Church Discipline

Written by Stephen McQuoid. 

You can download the PDF of this resource here.  

One of the most challenging issues that any church leader will have to face is that of disciplining a member of the congregation. 

It is a task that is often entered into with trepidation, uncertainty and a great deal of emotional stress. Anyone who has dealt with the issue from a leadership position will have the scars to prove it and will suffer from the inherent drain which such an issue can cause.

Sadly, church discipline is often not done well. Not because of lack of desire on behalf of the church leader, and certainly not because the leader is bad. The reality, however, is that church discipline is usually complex, often hurtful and always unpredictable, because it involves people. Church leaders want to get the balance right, that is, the balance between law and grace, between dealing with sin yet showing the compassion of Christ. But where does the balance lie? 

The truth is that balance is relative to the individual, and being fallible humans we each bring into any issue the baggage of our past and our personalities. Consequently the balance question is one that can never be answered in any objective way. I learned this when I dared to write a book on church discipline. Friends copied to me book reviews that they picked up which proved to be quite different. Thankfully no reviewer complained about my book or charged me with heresy. However some said that I was too much of a ‘nice guy’ in what I said about church discipline, others, that I was too harsh and judgmental. One friend told me that this was a sign that I had got the balance about right, but I took from it that church discipline is an inexact science which no human being or church can get exactly right. This is an important point to note.  In church discipline there are sometimes no ‘right’ answers, but there are plenty of ‘wrong’ answers and the art is to take the least damaging route. 

This might sound fairly negative. Actually it is not. Being realistic keeps you humble and clinging to God, and that is a good place to be when dealing with the challenging issue of church discipline.

The context of church discipline

Perhaps the most important thing we need to keep in mind when we think of church discipline is the context in which we operate. By understanding context we are better prepared to handle church discipline in a balanced way and responding positively to that challenges we face. So what context do we operate in?

1.    A fallen world: A fallen world: firstly, it is self-evident that we operate within a fallen world where sin is prominent.  We all know this, yet church leaders nevertheless express surprise when things go wrong and discipline becomes a necessity. The fallen-ness of our world should not depress us because we believe in the cross and the solution it provides for the world. However, given that our world is fallen, we need the realism to anticipate that things can go wrong and Christians can sin and need the corrective ministry of the church.

2.    The complexity of society: secondly, we need to recognise that we do operate in a societal setting where there is a general lack of objective moral values and where sins such as gossip, slander, dishonesty, materialism, idolatry, homosexual activity or pre-marital sex, may be an abomination to God, but are very much the norm in society and consequently any stand the church takes to deal with these issues will be met with resistance.

3.    The challenge of individualism: The challenge of individualism: a third problem we face is the extreme individualism of western culture. We believe in autonomous man. The responsibility for actions rests with the individual. When it comes to the issue of how we relate to one another, words like ‘accountability’ are unpopular because we want to be accountable only to ourselves. In church life this poses an obvious problem. When the issue of church discipline arises, people are horrified to discover that they have to answer to others and especially to the leadership of the church. This goes against the grain of everything we feel to be right and those being disciplined can easily become angered at the unwelcome intrusion of others in their personal affairs.  

Despite this context, indeed because of it, there is a real need to take church discipline seriously. We cannot claim to be a people who give God honour unless our church members are living lives of holiness. The credibility of the church itself is also at stake. How can the church take the moral high ground and be a voice of conscience in society if Christians are themselves not pure? How can our churches grow and experience spiritual blessing if we do not live as God wants us to? Whatever our context, church discipline is a necessity because without its restraining influence the church will, like the children of Israel, find itself wandering round a spiritual wilderness while achieving very little.

Where do we go from here?

The big question is, where now? How do we go about doing church discipline and doing it effectively so that the church can be all it needs to be? Answering this question is a tall order in the space of a short article. However the following are some pointers that I think will help us as we develop our strategy, or rather ministry, of discipline within the church.

·     Communicate Purpose

The first thing we need to do with our churches is to demonstrate that there is an overarching purpose to our churches policy on discipline. We need to show that church discipline is not just a way of ‘slapping wrists’ when people do wrong. Rather, as churches we are on a quest for excellence and the pursuit of excellence requires that we take measures, often drastic measures, to fit us for the task. To use the analogies of 2 Timothy 2:1-6, Christians are soldiers who endure hardship, they are athletes who compete according to the rules and they are farmers who work hard to gain a harvest. The Christian life is about achievement, excellence, getting somewhere, and church discipline is one of the methods used to achieve that end. This message needs to be articulated loud and clear from the pulpit so that every church member understands that it will be a feature of church life.

