Topical Tuesday: Church Discipline
We continue a several-week series called Topical Tuesdays, where you pick the topic and I make up answers. You can add your topic / question to the list by commenting on this post. Today’s question comes from Mike Gifford:
Church discipline has been one of the topics that I don’t know a lot about. What is the biblical process that a church uses to keep the body safe and restore those that may be disciplined?
Ah, church discipline: the topic that makes legalists cackle gleefully and everyone else think about…well, legalists cackling gleefully. Those two words will make the typical unchurched person think of church as a place full of narrow-minded, finger-pointing, judgmental folks who are always looking for some funky sin to expose. Sadly, many churches who practice discipline have a process that looks exactly like that. Other churches, in an effort to avoid doing discipline wrongly, have chosen to avoid it altogether.
- The holiness of the church. Let’s be clear: the church is full of messed up people. Everyone from the lead pastor to the first time guest are wicked sinners that deserve hell but are offered grace (be encouraged). But each believing member of the church is to be on a continual journey towards Christlikeness. We’re to encourage one another, teach one another, and when necessary, rebuke one another. There are times when I need the guys in my small group to get in my face, and times when I need to get in theirs. It’s what Proverbs calls “iron sharpening iron” and it’s needed in order to keep the church as both a beacon of hope for those who are seeking and a viable greenhouse for growth for those who have found Christ. In short, people need to see something different about the church.
- The restoration of the fallen. Church discipline was never meant to be a nanny-nanny-boo-boo shame fest for grownups. There is one primary impetus behind discipline, and that’s restoration. The teachings of Jesus and Paul (see the verses cited above) had loving restoration as the goal, not public humiliation. We restore the fallen when we help in broken marriages, when we intervene in someone’s addiction, and when we confront someone’s persistent life-wrecking issues.
- The appropriate circle of confession. Just like discipleship, discipline happens best in relationships. Jesus’ model in Matthew 18 kept the circle of confession small…just between the offender and the offendee (look at me, making up words). Church discipline “goes public” only when absolutely necessary – i.e., when the one who sins refuses to turn away from their sin.
- The matter of unrepentant sin. We are not talking about an issue where someone is simply struggling with sin. In the examples throughout scripture, the final phases of public discipline only occurred in situations where people were willfully embracing their sin and turning their back on biblical accountability and authority. There’s no need for discipline when sin is recognized, confessed, and worked through in accountable relationships. This is the example laid out for us in 1 John, chapters 1-2. In that passage, John reminds us that Christians still sin, but when we have a besetting sin (anger, lying, lust, etc.) we should have other believers in our lives that will walk through that process with us.
So how does this happen at the Summit? On a practical level, you’ll very rarely hear about a case of church discipline, because it tends to fall to principle #3 above. Our small group leaders are champs at shepherding and loving their people and helping guide them through areas of unrepentant sin. We’ve had several cases which have come before the church’s directional elders, and in those cases we hold the principle of restoration as key. Do we always get it 100% right? Absolutely not. But our goal is to make sure that each situation is fully investigated, the truth is known, and people are lovingly restored to fellowship within the body.
Here are a couple of resources you might find helpful. The first deals with a comprehensive treatment of discipline in the local church, and the second is a grace-based approach to how messed-up people help messed-up people.