On a fairly regular basis, I have people who reach out to me for local church recommendations as they’re planning a big move across state lines. Sometimes I have connections to that area and sometimes I have no church that I could recommend. When I evaluate a church for recommendation, there are several key factors that play into the equation that will determine whether or not I could recommend it to my friends or network through G3—and one of those factors at the top of the list is biblical church discipline.
Christ Commanded the Practice of Church Discipline
The basis of church discipline is found not in theological textbooks or circles of serious minded evangelicals—but in the very words of Jesus to his Church. In Matthew 18:15-20, we find Jesus’ command to practice church discipline. That passage, which is sadly overlooked and neglected, is the foundation for how the church must confront sin. It was the basis for the apostles as they engaged in church discipline as they engaged in the planting and formation of local churches beyond the borders of Israel.
In Corinth, a man was engaged in sexual sin with his father’s wife (his step-mom), and Paul’s words to the church can be found in 1 Corinthians 5. 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 Thessalonica, the church needed to practice church discipline, and Paul wrote a letter to them that directed them in that very direction. In 2 Thessalonians 3, we find Paul’s instructions to refrain from keeping company with any brother (speaking of a church member) who refused to live in a Christ honoring manner. In other words, those who persist in sinful living, Paul said to refrain from having fellowship with them. He concluded by writing the following, “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:14-15).
Once again, we find these words in Titus 3:10, “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.” The church must was called to practice church discipline, and Jesus’ command was the basis (notice the reference to the first and second admonition). Christ’s command became the firm foundation that provided direction on how each of these specific cases were addressed.
Throughout history, from the early days of the apostles and beyond—church discipline was a common practice. Gregory A. Wills, a professor of Church History and noted historian commented, “To an antebellum Baptist, a church without discipline would hardly have counted as a church.”  In each case, from the apostolic era to the antebellum era—Christ’s command was the basis for the practice of church discipline.
You Want a Church that Will Confront Your Sin
When joining a church, you want to be certain that the pastors who oversee the church and the members who make up the church take spiritual accountability seriously. A church that condones sin is a dangerous place for your soul. Not only your soul, but you must consider the spiritual wellbeing of your entire family (your spouse and children).
It’s not just about the sin of another person that you want to be sure is dealt with in the life of the church, but it’s your own sin—the sin that if left alone will spread like a cancer—that must be confronted, rebuked, and disciplined. For that reason, you need a church that will get in your business and rebuke you if you were to walk astray. As Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” In an age that chants Matthew 7:1 at any sign of rebuke or confrontation—we must remember that the most loving thing a church can do for you and your family is engage in the practice of biblical church discipline.
Beyond your sin and your friend’s sin within the church, you want a church that’s committed to disciplining church leaders who walk astray. You never want to be in a church that refuses to confront and rebuke pastors who abuse their positions and persist in sin (1 Tim. 5:19).
Church Discipline Helps Purify the Bride of Christ
The Church is depicted as the bride of Christ (Mark 2:19; Eph. 5:22-23). For a local church to ignore sinful behaviors among the members and refuse to engage in church discipline is to turn the bride of Christ into a shameful harlot in the eyes of the world.
Biblical church discipline is a means whereby the very bride of Christ is kept pure and without shame in the eyes of the world. The purity of Christ’s bride is a serious thing that we must regard as a priority—not just for the watching world—but for the glory of God. In the analogy that Paul is making about the husband’s care for his bride, he uses the relationship between Jesus and the Church. Notice the language of purity:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).
The bride of Christ should be presented to him without blemish and spot or any impurity. Just as the Jewish custom of washing the bride and presenting her to the groom clean and whole without spot or stained garments—so the Church must be presented to Christ in the same manner.
