The Lord disciplines those he loves (Heb. 12:6).
A. A Biblical View of Church Discipline
It could happen to you. Two young women came to their pastor to confess that they had both been sexually involved with a man they met through their church’s singles ministry. Finding their confessions to be all too credible, the pastor approached the man to talk with him about taking sexual advantage of the two young women. The young man angrily said that his personal life was none of the pastor’s business. When the pastor disagreed, the man retorted, “I’ll make this easy for both of us. I’ll find a new church and you can just forget about it!” The pastor later learned that the man had left his previous church for the same reason. Now he had moved on to a third church and was reportedly attending their college and career group. The pastor agonized over what to do. He wanted to protect other women from being seduced, but he had heard about other pastors being sued for defamation or invasion of privacy for talking to other churches about former members.
Church discipline (which may also be referred to as “accountability”) 1 is one of the most maligned ministries in the modern church. It is also one of our most desperately needed ministries and one of the greatest blessings God has given to his people.
The Bible never presents church discipline as being negative, legalistic or harsh, as modern society does. True discipline originates from God himself and is always presented as a sign of genuine love.
The Lord disciplines those he loves (Heb. 12:6).
Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law (Ps. 94:12; cf. Deut. 8:5; 1 Cor. 11:32).
God’s discipline in the church, like the discipline in a good family, is intended to be primarily positive, instructive, and encouraging. This process, which is sometimes referred to as “formative discipline,” involves preaching, teaching, prayer, personal Bible study, small-group fellowship, and countless other enjoyable activities that challenge and encourage us to love and serve God more wholeheartedly.
On rare occasions God’s discipline, like the discipline in a family with young children, also may have a corrective purpose. When we forget or disobey what God has taught us, he corrects us. One of the ways he does this when we fall into sin is to call the church to seek after us and lead us back on the right track. This process, which is sometimes called “restorative discipline, “ is likened to a shepherd seeking after a lost sheep.
“If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off” (Matt. 18:12-13).
Thus, corrective or restorative discipline is never to be done in a harsh, vengeful or self-righteous manner. It is always to be carried out in humility and love, with the goal of restoring someone to a closer walk with Christ (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1).
Jesus himself sets forth the basic process for exercising church discipline. In Matthew 18:15-20, he describes four basic steps we are to take to restore a straying brother or sister:
- If a sin seems too serious to overlook, we are to go to our brother in private and appeal to him to repent.
- If he will not listen to repeated personal appeals, 2 we are to take one or two other believers along, so that they too can urge the brother to turn back to God.
- If the brother persists in his sin, we are to seek the formal involvement of the church, initially by seeking assistance from our elders, and if necessary, by informing and asking for the prayers and assistance of the entire congregation.
- If even these efforts do not bring our brother to his senses, Jesus commands us to treat the person as an unbeliever, which means we no longer have normal, casual fellowship with him, but instead use any encounters to bring the gospel to him and lovingly urge him to repent and turn back to God.
The Bible leaves us a great deal of latitude in how we carry out these four steps, so various churches will approach this process in different ways. Most churches agree, however, that the disciplinary process has three main goals:
- to restore the wandering brother or sister to the Lord (Matt. 18:12-15; Gal. 6:1);
- to protect the unity of the church and guard other believers from being harmed or led into sin themselves (1 Cor. 5:6); and,
- most importantly, to show respect for the honor and glory of God (1 Pet. 2:12).
B. Discipline Can Lead to a Lawsuit
These noble goals do not prevent some people from reacting angrily when they are confronted about their sin, even if it is done in love. That anger is often vented as gossip and slander against church leaders. In some cases, it also leads to lawsuits against the church.
Courts traditionally have given churches great deference on disciplinary matters, usually holding that the First Amendment protects the right to discipline members.3 The right to discipline does have limits, however. Courts have regularly intervened in disciplinary cases when:
- a church's disciplinary actions amounted to a deliberate and malicious campaign to ruin someone, whether financially, politically or psychologically; 4
- a church lacked jurisdiction over the persons being disciplined, because they were not formal members of the church;5 or
- a church failed to follow its own disciplinary guidelines consistently.6
The civil courts’ historical deference toward the church on this issue has declined in recent years. At the same time, the traditional reluctance most people have had toward suing a church has all but evaporated. As a result, churches that exercise biblical discipline today often are threatened with lawsuits; some lawsuits have resulted in shocking awards against churches that were unprepared.
