March 24, 2024

Counting Sheep

Church discipline, pastoral care, and the Great Commission

Gerson P. Santos

Parenting is a cosmic roller coaster. When your children act up, how many chances do you throw their way? Do you start a countdown? “All right, kiddo, you got 489 chances left . . . 488 . . . 487 . . .” Fast-forward a bit (or, for some kids, just a few hours later), and you’re saying, “This is your absolute last chance! I’ve been counting, you know!” While we may not be counting down to the end of our patience, for the benefit of the child we may sometimes have to put them on a timeout or employ some other training measure. The goal of the discipline is to help them learn, not to vent our anger.

As the church faces a low retention rate, the goal of perfect attendance should not be motivated by the “pride of the church, but for the progress of kingdom.”1 The disciplinary process is to advance the redemptive mission of the church.

In the late 1990s three churches in Pennsylvania were growing at an astounding rate. They accounted for 35 percent of the total growth of the Pennsylvania Conference from 1984 to 1997. “Not only were their increases due to baptism, profession of faith, and letter of transfer higher than the average church in the conference but their losses due to apostasy, missing, and letter of transfer also appear[ed] to be higher in the statistics.”2 Upon investigation, this phenomenon provided evidence that a conscientious implementation of an intentional plan for membership review and church discipline contributes to exceptional growth.

“If the lost sheep is not brought back to the fold,” writes Ellen White, “it wanders until it perishes. And many souls go down to ruin for want of a hand stretched out to save.”3 This is why the Church Manual recommends a continuing redemptive membership review process.4 Reviewing the membership records to identify wandering members assists in ministering to the needs of the church. You cannot bring the sheep back to the fold if you never realized it was missing.

Why It Matters

Perhaps your parents were tough on you, inflicting such “cruelties” as forcing you to attend school every weekday, subjecting you to dentist visits, family reunions, and maybe even dragging you to the mall for new shoes. If school trouble brewed, home trouble was brewing too. Chores, homework, family dinners with no TV, and the ultimate horror—vegetables! They even insisted on outdoor play and personal hygiene. Making beds, resolving sibling disputes, brushing teeth—the atrocities were endless. In retrospect we can say, “Thanks, Mom and Dad, for the fierce upbringing that forged the resilient souls we are today.” When a parent tolerates deliberate disobedience in their children, it isn’t regarded as an act of love. Because they love their child, they discipline them. Similarly, when a church permits a member to persist in evident wrongdoing without any collective demonstration of correction and sorrow, it cannot be interpreted as an expression of love.

“If members grow indifferent or drift away,” the Church Manual states, “the church must seek to reclaim them for the Lord.”5 And when someone does not want to remain as a member, the proper procedure must be taken. “The church must discipline with tears in its eyes. The purpose of church discipline is always redemptive, never retributive. A church that lacks the compassion to care and the courage to confront is a tragedy in the making. One of the marks of a dying church is that it is so desperate to retain members that it refuses to do anything that might antagonize them.”6

Scripture prescribes a graduated response to those who have offended a church member (Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5). Matthew instructs that “the offended member is to approach the offender privately. If this doesn’t solve the problem, then progressively larger delegations confront the offender. If there is no repentance, the final sanction is exclusion from the group.”7 Paul addresses a situation in which a severe offense has affected the church and the wider community and recommends firm discipline, treating the offender as an outsider incompatible with the Christian community. Though seemingly stern, it is a compassionate approach that allows for a fresh start by resolving past issues. Those who have never departed cannot return, and thereby maintain an unhealthy connection to the church. Church discipline preserves group integrity and upholds the dignity of transgressors, conveying the significance of their actions. Always bearing in mind that we are all learning to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18) through humbly submitting ourselves to His Word.

The goal, when approaching someone, is not to force admission of fault but to secure reconciliation—to God and to others. Discipline shouldn’t be driven by vengeance or prejudice; it requires a Christlike spirit and love. Disfellowshipping is unpleasant and a last resort. Only after exhaustive, biblical-guided efforts to encourage reform should it be considered. If these sincere attempts fail, the church is compelled to take action.

Timely intervention by the church is essential for the process of reclaiming individuals. Churches that remain indifferent to misconduct in their midst will not be successful in reclaiming wayward members, nor will they experience significant growth. Ellen White says, “The Lord does not now work to bring many souls into the truth, because of the church members who have never been converted and those who were once converted but who have backslidden.”8 In addition to that, “if wrongs are apparent among His people, and if the servants of God pass on indifferent to them, they virtually sustain and justify the sinner, and are alike guilty and will just as surely receive the displeasure of God; for they will be made responsible for the sins of the guilty.”9 Apparently, a church that does not continuously review its membership is ill-equipped to fulfill the gospel commission. Updating the books should be motivated by the goal of being more effective in ministering to members’ needs and reaching the lost.

The three parables of Luke 15 share a common thread—the imperative and urgent searching for the lost. In light of a membership review, church leadership can train and assign tasks to active church members who can minister to the needs and spiritual conditions of missing members.

The Secret Ingredient

Whereas some congregations overlook the importance of church discipline, “some are so obsessed with church discipline that the discipline loses its significance.”10 The biblical approach to discipline requires a wholehearted pastoral attitude, a deep understanding of various perspectives, and an inspired understanding of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. A sustained dedication to the thoughtful, proficient, and spiritually guided effort of bringing back those who are drifting away is crucial. The goal is to avoid disfellowship whenever possible, but if it becomes necessary, it should be executed deliberately and conscientiously, driven by a spirit of proactive love.

The person under discipline should not “be despised or neglected by [his or her] former brethren, but be treated with tenderness and compassion, as one of the lost sheep that Christ is still seeking to bring to His fold.”11 If “there are wrongs in the church, they should receive immediate attention.”12 In addition, discipline “must be given in accordance with Christ’s direction. . . . Do not speak of his errors to others.”13 As Paul put it: “If another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” (Gal. 6:1, NLT).14

Whenever I return from a business trip, I whip up a meal for my wife. Now, I’m no culinary maestro, but I give it my best shot to impress her. And like clockwork, she marvels at the deliciousness and quizzes me on the ingredients. My go-to response? I tell her about the secret ingredient—love. In the realm of church ministry, discipline, and pastoral care,15 it seems as though love is the go-to, must-have spice in every essential recipe.

1 Kenneth S. Hemphill, The Bonsai Theory of Church Growth (Tigerville, S.C.: Auxano Press, 2011), p. 36.

2 Wesley McDonald, “Church Discipline and Church Growth,” Ministry, April 2000,, accessed Jan. 3, 2024.

3 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 191.

4 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2023), p. 61.

5 Ibid., p. 62.

6 Tim Crosby, “Church Discipline the Redemptive Way,” Ministry, October 2002,, accessed Jan. 3, 2024.

7 Ibid.

8 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 371.

9 Ibid., vol. 3, pp. 265, 266.

10 Daniel Bediako, “Implications of 1 Corinthians 5:5,” Ministry, September 2008,, assessed Jan. 3, 2024.

11 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 441.

12 Ellen G. White, “Lessons for Christians,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Dec. 11, 1900.

13 Ellen G. White manuscript 8a, 1888, in The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials (Washington, D.C.: Ellen G. White Estate, 1987), vol. 1, pp. 136, 137.

14 Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

15 Pastoral care here is not limited to pastors, but refers to the community responsibility to show we care for each other as brothers and sisters.