In our present day sea of church decline and failing church health, many people are focusing on the music styles, small group structures, and other elements related to the methods of “doing” church. When was the last time you attended a Monday morning fellowship breakfast among pastors where the main discussion was church discipline and how much it’s needed in our churches today? When was the last time you had dinner with another church member and discussed the value of church discipline?
The fact is, most pastors will use illustrations in their sermons about how today’s parents no longer discipline their children properly, but they ignore the need for discipline in the church. This is not a new problem. In 1984 a survey was taken regarding the subject of church discipline. The survey targeted 439 pastors on the matter of church discipline. “50 percent acknowledged situations in their ministry where discipline would have been appropriate but no action was taken. Three major hindrances to the practice of church discipline were mentioned: (a) fear of the consequences or outcome, (b) preference for avoiding disruptive problems, and (c) ignorance of the proper procedures.“1
Gregory A. Wills who is a professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and noted historian commented, “To an antebellum Baptist, a church without discipline would hardly have counted as a church.”2 Predating the modern era of Baptist congregations was the early church. As we survey the New Testament, the Scriptures are very clear on the fact that the early church not only needed discipline, but they practiced it. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, a man was sexually involved with his father’s wife and the people of the congregation knew about it. Paul told the church at Corinth to “purge out” and to “deliver his soul to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved.” In 2 Thessalonians 3, Paul instructs the Church at Thessalonica to refrain from keeping company with any brother (speaking of a church member) who refused to live in a Christ honoring manner. He said to refrain from having fellowship with them. He concluded by saying, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (1 Thess. 3:14-15). Titus 3:10 says, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.” All of these instances of discipline stand upon the foundation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 where He provides the explicit way that discipline is to be carried out. Discipline is always done with the goal of restoration and God’s glory. Any other goal and any other method is faulty.
As we examine a rebellious culture and point to the lack of discipline in the homes, isn’t it possible that the unbelieving community could point a finger at the lack of discipline in the church today?
Why The Decline in Church Discipline?
The Rise of Church Growth
There is no denying the fact that the evangelical church today is drunk on church growth. Bigness is an epidemic that is sweeping through the church like a black plague. It isn’t necessarily a new problem either. For instance, in 1954, the Southern Baptist Convention popularized a phrase – “A Million More in 54.” Today, we have the multisite movement and other modern trends that continue to foster the idea that a big church is somehow a better church. Many congregations are willing to turn a blind eye to sin in order to achieve their goal of more members. We must remember what John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential church manual of the nineteenth century once said. He writes, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”3
The Doctrine of Tolerance
Our society is influencing the way we conduct ourselves within our local church. Like it or not, the ideology of tolerance is spilling itself over into the life of the church. We are being taught to tolerate others. We are being schooled by culture and taught to tolerate differing beliefs, faults, and habits of others. As we form our doctrine of ecclesiology, we must draw a distinct line in the sand between the factory and the local church. We may be forced to tolerate many things in the workplace, but we are taught by Christ to not tolerate sin in the lives of fellow believers (Matthew 18).
The American Individualism
Another prevailing reason for the lack of church discipline centers upon the individualistic mindset of many Americans. The tough “self-made man” of our American society has fostered the idea of an individualistic or self governed lifestyle. In other words, we don’t want people looking over our “spiritual privacy fences” and telling us what to do. Contrary to what many modern politicians say, we have a grass roots population of small government and that idea comes from a very private life. Dr. Albert Mohler writes, “Individuals now claim an enormous zone of personal privacy and moral autonomy. The congregation–redefined as a mere voluntary association–has no right to intrude into this space. Many congregations have forfeited any responsibility to confront even the most public sins of their members. Consumed with pragmatic methods of church growth and congregational engineering, most churches leave moral matters to the domain of the individual conscience.“4
The Benefits of Church Discipline
The benefits of church discipline are numerous. The church will become a more pure community of confessing believers as opposed to a hypocritical sin saturated community that brings Christ dishonor and shame. The members will learn to confront and confess and this will breed sanctification and spiritual maturity. All of this will bring God glory. What price tag can be placed on that?
A Tragic Example
One Sunday morning I met a couple who came to visit our church from another congregation across town. After meeting with this couple, I discovered that they had been disciplined and excommunicated from the church. A more accurate description would be that this family was excommunicated, but they were never disciplined. They assembled in the sanctuary for worship after their small groups met together and just before the service started a group of deacons stood up and announced charges against them. The charges were that this particular family had been teaching “strange doctrines.” They were excommunicated on the spot without the first warning, rebuke, or prayer in private. Needless to say, this family was in a state of spiritual shock. I researched the situation and discovered that they had some doctrinal differences with their former church, but they were certainly not teaching heresy. This situation may seem like a rare thing, but it does happen more than you might realize. Discipline must be followed in the way that Christ Jesus specified in Matthew 18.