The Guinn case represents one of the most threatening changes in the courts’ attitude toward the church. The case arose in 1981, when the Church of Christ of Collinsville, Oklahoma, excommunicated a woman named Marian Guinn because she refused to repent of an adulterous relationship. Just before the elders announced the decision to the congregation, Marian sent them a letter saying that she was withdrawing from membership in the church. The elders went ahead with their announcement, and also informed three neighboring churches in their denomination of their action. Marian later sued the church for invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After several years of litigation, she won a $435,000 judgment against the church and its leaders.
In 1989 the Oklahoma Supreme Court reversed the part of the decision that was based on actions the elders took before Marian withdrew from membership. But the court affirmed that the church and the elders could be held liable for the actions they took after Marian withdrew her membership. In doing so, the court held that a church could be held liable for damages if it continues with discipline after a member gives notice of withdrawal from membership.7 Since this is exactly how most people respond to discipline today, this ruling has established a precedent that has intimidated many churches and compelled them to terminate disciplinary proceedings prematurely.
The court held that the church and its elders could be found liable on two causes of action:
- Invasion of privacy: When announcing the excommunication of Marian Guinn, the church leaders informed the congregation and other local churches in the same denomination how and why her behavior violated Scripture. The court found that this could constitute an invasion of privacy, which is typically defined as a "public disclosure of private facts which are objectionable to a reasonable person and not of legitimate concern to the public."
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress: Because the church's announcement caused Marian Guinn apprehension and embarrassment, the court held that the church could be held liable for the “tort of outrage,” which is typically defined as “intentionally or recklessly causing severe emotional distress to another by extreme and outrageous conduct.”
Since the elders' actions were deliberate, they were not shielded from liability by virtue of the church's status as a nonprofit corporation. Therefore, they were found to be personally liable, along with the church, for the damages caused by their decision to carry out biblical discipline.8
C. The Wrong Way to Reduce Exposure to Legal Liability
Wanting to avoid this kind of legal liability (as well as the controversy and stress associated with holding people accountable for their sinful actions), most churches have abandoned the ministry of biblical discipline altogether. Many rationales have been given to justify this decision. “We believe in grace in our church.” “We don’t want to scare seekers and new believers away.” “We don’t want to be legalistic.” “We’ve seen discipline abused in the past.” “We haven’t disciplined wealthy and influential members who deserved it, so it would be unfair to discipline others.”
It is true that church discipline has the potential to be harsh, legalistic, offensive, abusive, and arbitrary. But the same can be said of parental discipline, a civil court trial or an investigation by civil authorities into alleged child abuse. All these forms of authority have the potential to be misused, yet no one reasonably argues that parents should let their children do anything they want, or judges should close their courtroom doors, or child protection agencies should stop fighting against abuse.
The answer to bad discipline is not no discipline. The answer is good discipline. This means taking Jesus at his word, obeying what he has commanded in Matthew 18:15-20, and asking him to help us carry out discipline in a loving and redemptive way, as he has always intended us to do (Matt. 18:12-14).
Even when church leaders are willing to pursue discipline, they are often so fearful of controversy that they back off on the steps needed to make discipline effective. Thus, if a person resigns his or her membership or leaves the church during a disciplinary process, leaders usually breathe a sigh of relief and think their job is done. Essentially they allow the person to declare “spiritual bankruptcy” and then start running up a new debt of sin at another congregation’s expense.
This passivity only serves to consign a wayward believer to his sin. It also can expose others to serious harm. What if the individual in question has a pattern of seducing young women in the college and career group, or defrauding seniors out of their life savings, or abusing children in the nursery? If a church is not committed to discipline and prepared to follow through on it even when someone tries to short-circuit the process, the sin and damage often go on and on.
Woe to church leaders who passively allow this to happen! Scripture is clear that the sheep have another Shepherd. And he promises to judge his under-shepherds when they fail to protect his flock. As God warns through the prophet Ezekiel:
“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? ... You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. … As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD … because my shepherds did not search for my flock … I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. … I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice” (Ezek. 34:2-16).
