Church Discipline: A Path to Restoration

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Matthew 18:15-20 records a very important teachingof Jesus. It is likely one of the least observed in the church today because of its apparent counter-cultural implications. Other sayings of Jesus are much more frequently quoted and passed along. “Judge not, that you not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also tothem, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). These statements and others like them are no doubt clear teachings of Jesus but taken out of context almost appear to be at odds with Matthew 18:15-20. Yet the same Jesus who preached and exemplified love and forgiveness challenges us to embrace a form of loving one another nearly forgotten in our day; loving one another through biblical discipline.

Mentioning the phrase biblical discipline or church discipline quickly conjures different thoughts and opinions, not to mention many questions. This blog entry will attempt to answer the following critical questions and hopefully paint a clearer picture of church discipline.

How should a church practice discipline today?
Why should we should we practice church discipline?
When should church discipline take place?
Who should be disciplined?
What is the purpose of discipline and does it really work?

The church in America today is in need of serious church discipline. Most Baptist churches, prior to the civil war, regularly practiced church discipline. Yet likely due to the increasing size of churches and a desire for increased growth, most churches transitioned away from the practice. The result is that most churches today don’t dealwith sin within the church and there is little difference between the world and the body of Christ.

How should a church practice discipline?
Learning the basics of biblical Church discipline will help begin to answer every subsequent question regarding its practice and importance. Jesus, through His very words, commands us to love one another in this way. Following Christ demands a genuine love for one another requiring biblical discipline for every believer.
Stage 1: Formative Discipline
All believers most often find themselves in Stage 1. Formative Discipline is simply discipleship. It is the process of sanctification where a believer is daily transformed to resemble and reflect Christ. Sin is brought to mind, confessed, and dealt with. Through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the flesh is put to death and a believer walks in a growing relationship with God. Formative Discipline takes place within normal church activities such as preaching, involvement in Adult Bible Fellowships, and discipleship classes such as Foundations. Formative discipline actively exists within accountability groups and godly friendships. One author, Jay Adams, labels this self-discipline. Through the power of the Spirit, the believer disciplines himself reducing the need for corrective discipline.
Stage 2: A Private Confrontation
Jesus begins with the second stage of discipline in Matthew 18:15. When a brother sins against you, approach him and communicate the grievance. Jesus also stresses that this confrontation should be private. The Words of Christ clearly communicate one of the least followed practices in many churches. When a believer hurts another through his sin, the one harmed has a responsibility and privilege to approach his brother humbly and correct his behavior. Scripture communicates the importance of this meeting being private. All too often, we recruit other believers to our viewpoint of a sin committed without ever approaching the one who committed it. We can easily divide the body of Christ. Jesus makes an important point concerning the goal of this encounter. It is designed to win your brother back. The goal is always restoration of the relationship and the sinning believer.
Stage 3: A Semi-Private Confrontation
Matthew 18:16 describes the next step in the process. The issue is still very private. The offended party has only involved one or two more who would substantiate his claim of harm. Wisdom would suggest using godly men and women in this situation to not only add credibility to their witness, but also help the offended party see any fault of his own. Any others involved at this point should also understand the critical value of keeping the sin private. Ideally, the offending brother would recognize his mistake, repent and ask forgiveness. The matter could then be resolved and both parties could move forward.
Stage 4: Church Involvement


This next step is what most churchgoers immediately associate with the term church discipline. The immediate involvement of the church does not necessarily mean the entire church. At first, church leaders may be involved in the discipline process attempting to keep the sin private. Godly church leaders hope to help the sinning brother recognize the sin and repent, always seeking restoration. Church involvement only takes place after the sinning brother refuses to deal with his sin after multiple attempts. The step of church involvement signals an escalation in the formality of the process. The sin has not been dealt with and it now requires a process involving the greater body of Christ. It is crucial for any church to have a process predetermined when a situation of discipline arises. A good process protects the church and the one sinning from any unintended bias. This process might resemble the following:

4-1. Inform appropriate church leadership of the sin. Appropriate leaders might include elders, pastors, or a specific team designed to evaluate these situations.

4-2. Church leaders approach the believer who is sinning and attempt to help with the reconciliation privately. If successful, the process ends. If unsuccessful, the process continues.

4-3. Church leaders inform the church in an appropriate manner, protecting his character where possible and encourage the body of believers to act according to Scripture. All of this is done with restoration as the goal.

Stage 5: Dis-fellowship
The final stage of church discipline is where the church begins to treat the offender as a non-believer. He cannot play a role in the community of faith until repentance and restoration take place. First Corinthians 5 gives a powerful example of such an occurrence. Paul encourages the church not to associate with one who is involved in unrepentant sin. The Scripture states, “not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11). This dis-fellowship is in hopes that the sinning believer would repent and be restored. The entire church is responsible to treat this man in accordance with Scripture – always hoping for restoration. The sinning brother has chosen to live like an unbeliever and the sin should be dealt with biblically.