·         Prepare Well

A second thing we need to do is prepare our congregation for the lives we expect them to live. Church discipline is not just about telling people off when they do wrong; it is also about building them up so that they live disciplined Christian lives. It is preventive medicine not just antibiotics. 

This preparation will include teaching. Unless people within our churches know what God expects of them, they will not be in a position to live it out. Interestingly in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18,19 Jesus specified that his disciples were to go into all the world teaching, so that his followers would be well aware of their responsibilities. It is said that knowledge is power – certainly in the Christian life to know how we should live is to have a focus which leads to correct living. In education a great deal of time is spent thinking about how students should be taught and what the curriculum should contain. Each subject is carefully chosen, each course has a rationale behind it, each class has a teaching plan complete with educational outcomes and assessment. If we truly think that our spiritual health is of equal importance to the physical lives we live, then the same care and attention should go into planning the teaching programme of a local church. 

As well as giving attention to the teaching programme, focus should be given to quality pastoral care. It is interesting to note that the apostles in general and Paul in particular gave time going house to house encouraging and instructing Christians (Acts 5:42; 20:20). This issue is of vital importance because experience suggests that church life is all about relationships. If we develop real relationships with church members and input into their lives meaningfully, there will be much less need to take action when things go wrong.

More than anything else, there should be quality discipleship. When all is said and done the most important resource we have in keeping us from falling is a vibrant Christian life. Consequently discipleship needs to be an absolute priority in the life of a church. Spirituality will not just happen, there needs to be intentionality. This is what Paul meant when he urged that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil.2:12). Discipleship is not just for new Christians but for the whole church. If we make this our focus, it will lead to the stronger spiritual lives that a healthy church needs. 

·         Approach the issue thoughtfully

Even when we have prepared our church well, there will still be times when someone steps out of line and needs to be helped. It is here that we really need to have a thoughtful approach. The reality is we are all sinners. What is more, an approach to church discipline that verges on the petty will neither deal with real issues nor lead to a healthy community life that allows for tolerance and patience. 

Furthermore, several demarcations need to be made in order to allow for an appropriate approach. For example, in dealing with personal sin we need to ask if this is a chronic situation or simply an isolated issue. There is a big difference between a young person who on one occasion has a moral lapse and a married man who has been conducting an extra-marital affair for three years. True, both might be sexual sins, but any thoughtful assessment would conclude that one is a greater betrayal than the other and demonstrates a much greater rebellion against the Lordship of Christ. Equally, we may need to separate those sins which an individual commits in private and those that are in the public gaze. Both are sin, but while some forms of church discipline can be done quietly, others require public pronouncement so that everyone knows that something is being done to remedy publicly committed sin.

In other words, there can be no one size fits all approach to church discipline. Situations vary greatly and so to the solutions. Creativity and intelligence should be applied to church discipline so that we can get proper outcomes and keep to the spirit of New Testament church discipline.

The question is, of course, how does it all work out in practice? What should we do when a person falls and what should loving church discipline look like? There is no simple answer to this because, after all, as we have already noted no two situations are the same and neither can the responses be the same. However there are some issues that need to be thought through, in advance of any specific situation arising that may be complicated by the personalities (or family links!) involved. To begin with, what if the person who has sinned is involved in some ministry of the church, like for example the praise band? In such a situation it may be necessary for the person to step down from their responsibilities for a period of time. In part this might be necessary because their sin has become well known and consequently the reputation of the church is at stake. In part they might need to step down to focus on getting their spiritual lives together before continuing in ministry. Of course this step will be dependent on the severity and ramifications of the sin committed and a careful evaluation of the facts will be essential.

In general I think it is unhelpful to publically announce what action is being taken as often this can make the situation worse. This limits gossip and makes restoration to full fellowship easier (and, sadly, may also be a wise step for legal reasons) - provided of course that the church knows something has been done about any public sins. However it is important to set up a good system of communication so that the person clearly knows why they are being disciplined, what the discipline will entail, how long it will last and what the outcome should be. Whatever is decided, the leaders of the church need to be there to deliver all they have promised. For example, in one situation I was involved in, we disciplined a young man who had sinned sexually. He was required to step down from his ministry for three months and we told him that he was to focus on getting spiritual discipline back in his life. We also stated that he should not take communion again unless he had genuinely repented and dealt with the fallout from his sin to the best of his ability. This he did. However what he desperately needed was spiritual support. Consequently we set up a system whereby a church leader met with him once a fortnight for six months to pray and talk frankly about the issue. This took a lot of commitment on both sides, but the end result was full restoration.     