God never delights in bringing judgment on his people or their shepherds. Even today he is gladly holding out mercy and forgiveness to church leaders who will repent of their neglect. And through his Word and his Spirit, he provides clear and reliable guidance on how to resurrect the ministry of redemptive discipline and show that it is truly God’s gift and blessing to his church.
D. The Right Way to Reduce Exposure to Legal Liability
God always provides a way for us to deal with danger and temptation without compromising our obedience to his Word (1 Cor. 10:13). One of the ways he has already done that with regard to church discipline is through the Guinn decision itself. A crucial element in that decision was the court's finding that the plaintiff had not knowingly waived her right to withdraw unilaterally from membership. In other words, she (and presumably other members of the church) had not agreed that the church could continue with discipline even if she attempted to resign her membership. As a result, the court held that as soon as Marian Guinn submitted her resignation, the church lost jurisdiction over her and could not properly continue any disciplinary action against her.9 Had the church been able to prove that it had an established policy of not giving effect to a request for withdrawal until disciplinary proceedings had been completed, and that the plaintiff knew of and consented to that policy (i.e., there was “informed consent”), it probably would have prevailed in court, or even avoided a lawsuit altogether. 10
In the light of the Guinn decision and other more recent cases, there are two key elements to avoiding legal problems when seeking to restore a wandering saint. First, before conflict arises, clearly establish your policies for exercising discipline by taking the following actions:
- Amend your church’s disciplinary guidelines to address key aspects of discipline, especially the issues of whether you will continue discipline after an attempted withdrawal and whether you reserve the right to inform your members and other churches of your disciplinary actions. (Each of these issues is covered in the model Relational Commitments.)
- Obtain informed consent to your disciplinary policies through membership classes, interviews and explicit Relational Commitments.
- Teach regularly on church discipline so members remain aware of the biblical basis, purpose, and steps of discipline; this will help to reduce the likelihood of confusion and surprise when discipline is exercised.
For your convenience, all of the resources you need to need to carry out these steps are available in The Leadership Opportunity.
The second key element in reducing your exposure to legal liability is to carry out church discipline in a redemptive, biblically faithful manner. When carrying out church discipline, we are always safest when we are doing exactly what God commands! This usually involves the following steps:
- Acting in a loving, patient, and redemptive manner, rather than being harsh, abrupt, or vindictive.
- Be consistent in applying discipline to the people in your church.
- Be careful not to show favoritism as you follow your disciplinary guidelines.
- Always speak the truth.
- Communicate only to people who have a legitimate right to know.
- If discussing unproven allegations with officers, label them as such; do not allow unsubstantiated charges to be publicly proclaimed by the church.
- Base decisions on clearly delineated biblical grounds.
- If you get a threatening call from an attorney, be polite and gracious (Prov. 15:1), and provide clear documentation of your disciplinary policies and the commitments your members have made to abide by those policies. (See the model Letter to Attorney in The Leadership Opportunity Supplemental Materials binder/CD.)
If you seek to restore a non-member attender of your church, you should be especially careful to limit the amount of information you share with others. This will be particularly true if you do not have a well-documented record of having provided the attender with a copy of your Relational Commitments and clearly informed him that these commitments would apply to him if he continued to attend your church. When in doubt about whether you have informed consent to your policies, refrain from all unnecessary divulging of personal information.
Loving restoration is always a chief goal of biblical discipline (see Matt. 18:13, 15). Throughout the disciplinary process, church leaders should continually hold out the hope of forgiveness and provide the wayward member with a clear and reasonable description of how he can pursue and demonstrate repentance.
If a person says he repents, God commands us to “forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7). During this time of encouragement, leaders should work with him to confirm the sincerity of his confession. Sincere repentance is characterized by godly sorrow as compared to worldly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10). Godly sorrow is evidenced by an earnest renouncing of and turning away from sin (see Luke 15:18-20; Matt. 3:8). In contrast, worldly sorrow is characterized by a minimizing and excusing of sin, and a desire only to escape the immediate consequences of wrong behavior.