Without Church Discipline—It Is Not a True Church
We have all heard the excuses of unbelievers who point to the church as a bunch of hypocrites, and when we consider the fact that church discipline is rarely practiced in our day, such a statement should not be a surprise. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once made this very sobering statement, “And what calls itself a church which does not believe in discipline, and does not use it and apply it, is therefore not a true church.” Traditionally, throughout church history, scholars and theologians (and average church members) would evaluate the authenticity of a local church on the basis of three primary marks:
- The right preaching of God’s Word
- The right administration of the sacraments / ordinances
- The practice of biblical church discipline
Therefore, the statement of Lloyd-Jones doesn’t seem to be such a radical statement when you consider the fact that church discipline was not only expected, but considered a necessity within the life of the local church in years past. Today, it’s quite possible to find entire cities without a church that practices biblical church discipline. It was J.L. Dagg who once remarked, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” 
We must come to the sobering reality that what many people call a church in our day is simply a country club in the name of Jesus rather than a local church. It may seem very strange to modern Christians, but the church should guard the front door of membership and put a high fence up around the Lord’s Supper table as well. A refusal to discipline members and to guard the Lord’s Supper table is one of the greatest tragedies in modern church history. May God give pastors today both wisdom and biblical conviction to lead their local churches according to the Bible—rather than church growth schemes that in turn lead to scandal.
Imagine the shock as local church pastors who refused to protect the bride of Christ and turned her into a local harlot are called to stand before the throne of King Jesus.
- Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2003), 12.
- John Leadley Dagg, A Treatise on Church Order (Online Version – Accessed 11/9/19)
If you’ve been a member within a local church for any length of time, you know that being engaged with a church family has both highs and lows associated with it—much like your nuclear family.
This past week, as we gathered for our quarterly membership meeting, we reviewed items of business and heard from various pastors within our church on ministry reports and important service opportunities that are approaching on the horizon.
What came next were two conclusive church votes, one resulted in joy while the other resulted in sorrow, yet both brought about tears.
When I mention congregational voting, some people immediately have vivid images of churches slugging it out over the color of carpet, paint, or the increased budget line item of church supplies to cover more goldfish snacks for the nursery. If that’s your idea of congregationalism—you’ve missed it.
When we read in Matthew 16, we hear the words of Jesus addressing an idea of church leadership responsibility as he references the “keys” of authority. Notice what Jesus said:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).
Jesus later hands over the keys to the church, as we read in Matthew 18:15-20:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:15-20).
Notice in the first instance, he is speaking to the apostles. In the latter reference to keys, he is addressing the church. There is no reference to the office of elder or even apostles in the context of church discipline—hence the reason to call it “church” discipline rather than “pastor” discipline or “eldership” discipline. The responsibility of excommunication in the final stage of church discipline rests on the church as a whole.
Elders are called to lead in both oversight, shepherding, and visionary items, but the church has a responsibility by means of a covenant to care for one another and ultimately guard the church’s confession (doctrine) and membership (vote to receive members and excommunicate members). While the church can give over day-to-day operation decisions to the elders, there is still a responsibility of the church to guard and watch—often involving the non-authoritative deacon office to help manage the business of the church.
Vote to Send
This past Sunday, we heard the testimony of one of our pastors—David Crowe—regarding his heart to engage with a church plant that began last year in a nearby town. We have connections to this church through this brother, and we have prayed for this church work since it began. After bringing his desire to us as elders about six weeks ago and after prayer and discussion—we as elders gave our blessing on his desire to proceed forward.
A few weeks ago, in a prayer service with our church family on a Sunday evening, he made his desire known to the church family. After hearing a full report and rationale, we prayed for his family and our church that evening with the knowledge that one month later we would gather for the purpose of voting as a church to send he, his wife, and two little boys out from our church to engage in the work of church planting.
As we gathered together—we heard a summary report once again regarding the rationale, and then I led the church to vote. The vote was unanimous to send him out. As we raised our hands together as a church, in one sense we were voting to remove him from our church family—effective in January of 2020. It was a joyful release, one that we can celebrate together, yet one that brings about tears. David Crowe is a good brother, a strong asset on our pastoral staff, and he will be greatly missed. Church planting is not about sending people out from your church that you will not miss the week they’re gone, but it’s about sending out your best. In this case, while it was a joyful vote—it resulted in tears. The tears were both tears of joy and sadness.