 

Why should we practice church discipline?
First and foremost, Scripture demands the practice of church discipline. This reason alone should be enough for our faithful participation. Other important reasons exist as well:

    • Discipline honors Christ by obedience to His Word (John 14:15)
    • Discipline purifies the Church (Ephesians 5:25-27)
    • Discipline lovingly restores believers in their relationship with Christ and one another (Galatians 6:1-2, Matthew 18:15)

 

When should church discipline take place?
Church Discipline should be used in any circumstance where an offense has been made that cannot otherwise be reconciled. Scripture encourages believers to “keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). When we can overlook sins committed against us without carrying any sort of grudge and truly forgive the transgression, no action of church discipline is necessary. We must also weigh the thought of our brother’s spiritual growth in that decision. There might be situations where the sin is easily forgiven but the context requires a love that corrects. A parent will quickly teach a child not to run out into the street. Though no harm is brought to the parent, he understands that great harm can come to the child if discipline is not enforced. The most obvious situations where discipline should take place are those where a sin cannot be easily over-looked or forgiven and reconciliation needs to take place.

If done well, most situations never escalate past Stage 2. A one-on-one confrontation will usually resolve a situation, particularly when the offended brother approaches with humility and grace, ready to forgive. Church involvement will hopefully only occur in the most extreme situations.

 

Who should be disciplined?
Every believer should actively be engaged in Stage 1 of church disciplineand every believer who harms another should be engaged in the church discipline process at Stage 2 and beyond. Paul writes in Galatians 2 of an encounter with Peter where he opposes Peter for a sin committed against Gentile believers. All believers should be equally treated, no matter their gifting or position within the church.

 

What is the purpose of discipline and does it really work?
Galatians 6:1-2 states, “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.” The purpose of church discipline is always restoration.
When practiced according to Scripture, church discipline works. Brothers and sisters in Christ are restored to Christ and one another. Marriages can be saved, friendships mended, and the body of Christ strengthened and unified through the proper Scriptural practice of loving one another through discipline.

Wisdom at Luby’s

Luby’s and I have a definitive love-hate relationship. My wife and I began eating there even before we were married. Dining in Waco always felt eclectic, even at chain restaurants. In other words, eating out was like a box of chocolates. Luby’s, however, was consistent. The food tasted the same, the process never changed, and the cliental, predictable. A few college students and young couples adorned the tables looking for their one taste of vegetables for the month but largely, the restaurant was filled with life’s seasoned veterans.

Looking back now, I wish we had taken the opportunity to simply pull up a chair at each table and listen to the amazing life stories embodied in those seniors. Instead, we observed from our table. We watched some couples struggle to find the right table while carrying a tray full of Luby’s delights. Others quickly nodded to one another when the “right” table appeared, often the last communication that would take place until the meal was finished. Many couples appeared to have a disconnected relationship. It was almost as though they had discussed everything life had to offer and now, marriage was speechless. Others just seemed sad, and even lonely, sitting across the table from the “one” of so long ago.

Every once in a while, the scene would change. As if a new wind blew through the dining hall, we would notice a couple that still gazed into one another’s eyes. After decades of marriage, they were still affectionate, attentive and loving. Those couples brightly defined an amazing word, intimacy.

In the middle of our youth, Jessie and I recognized that two paths stood before our marriage. Only one would continually require our very best. Only one would require focused intentionality and constant attention. And only one would lead to intimacy.

Our walk with Christ is the same. Going on a date (church) with Jesus once a week only reveals a shallow depth to our love and commitment. Paul wrote in Philippians that his life mission is to know Jesus – to foster intimacy with the creator of his very life.

Decades later, will the intimacy I have with Jesus Christ reveal the intentionality and commitment to grow today? Will I look more like Him as the sun sets each evening? My salvation is clear, but the depth of our intimacy requires my very best. He has already given His.

Follow-through

Bowling is one of the most popular sports in America, though some struggle to label it a sport. I would conclude it is a sport because of its competitive nature, score-keeping, some athletic ability is required and it has aired on ESPN (at least ESPN2). While bowling is certainly available to the masses and requires little training to play, a definite chasm exists between casual bowlers and competitive masters. Aside from their designer wrist-guards, highly-personalized bowling balls and shoes reminding all of an era gone by, these men and women truly have talent for hurling a weighted ball at 10 unsuspecting odd-shaped targets.

I remember learning to bowl in 4th grade. Rosedell Elementary began an after-school program and I was enrolled. My grandpa was an avid bowler and my parents still had their bowling paraphernalia of a decade earlier. I thought I might have the gene. After a great deal of time and practice, I learned to hold my own but it never amounted the career I dreamed (ok, not really dreamed). However, the most important lesson I learned from a true expert was to follow-through. You could step the right steps, release the ball well, and even look great doing it, but without follow-though, the ball would likely miss most of the abused ten pins. What I believed about the ball and its trajectory mattered little without good follow-through. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a bowler. But without good follow-through, I was utterly ineffective.

James 2 begins painting a picture of follow-through. He opens the chapter with a challenge to treat everyone equally with love and a heart to serve. The church was no place for partiality. Brothers and sisters in Christ are equal no matter their upbringing, race, socio-economic status or appearance. He then follows this discussion by writing a difficult passage about Faith and Works. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17 ESV) Remember that taken in context, James isn’t discussing salvation but instead refuting ineffective and apathetic Christianity. These Christians were still lacing up their shoes, pulling out their colorful ball, and displayed their league and team colors. But they lacked follow-through.

