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church discipline

January 31, 2012
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A recent situation at Mars Hill Church has sparked a pretty robust online debate over church discipline. This post is not about that situation. I don’t know enough about the particulars to speak about it—nor do I really think it is my place to do so. However, I do want use the opportunity to say a few things about church discipline.

Before I get to a few practical guidelines, I wanted to get two of my assumptions out on the table.

First, church discipline is really one of the thorniest aspects of congregational life. There is no “Handbook on Discipline” in the Bible. There are some general principles, a couple of examples, and that’s about it. There are so many gaps that have to be prayerfully waded through. This creates tension and a good number of gray areas.

For example, should a matter be kept private (Matthew 18), or should it be made public (I Timothy 5)? Is the sinful behavior a “weakness” that needs to be covered in the name of love (I Peter 4), or is it something that needs to be confronted (Luke 17)? Add to this the sins and weaknesses of the people actually responsible for carrying out the discipline, and you have a pretty volatile cocktail on your hands (Note: For a more detailed discussion of the difficulty of church discipline, see Rob Rayburn’s sermon here.)

Second, even though it is extremely difficult, church discipline is biblical and therefore a non-negotiable piece of of a congregation’s life.  It’s not the only non-negotiable piece of a congregation’s life, but it is one of them. We need church discipline in order for churches to grow in their abilities to love God and neighbor. Church discipline is also a gift God has given us to fight hypocrisy in the church. This is very important both for the sake of our own personal integrity and also furthering the mission of the church. A church filled with hypocrisy is not going to be an effective light in the world.

So how can we approach church discipline in a way that is productive? This is by no means exhaustive, but I do think these guidelines will help us navigate through many of the challenges of church discipline.

1) Abusus non tollit usum. This is a great Latin phrase that literally translates, “Abuse does not remove use”. It means that just because something can be done poorly and even abused, that doesn’t mean that thing should never be used. For example, take alcohol. Can alcohol be abused? Absolutely. If abused, it can destroy your life. However, that is not a reason for alcohol never to be used. Rather, we have to learn to use it properly. When we do, it will be a great gift to us (Psalm 104).

The same is true for church discipline. Has it been abused by the church? Absolutely. Church history has several examples of heroes of the faith who have been excommunicated and even executed through the miscarriage of church discipline.

However, this does not mean we should never practice church discipline. Church discipline is really a profound gift God has given us because he wants us to grow in the faith. Sometimes, that means we need to be stopped in our tracks and told very lovingly but firmly that we are headed straight off a cliff. We need to be honest enough with ourselves to be able to say, “You know, I actually need to be under the spiritual leadership of people who are responsible for warning me when I am doing something stupid and destructive.”

In other words, we have to understand that discipline is a form of love. This is often lost on us today, as we live in in a culture that prizes autonomy of the individual over all things. The Bible, however, teaches that anyone who merely affirms every single decision we make actually isn’t our friend (Proverbs 27:9). Sometimes, a true friend will say hard things to us precisely because they love us. So it is with church discipline.

2) We need a court of appeal. Because church discipline is fraught with all kinds of difficulties, the people carrying out the discipline also need to be held accountable and have their decisions subject to review. In the Presbyterian denomination in which I serve, if an individual is disciplined by their congregation’s leadership, that individual can appeal that decision to the regional governing body (i.e., the Presbytery).  This keeps the congregational leadership in-check and is helps ensure a much better outcome in the difficult process of discipline.

I have seen this work in the real world. Several years ago, a church in our Presbytery excommunicated a family. The family believed they were wrongfully disciplined, so they appealed the decision. I was on a team of people that reviewed their case. We wound up ruling that the congregational leadership had been in error. We re-instated the family to their great relief and gratitude.

3) Trust the Lord. Most of you reading this blog are probably familiar with Jesus’ words “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them“. Christians often invoke this verse at the beginning of a small group Bible study or even at the beginning of a worship service. However, the context of this great promise is church discipline (go here for the full context). Jesus knows how hard it is to deal with sin. He knows that all parties involved in church discipline have blind spots, weaknesses, and limited perspectives. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus wades into this mess with us.

Lord, have mercy on the church.

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