March 25, 2008
Rejoicing in Rebuke
Have Christians forgotten that discipline is a gift from God?
For the past couple of weeks, Ur-banites have been wrestling with questions about church membership. Below, Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries, takes one of the big questions head on: how does a church discipline its members?
On January 18, 2008, The Wall Street Journal Online published an article by Alexandra Alter on church discipline entitled Banned from Church. When Alexandra interviewed me before writing the article, I explained the biblical basis for church discipline and acknowledged how churches have sometimes neglected or abused the process. I also described how properly applied accountability can help people break free from sinful and destructive conduct. I even provided examples of churches that had used loving discipline to stop crooks from defrauding elderly people, protect lonely women from being seduced, and move child sexual abusers to confess their crimes ("A Better Way to Handle Abuse").
Despite our conversation, Alexandra chose to paint an entirely negative picture of discipline by using the example of a 71-year-old woman who had been removed from her church for questioning her pastor's leadership. Examples of protecting the elderly, the lonely, and the helpless from abuse apparently did not fit into her preconceived notions of church discipline.
I'm sad, but not surprised, when secular writers present a negative stereotype of church discipline. What troubles me far more is how many Christians share these distorted views.
Like Ms. Alter, most Christians seem to see church discipline either as a harsh, legalistic, and unloving process, which true followers of Christ should never practice, or (also well illustrated in the WSJ article) as a handy tool for getting rid of inquisitive, irritating, or challenging members.
Neither of these views is biblical.
The Bible never presents church discipline as being negative, legalistic or harsh. True discipline originates from God himself and is always presented as a sign of genuine love. Consider these three verses: "The Lord disciplines those he loves" (Heb. 12:6). "Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law" (Ps. 94:12). "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline" (Rev. 3:19).
God's discipline in the church, like the discipline in a good family, is intended to be primarily positive, instructive, and encouraging. This process, which is sometimes referred to as "formative discipline," involves preaching, teaching, prayer, personal Bible study, small group fellowship, and countless other enjoyable activities that challenge and encourage us to love and serve God more wholeheartedly.
On rare occasions, God's discipline, like the discipline in a family with growing children, also may have a corrective purpose. When we forget or disobey what God has taught us, he corrects us. One way he does this is to call the church to lead us back onto the right track. This process of "corrective" or "restorative" discipline is likened in Scripture to a shepherd seeking after a lost sheep (Matt. 18:12?13).
Thus, neither restorative nor corrective discipline is ever to be done in an unloving, vengeful, or self-righteous manner. It is always to be carried out in humility and love, with the goals of restoring someone to a close walk with Christ (Matt. 18:15; Gal. 6:1), protecting others from harm (1 Cor. 5:6), and showing respect for the honor and glory of God's name (1 Pet. 2:12).
Biblical discipline is similar to the discipline we value in other aspects of life. We admire parents who consistently teach their children how to behave properly and lovingly discipline them when they disobey. We value music teachers who bring out the best in their students by teaching them proper technique and consistently pointing out their errors, so they can play a piece properly. We applaud athletic coaches who diligently teach their players to do what is right and correct them when they fumble, so that the team works well together.
The same principles apply to the family of God. We, too, need to be taught what is right and to be lovingly corrected when we do something contrary to what God teaches us in his Word. When this is done as God commands, it usually leads to repentance, change, and restored relationships (see 2 Cor. 2:5?11). But when people harden their hearts, it is entirely appropriate for a church to take the rare but necessary step of removing them from fellowship, both as a warning about the gravity of their sin and as a means to protect the innocent and weak from harm.
Practically, it is important to consider such things as legal liability issues and how to secure informed consent to a church's disciplinary practices. But the most important questions to ask are: Why has the church bought into the world's view of church discipline? Why are we afraid of carrying out a process that Jesus himself has commanded us to follow in order to protect his church and retrieve his lost sheep? And what can we do to show our people and the world that redemptive church discipline is truly God's gift and blessing to his church?
Ken Sande is the president of Peacemaker Ministries?, a lawyer, and the author of The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Baker, 2004).