Recently, our church engaged in its first practice of church discipline. After several meetings with the unrepentant members, we brought the matter to the entire church for consideration. We moved slowly and allowed for questions and prayer before the official decision was rendered. With tears, anguish, and faith, the church unanimously voted to enact church discipline. Here are a few things I learned about our church through this months-long process.
1. We Are Imperfect
At times a pastor can become incredibly isolated into a bubble of misconceptions. For example, either a pastor is receiving an abnormal amount of complaints and thinks the church is diving off of a cliff, or he is receiving a plethora of praise and thinks that his church is the best church since Antioch. It can be a real struggle to find the balance of reality. Church discipline is a reminder that our churches are made up of sinners. It is a reminder that we need church discipline, accountability, clear expectations, and warnings to continue walking in obedience and faith. By God’s grace, I think we currently have a healthy church. But church discipline is a sobering reminder that we do not have a perfect church.
2. We Had Healthy Tension
It is never easy for a church to discipline part of its family. If it is easy or enjoyable then there are greater problems to address. While the difficulty is real, there were two types of tension that revealed themselves to be good and healthy. First, while we were very sorrowful for having to take action as a church, there was a real sense of relief and peace. This is because we knew we were being obedient to the commands of our Lord. We take no pleasure at all in the fact that church discipline was and is needed. However, we are thankful that God has brought us by His grace far enough along in the faith to see His command and strive to obey it. While we are not perfect in our obedience, we took great steps by God’s help in submitting to the Scriptures.
The second degree of tension was expressed in our members. As we were trying to obey God’s word we realized that we had to break fellowship with those under discipline and treat them as tax collectors and Gentiles (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5). However, we also had to wrestle with the love and desire that God put into our heart to extend mercy and compassion to those in error. We were trying to balance grace and truth like Jesus (John 1:14,17). We know church discipline, although hard, was the act of grace and love. That being said, we were gravely concerned with what restoration and repentance might practically look like if these members came back. The most common question in our church was not why we were disciplining, but how we are to restore. It was a good and healthy tension to discipline and yet long for the chance to love those in sin and extend mercy to them. We needed to hold up the honor of Christ and the standard of repentant holiness while also showing love and patience to the wayward members.
3. We Discovered Our Priorities
Throughout this process, we discovered what was really important to us. We talked a big game for years, but now we had to practice what we preached. We discovered that Christ being the Head of our church was everything to us. We discovered that we had to submit to God and His word, that we needed to have humility throughout the process, and that we desired above all for Jesus to be most pleased with us. There was the temptation of being fearful of what the world might think. After all, church discipline doesn’t seem to be advantageous for church growth. But when push came to shove, we realized that the approval and pleasure of Jesus mattered far more to us than even our own apprehensions.
4. We Are Grateful
There is this sense in church discipline that you have to be perfect to exercise it. Obviously, that is simply not true. As 1 Timothy 5:17-25 tells us, public rebuke is also supposed to get everyone else in step by striking fear in our hearts. As a result, there were two types of gratefulness that occurred for us. First, we knew that if it were not for the grace of God we would be the errant members. We were grateful that God kept us from such unrepentant sin and is still showing grace to us by currently keeping us from such unrepentant sin. Discipline humbled us enough to push away pride to realize that this issue of sin could be with us! We are not better than the next group of people. We are sinners like everyone else. But by God’s gracious work, we were not, at that time, the ones going down a wrong and unrepentant path. Second, we had a renewed sense of obedience and godliness. It shored up some lazy behavior in us all. We began to take sin seriously again. Our actions communicated the importance of following God’s word, upholding God’s standard, and rejecting sin in our lives. Many have confessed the renewal in their heart to renounce sin and fight hard for obedience. Church discipline, while yet to be revealed if it worked for the errant members, sure has worked for the rest of us. We now stand in fear of going down a path of rebellion and unrepentance.
Church discipline may be one of the most difficult tasks given to the church. It is hard for sinners to discuss and deal with the sin of others – even if it is unrepentant sin. Church discipline is one of the most joyless and painful actions a church will take in unity. And yet, it can be one of the greatest catalysts for the health and resolve of a church’s faith and commitment to Christ. It rarely is the easy things of life that yield such rewarding and lasting results.