“Has this church turned into the Gestapo?” the woman said to me with disgust in her voice. She referred to the messy process our church (not my current one) was going through at the moment; as we tried to figure out if a church member had committed a serious sin and was unrepentant about it. We leaders were trying to intervene.
It wasn’t just that she was on the other side of the issue, the whole idea of challenging another individual Christ’s spiritual conduct was problematic to her, even if there was obvious sin involved (which wasn’t that clear in this case). To her, this was none of our business. It was only between the person and God
What we were attempting is called “church discipline”. Today, the phrase “church discipline” is one of the most uncomfortable, least-used terms in Western Christianity, even among evangelicals. It’s seldom implemented. The whole idea just seems weird to us in practice, if not in theory, even though the process is clearly advocated in Scripture by Jesus Himself (Matt. 18:15-17), not to mention Paul (1 Cor. 5).
Why is church discipline so unpopular today?
1. Church discipline is unpopular because it’s hard to decide where it applies
The church is full of sinner/saints; pastor included. Sin goes on all the time both in the church, in the home and elsewhere. Where should the church jump in and where should we just cut the person some slack and pray that God will help them grow? Or maybe gently challenge them and leave it at that? Overdoing the discipline aspect could lead to a church full of finger-pointers and paranoia.
2. Church discipline is unpopular today because of post-modern thinking
Post-modern thinking, at least in theory, says that we have no right to choose absolute values for anyone but ourselves (the previous statement is, itself, an absolute value, but that’s another column). In other words, it’s out of line to “judge” anyone. This notion has, at least partially, crept into a lot of churches. We don’t want to be seen as intolerant or judgmental; especially to those we want to reach outside of the church.
3. Church discipline is unpopular today because few have seen it practiced
When was the last time you saw discipline practiced at a level which involved the whole church? If you’re under forty, probably never. It seems a relic of the past; of more rigid, more conformist times.
4. Church discipline is unpopular today because it usually causes trouble
People take sides; particularly if a friend or family member is the one being challenged. There are acrimonious exchanges, even splits. People leave the church, especially the one being disciplined, unless they have enough backers, in which case the other side leaves, or the pastor gets booted. It’s painful. For everyone. Which leads to the next point:
5. Church discipline is unpopular today because churches are afraid of losing their attenders
With churches struggling today to maintain attendance levels, church leaders hesitate to risk losing attenders over a church discipline issue. “Is this worth the risk?” they ask. “Maybe it will just blow over”.
6. Church discipline is unpopular today because we live in an independent society
Americans are very independent, resistant to authority, especially in the church. They see the church leadership more as one might seen the owner of a restaurant; as someone there to serve them, rather than as leaders to follow. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12, Paul speaks of those who are “over you in the Lord.” Those words, in fact, the whole idea of the church having authority over us, feels odd and almost un-American. A little advice is fine, authority less so.
So, unless it’s in your face blatant (the pastor openly sleeping with the church secretary), we tend to look the other way, or just talk about the sin behind peoples’ backs. Yet, without well-exercised church discipline, a church displeases God, becomes infected with sinful compromise, loses its power to transform, and struggles to build deep, godly relationships. This leads to our next question:
How can we exercise church discipline well?
1. We exercise church discipline well by starting with our ourselves
Remember that Jesus told us, when dealing with the sin of others, to “first take the plank out of your own eye” (Matt. 7:5). If I’m not dealing with my own sin, it’s hypocritical of me to challenge yours. Plus, working on my own flaws first humbles me and gives me more wisdom. Which leads to a related point:
2. We exercise church discipline well by accepting it ourselves
If you want to challenge others, are you willing to be challenged yourself? To accept a rebuke? To admit a wrong? Or is it just others who need it, not you? It’s rare, unfortunately, to hear, even mature believers, admit wrongs and ask forgiveness.
3. We exercise church discipline well by understanding its range
In my opinion, most church discipline, doesn’t need to reach the more extreme levels described by Jesus and Paul, where it becomes a whole church issue and may involve putting a person out of the church fellowship (while still loving them). Jesus himself spoke of going to the person first, one on one and dealing with the sin at that more private level if possible.
I’ll go even further in subtleness. The holiness level of a church can often be mostly maintained by clear, no holds barred preaching and teaching, godly leaders, other saints modelling holy lives, and encouraging accountability groups or friendships. Often, I just pray for people.
4. We exercise church discipline well by understanding when more serious action is critical
While most sins can be left between the person and God, prayed for, or gently challenged, there are sins which, if maintained in defiance, must be treated at the next level, which involves bringing in another person and, if necessary, the whole church. This is true for two reasons. First, the person trapped in sin, may need the extra pressure of church discipline to help them realize how serious the situation is, and second, the church itself, or those in it who know of the sin, will be negatively affected if they realize that the church is aware of it, and has chosen to ignore it. They may then either imitate it or rationalize some other sin in their own lives if sin seems to be no big deal in the church. Or just leave.
5. We exercise church discipline well by valuing holiness
Holiness, for a sincere believer, is not optional. It’s vital. Without it, our Christianity is a sham. With it, we are spiritually beautiful. Sin, untended, ruins both the individual believer and often corrupts the church as well.
6. We exercise church discipline well by accepting its consequences
Those churches who take church discipline seriously will often pay a painful price. There will be conflict. People will leave. They will be seen as judgmental or legalistic or uptight. Is it worth it? Yes it is.
7. We exercise church discipline well by using it carefully and lovingly
Church discipline is hard to use well. So go slowly. Be selective in its application. Expect people to resist at first. And, act in humble love. We’re all sinners trying to help each other grow. The goal is restoration, not punishment.