Why doesn’t church discipline ever seem to work?
The ultimate goal of church discipline is to obey the Lord.
I remember right where I was—leading a Bible study in my living room. The conversation moved into the practice of church discipline. I had previously mentioned that “of course the goal of church discipline is always repentance.” What I meant was that we always want the sinner to be restored into full, healthy communion with God and with the church.
Then someone asked the question: “Why doesn’t church discipline ever seem to work?” By that this person meant, “Why haven’t we seen any of the excommunicated members repent and be restored?” This person had heard my previous statement about the goal being restoration and had assumed that restoration was the only goal, or perhaps even the primary goal. This is not the case. In fact, there are several goals in mind when a church practices discipline.
Numerous goals of church discipline
A goal in church discipline is to be motivated by love.
Whenever a church must discipline someone, they must ensure that love is their motivation. Love is the only proper motivation, as the Lord himself illustrates: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6). We likewise are called to restore our brothers with a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1), that they might come to repentance (1 Cor. 5:5). A goal of church discipline is to guard the church’s purity.
A goal of church discipline is to guard the church’s purity.
When churches fail to practice church discipline, a subtle moral laxity can creep in. A little leaven, when left to fester instead of being removed, will leaven the whole lump. Conversely, when the church practices discipline, church members will soberly reflect upon their own sins and will take seriously Christ’s call to holiness.
A goal of church discipline is to guard the reputation of Christ.
When churches stop practicing church discipline, they begin to slide. They become worldly. Their light begins to dim and their salt begins to lose its saltiness. Once their salt becomes worthless (Matt. 5:13), their witness to the community goes with it.
The ultimate goal of discipline is to obey the Lord, regardless of whether repentance occurs.
Jesus empowered, indeed commanded, local congregations to exercise discipline among their own congregation. In Matthew 16:16–19 and 18:15–20, Jesus gives to local assemblies the keys of the kingdom for loosing and binding on Earth.
Paul likewise speaks about this discipline process in 1 Corinthians 5, Galatians 6:1, Ephesians 5:11, 1 Thessalonians 5:14, 1 Timothy 5:19–20, Titus 3:9–11, and other places. Regardless of whether the sinner ever repents and restores, believers are to humbly obey Jesus (and Paul) and follow through with discipline. The outcome does not change the obligation for the congregation to faithfully obey.
Here are some resources on church discipline:
- James Leo Garrett, Jr., Church Discipline: Lost, But Recoverable-This is a revision of an article Dr. Garrett first published in 1959.
- A Summary of Church Discipline from the Charleston Association-Instructions for Baptist churches in the South from 1774.
- James P. Boyce, Church Discipline—It’s Importance-The founder of Southern Seminary published this article in 1852.
- Mark Dever, Editor, Polity: A Collection of Historic Baptist Documents. An excellent resource from ancient Baptist wisdom on discipline and related issues.
- Don Whitney, Reforming through Discipline(mp3) -A very helpful message from one who has done it.
- Robert Murray M’Cheyne on Church Discipline; Corrective Church Discipline; A Plea for Church Discipline; Bill Clinton and the Discipline of our Churches
Jon English Lee serves as minister of education and administration at Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University in Montgomery, a master of divinity from Southern Seminary, and is currently a PhD candidate in systematic and historical theology at Southern. He has served several churches in Kentucky. Jon enjoys reading, scuba diving, and most any other outdoor activity. He and his wife, Rebekah, have three sons: Jonny, Jack, and Graham.