unity.
So, there are seven good reasons for not practicing church discipline. Now let’s get to seven bad reasons. Have you heard any of these before, or perhaps used them yourself?
1. The congregation will never come around.
Church discipline can appear cold. It can play into our sinful fear of man. It can feel like our congregations will never come around. Perhaps they’ve “never done it this way before.”
But we’re guided not by tradition, but divine revelation. We don’t get to edit Jesus. It’s not up to us to decide which parts of the Bible our congregation should obey, and which parts they can ignore. So we trust the power of the Spirit to conform our wills to his Word. And in the meantime, we teach, correcting our opponents with gentleness, so that God might lead them to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:25).
2. Discipline isn’t loving.
Discipline can be exercised in unloving ways, but Hebrews reminds us that discipline is, in fact, a mark of God’s love (Heb. 12). It will be difficult, uncomfortable, and even painful at times. But failing to discipline lies about God. Failing to discipline might seem humble and kind, but it’s actually proud, for it suggests we know better than God. Not only that, it fails to truly love because it abandons professing believers on a sinking ship without warning them of their error or pointing them toward the way of escape.
3. The sins of others aren’t our business.
If we mean the sins of those outside the body, that’s true: “God judges those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12). But for those inside, God says we are to judge (5:11–13). In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul censures the church for appearing to condone what even the pagans find contemptible.
Simply put, Christianity knows nothing of private religion. According to Christ, your so-called “private” business is the church’s business. The whole church is endangered by the congregation’s indifference to the man’s sin. Why? Because the sin that no one deals with may eventually become sin that everyone has to deal with.
4. It will encourage legalism and discourage transparency.
This is only a risk if discipline is understood to apply to any sin, as opposed to those that are demonstrable, serious, and unrepentant. It’s only a risk if leadership isn’t trusted, but perceived to be out on a witch-hunt. It’s only a risk when the gospel is more about my performance, rather than Christ’s sinless perfection. We don’t finally combat legalism by ignoring discipline, but by teaching on true conversion.
5. We may lose people.
Those who want to follow Jesus on their terms, and not his terms, may not like church discipline. There will possibly even be those who leave your church as a result. And while few pastors rejoice in shrinking congregations, when that happens we can take heart because we know we will finally be judged by our faithfulness to his Word and not the size of our worship gatherings.
6. The person in question is too powerful, or too connected to those who are powerful within the church.
“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” isn’t a new temptation. In fact, it’s what plagued Corinth. Paul rebukes the church for their favoritism in chapters 1–4 (cf. 1 Cor. 4:6). It seems they were boasting (5:6) of this man among them, and in their arrogance (5:2) they chose to ignore the sinful actions of this prominent man rather than lose his favor (and perhaps his purse!). We will ignore the indiscretions of some if we cower to the power and position of our congregants more than we treasure the purity of Christ’s church.
7. We may become unpopular in the community.
As we practice church discipline, we will become unpopular in our secular community, and perhaps even in our surrounding church community. But Christians regularly risk being unpopular in order to be faithful. For an example in this, we need only look to Jesus. After all, we finally answer to him, not the opinion polls of our community or other churches.
We’ll all make mistakes as leaders. We’ll be criticized and often misunderstood. But if we remain humble and patient, careful and prayerful, then our shepherding will increasingly model the Chief Shepherd himself.
Editor's Note: This originally published at 9Marks