7 reasons to avoid church discipline (and why they’re all wrong)
Many Christians have opposed church discipline for understandable, albeit uninformed, unbiblical, and misguided reasons.
“You preached those sermons on church membership and discipline point by point through the Bible. . . and I hated it!”
The chairman of the deacons at North Possum Baptist Church (fake name) spoke those words to a former pastor of mine (Sam). He’d just finished a series of sermons on the doctrine of the church. The most astounding and, frankly, disturbing thing about this opposition to membership and discipline was his acknowledgement that these doctrines were, in fact, plainly taught in Scripture.
Over the years we’ve encountered dozens of people in churches who have opposed the concept of discipline—grimacing, scowling, or bristling at the bare mention of the word. But we “9Marks guys” need to beware that we don’t assume everyone who winces at the mention of discipline is opposed to Scripture and bent on corrupting the church.
Not everyone who opposes discipline does so with such brazen disregard for Scripture, as the deacon chairman did above. In fact, as we reflect on the church contexts where we’ve served, many wonderful, godly Christians have opposed discipline (at least initially) for understandable, albeit uninformed, unbiblical, and misguided reasons. They’re opponents, but not wolves. They’re simply sheep who have sadly endured decades of bad shepherding.
To that end, pastors must introduce discipline to a church slowly and wisely, enabling its members over time to exercise this authority faithfully. Merely teaching about discipline is not enough. They must also teach the doctrines that provide the gospel framework to support church discipline: conversion, holiness, repentance, membership, discipleship, and love.
Again, not everyone who opposes discipline does so with nefarious motives. Many are simply confused sheep with well-meaning but misguided theological principles.
Below we want briefly consider some of the “good-faith” objections to discipline we’ve encountered and how we try to help church members understand the theological principles undergirding discipline.
1. “Pastor, we can’t judge someone’s heart, so how could we possibly say someone is not a Christian?”
Of course it’s true that no one has infallible knowledge of another person’s heart. At the same time, we need to qualify that statement a bit. Jesus indicates that we wear our heart on our sleeve, speaking and acting according to what’s inside (Matt. 12:34; 15:10–20). We can’t know someone’s heart but actions and words typically reveal the state of someone’s heart. As Jesus said, good trees produce good fruit and bad trees produce bad fruit (Matt 7:17).
2. “Jesus never turned anyone away.”
True, Jesus never turned away a repentant sinner. But Jesus did drive out money changers from the temple and didn’t stop the rich young ruler from walking away. Besides, the clearest teaching on church discipline comes from the Lord Jesus himself (Matt. 18:15–20).
Furthermore, discipline is not “turning someone away.” The church never turns away a repentant sinner seeking grace and forgiveness. The church only disciplines the obstinately sinful—those who are unwilling to repent of their sins while professing the name of Christ. Discipline is not turning people away who want Jesus, but identifying those who want sin more than they want Jesus.
3. “Nobody’s perfect. People make mistakes.”
Church discipline doesn’t mean we demand an extra measure of holiness or that churches that practice discipline are out to “get” the ordinary, struggling Christian. No one should ever get disciplined for not living up to some standard of super holiness. The only requirement to remain in the covenant community is that you daily respond to the gospel with faith and repentance. Nobody gets excommunicated for sin, per se. Rather, the church enacts discipline for unrepentant sin.
4. “But they won’t hear the gospel if they’re not in church.”
Discipline doesn’t require barring the disciplined from corporate worship or other gatherings of the church. Of course we want lost people (including unrepentant sinners who claim to be Christians) to hear the preaching of the Word and experience the corporate witness of the gathering. But we want them to know, if they’re unrepentant, that they observe the fellowship of the church from the border, not the center.
Most disciplined folks will not choose to continue attending church, at least initially. But how much good was their attendance doing before being disciplined if they’re self-deceived about their standing with God?
Moreover, many Christians view the church building as the only place the lost can legitimately receive salvation—as if the gospel is a product you can only get at certain stores. In response, pastors should teach their people a biblical doctrine of conversion and remind them that people come to faith as they encounter the gospel around water coolers, during backyard cookouts, and in innumerable other contexts as Christians faithfully carry out the Great Commission.
5. “I’ve never heard of this before!”
Sometimes Christians are suspicious of new ideas because they don’t like change—especially if it disrupts their comfort. But it’s also the case that many Christians are (rightly) skeptical of novel ministry trends because they feel put off by the many pastors they’ve witnessed parade through their church claiming to have the “silver bullet” for ministry.
When discipline is seen as a new tactic, even your best members will be suspicious of it. For that reason, pastors should make every effort to show how church discipline is rooted in the explicit teachings of Scripture. Church history is also particularly helpful on this point. As your members learn that Christians before their grandparents also practiced church discipline, they’ll see that this isn’t just the latest pastor-fad, but a matter of biblical fidelity.
6. “If we practice discipline, it will hurt the church’s reputation.”
Scripture indicates that we should maintain a healthy sensitivity to how outsiders perceive our congregations (cf. 1 Cor. 14:16, 24; 1 Tim. 3:7). But we should never allow that sensitivity to slide over into a fearfulness that prevents us from obeying Jesus.
Some folks in our congregations may fear that practicing discipline will communicate to outsiders that our church is harsh or judgmental. But we must remind people that discipline is actually God’s way of maintaining the church’s credibility in a lost community. Jesus’ reputation is bound up with his church. If we tolerate sins even unbelievers find scandalous, we compromise our witness to the gospel’s power to transform lives.
7. “We never did this in better days, when our church was bigger.”
Pastors, especially new ones, need to understand their congregation’s history—particularly the history that still lives in the memory of older members. I (Sam) served in a church where many of the members longed for the “glory days” of the 1970s and 80s, when the church was large and the ministry programs were brimming with activity. In those halcyon days, the church never discussed membership, wouldn’t have dreamed of discipline, and prioritized catering their services to unbelievers. Discipline represented the opposite of every ministry intuition cultivated during the “best” days of the church.
In retrospect, I see that many members were motivated by a desire to see the church once again produce that kind of fruit (or at least what looked like fruit). For many, discipline represented a practice that placed the church in direct opposition to the “fruitful ministry” it had known in the past. As a result, people disliked discipline not because it seemed unloving or unbiblical; they disliked it because it’s simply not what the church did when it was bigger, more fruitful, more influential. They’d become well-catechized in the belief that bigger is always better.
In response, pastors should patiently teach their people to trust that God’s ways are better than ours, even if they seem counterintuitive. Second, pastors should teach their people to celebrate the fruit of faith in Christ and holy lives, not a church brimming with ministry programs. After all, on the last day, many will ask, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and run counseling centers in your name, and host VBS in your name?”
Of course, counseling centers and Vacation Bible Schools are good things, but they aren’t a sure sign of the Spirit’s work. If our baptism numbers and ministry programs today don’t translate to accepted servants on that day, then what good are they? Pastors aren’t the only ones who need constant reminding that success in ministry is a matter of faithfulness and patience, not bigger budgets and packed pews. Care for your flock by teaching them that gospel growth and God’s blessing depend on faithfulness. And teach them that part of holding the gospel faithfully is helping others hold fast as well.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at 9Marks.