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Why Is Church Discipline Ignored

The tension between right and wrong inside church polity.

Denominal Discipline

Put simply, church discipline is ignored unless it is both horrific and public. Consider how long it took the Catholic church (child pornography and abuse) and the Southern Baptists (pastoral predators) to admit the rot that had taken place in their leadership for so many years. The Presbyterian PCA church, though not as public, has had its own pastoral accountability issues (details). 

Congregational Discipline

And then there are the congregants. How many churches have a formal, proactive “Church Discipline” policy that is scripturally based? How many pastors prospectively ask Deacons, Sunday School teachers, much less members, to sign a “Church Covenant” that clearly lays out the cause for initiation of a formal disciplinary policy? How many prospective members receive more than a cursory reading of the church Statement of Faith (if they have one), as well as written expectations on tithing (time & financial) during a new members class? How many congregants are asked detailed questions aimed not only at Luke 10:27 but also James 2:14-18? When was the last time you heard a sermon on Matthew 18 that was directed internally, including “tell it to the church” publicly?

Matthew 18:15-17 – “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone… if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

We are so quick to judge others… outside the church. The proverbial speck is so much easier and safer to point out than the plank in our collective church eye (Matt. 7:3-5). 

Scripture is much clearer on the subject than our churches are. 

1 Corinthians 5:12-13 – For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Titus 3:10 – As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him.

History of Church Discipline

Church discipline was common “until the 20th century.” The average Baptist church “excommunicated” 2% of its members per year (details here). A focus on marketing the church pushed discipline out of the picture with few in the pulpit or the pew complaining.

Why no Church Discipline

First, pastors are afraid they will split the church and they can’t afford to do that. Many churches are still recovering from the loss of attendees during the pandemic. 

Second, church leaders see the plank in their eyes and don’t want folks pointing fingers. This is especially true of the secular world bludgeoning holier-than-thou Christian leaders for their views on abortion and same-sex marriages, to name just two flashpoints.

Third, the church never instituted Church Discipline when members joined, and it’s too challenging to institute it after the fact. If a formal policy was put in place that required each member to sign off, how many would slip out the door? 

Fourth, church staff are overwhelmed with the rest of their responsibilities, and non-paid leaders willing to take on Church Discipline as volunteers are rare, and likely will be overly legalistic in their approach. 

Fifth, church leaders do get involved in accountability, when forced to, but do so behind the scenes so most congregants don’t realize it is even going on. And, it is only when a leader is the one who needs to be disciplined that some form of the truth typically oozes out publicly over time.

Why Should there be Church Discipline

The basis of church discipline is no different than Christian to Christian discipline. The intent is not to harm but to mend, both the church and the individual. 

2 Corinthians 2:5-8 – Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 

Galatians 6:1 – Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

Hebrews 12:6 – For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Of course, the extreme of excommunication should only be employed when behavior is unrepentant, public, and serious. The process of church discipline should be clear, in writing, and formally agreed upon at the point of membership. The primary objective should always be lovingly restorative, not presumptively fatal. However, as God grows us through the process of sanctification and promises He will never forsake us, He does not promise absolution for the unrepentant.

1 Corinthians 5:5 – you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Pastors are called to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim. 4:2).” Is the Bible suggesting this end with the sermon, or extend to action?

James 5:19-20 – My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

If, as a church, we do not proactively offer accountability in some form to our leaders and our congregants we are doomed to erode our Biblical Christian worldview and repeat the first paragraph of this short article.

POSTSCRIPT: One of our readers added another reason for the reluctance of pastors to engage with a memeber through church discipline. If the pastor is younger than the member or is not experienced in the sin (example drugs), it tends to be a barrier as well. 

Salvation – Eternal Life in Less Than 150 Words

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AuthorJeff Hilles | BCWorldview.org 

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