The practice of church discipline has fallen on hard times as of late. Given the history of the practice, some would say that this is not such a bad thing. “In the first five centuries it was invoked against those Christians who became flagrant sinners or in ecclesiastical disputes over doctrine or jurisdiction.” [Katourette, Kenneth. A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500, 531] Today however, it is a much different story. We rarely witness church discipline being carried out in the church. And when we do engage in the process, it is rarely carried out according to Scripture.
It can be said with a degree of truth that church discipline came on hard times because of the rise of the individual, and the history of abuse of the practice itself. As is often the case, the pendulum swings were so radical that balance was lost in both directions. For example, during the middle ages, the church could inflict an interdict on an entire community during which there could be no rites of religion, no services, no marriage ceremonies, no flesh eaten, and no religious burial granted. [Sheldon, Henry. History of the Christian Church, Vol. 2, 129] In addition, according to English law, the excommunicated person could enter into no legal contracts, and could have no place in court. No one was authorized to eat with him, or even speak to him. [Sheldon, 130] One does not have to have a seminary degree to see the power-grabbing abuse that we sinful humans tend to have when granted a little authority.
In a letter from Gregory of Neo-Caesarea to another pastor in Pontus (northern Asia Minor), dated around 260 A.D., describes the conditions around discipline at this time. He talks about four grades of penitents who by five stages attained restoration and admission to the communion. The first group is “the weepers.” They stand outside the door of the church, beseeching the faithful to intercede for them. Next, the “hearers” are placed in the narthex [vestibule]. The third group is the “kneelers.” They kneel within the nave amid the standing congregation. And finally, you had the “costanders.” They join with the others in the congregation except that they cannot take communion. After many years in this graded process the penitent is fully restored and can take communion. [Culver, Robert. Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, 960] As is the case with everything we touch, we sinners have the tendency to pervert God’s order in one way or another. Clearly, church discipline is not intended to intimidate people or keep people away from the church that we simply don’t want there for whatever reason.
The believers are not to cut such people off from communication – complete social ostracism – for Paul goes on to say, ‘Do not regard him as an enemy, but warm him as a brother.’ (2 Thess. 3:15) With delinquent but not totally alienated folk such treatment effected in a loving way is a powerful instrument for good. [Culver, 960]It is a most egregious abuse of power for pastors or elders or churches to use this process in order to displace a person from the Christian community. While this happened commonly in the middle ages it is rare today. In fact, today, the problem is just the opposite. Most churches have not executing church discipline biblically in their entire existence. The sad truth is that most churches ignore the process altogether. And those who do claim to adhere to church discipline do not actually carry it out according to Scripture.
Most churches I have been a part of simply have ignored this practice completely. Others have simply either refused to use it for fear of law suits or have tweaked it to their own liking. For instance, I was once in a church where a deacon and Sunday school teacher said that when Jesus was on the cross, as He said “my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He ceased to be God at that moment. I took this to the senior pastor at the time and asked for help. The pastor was close friends with this man. I followed up with the pastor and he informed me that the man refused to repent of his view. He believed that Jesus ceased to be God on the cross. I asked the pastor what he was going to do. And the answer was, “what do you mean?” To make long story short, nothing was done. The man continues to teach to this day and I am unaware if he ever repented of his heresy. What should have been done? Church discipline should have been carried out according to Matthew 18. This is how we would have loved this man back into obedient thinking about the person and nature of Christ. I had to leave the church over this heresy because the pastor and the deacons would not do the right thing to help this man. I was unable to change his mind. His pastor was unable to change his mind. And that is where it ended.
In most cases, when people are threatened with discipline, they are allowed to resign and move to another church where they feel more comfortable and that is the end of the process. The leaders shrug their shoulders and take the attitude that it isn’t their problem any longer. This is not how we love one another and help one another grow in Christ. So how should we conduct church discipline in a way that honors and obeys God? For that we consult Matthew 18. This entire chapter serves as the paradigm for our attitudes before, during, and after discipline. Moreover, it lays out a crystal clear path for the process itself. If we follow this path in process and in spirit, we will glorify God and win believers back into loving obedience to their Lord and Master.