Scripture is full of mandates to effectively follow-through your beliefs. If we say we really believe something, like Scripture, why do we not live like it? Why do I not? My kids, my neighbors, my co-workers and my friends are watching my follow-through every day. Frankly, they don’t care what I look like or if my ball curves brilliantly down the lane. They are watching to see if the pins fall. They are watching to see if I am faithful to live what I say I believe. Only then will I attract them to this amazing game. Only then will they see that it isn’t a game at all. How’s your follow-through?

Authority, Arrogance, and Control: But its really not a bad idea

The house church movement seems to be gaining some steam throughout America. Many believers, distraught and utterly frustrated with church experience have turned to the house church. The basic definition of a house church is a church meeting in someone’s home. Obviously smaller than most American churches, many house churches seek to recapture the early church experience and community. There is no doubt that good intentions and pure hearts are behind much of this movement but with those come others seeking the antithesis of what the movement stands for.

Speaking in generalities of the American church is akin to calling everything in the ocean a fish. So much discrepancy exists, even within denominations, that it is impossible to paint broad brush strokes in hopes of capturing a true picture of the church landscape. The American church is much more a mosaic than an impressionist painting. That being said, Scripture sets the same standard for each piece of the mosaic. House churches have become one of the newer pieces of the larger artwork. Some will meet real needs and create outstanding community members could not find elsewhere. There is no doubt of its success overseas, especially in persecuted lands. Hopefully, the house church movement will reach those in the darkness and bring them to the light of Jesus Christ. My prayer is that God will use that piece of the mosaic to make disciples and meet needs otherwise unmet. All that being said, common themes are beginning to emerge that send a message seemingly against the very core of the house church origin.

Authority

One pervasive theme throughout is a natural reaction to spiritual abuse from a position of authority. Churches from all denominations have lost the trust of members because of abuse. Pastors and/or Priests have been convicted of sexual misconduct, financial misconduct among various other immoral actions. The wave of abuse has hit American Christendom painfully hard. Yet, the overwhelming majority of Pastors and Priests continue to have a heart for the people they shepherd and lead. For every situation of abuse, there are thousands of men and women giving their lives for those they minister to.

A major motivation of many house churches is a rejection of any authority other than Christ. Christ is the head of the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23) and no person in spiritual authority should ever attempt supplant that role. However, there is no doubt that authority rested on the Apostles who then placed others in authority to shepherd the churches. Complete rejection of authority is not a biblical concept. Rejection of authority that leads away from Christ is biblical. Yet, we all come under submission of spiritual authority in our lives. We submit one to another and to those God has placed over – even ungodly governments when not asked to compromise God’s Truth.

Arrogance

A quick search of house church networks online quickly reveals the arrogance of many embracing this movement. Many will argue that “real” church happens in homes and the biblical model prescribes home gatherings as opposed to the purchase of land, buildings, etc. The root of such a heart and attitude stands in stark contrast with the initial purposes for beginning such a church. The desire to humbly seek God in close community where all are accountable to one another appears to be the most normal reason given to leave an existing large church and form a house church. However, writing off the former church or proclaiming that all who practice in such “institutions” are false or less than real displays enormous arrogance. Nearly 2000 years after the resurrection of Christ and we are finally get our act together. There is no place in Christianity for such a heart towards brothers and sisters in Christ.

As far as biblical context is concerned, the early church did meet in homes. However, the Bible neither commands nor prescribes the model discussed in Acts and the letters to the churches. Instead, the Text gives principles governing the body of Christ and leaves structure out of the discussion. On top of this, the earliest church met in the Synagogue. Though this practice only persisted a short time, early believers were Jewish and did not consider Christianity a new faith. Jesus is Messiah, fulfilled the law and was worshipped in the context of Judaism.

Control

One final point of contention deals with the issue of control. Leaving an existing church because it doesn’t do what I want or doesn’t meet my needs is simply a control issue. We would do well as Christ followers to spend as much time praying for God’s clear direction for our church as we do complaining about all of the issues we see contained in it. It appears that the newest form of church shopping is simply beginning my own. In doing so, I can structure it to function how I desire. Of course it will be biblical, I am biblical. Understanding this point is being generalized, it is not coincidence that house churches emerge in the most me-centric culture on our planet. The success of the house church movement is out of sheer necessity across the globe in persecuted lands. In America, we begin them because we are dissatisfied with our own local church. Maybe our knees would be a better place to start.

The Church mosaic is large and diverse in America. House churches may add another critical element God uses to accomplish His purposes here. Again, my prayer is such. But let’s not pretend that because I have control, it will be right. God’s church, the body of Christ, does not depend on buildings or the lack thereof. It does not depend on structure or the lack thereof. It depends on Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit empowering each member to live the light of the Gospel in the darkness. It depends on an undying devotion to His Word, the Bible. Otherwise, it always becomes about me.