Vote of Excommunication
As the meeting came to an end, as always, we have a line item on our agenda that reads, church discipline. Even when we are not engaging in any official church disciplinary situations, it remains as a fixed line item to remind our church family that we do practice church discipline—as directed by our Lord in Matthew 18:15-20.
As I moderated the meeting, I brought a full report regarding a specific member. His name was presented, although he was not present. His wife was present as our church gathered for the purpose of hearing the final summary of how we’ve arrived at this juncture. Through multiple private confrontations in specific connection with the biblical text, this man was warned, rebuked, and called to repentance—privately, with witnesses, and finally in our last membership meeting—he was presented before the church.
After giving the church an opportunity to do the work of the church and after giving him a few months to hear the church plead with him to repent through text messages, letters, phone calls, and personal meetings—we had to assemble for a conclusive vote. After a time of consideration and an opportunity to vote together as a church—I called for the church to vote. The church raised hands in another unanimous vote. It was not a joyful vote as was the previous one. It resulted in many tears.
We did not vote to excommunicate this man in order to smear his name. We had no sinful motives when we raised our hand. What we were doing was out of a broken heart—one where we had to agree that we have a lack of confidence in the genuineness of his conversion based on a perpetual pattern of unbroken sin. As Paul directed the church at Corinth regarding the man caught in sexual sin, we had to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). We voted to remove him as a member in order to guard the church’s purity and to continue to plead with the man to repent.
As members of all ages (some new members and some members who have been within our church for many years), we voted on two very specific membership items—they were polar opposites in many ways—one was joyful and the other sorrowful, yet they both resulted in a weeping church. A church must be willing to take the responsibility to send members out for purposes of church planting and to sever ties with members who persist in sin.
May the Lord do his work through both situations and may the Lord be glorified in both situations.
If you live life long enough as a Christian, conflict in inevitable. The New Testament is filled with words that address the subject—often because apostles were correcting local churches or providing counsel on how to pursue resolution and unity. Broken relationships are hurtful within the context of the local church—and they certainly don’t promote the gospel to a lost world outside the church in the local community. Therefore, it’s essential that we know how to deal with conflict within the family of faith in order to honor Christ and avoid hypocrisy.
Humility is Necessary
If you approach a situation of conflict, humility is required to achieve healthy and biblical results. If two parties who are in disagreement simply enter the conversation by throwing defensive bombs toward one another—the parties involved will spend their time talking past one another rather than talking to one another. The art of listening is key to conflict resolution. The humility to admit fault is also key to defusing conflicts that would serve as barriers to joyful friendships and Christian unity.
In Psalm 147:6, the Psalmist declares, “The LORD lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground.” In Matthew 23:12, we find the following warning, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” It is God’s will for God’s people to pursue peace in a humble and gentle fashion. The one who is haughty and arrogant will never achieve reconciliation and will consistently find himself or herself in the midst of broken relationships. This pattern is not only damaging to the individual—but to the entire church. This is a sinful trap to avoid as a Christian.
Pursue Reconciliation and Unity
Jesus, in his famous sermon, stated the following, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). We want to be called the sons of God rather than children of wrath—like the rest of mankind. It’s essential to pursue peace in order to be called the sons and daughters of God. Richard Baxter once said:
He that is not a son of Peace is not a son of God. All other sins destroy the Church consequentially; but Division and Separation demolish it directly. 
We must likewise remember that reconciliation and unity do not rest upon the shoulders of one party alone. Each party involved in a conflict must value reconciliation more than their own pride. It may be that one individual pursues reconciliation while another individual remains in a state of bitterness and disunity. Paul addressed this issue in Romans 12:18 as he provided the following instruction to the church in Rome:
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:18–21).
