Sin doesn’t ruin churches. Unconfessed and unaddressed sin does.
Every church is full of people in the pews that are in a lifelong struggle with sin. We will wrongly admit false converts. And true converts will get caught up in sin. Basically, your churches will have both Judases and Peters on its membership roster.
I’ve never been a part of a church that hasn’t needed to practice church discipline, but I’ve also been a part of very few that have. All of them should.
Church discipline is like home exercise equipment. Everyone has it lying around, but few actually use it. When several families and I planted a church in 2015, we didn’t want to let any equipment God gave us for strengthening his church go unused. Knowing that church discipline was going to be a tool we’d have to use, we wanted to make sure we were prepared to use it.
Here are five simple things we did to lay the groundwork in our church plant.
1. Lay the right foundation by connecting the gospel to the local church.
If authentic Christianity isn’t understood in terms of faith and repentance, church discipline will not make sense. It will feel cruel, mean, or unloving. With repentance, however, church discipline begins to make sense. It doesn’t make it easy, but it begins to make sense.
Furthermore, Christians view the local church like the “g” in lasagna. No one really knows why it’s there; we just know it should be there. This is why many Christians don’t understand that church membership is a necessary component for Christianity. Pastors must therefore connect the dots of repentance, faith, and the church for them. Then, discipline begins to make sense.
What we did: Our first team meetings (every Wednesday night from August through December 2015) were spent in a living room unpacking the gospel. We sought to understand Christ’s work for us. I taught people that faith and repentance were the means by which we take hold of that work for us. Then, we did a deep dive into the doctrine of the local church. You’d be surprised how many “one another” verses are written in the context of local church involvement.
2. Slow down the membership process.
I’ve found that you should treat your membership process like you’re taking someone skydiving for the first time. If someone was skydiving for the first time, would you be comfortable throwing them out of a plane if all they did to prepare was come forward, sign a waiver, and put on a parachute? Of course not. Why? Because their lives are in your hands.
Spiritually speaking, the same is true when it comes to joining a church. People are putting their lives into the care of others, and we should make sure they know what they’re getting into.
A good membership process isn’t about trying to find mature Christians, it’s about creating informed Christians. We should inform people about anything that might make them feel uncomfortable, or things Satan may use to tempt them to abandon the commitment they have made to Christ.
“How is this loving? What about grace? Aren’t we supposed to forgive?” These are questions that people will ask when they encounter discipline for the first time.
Maybe they’ve read about it in the Bible, but they’ll be caught off guard because they’ve never seen it done or done well. They’ll be confused, unable to reconcile it with the call to love.
What we did: We were explicit about discipline and left plenty of time for Q&A in our membership classes. Then we had a one-on-one meeting with the prospective members before they joined, in which we’d ask how they were processing our teaching on discipline. We want to treat our membership process like leading a caravan of cars: drive slow enough to make sure everyone is keeping up; constantly check on people who are lagging behind.
3. Preach hope, not merely what should happen next.
It’s easy to go to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 and find yourself preaching about a process—about what should happen when unrepentant sin is exposed in your church. This leaves people thinking, “Okay, first I should go to them, then take a few people with me, and then take it before the church. Got it.”
These points of process are important, but they’re not the only thing that’s important.
Matthew 18 is about winning your brother. That’s the goal. That’s what we’re after. We want to see him turn and repent. We pursue the process to win our brother.
Even 1 Corinthians 5 is laced with hope. This chapter is all about hope and joy. Hope for the straying member (as we pray he’ll meet the end of himself and turn to Jesus), and joy for those who remain (as we see an increasingly pure church and realize the purity of the church is the priority of the church).
What we did: When we talked about discipline, we never talked about what happens next without talking about what we hope will happen. If you only preach process, people will lack the courage and motivation to do the hard work of discipline. But if you preach hope, while it won’t make the task any easier, it will give people the courage to know their obedience isn’t in vain.
4. Don’t apologize for having to practice discipline.
When we apologize for obeying God’s commands, we undermine his authority, wisdom, and compassion. We try to make ourselves appear more authoritative, wise, and compassionate than he is. Now, there are plenty of things we can apologize for. We can apologize for our own negligence, laziness, miscommunication, harshness, passivity, or even cowardice in addressing sin. But we should never apologize for obeying God’s commands.
This is the easiest way to get a bunch of people to begrudgingly obey, treating God as the coach who’s making us run sprints. We wish we could replace him, but he’s in charge so we just have to deal with it. That’s not what this is at all; instead, it’s an opportunity to experience the freedom of relying on God for help.
What we did: We constantly remind our church that God calls us to hold people accountable, not to hold them hostage.
5. Pray for courage and practice repentance as a church.
The best way to lay a foundation of church discipline is to actually practice it. No one learns to ride a bike by reading a book; they have to get on. No one learns the hope of church discipline without being obedient and trusting God for the results.
There’s always going to be more you could have done.We just need one more meeting.We just need to call him one more time. Someone just needs to make sure they see it this way. There are always reasons to put off what needs to be done. Sometimes, a delay is wise and cautious, but quite often it’s us holding on to our cowardice.
Pastors, lead out in practicing church discipline. Call your people to obedience in your preaching and discipling. Be courageous, and trust God for results.
What we did: In practicing discipline in the life of our church, we always make it a point to debrief afterwards—especially with people who seem to be the most bothered. Remember, we’re leading a caravan of people, and we want to go slow enough to check on those who are struggling. Not only do we debrief, but we pray continually to make sure we’re being consistent in order to avoid perceptions of partiality. Where apparent contradictions exist, it’s important to be forthright in our communication.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at 9marks.org and is used with permission.