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Guidelines for Church Discipline (Formal)

These model guidelines were developed for denominational churches that allow disciplinary appeals to higher judicatories in the denomination. Less formal model guidelines for use in churches where no appeal is available are included in the Supplemental Materials Binder/CD of the Peacemaker Ministries resource, The Leadership Opportunity.

GUIDELINES FOR CHURCH DISCIPLINE
(FORMAL)

  1. The following Guidelines were developed by our church leaders to provide a clear biblical framework for carrying out church discipline so that everyone in our church is treated fairly and consistently if they come under discipline.
  2. These Guidelines are subordinate to the Bylaws and Relational Commitments of our church [and the [book of discipline] of the [denomination]].
  3. These Guidelines apply to church leaders just as they do to other members of the church. If a leader falls into sin, it is the responsibility and right of other members to lovingly confront him and, if he refuses to repent, to initiate whatever disciplinary action is needed to move him toward repentance and protect others in the church from his wrongful actions. No one is above these disciplinary guidelines, and everyone can benefit from them.
  4. Mutual accountability and discipline within the church is commanded by God in Scripture and is one of the most important responsibilities of a true church of Jesus Christ (see Matt. 18:12-20; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; Gal. 2:11-14; Eph. 5:11; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:19-20; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Titus 3:10; Heb. 10:24-30; 12:5-17; 2 John 7-11; Rev. 3:19).
  5. Church (ecclesiastical) discipline is the exercise of that authority that the Lord Jesus Christ has committed to the visible church for the preservation of its purity, peace, and good order. All members of the church, both communicant and non-communicant, are under the care of and subject to the discipline of the church. The ultimate goal of all discipline is to train Christians to be self-disciplined so that they may share in the holiness of God (see Heb. 12:7-13).
  6. Discipline may be either administrative or judicial. Administrative discipline is concerned with the maintenance of good order in the government of the church in other than judicial cases. Its purpose is to see that all rights are preserved and all obligations are fully discharged. Judicial discipline is concerned with the prevention and correction of offenses, an offense being defined as anything in the doctrine or practice of a member of the church that is contrary to the Word of God. The purpose of judicial discipline is: (1) to guard and preserve the honor of God (see Rom. 2:24; 1 Cor. 10:31); (2) to protect the purity of the church and to guard other Christians from being tempted, misled, divided, or otherwise harmed (see 1 Cor. 5:6); and (3) to restore fallen Christians to usefulness to God and fellowship with His church (see Matt. 18:12-14; 2 Cor. 2:5-11; 7:8-10; Gal. 6:1-2).
  7. Discipline involves three components or phases: (1) God commands all Christians to make every effort, with his help, to discipline themselves and lead godly lives (see Eph. 4:25 - 5:6; 2 Tim. 1:7; 2 Pet. 1:5-11); (2) if a Christian fails to discipline himself and is trapped in a sin, God commands other brothers and sisters in Christ to lovingly confront, counsel, and encourage him toward repentance (Matt. 18:15-16; Gal. 6:1-2; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24-25); (3) if these personal and informal efforts do not correct an offense, God commands the church leaders to intervene and exercise their ecclesiastical authority to resolve the matter, protect the church, and, if possible, restore the offender (see Matt. 18:17-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Tim. 4:2; Heb. 13:17). This third phase, which may be referred to as judicial or formal discipline, involves a judicial hearing before the Board of Elders. Such a hearing shall be carried out according to the following procedures, which are designed to provide due process for the offender and promote a just resolution.
  8. When an offense is personal and known only to a few individuals, discipline may not be instituted until there has been a good faith effort to resolve the matter privately and informally (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1). No charge may be accepted if it is filed more than two years after the commission of the alleged offense, unless it appears that unavoidable impediments have prevented an earlier filing of the charge. Every charge must be submitted to the Board of Elders in writing. A person may be censured for filing a charge that the Board of Elders determines to be without merit (see Deut. 19:16-21).
  9. An offense that is serious enough to warrant judicial discipline and a hearing is: (1) an offense in the area of conduct and practice that seriously disturbs the peace, purity, and/or unity of the church; (2) an offense in the area of doctrine for an non-ordained member that would constitute a denial of a credible profession of faith as reflected in his membership vows; or (3) an offense in the area of doctrine for an ordained officer that would constitute a violation of the system of doctrine contained in the Holy Scriptures as that system is set forth in our Confession of Faith and Catechisms. When the Board of Elders convenes to determine whether an offense has occurred and to administer censure, it shall be referred to as a "judicatory."
  10. Discipline shall be carried out church in a redemptive, biblically faithful manner. This requires adherence to the following principles:
    • Act in a loving, patient, and redemptive manner, rather than being harsh, abrupt, or vindictive.