Church discipline is impossible without a sound discipleship program in place. Jesus said in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The Greek word for disciple is mathetes. Some people think it simply means a student. But it means much more than that. When we think of a student, we simply think of a learner. Our frame of reference for a student is not at all as rich as the context which this word mathetes demands. In Koine Greek, a disciple was one who was a student, or an apprentice; one who is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of views. Mathetes always implies the existence of a personal attachment which shapes the whole life of the one described as mathetes, and which in its particularity leaves no doubt as to who is deploying the formative power. [Kittel] A man is called a mathetes when he binds himself to someone else in order to acquire his practical and theoretical knowledge. [ W. Bauder in NIDNTT] Jesus said if you continue in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine. (John 8:31)
Church discipline is impossible without an environment of close-knit relationships. This is where the foundation of biblical sanctification is located. Loving your brother as you love yourself means caring enough to know them. How would you feel about someone you were courting if they were not really investing any time in getting to know you? In the Christian community, we love one another enough to take the time to get to know one another. This intimate relationship lays the foundation necessary for mutual respect. It places us in the unique situation of being able to hold one another accountable for our behavior in a way that is very loving. Without this relational aspect, it is very difficult to talk to someone about sin in their life. Churches need to take deliberate steps to create and foster an environment that brings people together. And this is not accomplished in a Wednesday evening meal before bible study. It takes much more than that. If takes small group formation, discipleship and mentoring, retreats, etc. Some churches engage in “check the box” routines that accomplish nothing more than making the elders feel like they are doing something to create such an environment when the sad truth is they are accomplishing next to nothing. Believers need close relationships with other believers if church discipline has a chance of being effective.
Church discipline is impossible unless it becomes part of the Christian culture. I can’t remember ever being part of a church that incorporated church discipline into its new member class. I have recommended it, to no avail. The biblical teachings on church discipline should consume a full session of the new membership classes so that people understand their responsibilities to each other. This also helps to keep people from being caught off guard when it is time to move to the final step of church discipline should that ever happen. There should be regular Sunday school classes on church discipline. And finally, church discipline should be publicly proclaimed from the pulpit regularly. It should be something the Christian community is intimately familiar with. Moreover, every discipleship program should contain something on the subject of church discipline. Taking such a deliberate approach to Church discipline will ensure that it achieves its goal of progressive sanctification and church purity.
There are abuses in both directions around church discipline. In many cases, it is ignored entirely. The radical individualism of the enlightenment has vanquished it to the ash heap along with anything that requires any reference to authoritative tradition. And the American ‘self’ has been all too eager to reinforce this godless philosophy. In other cases, it is engaged in for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, an evil abuse of power seduces us into behaving sinfully toward God and toward our brother. And yet in many instances, the steps are distorted or ignored. We don’t keep things private as our Lord commanded us and we end up hurting the reputation of our brother unnecessarily. Love covers a multitude of sin. Jesus was concerned enough about privacy to emphasize it. That should be enough for us to appreciate and respect it. Far too many times church discipline is treated like a lawsuit between the church and the individual in American and other western cultures. In some cases, elders who are supposed to have the primary goal of restoring someone to the fellowship refuse to even communicate with people except by certified postal receipt. That is fine if a person has refused to meet with anyone and has refused to acknowledge their sin and repent of it. Eventually, contumacy leads to excommunication. But if such a tone is set prematurely or too early in the process, just about anyone could predict the outcome of such an approach. Remember, the goal is to restore a broken relationship.
The foundation of church discipline is Christian love. The motive is restoration and reconciliation for the individual and the purity of the Christian community. We have no choice but to purge the leaven that seeps in among us. That purging takes place through winning the repentant brother and excommunicating the contumacious and rebellious one. In all cases we are guided by loving humility, kindness, grace, mercy, and patience. This is not a case of Elijah calling down fire from heaven on the prophets of Baal. Jesus told the disciples that displayed this type of spirit at one point, “you do not know what spirit you are of.” (Luke 9:55) The next blog entry will deal with the details of the entire 18th chapter of Matthew so that we can understand both the spirit and the process that are bound up in the biblical paradigm for sanctification. Discipline is a very delicate issue that must be handled with the due care it demands. It is essential to get both the steps of the process correct and the manner in which those steps are carried out. This goes to action and attitude which will be discussed as we walk through the occasion for this teaching in Matthew 18.