We must likewise recall Paul’s words prior to this paragraph as he instructed the Christians in Rome to be genuine in their love and to outdo one another in brotherly affection (Rom. 12:9-13). Winning the argument is not always the way to reconciliation. Remember that as we gaze at the cross of Jesus Christ and see how Christ saved us through his brutal crucifixion, we will find that reconciliation is not only a workable solution but it’s mandated by God (Phil 2:5-11; Eph. 4:32).
Do Not Change Churches
Is there ever a time to leave a local church? Sure, there are biblical reasons, but if I’m perfectly honest, I believe far too often people leave their local church for unbiblical reasons. I’ve written on this subject in another article titled, “When Should I Leave My Church?“—but we can be quite certain that it’s never wise to leave under conflict. If you believe that changing addresses of where you worship will solve your conflict with fellow believers—you’re simply wrong. You will only change the address of your problems. So long as you never learn to do the hard work of conflict resolution as a Christian—you will find yourself walking a broken road of loneliness and isolation within your local church. Conflict builds walls and the devil is really clever at isolating people in local churches until they become so unfulfilled that they simply change churches. Until a person learns to work through conflict in a biblical manner that honors Christ—this pattern will continue in perpetuity. Ray Ortlund writes the following:
The gospel being what it is and always will be, “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19), our churches should be the most reconciling, peaceable, relaxed, happy places in town. We are so open to enemies, so meek in the face of insults and injuries, so forgiving toward the undeserving — if we do make people angry, let this be the reason. We refuse to join in their selfish battles. We’re following a higher call. We are the peacemakers, the true sons of God (Matthew 5:9). 
Have you ever had to provide advice to your child after he had a scuffle on the playground with another child? What advice did you provide him? Did you instruct him to work through his problems and pursue peace and salvage his friendship or did you move him to another school the next day? We must remember that the children and immature believers (as well as the mature believers) are watching how we all deal with conflict. We should not disciple others in our local church to change churches when they experience conflict. The local church is family and what do family members do when faced with conflict? The family works through it together. Don’t give up. Don’t quit. The end result is worth it and Christ will be glorified through a proper and healthy conflict resolution.
- Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter: Selected Treatises, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 4.
- Ray Ortlund, “The Ministry of Reconciliation” — Accessed on: March 5th, 2018.
The present evangelical church culture that we live in is, in many ways, hitched to the train of pragmatism. Whatever works is what the church practices because it brings about results. What if a church grows larger and looks successful from the outside, but did it all without any functional church discipline taking place in the congregation? It would be like an athlete growing really large by eating something other than protein and lifting weights. If an athlete takes steroids, he can bypass the normal way of growing muscles, but in the end, it’s very unhealthy.
In some church circles, the practice of church discipline has been relegated down to the level of an ancient method of church life that’s been placed next to the old river baptismal services where the church gathered down by the river because they didn’t have a modern baptistry. In those same circles, the idea of practicing church discipline is not even a consideration, because it’s believed that church discipline somehow prevents a church from growing. Is that a helpful way of looking at church discipline?
The Purpose of Church Discipline
Although some cases exist in church history of people abusing authority and misusing the practice of church discipline, the real purpose of discipline is reconciliation. This is the loving thing to pursue in the life of the church. Contrary to popular opinion, church discipline is not a means of retaliation against someone who has wronged you. The overarching purpose of church discipline centers on the goal of reconciliation.
- Reconciliation between the church member and God.
- Reconciliation between the church member and the body of the church.
Therefore, as the church sees this practice taking place on a regular basis, it causes the church to grow. What type of growth comes from the practice of church discipline? First, the church will grow spiritually as sin is confronted and properly dealt with. Next, the church will grow in unity together as sins that have caused divisions are properly exposed and disciplined. Last of all, numerical growth will take place as the healthy church demonstrates a passion for God, a love for one another, a hatred for sin, and a love for their community. The church will be known as a genuine church in the community rather than a “bunch of hypocrites” as the world often labels the local church. Church discipline is not antithetical to church growth.
