Today, many are afraid of talking about church discipline, much less practicing it, but it should not be as frightening as we make it. Our picture of church discipline should not be one of radical, legalistic, rampant excommunications of members – not at all. It is a mark that flows from the sixth mark of meaningful church membership. It means something to be a part of the bride of Christ. How can we rightly share how the Bible says we are to live in Christ, if we are not equally willing to say how we should not live? The church is a family. Families are healthiest when discipline is acted out. Consider Hebrews 12: 3-11, there the writer reminds us that discipline from the Lord is never fun, but it is always beneficial.
Most churches avoid talking about church discipline because of modern misconceptions about what the Bible says about judging. Judging has a wide range of meanings in the English language. Within the church encouragement to righteous and holy living is a kind of judgment, but it is not the kind of self-righteous judgment Jesus himself condemned. We do not hold others to any standard we are not willing to be held to ourselves.
In terms of church discipline itself, there are many misconceptions. Certainly there is the extreme discipline that is sometimes necessary, that is removing someone from fellowship due to unrepentant sin. But those cases are not the norm. In fact, there are two kinds of discipline: formative, that is edifying and growing each other up into Christ, and corrective, that is confronting unrepentant church members for the purpose of restoration. To this point, think of all the steps that discipline takes before that final outcome. Matthew 18: 15-20 is our guide. So according to Matthew 18, even having a conversation about what God is doing in our lives and times we have been offended is a kind of church discipline. When we lovingly and gently confront a brother or sister about open, blatant, unrepentant sin, the Holy Spirit may very well bring repentance in that encounter, thus avoiding any of the other steps.
Here is the real point of all this. The Bible would not have us investigating one another and performing “witch hunts.” We are talking about open, blatant, unrepentant sins. The larger point is that church discipline has a positive side too. First it is restorative. Reconciliation is always our goal. Second, the reason most churches don’t practice any form of discipline is because membership is meaningless. Imagine a drug intervention on a family member that hates his family. The intervention would not go well because there is no desire on the part of the addict to please his family. Unlike the analogy of a family intervention, in the case of discipline in the church our goal is not merely to please others, but to glorify God. In church discipline our goal is not to start calling out people on their sin. No, it is to create an atmosphere of love and covenant where if there ever does arrive a point of discipline it would mean something. When we are a healthy church, proper discipline will follow.