When Paul says to “restore” in Galatians 6:1 he uses a word that means to put something back into its proper condition. What can more perfectly convey the goal of church discipline than that picture? Believers are never going to be perfect, and when we get off track we need help being put back into position. Discipline restores sinners, protects all involved from the collateral damage of sin, and promotes the purity of the church. Church discipline brings glory to God when it follows God’s prescribed order.
If you had to make a short list of church practices that have fallen on hard times, “church discipline” has to be near the top. Whether the unpopular nature of confronting sin, or the way people seem to run away from conflict, to the underdeveloped art of conflict resolution, church discipline has become nearly non-existent.
Yet we don’t apply this approach in other contexts like sports, the arts, or physical fitness. You would fire a coach who did not tell players the truth or confront dysfunction on a team. You would laugh at the notion that one could become a concert-performing violinist while ignoring practice. You would never hire a trainer who lets you eat whatever you want, scroll your phone during workouts, and watch movies from a chair while the treadmill speeds along with no human on its track! And yet, how can we tolerate church leaders who refuse to confront sin and church environments where discipline is not taken seriously?
At the same time, I do wonder if one of the reasons for the lack of practicing church discipline in the church today is an issue of ignorance, rather than indifference. Furthermore, perhaps there is a stigma of shame because church discipline has not been practiced with a spirit of love and gentleness.
Whether you’ve never seen it practiced, or been hurt by poorly handled discipline processes, I want to help you think through both the what and the how of church discipline. Here are 10 truths that every church leader and Christian should think deeply about:
1: Only for professing believers
(MATTHEW 18:15; GALATIANS 6:1; 1 CORINTHIANS 5)
The outside world may drive you crazy, but the primary goal of church discipline is to exercise loving judgment upon unrepentant sinners who profess to be a part of the church and see them restored. The world is not the subject of discipline, the church is. In 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for tolerating sexual sin in their midst. He exhorts, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
Perhaps to Christians who spend more time yelling about Taylor Swift (and believe me, I find her problematic!) Paul might say: Hey, maybe spend more time dealing with sin in your own ranks, rather than barking about the world being the world.
2: Involves as few people as possible
In Matthew 18:15-16 Jesus makes it clear that church discipline should involve as few people as possible and that things should be resolved privately, long before ever saying something publicly. This is convicting because we are often tempted to go public before going private. A church that practices discipline faithfully will do so with discretion as much as possible.