The Necessity of Church Discipline
If we read theologians and scholars from church history, we will see that the common belief among the church in former days was that if a “church” didn’t practice church discipline, it was not a true church. It may have a steeple and stained glass, but it can’t be a true church if regular, biblical, and functional church discipline isn’t being practiced. 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.” 
In the early church, Jesus commanded church discipline to be practiced in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul urged the church at Corinth to practice it. 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” (1 Cor. 5). We see similar language in 2 Thessalonians 3 and in Titus 3 regarding the need to separate from those who persist in sin. In other words, church discipline is not an item on a spiritual buffet that we can choose if we believe it to be appealing. It’s an absolute necessity.
Having walked through painful situations of public church discipline and having seen it work as Jesus intended it to, I can firmly state that not only is the practice mandated by Christ, but it’s for the good of the church and the glory of God.
What if my church is not practicing church discipline? Don’t become a rogue church member who seeks to lead the church by usurping authority that was never given to you. Take time to sit with your pastors and discuss the subject and ask healthy questions. Try to work through the need for discipline in the life of your church by starting with your pastors. Don’t be divisive over the subject of church discipline.
What if I’m looking for a church, but the church we feel led to doesn’t practice church discipline? The simple answer is—don’t join it. Perhaps you “feel” led to the church for some other reason, but if they aren’t practicing church discipline, the health of the church has been greatly compromised over time. It will only be a matter of time before things compile and become much worse.
Albert Mohler has written, “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.” 
- Gregory A. Wills, Democratic Religion: Freedom, Authority, and Church Discipline in the Baptist South 1785-1900 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 12.
- Albert Mohler, “Discipline: The Missing Mark” In Polity (Center for Church Reform: 2001, 43-62), 2001.
Try mentioning the subject of church discipline among fellow Christians in a mixed evangelical audience at a local coffee shop and you’re bound to receive mixed reviews. The overwhelming majority of churches in my town do not practice church discipline. If asked to review a history of their membership meetings (business conferences), you would not find one instance of public church discipline on their records for the last 50-100 years—if you found a single record to begin with.
What is the goal of church discipline? Is it punitive? Is it revenge? Is it to demonstrate authority over people in a spiritual manner? What is the ultimate goal of church discipline and how do you know when you’ve become successful?
Confrontation with a Purpose
The process of church discipline is explained in Matthew 18:15-20. The entire purpose of confronting someone who is living in sin is to bring the individual to a place of confession and repentance to God. If the vertical relationship is restored, the horizontal relationship will be a natural fruit of repentance. The goal is never revenge or punitive damage upon the character of the person being disciplined.
If we examine Matthew 18, we see that Jesus is the One who has given us our marching orders regarding church discipline. This overarching purpose is for the purity of the bride of Christ. Contrary to the opinion of most evangelicals, church discipline is not harsh and mean-spirited. It’s done out of love. Consider the words of Alexander Strauch:
Love is not just happy smiles or pleasant words. A critical test of genuine love is whether we are willing to confront and discipline those we care for. Nothing is more difficult than disciplining a brother or sister in Christ who is trapped in sin. It is always agonizing work – messy, complicated, often unsuccessful, emotionally exhausting, and potentially divisive. This is why most church leaders avoid discipline at all costs. But that is not love. It is lack of courage and disobedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, who Himself laid down instructions for the discipline of an unrepentant believer (Matt. 18:17-18). 
Excommunication with a Purpose
It’s one thing to confront someone in sin, but it’s quite a different thing to go through the steps to a final and divisive decision of excommunication. It seems so harsh and antiquated to the modern evangelical church. Would we really put someone outside of our church membership? That seems so counter productive to church growth – right? However, the purpose is to protect the purity of the bride of Christ and to demonstrate a desire as a local church to honor Christ with our lives. It’s one thing to claim to be a Christian, but quite another thing to live as a Christian. Too often evangelical churches put more emphasis on the words rather than the actions.