You also should teach him how to replace the attitudes and habits that led to discipline with new attitudes and behavior that will enable him to avoid falling back into old ways (Eph. 4:22-32). This counseling process may take only a few hours in some situations, and weeks or even months in others. Ongoing discipleship is essential to restoring and redeeming a person who has strayed.
As soon as you confirm an individual’s sincere repentance, arrange to announce his restoration to the fellowship so that they too can rejoice in God’s mercy. This may be done in a small group or Sunday school class, or before your entire congregation, depending on how widely discipline was announced. The announcement of restoration normally would be accompanied by a brief public confession. Whatever the setting, the tone should be one of corporate celebration and thanksgiving (Luke 15:4-7, 23-24). The congregation also should be given a solemn warning that the restored individual’s sins have been forgiven and are not to be held against him or allowed to hinder his fellowship within the church. Without this instructive announcement and warning, some people may not know how to relate to the individual or might even remain aloof from him, which could dampen his hope of being fully restored and cause him to fall away from the church (2 Cor. 2:10-11).
F. Common Questions and Concerns Regarding Church Discipline
(1) Why are so many church leaders reluctant to carry out church discipline?
Some leaders fail to understand God-created jurisdictions. They forget that God has given the church and civil government separate but sometimes overlapping responsibilities and authority to deal with conflict (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 6:1-8; Rom. 13:1-6). As a result, they depend too much on civil authorities to handle problems that should be addressed by the church, such as wife abuse.
A preoccupation with numerical church growth also can undermine discipline. Feeling constant pressure to increase attendance, some leaders shy away from anything that might displease others or drive some from the church.
Other leaders are unwilling or even afraid to confront sin in the church, either because of a natural timidity or because they had a bad experience with confrontation that convinced them never to do it again. Others are so concerned about emphasizing “grace” instead of “law” that they avoid anything that might even appear to be judgmental.
Even when pastors believe the church should be exercising discipline, they sometimes fail to do so because they lack adequate training. Since pastors are not trained, they are unable to equip their lay leaders or members.
Finally, many church leaders are afraid of being sued by offended members who do not want the church to involve itself in their problems. Such lawsuits do in fact occur, but usually because a church was not properly prepared to exercise discipline.
All of these problems are summarized in Jesus’ rebuke to the Sadducees: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). As we dig into God’s Word and draw on the power of his Spirit, we can overcome ignorance and unbelief and restore the ministry of discipline to the church.
(2) Isn't church discipline legalistic and unloving?
It is true that discipline can be carried out in a harsh, self-righteous, and legalistic manner. But it doesn’t have to be that way. True biblical discipline should be marked by a sincere concern for someone trapped in sin, and a humble desire to help him find freedom and happiness by walking in the safety of God’s ways. Urging an individual to be faithful to God’s Word may seem legalistic to some people. But God calls it love and obedience if it is done with gentleness, humility, and respect for his Word.
(3) Who should make the final decision about whether to excommunicate someone?
The answer to this question depends upon your church’s governance structure.
In an elder-led (e.g., Presbyterian) church, the responsibility for formal discipline usually is delegated to the elders. In a large church, the elders may further delegate this responsibility to a smaller “restoration team,” which is appointed on an annual or case-by-case basis. When a disciplinary situation arises, this team can investigate the situation and seek to promote needed repentance. If the team’s efforts do not result in restoration, the team can report its findings and recommendations to the entire elder board, which would make the final disciplinary decision. Decisions regarding discipline should be reported to the congregation as the elders deem appropriate. 11
In a congregational church, the entire congregation is usually charged with the responsibility to make final disciplinary decisions. This is certainly a biblically valid approach. Even so, it can raise a number of practical problems (some of which could arise during elder-led discipline, as well): 12
- It may require the presentation of all the evidence before the entire church body, which at the very least raises logistical problems (e.g., getting everyone together).
- Immature members who do not understand biblical church discipline may be offended by the process, which may result in factions, dissension and grumbling against the leadership for even pursuing the matter.
- Many believers do not have sufficient knowledge of Scripture to make principled decisions on disciplinary matters, especially when questions of doctrine and heresy are at stake. Instead they may be guided by emotions or worldly values.
- As more people learn the details of a situation, the chance of communicating confidential information with outsiders increases, as does the likelihood of antagonizing the offender and being sued.