A Personal Example
When I was in seminary in Kentucky, I became the pastor of a small and extremely rural church located in the farming regions 50 miles south of Louisville. I didn’t have an office, so on Wednesday evenings I would often arrive early and sit in a small classroom in the basement under the sanctuary to read and study over my lesson for the evening. One particular night a deacon walked in the room and asked if he could speak with me. He had been a member of the church for about 45 years and had been serving as a deacon for 40 years. I had only been serving as pastor for a little less than 2 years.
He talked with me about a decision he was wrestling with. He and his wife had both been married previously and when their spouses died, they later married one another. They had children who were now adults form their previous marriages. They also had two separate estates. This man was nearing retirement and was needing advice. He had discovered that because of his split estate and marriage to his wife, he was going to actually bring home less money during retirement than if he had remained single. His question to me was simple. “If I get a legal separation from my wife (but remain with her) for financial reasons, is it a sin?”
For this young seminary student and inexperienced pastor, this was a difficult situation to address. I responded by talking about Christ and His church. I pointed to the covenant keeping God and how He is mirrored in the marriage covenant. In short, I told him that it was indeed a sin and he shouldn’t go that direction no matter what the financial benefits were. Two weeks later, as I sat in that same room, he entered the room and told me that he had decided to go a different direction. He went ahead with the legal separation. I confronted him about it and he refused to accept my counsel. A few days later, I gathered three other men from the church and we traveled to his home to confront him. He eventually threw us all out of his living room and asked us to leave. We did as he asked. We went back to the little white country church and gathered in the center aisle, held hands, and wept for our brother as we prayed to God for his repentance and restoration.
After a few weeks passed, I tried to make contact with him but he refused to take my calls and he had stopped attending the church. A few more weeks passed and I informed him that I was going to have to present him for excommunication before the church in our next business conference. When the conference time arrived on that particular Sunday night, he refused to be in attendance. At the end of regular business, I brought the charge of discipline against our brother before the public assembly of our congregation. The charges were substantiated by the witnesses who accompanied me to his home. Once again, with tear filled eyes, the church voted unanimously to excommunicate him from the fellowship of our church. I was saddened by this entire process. I felt defeated at one level and relieved at another. If the truth were known, I was glad that this country church didn’t decide to excommunicate the young preacher rather than their 40 year deacon.
About 6 months passed on a Sunday morning I took the pulpit and noticed that on the very back row sat the man who had been excommunicated. I preached and he quickly exited out the back door without talking to me. The next week, the exact same thing happened. However, after I finished preaching he made his way down to the front and whispered in my ear, “Brother Josh, I have already asked the Lord to forgive me. I want to ask you to forgive me. I also want to ask the church to forgive me.” I immediately turned to the congregation and repeated what my brother had just said in my ear. The church responded with a hearty “AMEN!” Once again, we all left with tears streaming down our faces. This time it was tears of joy rather than tears of sorrow. Our brother was completely restored into the life of the church.
Carl Laney writes, “The church today is suffering from an infection which has been allowed to fester. . . . As an infection weakens the body by destroying its defense mechanisms, so the church has been weakened by this ugly sore. The church has lost its power and effectiveness in serving as a vehicle for social, moral, and spiritual change. This illness is due, at least in part, to a neglect of church discipline.”5 Today in the evangelical church, we have a very weighty decision to make. Will we continue to take in members without even calling to speak to the church they once attended? Will we continue to drink ourselves silly on church growth techniques? Will we continue to function on the ideology “whatever goes” rather than God’s Word? Dr. Albert Mohler also says, “Without a recovery of functional church discipline-firmly established upon the principles revealed in the Bible-the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism. Evangelicals have long recognized discipline as the ‘third mark’ of the authentic church. Authentic biblical discipline is not an elective, but a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity.”6
If we will love people to Christ with the gospel – we have a responsibility to continue that love when they turn down the pathway of sin. If we will do that faithfully and biblically, the glory of God will radiate from our church body. If we choose to follow the modern trends of our day – we will find ourselves consumed in the “Ichabod Syndrome” – a church with no glory. To love is to discipline. The church without discipline is a church without love. We as Christians praise discipline in the home, but why do we isolate discipline to the home and prevent it from the life of the local church? We must avoid this idea of churchless discipline.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. Carl J. Laney, “The Biblical Practice of Church Discipline,” Bibliotheca Sacra 143 (O-D 1986): 357.
2. Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900, 12.
3. John L. Dagg, A Treatise on Church Order, 274.
4. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Disappearance of Church Discipline–How Can We Recover? Part One”
5. Carl J. Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline, 12.
6. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Discipline: The Missing Mark” In Polity (2001): 43-62.