    • Be consistent in applying discipline to the people in our 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.
  11. Just as a good shepherd will go after a sheep that has wandered from the flock (Matt. 18:12-14; Ezek. 34:4, 8, 16), so shall the elders and members of this church seek to restore a wandering member to the Lord through biblical discipline.
    • Therefore, discipline may be instituted or continued either before or after a member seeks to withdraw from membership if the Board of Elders determines that such discipline may serve to guard and preserve the honor of God, protect the purity of the church, or restore the wandering member to the Lord. While the church cannot force a withdrawing person to remain in this congregation, the church has the right and the responsibility to encourage restoration, to bring the disciplinary process to an orderly conclusion, and to make a final determination as to the person's membership status at the time withdrawal is sought or acknowledged. In doing so, the Board of Elders, at its discretion, may temporarily suspend further disciplinary proceedings, dismiss any or all charges pending against the accused, or proceed with discipline and pronounce an appropriate censure as provided in these Guidelines.
    • If a member renounces the communion of this church by joining some other evangelical church and formally submitting to its jurisdiction, and if charges are pending against him at the time he joins the other church, those charges shall be communicated to the other church as provided in Guideline 26, and further disciplinary proceedings shall be terminated.
  12. A person accused of an offense shall be given a written notification to appear before the judicatory at a specific time and place. The notification may, but need not, specify the charges and specifications that have been brought against the accused. Ordinarily all notifications shall be served in person, but in case that is not possible, notifications shall be sent by certified mail to the person notified.
  13. At the first meeting of the judicatory only these actions may be taken: (1) the charges and specifications shall be read and formally presented to the accused together with the names of any witnesses and copies of any documents that may be presented against him; (2) the judicatory shall fix the time, date, and place for a second meeting of the judicatory, which shall not be less than ten days later (except as provided in Guideline 14), and shall issue notifications directing all persons to appear at that time whose presence it may deem necessary; and (3) the accused shall be granted notifications in which he may insert the names of the witnesses whom he wishes the judicatory to summon.
  14. If an offense is likely to harm others or lead them into sin, or cause division or disruption, our leaders may accelerate the entire disciplinary process and move promptly to protect the church by pronouncing the censures of admonition, rebuke, suspension, or deposition (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; Titus 3:10-11).
  15. If an accused refuses or fails to appear without satisfactory reason for his absence at the time appointed for the hearing of the case, he shall again be notified, with the warning that, if he does not appear, the judicatory will proceed with the hearing in his absence. The time allowed for the appearance on notification shall be determined by the judicatory with due consideration for the circumstances. If the accused still refuses or fails to appear, the hearing may proceed in his absence. When proceeding in the absence of the accused, the judicatory shall appoint counsel for the accused, who shall present a case to the judicatory in defense of the accused. Such counsel shall be entitled to present evidence, interview witnesses, interpose objections, and otherwise act in defense of the accused.
  16. If unusual circumstances require it, a judicatory may deny an accused person the right of participating in the Lord's Supper or of performing the functions of his office until a case is concluded.
  17. If the accused appears at the second meeting of the judicatory, he shall be called to admit or deny the charges. If denies the charges, the judicatory shall proceed to receive evidence. The judicatory shall ordinarily sit with open doors, and must do so when hearing a charge of heresy. No person shall be deprived of the right to set forth, plead, or offer into evidence the provisions of the Word of God or of the subordinate standards. If subsequent meetings of the judicatory are required, the accused and all witnesses shall be notified to appear as provided above.
  18. The accused shall be entitled to assistance of counsel. No person shall be eligible to act as counsel who [is not a member in good standing of the [denomination]/or/does not affirm the statement of faith of this church]. The accused shall be allowed one copy of the minutes at the expense of the judicatory.
  19. Any person may be a witness in a judicial case if the judicatory is satisfied that he has sufficient competence to make the following affirmation, which is required of all witnesses: "I solemnly swear that by the grace of God I will speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth concerning the matters on which I am called to testify."
  20. Evidence must be factual in nature. It may be direct or circumstantial. Caution should be exercised in giving weight to evidence that is purely circumstantial. The accused may object to the competency of any witness and to the authenticity, admissibility, and relevancy of any testimony or evidence produced in support of the charge and specifications. The judicatory shall decide on all such objections after allowing the accused to be heard in support thereof. If the accused so requests, no witness, unless he or she is a member of the judicatory, shall testify in the presence of another witness who is to testify concerning the same specification.
