May 11, 2006

Bring Back Church Discipline

Some terrible things have been done in the name of church discipline. So perhaps it’s hardly surprising that in many churches the whole concept has largely been allowed to fall away. It’s an easy answer to a complicated problem--but easiest is not always best.
The phenomenon probably also reflects a changing attitude to and relationship with church. Haddon Robinson describes it like this: “Too often now when people join a church, they do so as consumers. If they like the product, they stay. If they do not, they leave. They can no more imagine a church disciplining them than they could a store that sells goods disciplining them. It is not the place of the seller to discipline the consumer.”1
Church was never meant to be a spiritual supermarket or shopping mall, a retailer whose primary focus is to meet our needs and make us feel good about ourselves and our lives, whatever they may be. Instead, it should be an organic community of those sharing their experiences and faith, committed to urging and assisting one another to greater godliness and goodness.
1513 page17As such, we need to engage in discussion as to what church discipline might mean in our cultural and church circumstances, how church discipline can best be done, and how this can again become a positive component of church life and membership. There is much work to be done, but we must bring back church discipline.
In writing to the Corinthian church, Paul set out two reasons for such a process. After describing how the church should meet together to discuss the issue and “cast this man out of the church,” first Paul urged them that this was primarily for the good of the man involved, “so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved when the Lord returns” (1 Cor. 5:5).*
This is hard: sometimes we do best by someone when we are not “nice” to them. It must be done carefully and prayerfully, but because of our love for our fellow believer and because of our belief in the eternal consequences of the choices we make, sometimes we must--as a corporate community of faith--call a member back to obedience.
This will work best when we have healthy relationships within our church community and when we have a proper understanding of what church discipline means. “Church discipline, even the final stage of excluding persistent sinners from church membership, is really just using our last resort in pleading with an erring brother or sister to forsake sin and return to the loving arms of the Lord who longs to forgive him or her. Church discipline is finally simply watching over one another in love.”2
The other reason Paul urged the Corinthian church to act in this way was the good of the larger community of faith. “Don’t you realize that if even one person is allowed to go on sinning, soon all will be affected?” he wrote. “Remove this wicked person from among you so that you can stay pure” (verses 6, 7). Paul is saying that it is important to maintain godly behavior for the sake of other members, the faith community as a whole, and perhaps even for the wider community that observes, learns from, and judges the faithfulness or faithlessness of the church.
But that’s not the end of the story. In his next letter Paul followed up these instructions with another vital element of church discipline. Perhaps even referring to the same person, he urged the church to include redemption as part of their dealings with a former member: “Now it is time to forgive him and comfort him. Otherwise he may become so discouraged that he won’t be able to recover. Now show him that you still love him” (2 Cor. 2:7, 8).
As people we are still the same in so many ways as those in Paul’s day. And as a church we should continue this important spiritual practice: “If another Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” (Gal. 6:1).
*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

1 Quoted by Ronald Sider, in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.
2 Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, p. 115.


Nathan Brown is editor of South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.