The entire goal of excommunication is to protect the purity of Jesus’ bride, to honor God, and to cause the people in the church to have a healthy fear of God. All of us should take heed of our own lives, because none of us are beyond a similar fall (1 Cor. 10:12; Acts 5:11). The goal is never revenge and it’s always with a goal of restoration. However, local churches cannot become local community clubs. In order to prevent a church from mission drift and becoming a community club, church discipline must be practiced. John MacArthur, in a blog post from February of 2003, wrote the following:
[Church discipline is] vital to the spiritual health and the testimony of the church. Ignoring church discipline is the most visible and disastrous failure of the church in our time, because it conveys to the world that we’re not really serious about sin. 
This past week we had a members’ meeting (business conference) on Sunday evening. We typically gather as a church and enjoy a meal together and then the elders of the church speak to the business and ministry of the church. During our recent meeting, a particular gentleman came before the church at the end of the meeting during the allotted time for church discipline and addressed the entire church. His goal was to explain himself publicly and ask for forgiveness. He was excommunicated from our church almost two years ago for committing adultery on his wife. After restoration between himself and God and restoration between he and his wife, he came before our church to ask for forgiveness and to request that his membership be reinstated. In my opinion, this is mission accomplished—almost.
It was a great thing to watch the disciplined member come back full circle and be accepted back into the membership of our church family. It was good for the young married couples to see this testimony of forgiveness, covenant keeping, and Christ honoring restoration. It was healthy for our church to see church discipline work as Christ designed. Too often, within evangelical churches, we see people who are held accountable simply move on and press the restart in another church where they’re allowed to harbor without any question or concern. That was not the case with this couple. After many months of difficult conversations, prayer, and ultimately a miracle from the Lord—their marriage was salvaged.
When I left the church campus and reflected upon the entire meeting, I was reminded that we’re not home yet. We must wake up tomorrow and fight the good fight of faith and persevere for the glory of God. We can’t slack off. We can’t afford to be lazy for one single moment in the journey of faith. It’s in those lazy moments that we find ourselves making catastrophic mistakes. We must keep fighting sin and work to become more conformed to the image of Christ until we arrive home.
- Alexander Strauch, Leading With Love, (Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 2006), 152.
- John MacArthur, “The Disciplined Church,” (Grace to You, February 5th, 2013).
Last week, I wrote an article about the problems that I personally perceive regarding the ministry of Andy Stanley. I learned a great lesson from that article. I can call out false teachers for heresy, but if I criticize someone within the bounds of evangelicalism for error, I’ve somehow crossed the line. Occasionally, on this blog, I write about books and ministries that people should avoid. For instance, I’ve written about Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. In both cases, I have openly referred to them as heretics. In my article regarding Andy Stanley’s problem with the Bible, I didn’t call him a heretic. I do have serious concerns regarding the trajectory of his ministry given some recent decisions, but at this point, I must still refer to him as a brother.
Every once in a while I receive an e-mail from a concerned reader of this blog asking me if I had taken time to contact someone before I publicly named them in my article. This past week, I received more than one e-mail asking me that very question. In fact, I received at least ten such e-mails and some were quite critical of my intentions as they accused me of sin for not following the model of church discipline found in Matthew 18. So the question remains – should I have contacted Pastor Andy Stanley before I made him the center figure in a critical article?
The Context of Matthew 18
As Jesus provides the detailed process of church discipline in Matthew 18, He uses the word ἐκκλησία translated church in our English Bible. This is not the first time Jesus has used this word in the New Testament. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” It’s clear from the context of Matthew 18 and Matthew 16, that Jesus is using the word church in two different ways. In His statement in Matthew 16:18, it’s clear that He is referring to the universal church. For we certainly know that the gates of hell have prevailed against some local churches throughout redemptive history. In Matthew 18:17, Jesus uses the word church in reference to the local church.
In the context of Matthew 18:15-20, we see that the sin is personal, private, and the person guilty of the offense is personally accessible. This all points to the local church as the context of Jesus’ detailed model for solving sin problems within the church. Most conservative Christians will agree that church discipline is nearly an archaic method that’s largely absent from the normal life of the evangelical church. This is an unfortunate observation indeed. John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential church manual of the nineteenth century, noted, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.” 