  21. At the conclusion of the hearing, the accused may make a final argument with respect to the evidence and the law of the church. The judicatory, after deliberation, shall vote on each charge and each specification separately. If the judicatory decides that the accused is guilty, it shall proceed to determine the censure. Censure shall not be pronounced before the expiration of the time in which the accused may file notice of appeal. If an appeal is properly filed and perfected, the judicatory may not execute its censure unless and until the judgment is affirmed by the appellate judicatory.
  22. Notice of an intention to appeal a decision of judicatory must be filed in writing with the clerk or moderator of the judicatory within ten days after the judgment has been announced. In order to perfect an appeal, the appellant must lodge the appeal and the specifications of error with the clerk of the appellate judicatory [(presbytery)] within thirty days after the filing of the notice of appeal.
  23. If a person who has been adjudged guilty refuses or fails to present himself for censure at the time appointed, the judicatory shall notify him to appear at another time. If he does not appear after this notification, the censure may be pronounced in his absence.
  24. The following censures may be pronounced by the judicatory:
    • Admonition means to tenderly and solemnly confronting the offender with his sin, warning him of his danger, and exhorting him to repentance and to greater fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.
    • Rebuke is a form of censure more severe than admonition. It involves setting forth the serious character of the offense, reproving the offender, and exhorting him to repentance and to more perfect fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ.
    • Suspension is a form of discipline by which one is deprived of the privileges of membership in the church, of office, or of both. It may be for a definite or indefinite time. An officer or other member of the church, while under suspension, shall be the object of deep concern and earnest dealing from the Board of Elders and the church to the end that he may be restored.
    • Deposition is a form of censure more severe than suspension. It involves a solemn declaration by the judicatory that the offender is no longer an officer of the church.
    • Excommunication, also referred to as disfellowshiping, is the most severe form of censure and is resorted to only in cases of offenses aggravated by persistent impenitence. It involves a solemn declaration by a judicatory that the offender is no longer considered a member of the body of Christ.
  25. Since the church is a body made up of many parts (see 1 Cor. 12:12-30), what happens to one member of the church necessarily affects and is of legitimate concern to other members (see Rom. 12:15-16; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 12:12-30). Therefore, the indefinite suspension, deposition, or excommunication of a member shall be announced to the church so that its members will be able to pray for, encourage, and exhort the accused as opportunities arise, as well as be on guard against any gossip or divisiveness that might arise from the offense or censure (see 1 Cor. 5:9-11; 2 Thess. 3:6-14; Titus 3:10). The public announcement of censure shall always be accompanied by prayer that God will gra-ciously use the discipline for His own glory, the restoration of the offender, and the edification of the church. This announcement may be made during a regular worship service, at a special meeting of the congregation, or by letter. 1
  26. If an accused leaves the church during the disciplinary process or while a censure is still in effect, and if the Board of Elders learns that he is attending another church, the Board of Elders may inform that church that the person is currently under church discipline and may ask that church to encourage the accused to repent of his sin and to be restored to the Lord and to any people whom he has offended. Such communications enhance the possibility that a person may finally repent of his sin, and, at the same time, serve to warn the other church to be on guard against the harm that the accused might do to their members (see Matt. 18:12-14; Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:6-14; 2 Tim. 1:15; 2:16-18; 4:9, 14-15; 3 John 9-10).
  27. If a person who has been censured through suspension, deposition, or excommunication comes to repentance, the church shall warmly and lovingly restore him to fellowship within the body (see Matt. 18:13; Luke 15:11-32). Once the Board of Elders is persuaded that the person has sincerely confessed his wrongs and sought forgiveness from God and the person or persons he offended, it shall announce his restoration. That announcement shall be accompanied by a solemn admonition to the congregation that the restored person's offenses have been forgiven and are not to be held against him or otherwise hinder his fellowship within the church (see 2 Cor. 2:5-11). When deemed appropriate by the Board of Elders, however, the restored person may be restricted from certain responsibilities within the church until he has demonstrated the requisite qualities for those responsibilities (see, e.g., 1 Tim. 3:2, 8; Titus 1:6).

 


 

Endnote

 1 This provision is included to provide for informed consent from church members to this type of action. Such consent can help to reduce exposure to legal liability for defamation or invasion of privacy when a church follows the biblical command to inform others in the body of Christ about a disciplinary situation. See Guinn v. Church of Christ of Collinsville, 775 P.2d 766 (Oklahoma, 1989).

 

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