I have on a number of occasions addressed church discipline in my pastor’s pondering and it is right and fitting to do so again. Most of the time when I address discipline it is in regard to discipleship and what I call the “positive side” of discipline. However, most people when they thing of church discipline think of the “negative” or “judicial side.” If you put the word “disciple” next to the word “discipline” you immediately see the two are connected. Jesus commissioned the church to go into all the world making disciples. Part of that process of being the church is to discipline those disciples so that Christ will be honored, disciples will be grown up in the faith and the church will be effective and fruitful. You know that a church is a true church by these three indicators: 1) the faithful preaching of God’s Word, 2) the right administration of the sacraments, and 3) the proper exercise of discipline. The elders of the church are called and set apart by God as confirmed by the church (disciples) to make sure these things happen for the benefit of the church. Since we have been seeing Paul dealing with discipline in 1Corinthians 5 and following, I thought it appropriate to put some basic principles in writing for you.
Many people and many “so-called” churches get really nervous when you start talking about discipline, because they immediately think of judicial discipline. You’ll hear words associated with it like “mean,” “judgmental,” “unloving,” “harsh,” etcetera, etcetera. The purpose of discipline generally is stated above, but the specific purpose of judicial discipline is the honor of Christ and the restoration of errant sinners. This is no small thing and cannot be taken lightly. Matthew 18:15-20 is very clear about the process of discipline and our Book of Church Order gives very clear guidelines for how to proceed in these matters. When a person is in sin or suspected of being in sin they are approached privately and if that is not successful in bringing about repentance then that person is approached again privately but with several others involved. If that fails to generate repentance then the person is brought to trial before the elders and if they will still not repent, then for the benefit of the church and for the ultimate benefit of the person involved they are put outside the covenant community.
Church discipline is a hard thing and it is hard on the church that pursues discipline because there are so many ways this gets misunderstood and misinterpreted. First of all, the Session seeks to guard the privacy of the individual involved until such time as they are admonished, barred from the sacrament, or excommunicated. Since I have been here we’ve only done that twice and it didn’t need to go beyond the Session because both parties were repentant and restored. The discipline really only needs to be known as far as the sin is known. Second, the Session is a fallible body of men, everyone knows that and sometimes that is used to make the accusation of being inconsistent, judgmental, or holier-than-thou. The Session does make mistakes, but let me caution you that you do well to not jump to that conclusion too quickly. This is one of those places where the men on the Session shudder and are very deliberate and cautious in exercising this awesome responsibility. Another source of trouble is when word gets out that someone is under discipline and the gossip chain gets fired up. People get all sorts of exercise jumping to conclusions. Most of those conclusions are not based on knowledge of the truth. That is why the Bible speaks so strongly and negatively about gossip. There are many dynamics at work in these situations and lots of room for misunderstanding. If you have questions about discipline or maybe something you have heard about discipline, please bring it to me and I’ll be glad to discuss it with you. Remember it is all for the glory of Christ and the benefit of sinners, like you and me.
As a pastor, I have been accused of a lot of things in regards to church discipline. For the most part those accusations have not been in accord with knowledge.