- When people accused of sin are called to appear before the entire congregation to defend themselves, they are likely to be more fearful than if they had to meet with a few leaders only. Thus they will probably be more inclined simply to flee from the church, thus reducing the likelihood of their being restored to the body.
One of the best ways to address these problems in congregational churches is to officially delegate some or all of the disciplinary responsibilities to your pastoral leaders, such as pastors, elders or deacons. In a large church, these leaders may further delegate disciplinary tasks to a smaller “restoration team,” which may be appointed on either an annual or a case-by-case basis.
When formal discipline becomes necessary, the pastoral team or restoration team could investigate the situation and hear all of the testimony in a relatively personal and private setting. If the team’s combined efforts do not result in restoration, and the offense is serious enough to warrant excommunication, there are two ways that the congregation could be involved in the outcome.
One approach would be for the team to call for a congregational meeting in which it would present its findings and recommendations to the entire congregation. (Fairness would require that the accused person also have an opportunity to present his or her side before the entire congregation as well, which can trigger some of the problems described above.) Then the congregation could vote on whether to support or modify the team’s recommendation.
The other approach would be to entrust the team with authority to make a final and binding decision. In this case, the congregation would simply be informed of the final decision and instructed how to support disciplinary action. From a practical and legal perspective, this option presents the fewest difficulties.
(4) Who should be told about disciplinary matters?
The general message of Matthew 18:15-20 is to keep a disciplinary matter confined to as small a group as possible, but to extend the circle as far as necessary to bring a wayward brother to repentance.
Therefore, informal, early-stage disciplinary matters should be discussed only with people who may be directly affected by the situation or who can pray for and effectively minister to the person under discipline (e.g., immediate family, close friends or a familiar leader). If this action does not result in repentance, a larger circle of individuals may be informed, including a small fellowship group or Sunday school class.
If even this level of prayer support and encouragement fails to win a brother over, the entire congregation may be informed of the situation and the need for prayer. Although some state courts have held that it is legally acceptable to announce disciplinary matters at a regular worship service that includes non-member visitors,13 in some cases it is legally prudent, and arguably more biblical, to avoid unnecessary publicity by making such announcements at a special congregational meeting that only members may attend.
(5) How much information should people receive?
Give people only as much information as they need in order to pray for and possibly minister to the person under discipline—and, if necessary, to guard themselves against sinful influence or harm. (See the model Announcement to Congregation in The Leadership Opportunity Supplemental Materials binder/CD.)
In a large church where most of the congregation is unlikely to know the person under discipline, it may not be appropriate to give his name or other identifying information during a public announcement. It may still be wise and beneficial to describe the general situation and the disciplinary steps to the entire congregation, however. Doing so can enlist widespread prayer support, let the body know that the elders are obeying God’s command to discipline those who stray, and communicate a warning to members and attenders who may be flirting with secret sin—that they too will face discipline if they do not turn back to God.
(6) What about informing people outside the church?
Sharing information with people outside your church can have serious legal repercussions if you do not have informed consent to do so. Therefore, do not talk to people outside your church unless there is a good and necessary reason to do so (such as warning others of possible harm).
If you learn that a person under discipline is attending another church, and if you have informed consent to do so, you may contact the pastor of that church. Doing so may enlist their help in bringing the person to repentance, and at the same time, serve to warn the other church to be on guard against the harm that the accused might bring to their members (see Matt. 18:12-14; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 3 John 9-10).
When you contact the church, do not go into detail about the situation. After you confirm that the person is attending that church, explain in general terms that he left your church while under discipline. (You might say, “There is an unresolved problem involving this person that we would like to discuss with you in his or her presence.”)
Encourage the other church’s pastor to counsel with the person; suggest that the pastor ask him to give his consent for you to explain your concerns about his conduct. Make it clear that you are not suggesting that he has to return to your church, but rather that you wish to see him walking rightly with God, regardless of where he worships. One of the best ways to proceed is to offer to meet with the person and leaders from the other church to work together toward restoration.
(7) What discipline can we exert over non-members?
Remember that informed consent is the key to exercising formal discipline without exposing yourself to legal liability. If the people who merely attend your church have never consented to your disciplinary practices, you are limited in how far you can go with formal discipline. You may be able to confront them personally and privately, but if you move into formal discipline and disclose private information to other people, you may expose yourself to legal problems. This limitation can be overcome, however, by using the model Relational Com-mitments to obtain informed consent from both members and attenders.