In May of 2011, D.A. Carson addresses the abuse of Matthew 18 in a theological journal known as Themelios. According to Carson:
Person A writes a book criticizing some element or other of historic Christian confessionalism. A few bloggers respond with more heat than light. Person B writes a blog with some substance, responding to Person A. The blogosphere lights up with attacks on Person B, many of them asking Person B rather accusingly, “Did you communicate with Person A in private first? If not, aren’t you guilty of violating what Jesus taught us in Matthew 18?” This pattern of counter-attack, with minor variations, is flourishing.
Carson provides some well thought out answers to this popular scenario. Likewise, J. C. Ryle writes, “If this second course proves useless, we are to refer the whole matter to the Christian congregation of which we are members: we are to ‘tell it to the church’ (verse 17).”  It’s obvious that the context of Matthew 18 is referring to a local church and interpersonal relationships as opposed to the extended universal church.
The obvious dilemma is clearly seen when Matthew 18 is read within its proper context. In my case, suppose that I took time to reach out to Andy Stanley before I wrote my article and he graciously welcomed a conversation over coffee. What if after I confronted Andy Stanley he simply replied and suggested that we operate from a different ministry philosophy? What is my next step? Do I return with two witnesses? What if we sit down for a meeting again with witnesses and he sticks to his position? Should we demand that he allow me to publicly accuse him before his congregation that I’m not a member of?
If you think through the process, goals, and practice of church discipline in accordance with Matthew 18, it’s clearly reserved for local church matters. So, while I appreciate the care of people who have suggested that I should have reached out to Andy Stanley before I wrote the article, I disagree with their conclusion. I think the text is clear and the obvious dilemma of being outside of his congregation prevents the entire process of Matthew 18 from being possible. If I were a member or an elder within Andy Stanley’s church, I would have handled myself in a different way and followed the steps of Matthew 18.
The Freedom of Critique
In the end, we have the freedom of critique when it comes to public figures, authors, and preachers. I do think that at times polemic ministries can go overboard in their attempt to warn people regarding dangerous doctrines and heretics. I’ve certainly watched specific polemic ministries become so myopic that they tend to focus on the smallest difference as opposed to the big issues and false teachers that are plaguing the church.
As we study the context of Matthew 18, we see that church discipline is something that must be taken seriously and practiced today. How many people who insisted that I speak with Andy Stanley before writing my article actually practice Matthew 18 in their own life and church? How many of those people attend a church where someone has been publicly disciplined within the last five or ten years? The fact is, the church that I serve practices church discipline and we have seen positive fruit from this biblical method of confronting error. Following the Lord’s detailed plan for church discipline is essential for a healthy church.
After reading Matthew 18, we likewise come to understand that when someone writes a book or preaches a sermon and the content of the message is troubling, it’s not sinful to write an article about it. If your pastor preaches a sermon that you disagree with, it would not be biblical to take issue with him on your blog on Monday morning. If you have an issue with someone in your local church, you should likewise have access to that individual – even the pastor of a megachurch.
Writing articles to confront error can be helpful and promote greater health within the church as a whole if carried out in a biblical manner. We should avoid becoming overly critical, but we should not refrain from being critical when necessary. If someone leaves a church because they disagree with their former pastor and leadership, they don’t have open freedom to attack their former pastor and church online. Before writing an article or calling out someone on social media, think about your goal and ask yourself if you are exercising wisdom in your attempt to confront error. I’ve certainly ran too quickly to the blog in the eleven years that I’ve been writing this blog. Could I have reached out to Andy Stanley before writing my article? Absolutely. Was I mandated according to Matthew 18 to make contact with Andy Stanley before I called him out publicly? Absolutely not.
- John L. Dagg, A Treatise on Church Order (Paris, Arkansas: Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006), 274.
- J. C. Ryle, Matthew, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 162.