·         Deal with problems swiftly

It is also of utmost importance that we learn to deal with things swiftly when it comes to issues of church discipline. Not that we rush to be judgmental, but rather that we nip problems in the bud before they become bigger problems. So much heartache could be spared if only church leaders were more vigilant. A married man shows too much attention to a single girl, a teenager is mixing with the wrong crowd, two church members have an argument in the foyer, a business man in the congregation boasts that he is more clever than the Inland Revenue. Each of these situations are a warning that some serious problem could arise. It is better to defuse a tricky time bomb than wait for it to explode.

·         Always have an end game

Church discipline is not fun, and it’s not meant to be. But neither is it meant to discourage and destroy. According to the New Testament, the purpose of church discipline is to bring the fallen Christian back into a loving and committed relationship with Christ. This higher purpose must always be kept in mind in every situation of church discipline. If we do, it will have a number of implications on how we go about disciplining the person.

i.        To begin with, while we discipline the person concerned we, as leaders, need to keep a good and strong relationship with them, believing that a full and meaningful relationship will be restored at the end of the process.

ii.        Secondly, the church needs to be challenged to welcome the fallen brother/sister back into the warm embrace of the church family.

iii.        The mechanism used to discipline must be carefully selected so that, while there might be an element of punishment, there should be encouragement and help as part of the discipline.

iv.        Fourthly, any discipline should be fair and seen by all to be fair. Our common (God given) sense of justice should never be offended. 

v.        Finally, discipline must be done dispassionately. In other words, we discipline because it is the right thing for the church and the person concerned, not because we have something against the individual being disciplined.

We should bear in mind that church discipline, being what it is, impacts the church as a whole and can often be unsettling. It is important to keep everyone on board so that in dealing with one person’s sin we are not damaging the church as a whole. Church members need to recognise that there are times when church discipline is a necessity even if it is unpleasant. This education can be done in two ways. Firstly, as part of a membership class it is important to communicate to new members that discipline is a feature of church life. Secondly, it is important in the churches preaching schedule to make reference to church discipline and to have specific teaching on it.

There is one important question that still needs to be answered. What happens if someone commits a serious sin and yet remains totally unrepentant? This is a difficult situation but one which does occur. The guidance of the New Testament suggests that when all else fails we should resort to excommunication (1 Cor.5:9-11 ; 2 Thess.3:6,14; Titus 3:10). Clearly this is a Biblical practice, but how does it actually work? 

We should bear in mind that church discipline, being what it is, impacts the church as a whole and can often be unsettling.  It is important to keep everyone on board so that in dealing with one person’s sin we are not damaging the church as a whole. Church members need to recognise that there are times when church discipline is a necessity even if it is unpleasant. This education can be done in two ways. Firstly, as part of a membership class it is important to communicate to new members that discipline is a feature of church life. (Also, in our litigious society it may possibly prevent legal problems arising one day, if all new members make clear they understand that, biblically, a godly life as defined by Scripture will be expected of members and those participating actively in the church in any way, and that, where it seems that this is not the case, church discipline is a possibility; so that people come into membership having made clear they accept that this is so.)  Secondly, it is important in the church’s preaching schedule to make reference to church discipline, and to have specific teaching on it.

There is one important question that still needs to be answered. What happens if someone commits a serious sin and yet remains totally unrepentant? This is a difficult situation but one which does occur. The guidance of the New Testament suggests that when all else fails we should resort to excommunication (1 Cor.5:9-11; 2 Thess.3:6,14; Titus 3:10). Clearly this is a biblical practice, but how does it actually work? 

The issue here is that of fellowship. The church should be a warm and intimate place where Christians love and support each other and go the extra mile in helping one another practically. These privileges are accompanied by responsibility, that of living a holy life. If someone sins and refuses to repent, they have broken their part of the ‘church membership covenant’; consequently they should be denied all the benefits of fellowship. This does not mean that no one should speak to them. Actually, it would be important that someone in leadership does keep in touch with them. However, they cannot expect the support, friendship and personal commitment of the church and its members until they have repented. They should be made to realise that they will only have the warm and supportive embrace of the church and its members if they do repent.       

When all is said and done, churches and church leaders will continue to make mistakes when it comes to church discipline. As we noted at the beginning, this is an inexact science. However, if we prayerfully move forward, abiding by scripture and holding the compassion of Christ in our hearts, we will see more successes than failures and will enable our churches to navigate the rather difficult waters of our fallen world.

Stephen McQuoid

Stephen McQuoid is the general director of Gospel Literature Outreach.  He is married to Debbie and they along with their two children fellowship at Liberty Community Church in Bellshill where Stephen is a teaching elder. His books include Discipline with Care (on the above topic), A Beginner’s Guide to Expository Preaching, and A Guide to God’s Family.

© Stephen McQuoid 2011