(8) How can we guard against misuses of church discipline?
Sin has affected every aspect of life, including the exercise of biblical discipline. Therefore, church leaders must constantly guard against the temptation to misuse the authority God has given them to shepherd the flock (1 Pet. 2-3). This means you should always avoid using discipline:
- as a means to gain selfish power and control;
- to retaliate against people who have frustrated or offended you;
- as a way to simply get rid of opponents or embarrassing problems;
- as a substitute for patient, diligent counseling (“Shape up or ship out!”);
- to enforce narrow behavioral conformity beyond what God requires; or
- in a negative, impersonal or non-redemptive manner.
There are several steps that church leaders can take to guard against these pitfalls:
- Openly admit the potential for these problems and ask God to protect you from them.
- Remember that Christian leadership is a matter of service, not lordship (Mark 10:42-45).
- Make sure you have a strong team of church leaders who will not allow the pastor or any individual leader to control the disciplinary process and use it for personal or sinful ends.
- Remember that God will hold you accountable for the way you shepherd his flock (Ezek. 34:1-16).
- Be truly accountable yourselves. Encourage and welcome correction, not only from fellow leaders but also from anyone in the church. Make it clear that Matthew 18 applies to leaders as well as members.
- Adopt clear disciplinary guidelines that limit leaders’ ability to exercise discipline arbitrarily (see Relational Commitments ).
- Respect and support any appellate processes that allow members to appeal a decision to a higher denominational body. If your polity does not specifically provide for such appeals, consider seeking an informal review by respected leaders outside your church when dealing with controversial disciplinary decisions. You need not abdicate your spiritual authority to make the final decision, but it is always wise for believers to seek godly advice and counsel when dealing with complex issues that affect others’ lives. As Proverbs 13:10 teaches, “Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.”
G. Loving Accountability Can Actually Attract People to Your Church
Given our culture’s love affair with autonomy and its antagonism toward accountability, there is no doubt that some people will have an initial skepticism or aversion towards church discipline. But most people have a similar aversion toward the concepts of original sin, God’s holy wrath and the need for Christ to die in our place on the cross. The answer to this human aversion is not to abandon biblical truth and practice to avoid making people feel uncomfortable.
The solution is to preach and live out the truths of God’s Word so lovingly and consistently that God will use our behavior to draw others to Christ (1 Pet. 2:12, 3:15-16). As Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s greatest theologians and pastors, wrote, “If strict discipline, and thereby strict morals, were maintained in the church, it would in all probability be one of the most powerful means of conviction and conversion towards those who are without.” 14
It is possible that some people will shy away from a church that exercises discipline. But there are many other people who are looking for a church home where there is genuine love, fellowship and community—a place where people are serious about helping one another to be conformed to the image of Christ. This attitude is beautifully reflected in the following letter, which was written by a young woman who joined a particular church largely because of its commitment to loving accountability.
Becoming a member of a church that exercises biblical accountability is exciting to me. I have much to learn about church discipline, and I have been teased that I’ll be in favor of it until it intersects my life! Nonetheless, for some basic reasons I believe church discipline is a necessity for the health of a church body.
Personally, I know the trouble of taming and training my own sinful nature to walk obediently under the lordship of Christ. Therefore, to be placed under the authority of leaders who take seriously my need for accountability is both a tremendous growth opportunity and a blessing. Were I to fall into sin out of ignorance or even outright rebellion, I would like to know that there would be consequences—consequences such as confrontation of my sin, guidance in dealing with it biblically, and then support while I work to correct my behavior. Embarrassing as that all may be, it serves the greater purpose of enabling me to walk closely with Christ.
Part of my zeal for church discipline comes from having previously attended churches that needed to exercise discipline but did not take on the responsibility. In those churches I watched marriages and families break up without the church’s acknowledgment. Terrible, infectious feuds between families developed into division within the congregation. Also, individuals’ sinful habits grew while church leadership appeared to merely shake its head.
It seems the church shied away from intervening so as not to complicate matters or trouble the involved parties. However, I believe the most loving act would have been to confront each situation and help in resolving the conflicts. Proper administration of discipline would have possibly given opportunity for restored health to the troubled parties and to the church that was looking on.
Finally, I believe people need standards from which to operate. Ideally those standards would be developed by God’s Word and modeled by the church. I remember my family floundering as my parents sought for such disciplinary standards. My sisters struggled terribly as they were drawn into adolescent curiosity with drugs, alcohol and sex. We needed wisdom, loving support, and biblical truth to be spoken into our situation. Our church was uninvolved, seemingly unprepared and as helpless as we were. My family found outside standards from which to operate; they were shame and the advice of 80’s media and psychology. The resulting decisions have left each of us with regret and hurt.
Administering church discipline seems like a frightening and difficult task. After all, who would like to be the one carrying out disciplinary action on his brother? However, the worth of such a program is immeasurable. It only makes sense to me that this would be a part of God’s plan in creating a body of believers who are refined and committed to His ways.
Thank God for giving this young woman such a clear insight into God’s design for his church! May he grant church leaders grace and courage to teach and promote this humble and hopeful attitude throughout the body of Christ.
1 “Church discipline” and “accountability” are used interchangeably. The former term is more traditional, while the latter is often more palatable to church members who have a negative view of discipline. Both terms may be validly used to communicate the concepts covered in this article.
2 The verbs used in Matthew 18:15-17 imply repeatedly going rather than making a one-time effort.
3 See Paul v. Watchtower, 819 F.2d 875 (9th Cir. 1987) (cert. denied 108 S.Ct. 289, 98 L.Ed.249) ("Shunning is a practice engaged in by Jehovah's Witnesses pursuant to their interpretation of canonical text, and we are not free to reinterpret that text. ... When the imposition of liability would result in the abridgement of the right to free exercise of religious beliefs, recovery in tort is barred.") But see Bear v. Reformed Mennonite Church, 462 Penn. 330, 341 A.2d 105 (1975), where the court came to a different conclusion in a case that involved "shunning" by the church.
4 See Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology of California, 212 Cal.App.3d 872, 260 Cal. Rptr. 331 (1989) (cert. denied 110 S.Ct. 1937, 109 L.Ed.2d 300 (1990)); see also Molko v. Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, 46 Cal.3d 1092, 252 Cal.Rptr. 122 (1988) (cert. denied 109 S.Ct. 2110, 104 L.Ed. 2d 670).
5 See Hester v. Barnett, 723 S.W.2d 544 (Missouri 1987).
6 See Konkel v. Metropolitan Baptist Church, Inc., 117 Ariz. 271, 572 P.2d 99 (Ariz. App., 1977); Kennedy v. Gray, 248 Kan. 486, 494 (Kan., 1991).
7 Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville, 775 P.2d 766 (Oklahoma, 1989).
8 The case was eventually settled for an undisclosed sum before it went back to the trial court. Even so, the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling stands as the law in Oklahoma and is often cited in other states.
9 The court wrote, “Implicit in the right to choose freely one's own form of worship is the right of unhindered and unimpeded withdrawal from the chosen form of worship. ... Unless Parishioner waived the constitutional right to withdraw her initial consent to be bound by the [church's] discipline and its governing elders, her resignation was a constitutionally protected right.” Guinn, 775 P.2d 766, 777 (Okla. 1989; emphasis added).
10 Various courts have recognized an association’s right to place reasonable limits on the manner and timing of a person’s withdrawal from the association. State ex. rel. Oklahoma Bar Association v. Gasaway, 863 P. 2dn 1189 (Oklahoma 1993); Braddom. v. Three Point Coal Corporation, 157 S.W. 2d 349 (Kentucky 1941).
11 See the article “Tell It to the Church: The Biblical Basis for Leader-Led Discipline” at www.Peacemaker.net for a biblical defense of this approach to discipline.
12 For a more thorough discussion of some of these issues within a Baptist context, see the excellent book, Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, edited by Mark E. Dever (Center for Church Reform, 2001).
13 See Rasmussen v. Bennett, et al, 672 P.2d 278 (Montana, 1987)
14 The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume Two, Sermon V, “The Nature and End of Excommunication” (The Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, PA, Reprinted 1995).